September 30, 2004

Lassie Celebrates 50th Anniversary on TV

LOS ANGELES - In the early 1950s, when television sent Hollywood into the doldrums and studios were thinning their contract lists, some stars began appearing in their own TV series. Among them: Lucille Ball, Loretta Young, Donna Reed — and Lassie.

The talented collie had become a full-fledged star with MGM's much-loved "Lassie Come Home" in 1943 and six more hit movies after that, only to be pink-slipped in 1951.

But Lassie came back. On a Sunday night as the 1954 fall TV season got under way, a new four-legged franchise was born when CBS premiered its "Lassie" TV series. In the years that followed, the loyal collie would become one of the planet's most beloved animals.

At the peak of Lassie's career, the dog was allowed to travel on airplanes with trainer Rudd Weatherwax, with one airline even calling to find out how the dog would like his steak cooked.

Weatherwax recalled such a flight for The Associated Press in the mid-1960s: "... The plane's captain announced over the loudspeaker that there were two important Hollywood personalities aboard. First he named a well-known film star and the announcement caused a mild ripple throughout the cabin. Then he noted that Lassie was also on the plane. It seemed to me that everyone in the cabin stood up in excitement trying to find Lassie."

The original "Lassie" series lasted until 1971 in prime time, and until 1974 in first-run syndication. Now, Lassie continues to warm the hearts of millions of fans through worldwide syndication, personal appearances, TV commercials, and a new DVD of early episodes. There are even plans for a British remake of "Lassie Come Home"

But for those who don't know, a disclosure seems appropriate: Lassie and her eight descendants have been, well, female impersonators. That's right — Lassie has always been a he, not a she, and his name wasn't Lassie.

Female collies were given screen tests before the filming of "Lassie Come Home," but it turned out the males were more photogenic — generally larger, and with more neck fur.

They also required less maintenance, according to June Lockhart, who starred in the TV series from 1958 to 1964 and recently appeared with Lassie No. 9 (aka Hey Hey) at several anniversary events in New York.

"They don't shed twice a year as the females do," she explained. "And they don't have the problem of coming into season when we were on location, which would have attracted a lot of other dogs; we would have had to turn the hose on them."

So, how did they keep Lassie's maleness from showing on camera?

An editor was assigned to study the action carefully, and if evidence of the dog's true gender was exposed, he would yell "Cut!" and the scene would be reset.

Having acted with two generations of Lassies, Lockhart, 79, learned their capabilities and their limitations.

"When we were shooting on the show, the dog was excused often to go to the dog room and nap while we used a stand-in," she recalled. "Only humans can be expected to work 14 or 15 hours a day. Dogs sleep a lot."

Jon Provost was 7 and already an experienced film actor when he was hired in 1957 for a supporting role as the orphan Timmy on the "Lassie" series. Then when Tommy Rettig, the original boy lead, left the show later that season, Jon was promoted to Lassie's constant companion.

"When I returned from Japan after filming `Escapade in Japan,' I had a meeting with the producers of `Lassie,'" Provost recalled. "They said I had the look they wanted, and I didn't have to audition because they had seen clips of the movies I had done. They knew I could act.

"But they didn't know how I would get along with Lassie, or how he would get along with me. So I lived for a week with Rudd Weatherwax, Lassie's trainer, on his ranch in the San Fernando Valley. I always say that I got Lassie's bark of approval."

Provost, now 54, stayed with the series until 1964, when a format change sent the Martin family to a new life in Australia. Lassie stayed behind because of animal immigration laws, and she went through a series of owners until the series ended.

Author Ace Collins, who grew up with collies on his father's farm in Arkansas, wrote a magazine article about Lassie in the early 1990s. His research resulted in a 1994 book, "Lassie: A Dog's Life," which is still in print.

"Of the 150-250 commands that Lassie knew, the one he hated was 'nurse,'" said Collins, referring to those occasional scenes when Lassie nursed a new litter. "They would put honey on the dog's coat. The last thing Lassie wanted was puppies chewing on his coat."

One of Lassie's trademark commands — and the stuff of comic references for decades — was when the collie would bound into a scene and start wimpering, barking or tugging. Then the response would come: "Lassie's trying to tell us something."

Such a line today might meet with a more cynical, "Well, yaahh!" But in those more innocent days, this was serious climactic business, and when they finally figured it out, it was always Lassie to the rescue.

"Rin Tin Tin" also debuted on television in the fall of 1954. But while both had a big-screen heritage, Rin Tin Tin had been around since the silent days and was fading when Lassie was becoming popular with theatergoers. One reason: Rin Tin Tin's films were basically B-movies and Lassie films were lusher, more expensive, feature presentations with major stars. This contrast continued on TV, with the "Lassie" series featuring stronger casts on a more popular network and in a better timeslot. As a result, ABC's "Rin Tin Tin" lasted only until 1959.

So why has Lassie remained an American icon after all these years?

"The root of it is that dogs mean a great deal to people; they have for centuries," Collins said. "Even in today's urban world, a bond between a family and a pet is a very deep bond. Lassie represented the potential of every dog. And I think Lassie represented the best in every human being."

September 26, 2004

Paramount Answers Call for John Wayne DVDs

LOS ANGELES - Noteworthy films starring the legendary John Wayne will be available on home video for the first time, thanks to a new deal between Batjac Productions and Paramount Home Entertainment.

Batjac -- a production company Wayne founded -- will introduce new DVDs of "The High and the Mighty" (1954), "Island in the Sky" (1953), "Hondo" (1953) and "McLintock!" (1962) next spring through Paramount.

Some Batjac projects not starring Wayne also will make their DVD debuts under this new agreement. Spring releases will include "Man in the Vault" (1956) with William Campbell, "Plunder of the Sun" (1953) with Glenn Ford, "Ring of Fear" (1954) with Clyde Beatty, "Seven Men From Now" (1956) with Randolph Scott and "Track of the Cat" (1954) with Robert Mitchum.

Batjac president Gretchen Wayne -- widow of John Wayne's son Michael -- says multiple studios pursued distribution deals for the Wayne titles because they had not been seen by the public since they aired on TV in the 1980s.

"What interested me in Paramount was their passion for the projects," Wayne says. "We have received many letters from fans asking when we are releasing these titles. Fans are going to be thrilled. They will be getting the very best."

"The High and the Mighty" DVD, for example, was created from a restored print and features 5.1 sound. Each Wayne DVD will include bonus features taken from Batjac's library: behind-the-scenes footage, new interviews and commentaries. The non-Wayne films also will feature extras.

Most of Wayne's other film projects were already distributed on video through Paramount, which now counts 63 Wayne projects under its purview. Other major Wayne pictures, including "The Searchers" and "Stagecoach," are available through Warner Home Video, while Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment also distributes some Wayne westerns.

September 22, 2004

Actor James Garner to Receive Lifetime Honor

LOS ANGELES - Veteran actor James Garner, whose career spans six decades and signature TV roles from "Maverick" to "The Rockford Files," was chosen on Wednesday to receive the Screen Actors Guild's highest honor.

Garner, 76, who built a career playing ruggedly charming, good-natured anti-heroes, will be presented with SAG's annual lifetime achievement award at its gala awards show on Feb. 5.

The show is carried live on the cable channel TNT. Garner, an Oklahoma native, entered show business in the 1950s after serving in the Korean War and gained fame on the TV western "Maverick." He played the wise-cracking Bret Maverick, a gambler and ladies man, who got by on his cunning rather than a six-gun and would just as soon duck a fight as face a showdown.

He left the show in 1960 in a contract dispute with producers, but brought his "Maverick"-like alter ego to a series of films, including "Thrill of It All," "Move Over, Darling," "The Great Escape" and "Support Your Local Sheriff!"

Garner said his screen persona as a guy smart enough to steer clear of a fight ran only so deep. "At times it's like me, but I used to have this temper. I used to get in a fight in a heartbeat. But that was many years ago," he told Reuters.

Garner had another prime-time hit as ex-con turned private detective Jim Rockford in "The Rockford Files," which ran from 1974 until he abruptly quit the show in 1980. He reprised Rockford for several TV movies in the late 1990s.

The role earned him an Emmy Award in 1977, his only victory in dozen TV acting nominations. He also received an Oscar nomination for his work opposite Sally Field in the 1985 feature comedy "Murphy's Romance."

Garner said his favorite role was as the cowardly American soldier who falls for Julie Andrews before being sent on a dangerous wartime mission in "The Americanization of Emily." He teamed up again with Andrews in the 1982 film "Victor/Victoria."

He returned to the big screen in 2000 in Clint Eastwood's astronaut adventure "Space Cowboys" and two years later in "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood."

Last year, Garner joined the cast of the ABC sitcom "8 Simple Rules," playing a grandfather after the untimely death of series star John Ritter.

September 14, 2004

Sophia Loren Turns 70 -- That's Right, 70!

ROME - Italians got a break from a steady stream of bad news about
terrorism and taxes Monday, to be reminded that screen siren Sophia
Loren had turned 70. That's right, 70!

The diva who started life as an illegitimate child in southern Italy
went on to win an Oscar and became a living legend and a symbol of
post-war Italy.

She is believed to be celebrating the birthday quietly with her family.

But Italians will get to see her acting talents Monday night with the
screening of a made-for-television film about an immigrant family set
in Umbria and Canada.

Corriere della Sera newspaper put the birthday on its front page, as
if to remind Italians that some of the Dolce Vita, or sweet life, was
left in a world dominated by bad news.

Italy's largest mainstream newspaper said it all: "Happy Birthday,
Sophia -- legend for a generation."

In fact, for Italians, Loren's birthday is not just an ordinary
anniversary or commemoration but a bittersweet reminder that the
post-war boom times she epitomized at the height of her fame no longer

The fact that Corriere used only her first name was not casual. She is
the only woman in Italy who is universally known by her first name.
When someone says Sophia on television, it can only mean "La Loren."

Loren has outlived many of her film contemporaries from the days when
Rome was known as the Hollywood on the Tiber because it was a major
production center and magnet for the jet set.

Directors Federico Fellini and Vittorio de Sica are dead, as is
Marcello Mastroianni, who was her leading man in many movies.

She shot to fame with an Oscar for best actress in De Sica's
neo-realistic classic Two Women in 1961, a film set in World War II in
which she proved that she was not just a pretty face.

It would be 38 years before another Italian would win an Oscar for a
starring role. Roberto Benigni clinched it in 1998 for his performance
in La Vita e' Bella (Life is Beautiful). Fittingly, it was Loren who
handed him the statue in Hollywood.

And, even though everyone agrees that Loren played many more serious
roles, news bulletins treated Italians to clips of perhaps her most
famous scene: a striptease for a howling Mastroianni in De Sica's
"Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow" in 1963.

September 08, 2004

Bacall Balks After Kidman Called 'Legend'

LONDON - How old is a movie legend? Definitely older than 37-year-old Nicole Kidman, according to screen veteran Lauren Bacall. Bacall became irritated during an interview with Britain's GMTV Wednesday when the younger actress was described as "a legend."

"She's not a legend," Bacall said, cutting off interviewer Jenni Falconer in mid-sentence.

"She's a beginner. What is this 'legend'? She can't be a legend at whatever age she is. She can't be a legend, you have to be older."

The two actresses were in Venice, Italy to promote their new film "Birth," in which 79-year-old Bacall plays Kidman's mother.

At a joint interview, reporters peppered Kidman with questions and, embarrassed, she finally suggested they direct their questions elsewhere.

Bacall, the former wife of Humphrey Bogart and star of such films as "The Big Sleep" and "Key Largo," insisted she and Kidman get along famously.

The two women acted together once before, with Bacall playing a supporting role in Kidman's star vehicle "Dogville" last year.

"I love working with a young actress," Bacall said. "Nicole and I worked together on Dogville and we were friends when we started this. That laid the groundwork for our fabulous relationship on screen and off."

In the film, Kidman plays a woman who believes her dead husband has been reincarnated in the body of a 10-year-old boy.

The assembled stars and the film's director and producer, were asked who they would like to come back as if they could be reincarnated.

The others gamely tried to answer the question but Bacall snapped: "It's not a fascinating question. No offense."

September 01, 2004

NEW DVD RELEASES: A box packed with Hitchcock goodies

"We're working as fast as we can." That's the answer I receive almost
every time I ask someone in the DVD business, usually at the request
of a reader, why particular films and TV shows have yet to be released
in the format.

It's easy to take a recently released film and rush it to market;
these days, they even produce the DVD extras while the film is in
production. But in the case of old material, there's restoration to be
done, not to mention the search for production footage and the other
DVD extras we now expect or the putting together of a historical
retrospective on a movie.

But the wait is worth it when it comes to something like Warner's
release of eight titles from Alfred Hitchcock, seven of which have
never been released on DVD. The one that has, "Strangers on a Train"
(FOUR STARS out of four stars, $26.99), is easily the best of show and
is now packaged, as are all the others, in boxes boasting the original
poster art.

It is also now a two-disc affair, containing, as did the earlier
release, two versions of Hitch's film about a tennis player, played
Farley Granger, who meets chatty playboy Robert Walker on train and
becomes embroiled in a plot where each man would rid the other of
someone who is making his life miserable.

The differences in the two versions are minimal -- but in one case,
meaningful -- and they are addressed in a well-put-together commentary
pieced together from interviews with director Peter Bogdanovich,
biographer Andrew Wilson, screenwriter Joseph Stefano and Patricia
Highsmith, who wrote the novel on which the film is based. Also new is
a making-of documentary with Granger, critic Richard Schickel and
Hitchcock's daughter, Patricia.

Except for 1940's thrilling "Foreign Correspondent" (FOUR STARS out of
four stars, $19.97), with Joel McCrea caught up in a spy ring with
reporters Robert Benchley and George the other six films are all
lesser Hitchcock. That's to say they're mostly compelling and always
entertaining, but not as rich. The wild card is the director's 1941
deviation from his usual themes to make a screwball comedy, "Mr. And
Mrs. Smith" (TWO STARS out of four stars, $19.97), about married
couple Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard, who via a technicality
find themselves officially unhitched. After a fight, they decide to
test their new freedom. Lombard sparkles as usual, but the film

Also from 1941, "Suspicion" (THREE STARS out of four stars, $19.97)
has that great scene with the glowing glass of milk. Joan Fontaine won
an Oscar for her portrayal of the wallflower bride of dashing Cary
Grant, who she's convinced is trying to kill her. The film, however,
suffers from an improbable ending -- one we learn in the making-of doc
was enforced by the Production Code. From 1950, the overwrought and
undernourished "Stage Fright" (THREE STARS out of four stars, $19.97)
stars Jane Wyman as a drama student who attempts to clear framed
Richard Todd of a murder charge by acting the role of a maid to
theater star Marlene Dietrich.

From 1953, "I Confess" (THREE STARS out of four stars, $19.97) helped
propagate the misconception that Hitchcock's movies (and later
episodes of his TV series) hung on a twist, as in the case of
Montgomery Clift's priest, who has heard a man confess a murder and is
unable to exonerate himself when he is accused of the crime.

"The Wrong Man," (THREE STARS out of four stars, $19.97) from 1956,
boils Hitchcock down to his filmmaking essence: Henry Fonda is a
musician accused of a crime he didn't commit, and every move he makes
to prove his innocence only gets him in deeper. It's interesting
mostly for the semi-documentary style the director tried out (and
never returned to.). Finally, there's the clever but vastly overrated
"Dial M for Murder" (THREE STARS out of four stars, $19.96), an
adaptation of a popular play about a man (played here by Ray Milland)
plotting to have his rich, unfaithful wife (Grace Kelly) murdered.
Initially released in 1954 in 3D, it was restored and revived in that
format in the 1980s, but the DVD is the flat print, which means the
image suffers from a halo effect created by the original use of
multiple cameras. The disc contains a brief documentary about 3D, but
apparently no consideration was given to attempting to replicate the
process for this disc.

If you're anything like a Hitchcock fan, you'll want all these, so you
would be wise to invest in "Alfred Hitchcock: The Signature
Collection," which contains all seven movies as well as the previously
released Special Edition of "North By Northwest." (If you already have
that one, you can give to a friend who will be forever grateful.) The
box set lists for $99.92, but it will be discounted significantly at
most stores and on the Internet, making it a very large bargain.
Calling Dr. Spock

There will be a lot of Trekkies with hand-me-downs to distribute (or
post on eBay) with the release of "Star Trek The Original Series --
The Complete First Season" (FOUR STARS out of four stars, Paramount,
$129.99). It's the first of three sets that replace those original
single discs that each contained two of the original episodes. The
next installments will follow in November and December, an obvious
Klingon plot to bankrupt the good people of Earth.

The first season is in a plastic yellow case that contains eight
discs; 28 of the original episodes (and the coming week's previews)
are on the first seven. The season finale is on the eighth, which also
contains about 2 hours of retrospective featurettes. The transfers are
the same used for the original releases, and if you've never seen
them, you'll be impressed at how sharp they are. The sound has been
remixed into 5.1 Surround to great effect, although purists have the
original 2.0 option.

It should also be noted that if you buy this set at Best Buy or Media
Play, you will get yet another disc of extras, although this was not
provided for review.
Lucy & Bullwinkle

It's a very good week for classic TV. "I Love Lucy -- The Complete
Second Season" (FOUR STARS out four stars Paramount, $69.99) contains
all 32 episodes -- including the classic "Job Switching" and the
episodes preceding the birth of Little Ricky -- of the 1952-53 season.
It comes on five discs and includes an amazing array of outtakes, cut
scenes and looking-back featurettes.

"Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends: Complete Season 2" (FOUR STARS out of
four stars, Sony, $39.98) provides four discs' worth of evidence from
1962-63 that Jay Ward was some sort of comic genius and that, as
satire, the various permutations of this show were almost as good as
"The Simpsons."
A great British director

Alan Clarke was one of the best directors you've never heard of,
primarily because he worked in English television. But his fans
include some of Great Britain's finest actors, including Tim Roth, Ray
Winstone ("Sexy Beast") and Gary Oldman, all of whom appear in films
included in "The Alan Clarke Collection" (Blue Underground, $99.95).
Also included is director Gus Van Sant, who named his recent film
"Elephant" in tribute to the film of the same title in this

Originally shown on the BBC, "Elephant" (THREE STARS out of four
stars) explores the trouble in Northern Ireland by looking at 18
killings committed by the IRA, and, like Van Sant's Columbine-inspired
drama, steadfastly refuses to draw conclusions or wring its hands over
social ills.

Clarke's reputation as a tough-minded realist was made by 1977's
"Scum" (THREE STARS out of four stars), a television drama starring a
young Winstone as a "borstal boy," a detainee in one of Britain's
notoriously cruel juvenile prisons of the era. When the BBC, which had
commissioned it, refused to show it, it became a news story, and the
notoriety aided Clarke in remaking it as superior 1979 feature film
(FOUR STARS out of four stars), also included here, with almost
entirely the same cast.

He was back to TV for 1982's "Made In Britain" (FOUR STARS out of four
stars), the first drama to seriously explore the growing violence of
racist skinheads and Britain's introduction to the dynamo that is Tim
Roth. Equally important and brutal is 1988's "The Firm" (THREE STARS
out of four stars) starring Gary Oldman as a middle-class bloke whose
alter ego is that of a ringleader of soccer hooligans.

The five-disc set, which includes interviews with Oldman (whose first
film as a director, "Nil by Mouth" starred Winstone and owes a serious
debt to Clarke) and Roth (ditto for his first directing effort, "The
War Zone"), ends with a 1991 documentary "Director: Alan Clarke," done
in England the year after his death.

'Passion of the Christ' arrives

Per instructions of Mel Gibson's Icon Productions, Fox did not supply
reviewers with advance copies of "The Passion of the Christ" ($29.98),
but we are assured this is the same version seen in theaters,
available either letter-boxed or in full screen, with no extras.
However, Anchor Bay sent along "The Animated Passion" (THREE STARS out
of four stars, $14.98), a kid-friendly telling (i.e. fairly bloodless)
of the New Testament story of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth.
Another kind of 'Passion'

Meanwhile, Paramount has been so kind as to collect three "South Park"
episodes under the title "The Passion of the Jew" (THREE STARS out of
four stars, $19.99) after last season's show in which Cartman sees
Gibson's movie and has even more ammunition with which to torture a
Jewish friend. A crazed cartoon Gibson makes a guest appearance and
has his wallet stolen.

Odds & ends

Also in stores this week: the 1952 film adaptation of the William Inge
play "Come Back, Little Sheba," with Burt Lancaster (THREE STARS out
of four stars, Paramount, $14.99); a less successful 1958 adaptation
of Eugene O'Neill's "Desire Under the Elms," with a miscast Sophia
Loren, Tony Perkins and Burl Ives; the made-for-cable "Ike: Countdown
to D-Day" (THREE STARS out of four stars, Columbia-Tristar, $24.96),
shown earlier this year on A&E, with Tom Selleck making a surprisingly
good Dwight Eisenhower; a new two-DVD Criterion Collection inspection
of David Cronenberg's fascinating but unfollowable 1983 media-horror
fable "Videodrome" (THREE STARS out of four stars, $39.95); and "Chris
Rock: Never Scared" (TWO STARS out of four stars, HBO, $19.96) in
which America's funniest man, in his fourth HBO special, proves he is
only human after all.