King’s Pirate (1967) ****

Swell show. Virtually every movie Doug McClure (Beau Geste, 1966) made was under-rated, mostly due to his presence, but here he is at his impish cavalier best in a swashbuckler that rather than offering a re-tread goes in for clever reversals, running jokes and a healthy dose of the flashing blade. While McClure is no Errol Flynn (Against All Flags, 1952) he would be a safe match for Tyrone Power and Jill St John (Come Blow Your Horn, 1963) as his nemesis/lover could give the pirate picture’s most reliable spitfire, Maureen O’Hara (Against All Flags), a run for her money.

Well, actually, it is a bit of a re-tread, a spirited good-humored remake of Against All Flags, and  follows the same story as Pirates of Tortuga (1961) of good guy infiltrating a pirate stronghold by pretending to be a buccaneer. But the locale has shifted a good three thousand miles to Madagascar, ideally placed to plunder cargo ships en route to India, and it would be hard to argue that Lt Brian Fleming’s (Doug McClure) motivation is pure, given he is expecting major financial reward for risking his life. 

Still, to complete his disguise, he submits to a flogging. His task is to incapacitate the cannons that protect the island from Royal Navy invasion. But his team is somewhat unusual, a bunch of acrobats headed by Zucco (Kurt Kasznar) which ensures he can avoid the wall/cliff-climbing normally associated with such endeavors. Having just about convinced pirate king John Avery (Guy Stockwell), Fleming’s mission runs into trouble when Mogul’s daughter Princess Patna (Mary Ann Mobley) falls in love with him after he saves her from a burning ship, though admittedly one he had helped set on fire. He falls foul, too, of “Mistress” Jessica (Jill St John), the island’s de facto ruler and accomplished femme fatale, expert swordswoman, but a la Pirates of Tortuga with a yen to be a “lady.”

So, basically, he has to dodge the suspicious Avery, and put off the princess while trying to woo Jessica in order to find a secret map of the cannon locations.

The island’s preferred style of execution is staking men at the water’s edge and letting the rising tide do the rest. When Fleming, on initial arrival on the island, gulps at this demonstration of barbarity, you probably don’t guess this will happen to him. It’s just one a litany of reversals that make this a delight.

Talking of reversals and delights, how about the Indian princess speaking in a Scottish accent, courtesy of her governess, the fearsome Miss MacGregor (Diana Chesney)?

Not to mention Jessica’s habit of making her romantic inclinations known at gunpoint. Unusually lacking in the female ability of expressing her emotions, Jessica’s actions tend to be the opposite of her stated intention, resulting in, having given Fleming the brush-off, bidding against him in the slave market for Princess Patna to avoid the Indian lass getting her romantic claws into him. But not only is Jessica expert with the sword she is a crack shot and can shoot the end off a rapier.

Of course, when his sword can’t do the talking. Fleming has to weasel his way out of many a dicey situation with an inventiveness that would do Scheherazade proud.

All in all the best pirate film of the decade – though there wasn’t much competition. Competently made with McClure and St John striking cinematic sparks with former Miss America Mary Ann Mobley (Istanbul Express, 1968) happily cooperating in turning her character into a comedic gem.

While there’s certainly a touch of the Tony Curtis in McClure’s portrayal it is also his stab at carving out a position as a jaunty leading man. Jill St John, given a lot more to do than in most of her pictures, takes the opportunity to shine. Guy Stockwell (Beau Geste) delivers another villain.

Don Weiss (Billie, 1965) directed and does exceptionally well steering audiences away from unfulfillable expectation, given the low budget, by focusing on the qualities of the stars and a ripping tale knocked out by television comedy writer Paul Wayne, who rewrote or incorporated material from Aeneas MacKenzie and Joseph Hoffman responsible for the original.

Catch it on YouTube.

The Hot Prospects Business – 1960s Style

As difficult as it was to guess which films would hit the box office target and which would turn into irredeemable flops, Hollywood studios and exhibitors stewed as much over the potential of the next generation of stars. This was an era when talent schools still existed, youngsters taken on at modest wages and provided with both standard acting lessons and other important elements of movie education such as riding a horse or sword-fighting as well as breaking in the actors and actresses with small roles. They would be given progressively larger roles until they emerged, hopefully, as genuine candidates for box office glory.

Of course, the studios had their own ideas which of their youngsters was likely to make the grade, the most obvious marker being the types of parts they were handed, but exhibitors helped the process along by taking part in an annual survey organized by trade paper Box Office.

So I’ve chosen a year – 1965, midway through the decade – at random to see how many of the new generation of stars made the grade. According to the Box Office survey the top six males (in order) were Peter Fonda, Robert Walker Jr, Patrick Wayne, Keir Dullea, Doug McClure and Tommy Sands. The top six females were:  Patty Duke, Stefanie Power, Nancy Sinatra, Rita Tushingham, Rosemary Forsyth and Barbara Eden.

You can see from the list that a recognizable name goes a long way, a full one-third of the candidates blessed with a father with a famous name, Peter the son of Henry Fonda, Patrick the son of John Wayne, Nancy the daughter of Frank Sinatra. Robert Walker had never been in that elite class but it appeared his name was still strong enough for his son to capture public attention.

What exactly a rising star embodied appeared to be in the eye of the beholder. Some of the stars already had a decent portfolio, others not so much. (The survey was published in early 1966 so I assuming it took into account acting performances up to the end of 1965.)

On acting talent alone the front runners should have been Rita Tushingham, Patty Duke and Keir Dullea. Britisher Tushingham had won Best Actress at Cannes for A Taste of Honey (1961) and was tipped for a Bafta for The Knack (1965) – she did in fact win. In both films she was top-billed and again for The Trap (1966). Patty Duke had won an Oscar for The Miracle Worker (1962) and been top-billed in Billie (1965) but her popularity surge was largely thanks to her eponymous television show which ran from 1963 to 1966.

Since starring in David and Lisa (1962). Dullea’s career appeared jeopardized by offbeat choices, The Thin Red Line (1964) and The Naked Hours (1964), in both top-billed, before sliding down the credit rankings for Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965). Peter Fonda appeared to be heading for success as a romantic star after appearing in fluff like Tammy and the Doctor (1963) and his first top-billed role in The Young Lovers (1964). Robert Walker Jr, top-billed in Ensign Pulver (1964), had followed this up with Italian oddity The Touching and Not Touching (1965) thus demonstrating versatility.

Stefanie Powers was clearly a rising star, smaller roles in The New Interns (1964) and Love Has Many Faces (1965) had led to second-billing in Die! Die! My Darling (1965) and her forthcoming role in Stagecoach was expected to solidify her mainstream career. Barbara Eden was dependent on television for her high placing, after I Dream of Jeannie kicked off in 1965. Most heavily dependent on nepotism were Patrick Wayne and Nancy Sinatra. Wayne was by far the least proven, riding very much on his father’s coat-tails, but fourth-billed in Shenandoah (1965) and a leading role in television series The Rounders which had kicked off in 1966. Sinatra was the longest shot, just bit parts so far.

Television’s The Virginian had been the launch pad for Doug McClure but he had since ventured out into Shenandoah (1965) and Beau Geste (1966), second-billed each time. Apart from his reputation as a singer, it’s hard to see why Tommy Sands ended up so favored, with just a couple of bit parts to his name. But you could see why Rosemary Forsyth, after the female lead in The War Lord (1965) was attracting industry attention.

So what happened to the prospects? Were the talent-spotters proved right? As you might expect, yes and no is the answer.

Keir Dullea and Peter Fonda proved the standouts. Dullea followed the offbeat The Fox (1967) with the big-budget big hit 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Fonda quickly transitioned to The Wild Angels (1966) and starred in the decade’s most unexpected hit, Easy Rider (1969), and long-term was easily the most successful graduate of the Class of ’66.

Patty Duke was second-billed in big hit Valley of the Dolls (1967) and won outright top billing for Me, Natalie (1968). After The Wild Angels (1966) Nancy Sinatra became a pop star in her own right before sharing the billing with Elvis Presley in Speedway (1968) but that was the highlight of her movie career. Patrick Wayne took longest to find his feet but snagged several top-billed roles, mostly leading with his chin in fantasy pictures such as Beyond Atlantis (1973), The People That Time Forgot (1977) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977). Rita Tushingham starred in a string of films including The Trap (1966) Smashing Time (1968), The Guru (1969) and The Bed Sitting Room (1969) that failed to click with U.S. mainstream audiences.

Doug McClure was second-billed in Beau Geste (1966) and top-billed for swashbuckler The King’s Pirate (1967) and comedy Nobody’s Perfect (1968) before drifting back into television to emerge years later as a credible top-billed star of Hellhounds of Alaska (1973), The Land Time Forgot (1974) and At The Earth’s Core (1976). Stefanie Powers only managed top-billing for Crescendo (1970) and had to wait over a decade to realize her potential, and then in television show Hart to Hart (1979-1984).

Roy Walker Jr.’s career never took off, his biggest success as Young Billy Young (1969) was a flop. Rosemary Forsyth got as high as leading lady on Texas Across the River (1966) and Where It’s At (1967) but then drifted down the credits into the ranks of supporting players. Barbara Eden only managed a few television movies. Tommy Sands’ movie career died the death except for third billing in biker picture The Violent Ones (1967).

Screenwriter William Goldman coined the phrase “nobody knows anything” in relation to movies but it might equally apply to industry expectation of hot prospects, some of whom crashed and burned, and some never were even hot.

SOURCE: “12 most popular players of ’65,” Box Office, February 28, 1966, p76-77.

Beau Geste (1966) ***

Two brothers battle inhospitable terrain, warring tribes and a sadistic sergeant major in a  remake of the classic tale. The title translates as “noble and generous gesture” and is a pun on the name of hero Michael Geste (Guy Stockwell), an American hiding out in the French Foreign Legion in shame for being involved, innocently as it happens, in embezzlement. His attitude is markedly different to the “scum of the earth” who make up the battalion and his quick wit and refusal to kowtow make him a target for Sgt Major Dagineau (Telly Savalas), a former officer busted to the ranks.

Dagineau delights in imposing hardship and devising mental torture, making some recruits including Geste walk around blindfold at the top of a cliff. Geste’s resistance to his superior is almost suicidal and he even volunteers to take a whipping on behalf of his comrades. “It’s me he wants,” says Geste, “if not now the next time.” At another point he is buried up to his neck in the blazing sun.

Joined by his brother John (Doug McClure), the battalion sets out as a relief force for a remote fort but when commanding officer Lt De Ruse (Leslie Nielsen) is seriously wounded, the sergeant-major takes charge. Under siege from the Tuareg tribe, honor, treachery, mutiny, fighting skills and courage all come into play in a final section.

The action and the various episodes and confrontations are strong enough and Geste has a good line in witty retort, but blame the casting for the fact that it turns into Saturday afternoon matinee material. It was always going to be a stretch to match Gary Cooper, Ray Milland and Susan Hayward from the 1939 hit version.

Stagecoach, remade the same year, was able to rustle up a bona fide box office star in Ann-Margret (Viva Las Vegas, 1964) and a host of supporting players with considerable marquee appeal including Bing Crosby (Robin and the 7 Hoods, 1964), Robert Cummings (Promise Her Anything, 1965) and Van Heflin (Cry of Battle, 1963). Nobody in the cast of Beau Geste could compare. Apart from the Spanish-made Sword of Zorro (1963), Guy Stockwell usually came second or third in the credits, as did Doug McClure (Shenandoah, 1965) while Telly Savalas, despite or because of an Oscar nomination for The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), was viewed as a character actor.

But that was the point. Universal gambled on turning the latest graduates from its talent school into major box office commodities. The set pieces and the action are well handled and while there are excellent lines especially in the verbal duels between hero and villain, it’s not helped by the most interesting character being Dagineau, who, despite his failings, accepted his fall from grace, worked his way back up the career ladder, believing brutality the only way to control the soldiers, and in the end out of the two is the one who has the greater sense of honor, refusing to allow a lie to befoul the truth, rejecting the notion of when the legend becomes fact print the legend, And it’s a shame that the movie has to present his character in more black-and-white terms rather than invest more time in his background or accept his version of reality.   

Telly Savalas (The Scalphunters, 1968) steals the show with a performance of considerable subtlety. Guy Stockwell (Tobruk, 1967) is little more than a stalwart, the heroic hero, with little sense of the irony of his situation. Doug McClure (The King’s Pirate, 1967) presents as straighforward a matinee idol. If you only know Leslie Neilsen from his later spoof comedies like Airplane! (1980) you will be surprised to see him deliver a dramatic performance as the drunken commander who still insists, in an echo of El Cid, in rising from his sick bed to lead his troops. Normally this kind of macho movie – The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Dirty Dozen (1967) prime examples – throws up burgeoning talent who go on to make it big. It’s one of the disappointments here that this does not occur.

This was the second and final movie of Douglas Heyes (Kitten with a Whip, 1964).  

Pressbook: Sing, Jimmy, Sing – Shenandoah (1965)

Pressbooks (also known as Campaign Manuals) were notorious for coming up with all sorts of insane and inane devices in an attempt to entice the moviegoer. The extremely handsome 20-page A3 pressbook for Andrew V. McLaglen’s Civil War western Shenandoah (1965) was no different in that respect – “racetrack in your area – hold a Shenandoah handicap.”  Or how about this classic: “In Shenandoah the war stops for a cow that wanders between the fighting…a local dairy might be interested: Everything Stops While The Public Drinks Our Milk etc.”

Luckily, the marketeers had some better ideas, mostly based on the traditional folk song of the title which has a hymnal quality. So star James Stewart was roped in to cut a record, released on the Decca label, with special lyrics of that famous song.  For a start the idea of Stewart singing was a clever stunt in itself, but the main aim was not to garner some newspaper coverage but to attract the attention of radio stations and use the record’s cover as a means of encouraging music stores to set up window displays.

And never mind Stewart’s contribution to the canon of singers of the song, the marketing team identified more than 30 other versions of the song by the likes of Harry Belafonte (four versions), Jimmie Rodgers (three) and Guy Lombardo and instrumentals by British jazzman Acker Bilk of “Strangers on the Shore” fame and guitarist Duane Eddy. Decca was putting further promotional push behind an album entitled “The Blue and the Grey, Songs of the American Civil War.”

Theater managers were urged to suggest to radio stations they group some of these tunes together “for an interesting period of broadcast listening, perhaps in a musical segment of Civil War songs or a radio contest to identify the vocalist.”

In addition, the marketing team sought coverage in the television pages of newspapers since many of the supporting cast were small screen regulars – Doug McClure star of The Virginian, Glenn Corbett star of Route 66 and James McMullen a regular on Ben Casey – and newcomer Katharine Ross had been featured in a few shows. “You should take advantage of this away-from-the-amusement-section opportunity to pick up extra publicity space directed to the TV page reader!”  

Of course, the main purpose of a Pressbook was to provide the theater owner with the actual advertisements for the movie. He or she would cut these out and drop them off at the local newspaper which would use them to make up the ads that ran in the newspaper. These came in a variety of sizes from small single column black-and-white efforts to larger five-column full-color ads.

And they also came with an avalanche of taglines (note the varying use of capital letters) and images. The key tagline was “Two Mighty Armies Trampled Its Valley…A Fighting Family Challenged Them Both.”

Or you might have come across these alternatives –“Like giants they stood in the path of two might armies…and with their fighting spirit challenged them both” or “James Stewart, A Giant Of A Man Who Fought For Shenandoah” and “When History Called for Men and Women Larger than Life…Charlie Anderson and his proud family answered the challenge – with courage mightier than guns – and with love that no cannot could ever shatter.”

And there were more: “They reached for their rifles in the name of love…not hate…to challenge two mighty armies” down to the simpler “Shakes The Screen Like Cannon Thunder” and “Where A Mighty Adventure Was Born.”  You might be led to believe from this fusillade of taglines that the marketing department could not make up its minds about which tagline was best and just chucked them all at the theater manager, leaving them to choose.

But that was not the case. The reason behind the disparate taglines was precisely to provide choice, to allow the theater manager to decide how best to market the picture to suit the audience he or she knew best.

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