Thursday, January 19, 2017

From Avco to Dino: The Road to the Middle of the Top

The end of the 60's marked an interesting time for Embassy as while they would ascend to some pretty good heights in terms of quality product, they would also go through some fairly major changes. We left off in the middle of 1966, let's get to it.

We begin with two of the cheesier, more notorious titles in horror history. Both were made on the extra cheap; both are western/horror hybrids, both feature legendary real life outlaws clashing with famous monsters and both are absolute crap.

Actually, Jesse James is facing off against the good doctor's granddaughter but let's be honest, the title is better off as is. Something about it has to be memorable, after all.

John Carradine is Dracula once again,m this time in this endearingly awful showdown with Billy the Kid from noted bad movie maven William "One Shot" Beaudine who also directed the above title. Weirdly enough, Carradine isn't listed as the titular bloodsucker nor is he mentioned as such in the credits.

The first feature the team of Rankin and Bass did for Embassy, this is a blend of live action and the duo's trademark stop-motion animation (soon to become a staple of the holidays) based on the works of Hans Christian Andersen.

As I noted in the previous part of this series, the huge success of the company's adaptation of Harold Robbins' The Carpetbaggers yielded a prequel in the form of this rather ordinary western starring Steve McQueen. Its more or less your basic revenge flick and McQueen would do far better in the years to come.

After two more less than notable releases to close out 1966, Embassy kicked off 1967 with another Rankin Bass film, this time the eminently entertaining Mad Monster Party. This year was also notable in that it marked the beginning of Embassy as an independent distributor of its own product. While the year carried on in fairly ordinary fashion, it can be said, without much in the way of exaggeration that they closed the year out with a bang.

Dustin Hoffman had a solid breakout role here (though he's too old for the part) in this comedy/drama. While it has been written about and lauded elsewhere, I can only say that it is a key part of the late 60's resurrection of American cinema. With the success of this film, Joseph Levine was able to sell his company to Avco, creating Avco/Embassy and staying on as an executive.

While Avco/Embassy only released two films in 1968, both ended up being classics in their own right. First off was Mel Brooks' directorial debut, the savagely funny dark comedy The Producers. Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel are quite funny in their parts and Brooks won a much deserved Oscar for his screenplay.
Lastly for this entry is The Lion in Winter, one of the best costume dramas (not a genre I tend to favor in most cases) ever made. Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn are in stellar form as Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine respectively in this tensely funny drama that  makes you really appreciate how normal your family Christmas is, even if your uncle does occasionally get hammered and start a fight with your cousin while Granny overcooks the turkey.

Hepburn won an Oscar here (she practically begs for it in every bloody scene she's in) but O'Toole is equally good (the scenes where they go at it are simply awesome as they devour whatever scenery is nearby). Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton are also good in their supporting roles as the future King Richard the Lionheart and King Philip of France, respectively.

This was truly the pinnacle for the company as far as critical success goes. The end of the decade and the 70's would bring on some interesting changes. But that is a story for another day. Stay tuned...

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About Me

I've been a huge fan of action, horror and comedy for as long as I can remember.