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...

Friday, January 6, 2017

From Avco to Dino: A Hint of Class, A Hint of Trash

Note from the author: In prepping this part of the series, I noticed that there are some titles I overlooked for the first part of the series, several in fact along with some titles I just can't find much to write about. Most of the output I skipped and will be overlooking in future segments consists of dubbed foreign films. In total, we'll be covering roughly 168 out of the total 285 films Embassy distributed/produced, give or take or roughly 68 to 69% of their total output. Just for the sake of full disclosure.

After his first two successes, Joseph Levine capitalized on them, entering into a partnership with Warner Brothers and then Paramount which would yield even more success.

Steve Reeves returns as Hercules in this solid if mildly disappointing sequel to the first film. Herc is tasked with solving a family squabble over the leadership of Thebes but is sidetracked by a witch who causes him to forget who he is for three quarters of the film. Like the original, there is some good action and nice scenery with the requisite cheesy English dub. Like the original, this made it onto MST3k as well, along with some other films in this piece.

Italian version of the Biblical tale of King Davis with Orson Welles as King Saul.

Another version of The Thief of Baghdad, this time we get Steve Reeves in the title role. It got good notices and has pretty much nothing in common with the other versions of the film.

Embassy made a leap into more sophisticated fare with distributing this drama based on the Eugene O'Neill play. Katherine Hepburn got an Oscar nomination for her work as a drug addicted matriarch to a dysfunctional family in 1912.

Michael Caine's first big role is as a snobbish upper class soldier in this epic retelling of the Battle of Rorke's Drift in 1879. Lavishly mounted but riddled with historical inaccuracies, this nevertheless won considerable acclaim as, as noted, gave Michael Caine a big break that he would capitalize on very quickly.

Italian drama directed by the man who would go on to direct Amityville II: The Possession. Needless to say, this is is considerably better than that piece of dreck.

Decades before the trend of young adult fantasy novels being made into films (with varying degrees of success), there was a slough of films based on the works of trash novelist Harold Robbins. Robbins was quite popular with readers though not with critics, writing sordid soapy novels full of sex and sleaze, eventually he would become one of the best selling authors of all time. Several of his books were made into films with The Carpetbaggers being one of the biggest hits (and best in terms of quality). We will cover two more of his adaptations later in the series along with a small detour later.

George Peppard plays a thinly veiled version of Howard Hughes whose ruthless ambition leads him to success in Hollywood while also alienating anyone who might give a damn about him. Western star Alan Ladd is also in the film as a cowboy turned actor and the whole thing is a frankly over the top (for the mid-sixties at least) 150 minute long soap opera that is entertaining trash. Embassy and Paramount did quite well with this one, (it ended up being the fourth highest grossing film of 1964 behind My Fair Lady, Goldfinger and Mary Poppins) to the point where there was even a prequel which we will cover in the next part of this series.

One of the seminal bad Christmas movies, this ended up on MST3K as well as the spin offs from that series-Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax (I could almost subtitle this installment 'MST3K Fodder and More'). Also notable for being the film debut of 80's bad movie staple Pia Zadora (if I feel evil/masochistic someday, I might cover one or two of her films on the blog).

Back to the quality side of things, this one is a French import from Jean-Luc Godard with Jack Palance as a frustrated movie producer and and Brigitte Bardot as the wife of a screenwriter Palance hires to rework his latest project.

One of two films about the short lived star Jean Harlow, this film only uses her name and the name of her husband and nothing else (hooray for authenticity, eh?) and the result is a long, superficial piece of junk. Weirdly enough, it is mirrored somewhat by The Carpetbaggers as the Carroll Baker (she plays the lead here too) character in that film is loosely based on Jean Harlow herself.

Embassy rolled on into 1966 with some Oscar bait and some cheese.

Exactly what it sounds like. Actually, I would give non vital parts of my anatomy to see a couple of Brooklyn wiseguys accidentally walking into this show just for their reaction.

This is a British spy comedy that is one of the many riffs on James Bond from the period. Director Lindsay Shonteff made a few sequels to this as well as a few more racy spy spoofs in the 70's.

We hit the last of our MST3K features with this rather good on its own Russian fantasy film based on a Russian fairy tale. Production design is quite good and overall, its quite the delightful film, even without Mike & the Bots.

Lastly for this installment is this truly awful showbiz flick which combines a Harlan Ellison script; Tony Bennett in his one and only acting gig and a rep that makes the aforementioned Santa Claus Conquers the Martians look good.

That's all for now. Coming up next, things get a hell of a lot better.

About Me

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