Monday, July 19, 2010

"It's only a movie."

The first time I was on a movie set was in 1964, when I believe I was 14 years old. The film was "Send Me No Flowers," a comedy with Rock Hudson, Doris Day, Tony Randall, Paul Lynde and Clint Walker. The location was the train station in my hometown of Fullerton, CA. The scene was basically the arrival of the principal actors after a daily work commute. The location filming was relaxed and allowed us locals easy access to watch the filming. I brought my trusty 8mm Kodak camera and filmed the event. Of all the actors, Tony Randall was the most friendly, signing autographs and letting me film him. He even signed my camera.

Less than a decade later, I'm attending a dinner of the Count Dracula Society which is presenting an award to Rock Hudson, primarily for his performance in the film "Seconds." I will find it ironic that controversial exterior scenes for this film were shot in Santa Barbara, CA, the town I now called home. These scenes included the pagan ritual of nude grape stomping in the Mission Canyon district, the favourite haunt of Santa Barbara's bohemian culture. Nymphs and Satyrs in hot was all the rage.

Anyway, back to the Count Dracula Society. There's Mr. Hudson's signature on my program. So now we're back to that area of discussion that always gives me pleasure: character actors. I could do a single blog on character actors for quite a while if pushed to it. I love character actors. I will continue to wax rhapsodic on these performers throughout these entries. As I mentioned earlier, the Count Dracula Society was a great place to meet these extraordinary individuals. I've mentioned many names before. One of the most pleasant evenings was with Vincent Price at the Hotel Knickerbocker. But this leads me to Robert Quarry. Robert Quarry had been honored by the Count Dracula Society for his performances in the Count Yorga films and the sequel to the "Abominable Dr. Phibes," "Dr. Phibes Rises Again."

Quarry as an actor had been discovered by Alfred Hitchcock, was a friend of Joseph Cotten and Paul Newman and had been an alumni of the Pasadena Playhouse. A working actor, appearing with Raymond Burr in both early "Perry Mason" and later "Ironside," Quarry gained a cult status in the campy Count Yorga series. Actually, American International studios considered grooming Quarry as a replacement for Vincent Price in all future horror films, like the Edgar Allan Poe series. Needless to say, Price and Quarry were not the best of friends, although they did appear in "Dr. Phibes Rises Again" together.

Okay, let me take a detour here, but I'll try and pull all this together. I have a love/hate relationship with the Dr. Phibes movies. As a Vice Chairman of the Count Dracula Society, I was pleased to attend the world premiere of the "Abominable Dr. Phibes" at the Pantages Theatre in May of 1971. There was a period in the '70s when horror films merged with a very dark humour that was more cynical than satirical, and the supernatural element of classic horror films seemed to be forgotten. There is much to admire in the first Dr. Phibes film: a superb cast of veteran character actors; excellent art direction, cinematography; a seemingly competent director; and most of all, the beautiful soundtrack by composer, Basil Kirchin. But for me, the comic book cruelty of the individual deaths made the film highly impalpable. The sequel was even worse and for me, unfortunately, Vincent Price continued the tradition with "Theatre Of Blood." All three of these movies seemed to revel in the sadistic humour of how degrading we can kill someone. For me, this was not supernatural and definitely not philosophical or even very story-driven. When I did meet Vincent Price for the first time, I told him that I really admired his work in the film "The Conqueror Worm," also know as "Witchfinder General" in England. This was an extremely violent and dark horror film, but played completely serious--no camp humour (nudge, nudge); a film that he had conflict doing with the young director Michael Reeves, who insisted that Price not play it hammy but as straight and dramatic as possible. Vincent seemed surprised but genuinely happy when I complemented this performance, but unfortunately, it didn't help in the picking of his later film roles. Oh well. L'Amour toujours.

Anyway, Robert Quarry didn't replace Vincent Price, but he was a very nice man to meet. Back to location coincidences, "Count Yorga, Vampire" was mostly filmed in Montecito, CA (the suburb of Santa Barbara where all the Hollywood exiles lived). I remember watching "Count Yorga, Vampire" at the Santa Barbara Twin Screens drive-in. I didn't know until later that it was filmed in Montecito. All I knew is that it wasn't a Hammer film or shot in London.

Despite all of the above, I wouldn't have met either Price or Quarry if it hadn't been through the Count Dracula Society. This association helped me to continue to appreciate the work of character actors. Long after my affiliation with the Society, I would still work with former members and continue to search out the supporting actors. The character actors, who to this day, continue to make me watch films, no matter how dismal the story or lead actors are.*

* Footnote, Armnote and Kneenote:
(Watching "Shutter Island" just for Max von Sydow...oh, the sacrifice, the pain...and now I hear Christopher Lee is in the new Scorcese film? Maybe it's time to change old habits.)