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My Top 60 - No 8: 'Fire!' (1977)

Now here is a rarity for you. Fire! (1977) was actually a made for TV movie that found its way on a theatrical cinema release here in the UK. It went on release to ABC cinemas in 1978 and although you will never see it listed (if at all) as a great film by critics, it did thanks to its outstanding cast have a very gentle and winning charm.

It stars Ernest Borgnine (Bad Day at Black Rock & Marty (both 1955) as Sam Brisbane an all-round good fella who owns a lumber mill who needs to help the local community when nasty villain Neville Brand escapes from jail and decides to indulge himself into a bit of arson in an Oregon forest leading to a potential disaster for the nearby mountain community.

Thrown into this mix is a testy husband/wife relationship between Patty Duke and Alex Cord, a teacher (Donna Mills) who made the fateful decision to take her children onto a class outing and the fact that Sam loves (and has always loved) widowed Vera Miles , who says that it is too late to do anything about it.

Now it shouldn’t be a surprise to find out that Fire! comes from Producer Irwin Allen who was regarded as ‘The Master of Disaster’ after his huge hits The Poseidon Adventure (1972) & The Towering Inferno (1974). Most kids of my generation will recall his TV work such as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968), Lost in Space (1965-1968) and Land of the Giants (1968-1970), and Fire follows on from his disaster movie legacy.

What though makes this film stand out from the others is the cracking cast and as they take it seriously, so too do you. The chemistry between Borgnine and Miles is really warm and you can believe that they are aged lovers kept apart from each other until now . As the villain, Neville Brand is at his psychotic best. He was the genuine American character actor- you would see him popping up as a drugs counsellor in Kojak (1973-1978), Bonanza (1960-1970) or in Police Woman (1974-1978) but he was always good as a villain, thug or madman.

As irony would have it, when I saw Fire! the pre programme music in the cinema was Sam , the Olivia Newton John song that was unrelated to the film but acted as a very pleasant warm up –it got to No 6 in the UK charts in 1977.

My Top 60 Films-No 7: Millions Like Us (1943)

Millions Like Us (1943) is a personal favourite of mine even though it falls into the description of a propaganda film. It was made shortly after the wartime government introduced female conscription for single women between 21 and 30 and one of the options was to work in a factory- and this film celebrates those women (and men).

The film starts by centring on the working class Crowson family. The nominal head of the household is Moore Marriott (Will Hay’s old comedy partner) who has joined the Home Guard, of his two daughters still living at home, Phyllis (Joy Shelton) joins the ATS whilst Celia (the always excellent Patricia Roc) is wanted by her father just to stay at home to look after him, but she wants to join the more glamorous WAAFs.

Once at the factory, Celia although initially resenting the place comes to like the camaraderie and starts to meet people from different walks of life. They include the very stroppy and upper middle class Jennifer (Anne Crawford) who really hates the work (it is clearly below her class) and she ends up in dispute with her tough boss and Northern and very working class Charlie(Eric Portman)- needless to say that they end up falling in love with each over- there’s communal spirit for you.

Celia’s main emotional support comes from the very solid and sensible Gwen (the ever excellent Meg Jenkins) who keeps her together especially after Celia’s romance with a young airman Fred (a very young Gordon Jackson) where they have a very short lived marriage.

The inevitable happens as it does in wartime and Celia like so many women is widowed and broken but is supported by her friends at the factory and her knowledge that she and everyone must ‘fight the good fight’.

Millions Like Us is a very emotional film now but you can imagine its impact for wartime audiences who would all have known people like that. The final scene in the factory just after Celia is given the news of Fred’s demise and when the song ‘Waiting at the Church’ (played at hers and Fred’s wedding reception) is played again as Fred’s squadron fly over their factory as she is about to break down is very powerful and stirring stuff.

In retrospect, you can see how strong a propaganda film Millions Like Us is – everyone from Britain is represented on screen. Celia is working class, Fred is Scottish, Gwen is Welsh, you have characters from the North (Charlie), and the focus of the relationship between the snobbish Jennifer and working class Charlie is how the communities that they come from can come together after the war – rather than just survive it.

The film was made by the stalwart writing and directing team of Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder who are perhaps better known for their involvement in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and they –for a propaganda film – produced a fine film. Millions Like Us is also very funny- Moore Marriot knows good comedy inside out and the early scenes between his exasperated father and his two daughters are very funny indeed. There is also a moment for a very brief cameo by one of British cinema’s finest double acts –that of Basil Radford and Naughton Wayne as the upper middle class officers Charters and Caldicott complaining at the state of the beach during wartime.

Far more than a mere propaganda film, Millions Like Us is an excellent pictorial of life on the home front during WWII and is essential viewing.

 

My Top 60 Films -No 6 -Flash Gordon (1980)

My memories of Flash Gordon are memorable as I can recall first seeing it at the old ABC (Regal as was) Woolwich in 1981 and during the screening of the film, the projectionist remembered that he or she had put on the reels in the wrong order –this was before digital projection which avoids such errors. So, we had to wait quite a while whilst reels were re-run. During this pause, someone had shouted out to someone else in the stalls area “Sad about John Lennon wasn’t it?” and someone shouted back “Yeah, he was alright!”- Lennon had been killed a few months early at the end of 1980. Such are cinema audiences………….

Actually, the fact that the reels were in the wrong order did not ruin the experience of watching Flash Gordon for the first time- and I must have seen it close to 20 times in the cinema over the years. The film was made possible due to the enormous success of Star Wars which proved that science fiction could be popular amongst audiences. The production had an interesting history, like a lot of very good movies incidentally, as Nicholas Roeg was going to direct it initially and Debbie Harry had been pencilled in as Dale Arden, Flash Gordon’s right hand woman and general good egg, but that did not happen.

Instead reliable old hand Mike Hodges (Get Carter) took on the directorial reins but the biggest creative influence on the film is its writer Lorenzo Semple Jr who wrote the original Adam West Batman series in the 1960s, and the film’s style is very tongue in cheek and played for laughs, with some of the richest (and corniest) dialogue in film history.

You can tell what kind of ride Flash Gordon is going to give you right at the opening as Emperor Ming (a brilliant slap headed Maximillian Von Sydow ) talks to his left hand man Klytus (an almost unrecognisable Peter Wyngarde (Department S & Jason King):

Ming: “Klytus, I’m bored. What plaything can you offer me today?”

Klytus : “An obscure body in the S-K system, Your Majesty. The inhabitants refer to it as the planet……Earth”

Ming: “How peaceful it looks” (he activates a console and watches as he creates a series of devastating earthquakes and floods)

Klytus: Most effective, Your Majesty. Will you destroy this, uh, Earth?”

Ming: “Later. I like to play with things a while….before annihilation.”

So, the story based on the strip cartoon that ran in the 1930s, is that only Hans Zarkoff (a brilliantly hammy and over the top Topol) a scientist has been predicting this particular kind of climate change and, just by chance (funny thing that!), New York Jets star Flash Gordon (a robotic Sam J Jones) and Travel Agent Dale Arden (the luminous Melody Anderson) are kidnapped by him as they rocket up into space to find out what is going on in the Universe.

They land on Mongo, where Ming the Merciless rules his and other kingdoms but Flash shows Earth’s mettle by taking on Ming’s soldiers in a set piece fight in his great hall. Enter a certain Brian Blessed who rules the Hawkmen, sworn enemies of Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) and Flash, Dale and Hans spend most of the rest of the film encouraging Blessed and Dalton to team up and fight Ming.

The delights and joy of the movie are many. There are some great juicy characters created- Ming’s (very naughty) daughter Aura (Ornella Muti) who has a series of lovers including Prince Barin, does her best to seduce Flash (but he is destined to be with Dale of course). General Kala (Mariangela Melato) is not short of words when she has to protect Ming- in one marvellously over the top scene she is told that Flash is about to attack Mungo: “ What do you mean, “Flash Gordon approaching?”, her aide tells her “On a Hawkman rocket-cycle. Shall I inform His Majesty?”. She screams back at him “Imbecile! The Emperor would shoot you for interrupting his wedding with this news! Fire when Gordon’s in range!”

The movie is hugely driven along by Queen’s fantastic score which showed the benefit of film makers commissioning bands rather than just classic film composers to provide the music – and makes for a great ride.

Brian Blessed of course has made his career from saying just one thing in Flash Gordon –“Gordon’s alive?!” but he is a real treat as a king warrior who learns to give up his differences with Prince Barin and take on Ming with Flash and his companions.

The ending of the film though was all set up for a sequel as Flash’s rocket ship harpoons Ming and his powerful ring drops off and the end credit is ‘The End?’-but the sequel was never to happen. But Flash Gordon is a film that is very much in our consciousness and regularly comes up at Easter, Christmas and most Bank Holidays- and is a great fantasy


 

My Top 60 Films - No 5: The Jazz Singer (1980)

OK- so let’s get this over with.  Yes, this is the Neil Diamond version of The Jazz Singer (1980), despite its very unfair reputation that it is a ‘turkey’ and one of the worst films ever made.  It is one of my secret pleasures and will watch it when it regularly comes up on a channel like ‘True Movies’ and when it very rarely (never?) gets a screening in a cinema.

It also has something in common with the recent and excellent (despite playing around with the historical timelines) Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) in that both films started with a different creative team in place and both lost its initial directors. In The Jazz Singer’s case, the original director was Sidney J Furie (The Ipcress File (1965) and Lady Sings The Blues (1972)) but he left after creative differences (the usual excuse) and was replaced by the excellent Richard Fleischer (Fantastic Voyage (1966) and Soylent Green (1973).)

So why do I like it so much? I think it’s because it has so much soul and heart in it, it covers a theme that I am interested in and it has the most glorious original soundtrack.  There are also numerous delights in the film. Whether it is its opening to the pounding theme song  ‘America’, the chemistry between Neil Diamond and Lucie Arnaz (daughter of comedienne Lucille Ball)- you cannot take your eyes of Arnaz whether that is in the iconic scene during ‘Love on the Rocks’ or when she meets her love rival for the first time, or the great rapport Diamond has with Franklyn Ajaye. I do regard it as a sheer delight.

Neil Diamond plays the Al Jolson role (The Jazz Singer -1927) but this time as Yussel Rabinovitch who is a Cantor at his New York Synagogue. He is controlled by his overarching father (Laurence Oliver) who insists that his role in life is to sing in the synagogue and to stay with his rather plain and conservative wife Rivka (Catlin Adams). But Yussel moonlights as aspiring singer Jess Robin with his band and especially his ‘top man’ Franklyn Ajaye.

The Jazz Singer plays tribute to the original Al Jolson version in one hilarious scene towards the beginning when he has to ‘black up’ to play in all black band-until that is someone in the club shouts out “hey that ain’t no brother, that’s a white boy!”- and a riot ensures- but even that is done in a light hearted manner.

The crux and central theme of the movie however is about how Jess has to decide between his faith and who he really is. He has real talent and wants to sing his own contemporary and modern soft rock songs that he writes to move people whilst his father and wife want him to sing to just honour God. The opportunity soon comes for him and his band to get a chance to make a demo in LA, and that is when the movie really takes off. There, despite protestations from his family, he meets Record Label  PA Molly Bell (the incredible Arnaz) and as soon as they clap eyes on each other there is electricity in the air.

To my eyes and ears, one of the most iconic and moving scenes in modern film is when Britain’s own Paul Nicholas (Just Good Friends) slaughters one of Jess’ compositions and Jess  goes in to play the song as he says it should be –a romantic ballad and not speed metal (“it’s too fast, you can’t hear the words”- is Jess’ complaint). That song was ‘Love on the Rocks’ – perhaps Neil Diamond’s finest song. Just watch that scene, as Diamond sings his classic and through the recording glass panel, watch Lucie Arnaz as she gives an acting masterclass just through her eyes and a felt smile. Needless to say, Jess, his band and Molly get sacked so have to go solo. Molly uses her charms to get Jess not one, but two chances to get a record deal and to give a concert -to become a star.

In between all of this, Molly and Jess fall in love, have a baby and his father and wife see that they are not only losing him but also perhaps to their faith. Eventually he gets his father (if not his wife) to realise that God made him to be the talented singer and songwriter that he is- and that you can be both faithful and be contemporary and relevant at the same time, which is a theme I am greatly interested in. The Jazz Singer culminates in a gig that Jess is the start and which against all odds thrills his father.

The movie is book ended by -‘America’ -that both starts the movie and ends it on an emotional high as Neil Diamond’s taking of his audience’s applause morphs into the movie’s silhouetted motif, with his arm outreached.

The movie’s soundtrack was a huge hit being his bestselling album in the States- selling over 5 million- and the film is rich in some great Diamond songs- apart from ‘America’ and ‘Love on the Rocks’, we are treated with ‘Hello Again’, ‘Amazed and Confused’ and the poignant ‘Songs of Life’.

It is the kind of movie you can put your feet up to on an afternoon when you just want to indulge yourself, be moved, and be swept away on a classic tale to a great and rich soundtrack of some of Neil Diamond’s best stuff.