Milton Berle as J. Russell Finch, seaweed salesman and beleaguered son-in-law
Southern California, Summer 1962
Film: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
Release Date: November 7, 1963
Director: Stanley Kramer
Costume Designer: Bill Thomas
Car Week continues with a look at a road movie very close to my heart, Stanley Kramer’s 1963 epic comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, released 60 years ago this November. I used to spend many weekends at my grandma’s house watching this cavalcade of comics—many of whom had died even before I was born—as they sped, flew, and chased each other through southern California in pursuit of a $350,000 payday.
The movie begins as a black two-door Ford Fairlane recklessly snakes its way along Seven Level Hill, a mountainous segment of California State Route 74 just south of Palm Desert, honking as it weaves through traffic. The Fairlane shakes its way past an Imperial Crown convertible, but the driver loses control of the car and the Fairlane goes careening—no, sailing—off a cliff. The four carloads of people behind it all pull to a stop and get out—surely no one could survive such a fatal tumble. But alas, the significantly schnozzed driver Smiler Grogan (Jimmy Durante) hasn’t kicked the bucket yet, sprawled out among the rocky hillside.
In his dying moments, Smiler tells the gathered men of a hidden fortune, the $350,000 proceeds from a 15-year-old tuna factory robbery, buried under “a big W!” in Santa Rosita Park. He indeed kicks the bucket (and how!) before he can elaborate on the admission, leaving the witnesses to debate its veracity amongst themselves and as a group. When it becomes abundantly clear that, no matter what way they figure it, “it’s every man—including the old bag—for himself”, the four groups run back to their respective automobiles and tear off for the fictional Santa Rosita.
Though they’d been leading traffic when the Fairlane went sailing right past them off the cliff, the Imperial Crown is now trailing the others. At the wheel of the Imperial is mild-mannered J. Russell Finch (Milton Berle), an edible-seaweed entrepreneur from Fresno on his way to Lake Meade with his prim wife Emeline (Dorothy Provine) and her brash mother (Ethel Merman).
On the 115th anniversary of Uncle Milty’s July 12, 1908 birthday, let’s dig into this iconic entertainer’s wardrobe from It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Continue reading
James Stewart as Frank Towns, experienced cargo pilot and war veteran
Libyan desert, Spring 1965
Film: The Flight of the Phoenix
Release Date: December 15, 1965
Director: Robert Aldrich
Costume Designer: Norma Koch
James Maitland Stewart had to fly. His earliest memories of flight involved colorful covers of Literary Digest depicting the Great War, then in progress, and the incredible use of air power by both sides. Jim tacked up each magazine cover on the wall in his bedroom. “Airplanes were the last thing I thought of every night and the first thing I thought of every morning,” he would say as an adult.
— Robert Matzen, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, Chapter 1
Born 115 years ago today on May 20, 1908, Jimmy Stewart had a lifelong passion for flight that followed him through his career, from the model airplane he lovingly constructed with Henry Fonda during their salad days on Broadway through his celebrated service flying dangerous combat missions as a U.S. Army Air Forces officer during World War II. Reticent to discuss his service after the war, Stewart flew B-24 Liberators on 20 combat missions over Europe and, by war’s end, was one of only a handful of Americans to rise from the rank of private to colonel in only four years.
Aviation continued to be a theme of Stewart’s life during his postwar film career, often starring in flight-themed dramas like No Highway in the Sky (1951), The Glenn Miller Story (1954), Strategic Air Command (1955), and The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), playing famed aviator Charles Lindbergh.
One of the last—and perhaps best—of Stewart’s aviation-centered films is The Flight of the Phoenix, Robert Aldrich’s 1965 survival drama based on Elleston Trevor’s novel of the same name. Stewart plays civilian cargo pilot Frank Towns, described by his navigator Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough) as “one of the few really great pilots left in this push-button world of yours.” Continue reading
Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Cholmondeley, Flight Lieutenant (temporary), RAF Intelligence and Security Department, seconded to MI5
London, Spring 1943
Film: Operation Mincemeat
Release Date: April 15, 2022
Director: John Madden
Costume Designer: Andrea Flesch
It was 80 years ago this week when a corpse identified as Major William Martin of the Royal Marines was discovered by Spanish fishermen off the Andalusian coast on the morning of Friday, April 30, 1943. Of course, sardine spotter José Antonio Rey María had no idea that the putrefying body in uniform that he brought to shore and delivered to the nearby regiment of Spanish shoulders was not a decorated British officer but instead a pawn in one of the most famous acts of wartime deception, known internally as Operation Mincemeat.
Though formally set in motion about four months earlier, the tactic originated in a memo circulated by Admiral John Godfrey, Director of Naval Intelligence, in September 1939, just weeks after Germany declared war on England. “It was issued under Godfrey’s name, but it more all the hallmarks of his personal assistant, Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming, who would go on to write the James Bond novels,” alluded author Ben Macintyre in his volume Operation Mincemeat, which was recently adapted into a Netflix film of the same name.
Known as the “Trout Memo” for its metaphor comparing counterespionage to trout fishing, the memorandum offered a total of 51 proposed plans for “introducing ideas into the heads of the Germans.” Listed as number 28 was “A Suggestion (not a very nice one)” which Godfrey and Fleming freely admit was borrowed from colorful author Basil Thomson’s novel The Milliner’s Hat Mystery, consisting of “a corpse dressed as an airman,” with his pockets and belongings detailing falsified plans for an invasion.
While the literary-influenced idea sounds nothing short of fantastic, it found a foothold in “the corkscrew mind” of Charles Cholmondeley, a young, shy, and somewhat eccentric Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve officer who served as secretary for the top-secret XX Committee, so named as the Roman numerals for twenty also form a “double cross”… which should provide some hint into both the type of work conducted by the group as well as the minds that directed it. Continue reading
Sam Neill as Sidney Reilly, shrewd and opportunistic Russian-born British agent
Hamburg, Germany, Spring 1905
Series: Reilly: Ace of Spies
Episode: “The Visiting Fireman” (Episode 3)
Air Date: September 14, 1983
Director: Martin Campbell
Costume Designer: Elizabeth Waller
In honor of Sam Neill’s 75th birthday this week, I want to revisit one of my favorite roles for the New Zealand actor. Almost a decade before his starring role in the
groundbreaking groundshaking blockbuster Jurassic Park, Neill had been one of the contenders suggested to replace Roger Moore as James Bond, though the actor himself had been reluctant to take what he’s since called a “mortifying” audition and was likely grateful when the role went to Timothy Dalton instead. Neill may have been considered after his excellent performance earlier in the ’80s as Sidney Reilly, a real-life spy whose early 20th century exploits had been cited by Ian Fleming as one of his inspirations for the literary 007. Continue reading
Cary Grant as Walter Eckland, crude and reluctant wartime coast-watcher
Pacific Islands, Spring 1942
Film: Father Goose
Release Date: December 10, 1964
Director: Ralph Nelson
Costume Designer: Ray Aghayan (uncredited)
Last month, I reflected on the elegant white suit that Cary Grant wore at the start of his stylish career in the pre-Code drama Hot Saturday. More than 30 years later, Grant was firmly established as one of the most charming—and enduringly best-dressed—stars of the era, subverting his screen reputation for his penultimate movie, the World War II-set comedy Father Goose opposite Leslie Caron. Continue reading
Charlton Heston as CAPT Matthew Garth, U.S. Naval Aviator
Pearl Harbor to Midway Island, Spring 1942
Release Date: June 18, 1976
Director: Jack Smight
Many familiar with World War II history are familiar with the significance of Monday’s date as, on June 6, 1944, the Allies landed at Normandy in northern France as part of the “D-Day” invasion that laid the groundwork for the eventual Allied victory. Two years earlier, the Americans had been engaged in yet another decisive battle that would turn the tide of the second World War.
The Battle of Midway had commenced 80 years ago today on June 4, 1942, following intelligence gathered by the U.S. Navy that allowed it to prepare for a counterattack against the Imperial Japanese Navy. Three days of battle followed, with American forces destroying all four Japanese fleet carriers that had engaged and—in both a tactical and symbolic victory—had also been part of the six-carrier force that attacked Pearl Harbor six months earlier.
Though the Americans also suffered the loss of a carrier, a destroyer, and approximately 150 aircraft, casualties were considerably higher on the Japanese side (including nearly double the amount of aircraft lost), marking an early turning point of the Pacific War in favor of the Allies and which historian John Keegan has called “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.”
In addition to an 18-minute color documentary directed during the battle by John Ford, the Battle of Midway has been the subject of two major movies, mostly recently in 2019. A star-studded retelling of the battle and its lead-up was produced by The Mirisch Company in 1976, starring—among many others—Henry Fonda as Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet. Having served in the Navy in real life during World War II, Fonda had actually partly narrated Ford’s 1942 documentary and also appeared as an unnamed admiral inspired by Nimitz in the 1965 epic In Harm’s Way.
The cast was rounded out by both established international stars from Robert Mitchum to Toshiro Mifune and relative newcomers like Dabney Coleman, Erik Estrada, and a non-mustached Tom Selleck. Being made just over 30 years after World War II ended meant a number of actual veterans among its cast; in addition to Fonda, Glenn Ford, Charlton Heston, Hal Holbrook, Cliff Robertson, and Robert Webber had all served.
Though most of its characters are real-life figures, Midway centers around a fictionalized hero in the form of naval aviator CAPT Matthew Garth (Heston), for whom the battle presents the culmination of his increasing personal and professional troubles. Continue reading
Tom Hanks as CDR Ernest Krause, USN, commanding officer of USS Keeling
North Atlantic Ocean, February 1942
Release Date: July 10, 2020
Director: Aaron Schneider
Costume Designer: Julie Weiss
Military Costume Consultant: Steve McColgan
…the goods will be delivered by this nation, whose Navy believes in the tradition of “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”
— Franklin Delano Roosevelt, October 27, 1941
Greyhound begins just over three months after the United States entered World War II and nearly five months after FDR’s address for Navy and Total Defense Day, in which he reinforced with the above words the protection that the U.S. Navy would offer merchant ships carrying supplies to support the Allied war effort. The eponymous “Greyhound” is the codename for USS Keeling, one of the American destroyers assigned to protect a 37-ship convoy on its way to Liverpool.
We join up with the multi-national convoy HX-25 as it enters its first of two days traveling through the “Black Pit”, the area of the North Atlantic considered most vulnerable as it was beyond the range of air cover. Leading the convoy’s military escort from the bridge of USS Keeling is straight-laced Commander Ernest Krause, played by Tom Hanks. Continue reading
Bob Hope as Harold Gridley, traveling comedian, “sportsman, raconteur, polo player, and all-around good egg”
South Pacific, Spring 1952
Film: Road to Bali
Release Date: November 19, 1952
Director: Hal Walker
Costume Designer: Edith Head
I always associate summer with Tiki culture, spending sunny days wearing aloha shirts while enjoying tropical cocktails at Polynesian-themed watering holes. To combat a case of the winter blues earlier this year, I hoped to watch a Tiki-themed movie and was given the recommendation of Road to Bali, the only full-color entry of the seven “Road to…” comedies starring Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour, and Bob Hope, the prolific entertainer born on this day in 1903.
Robert Shaw as “Skipper”, RAF Squadron Leader
England, Summer to Fall 1940
Film: Battle of Britain
Release Date: September 15, 1969
Director: Guy Hamilton
Wardrobe Credit: Bert Henrikson
Although the battle was waged for more than three months in 1940 over British airspace, September 15 has been established as Battle of Britain Day in recognition of the No. 11 Group RAF repelling two waves of German attacks on London. The Germans had instigated their air and sea blockade earlier that summer, followed by Luftwaffe air raids that started with ports and shipping centers, eventually moving further inland to airfields, factories, and ultimately civilian areas. Hitler had intended to gain air superiority over England prior to an invasion dubbed Operation Sea Lion, but a strong national defense from the Royal Air Force and the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy successfully routed the Luftwaffe and prevented this full-scale invasion of the United Kingdom.
This British victory was considered an early turning point in favor of the Allies during World War II that inspired Winston Churchill to famously declare: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
On the 29th anniversary of this famous British defense against Germany in the skies over London, the United Artists war epic Battle of Britain with a star-studded cast including Sir Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, Trevor Howard, Christopher Plummer, and Robert Shaw. The latter portrays a talented and brash Squadron Leader, said to be inspired by South African fighter ace Sailor Malan, commander of No. 74 Squadron RAF during the actual Battle of Britain.
Daniel Craig as Tuvia Bielski, Polish resistance leader
Belarus, August 1941 through April 1942
Release Date: December 31, 2008
Director: Edward Zwick
Costume Designer: Jenny Beavan
Daniel Craig’s fifth and final movie as James Bond, No Time to Die, was originally scheduled for release in the U.K. today. Last month, MGM and Eon Productions announced that they were pushing the release to November in response to concerns related to the worldwide COVID-19 outbreak. While the postponement may have defied the wishes of Bond fans (see where I’m going with this?), there’s still plenty of Craig’s filmography out there to stream, including the 2008 war film Defiance.