Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

R.I.P. Robert and Wendy

It seems to me that I don’t spend nearly enough of the space in this weekly missive talking about movies. I always seem to get distracted by other media issues or world events or politics. So, I’m going to make a concerted effort to spend more time discussing movies.

So, here’s a movie question. Do you remember Deanna Durbin? You probably don’t, unless you are “of a certain age” or else a serious movie buff. I mainly know about her because I have a cousin named Deanna, and she got that name because my mother suggested it to her sister-in-law because she was a fan of the young nymph-like film star Durbin. She became a big star in the 1930s (Durbin, not my mother) when she was at a very young age. There was huge media interest in 1939 when Durbin, at the ripe old age of 17, received her first screen kiss in a romantic musical called First Love.

So, here’s the next movie question. Do you know what actor gave the young Durbin (whose promising career ended prematurely when she decided to get married) that first screen kiss? You get ten points if you said, Robert Stack.

Stack, who died on May 14, was best known for two television series, but he also had a long movie career as well. Among his numerous film credits were the hilarious 1942 Jack Benny/Carole Lombard comedy To Be or Not to Be (which would later be remade by Mel Brooks), Eagle Squadron, Bullfighter and the Lady, The High and the Mighty and Is Paris Burning?

The two television series with which he is most associated are, of course, the Desilu crime show The Untouchables, which began in 1959 and ran for five years, and that forerunner to the current plague of reality programming, Unsolved Mysteries, which went on air in 1987. On the latter, he was “the host.” On the former, he played the role with which he will always be most associated, the true-life IRS prohibition officer Eliot Ness. So strong was Stack’s portrayal of Ness that it still overshadows Kevin Costner’s in Brian De Palma’s big-screen adaptation. Indeed, Stack’s portrayal of “the host” on Unsolved Mysteries can rightly be considered a variation, if not an outright reprisal, of his Ness character.

Stack also had a minor end-of-life career as a voice actor in such animated works as The Transformers: The Movie, Disney’s Hercules, Beavis and Butt-head Do America and something on TV called Butt-Ugly Martians. Personally, I’ll always remember him fondly as one of a group of 1950s-era tough guy actors who went on to lampoon their images in a number of spoofs. Most of these converged on the seminal 1980 movie comedy, Airplane! Along with Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges and Leslie Nielsen, he gamely played a thinly veiled version of his own movie persona. The moment where his Capt. Rex Kramer whipped off his dark glasses to reveal another pair of dark glasses was one of the funniest in the film and summed up its irreverent yet affectionate approach to parodying 1950s adventure flicks. He had, less noticeably or effectively, done more or less the same turn the year before in Steven Spielberg’s disastrous comedy 1941.

My guilty secret is that I also remember Stack for a brief role he played on a 1980s prime time soap opera. In 1987 he played Roland Saunders, opposite Jane Wyman, in the saga of a Northern California winery dynasty, Falcon Crest.

Another acting luminary was lost this week. Ninety-year-old Dame Wendy Hiller had a career than spanned the 1930s to the 1990s. Like many classy English actors, she played her share of Shakespeare and other literary adaptations. Well before Julie Andrews or Audrey Hepburn had the role, she was Eliza Doolittle, in the 1938 version of Pygmalion. She was in the Academy award-winner A Man for All Seasons and the all-star Agatha Christie adaptation, Murder on the Orient Express. Many people will likely remember her for playing Mrs. Harris on the television series Anne of Avonlea.

-S.L., 15 May 2003

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