Hello again film fans, for my latest ‘Movie Memories’ article for Lanarkshire Live I am taking a look at a pair of underrated flicks – one starring Cliff Richard and the other produced by Disney – that deserve your attention.
One of the most rewarding aspects of writing my Lanarkshire Live article is the opportunity to review special films that were neither critically acclaimed or commercially successful at the time of their original release.
The 1960s saw a radical change in the production and content of motion pictures. As the decade began, the studio system in which major studios controlled the entire production of films was in its final decline.
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Fewer movies were being made on studio lots and more were being filmed on location. Audiences shift over time under cultural tastes and trends, showing interest in films that accurately reflected their own lives.
However, as the decline of cinema standards marches on, you look back and realise that something special in entertainment with high production values has been overlooked.
Wonderful Life was the third in the series of big technicolour musicals starring Cliff Richard and opened at the Airdrie New Cinema in the summer of 1964. What a treat to see it twice nightly for several nights, plus a Saturday matinee event.
In the hope of repeating the phenomenal success of its predecessors T he Young Ones ( 1961) and S ummer Holiday (1 1963), Wonderful Life was a big-budget musical filmed for more than seven months on location in the city of Las Palmas, Gran Canaria.
Cliff Richard stars as Jonnie, who works as a waiter on a large ferry with his bandmates ( The Shadows ) and his fellow waiter friends (Melvyn Hayes) and (Richard O’Sullivan).
Through a pyrotechnics accident, the entire power cuts off on the ferry, and the group is fired on the spot. Stranded on a tiny boat they float around the Atlantic Ocean until they reach the Canary Islands, where the film director (Walter Slezak) offers Jonnie a job as a stunt double and the rest of the group as runners.
Jonnie falls in love with the director’s daughter Jenny (Susan Hampshire) and the film ends with the premiere of the completed movie in a British cinema.
It features 14 fabulous lively musical numbers and vibrant dance sequences, and a 10-minute spoof on the history of the movies filmed against the picture-postcard beauty of the Canary Islands in Techniscope – a 35mm film process where two frames of picture occupy a single frame of film.
Unfortunately, all of the effort that went into this expensive technicolour production did not pay off; it suffered from a lengthy running time and a nonsensical plot which harmed its potential as a box office hit.
The movie was a disappointment, not only to the producers and the excellent cast, but also for Cliff Richard himself. In his 2020 autobiography The Dreamer, he wrote: “After the success of The Young Ones and Summer Holiday , producer Kenneth Harper and his team were determined to make another film musical vehicle for me.
“So, at the start of 1963, I headed off to the Canary Islands to begin filming Wonderful Life. Summer Holiday director Sid Furie was in place again and a lot of the old gang reconvened for this latest adventure – Richard O’Sullivan, Melvyn Hayes, and the lovely Una Stubbs – but Wonderful Life was ill-fated from the off.
“Film and TV critics say a series that has lost its way has ‘jumped the shark’ and, if I’m honest, that’s what I think Wonderful Life did.
“It was supposed to be about a bunch of kids, on a movie set, secretly making their own film behind the director’s back, but the plot ended up being a little convoluted and not very believable either.
“There were some fun moments. I loved it when I got to impersonate Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx, James Bond and Rudolph Valentino.
“Overall, though, Wonderful Life was probably a film too far in the movie musical series. When it came out, it got worse reviews than The Young Ones and S ummer Holiday’ had, and, thinking back, I’m afraid that it probably deserved them.”
In comparison to what is on offer in contemporary cinema today and, putting its shortcomings aside, W onderful Life is a hugely entertaining movie reminding us that they don’t make them like that anymore.
Fortunately, it is beginning to find a new life and reach a wider audience on DVD. It’s a film that certainly deserves it.
‘The Moon-Spinners’ was Walt Disney’s surprise suspenser – a romantic mystery whodunnit set on the island of Crete.
The 1962 book The Moon-Spinners, by Mary Stewart, was a best-seller inspired by a Greek legend about three sisters who spin the full moon and when it shines and glows on the sea you can see treasures lying far below.
Released in 1964, the Disney version of the story is a fun film and from the very start it’s clear that this is going to be a slam-bang mystery melodrama, with all the stops pulled out.
Hayley Mills plays Nikky Ferris, who arrives with her aunt Frances (Joan Greenwood) at a hotel called The Moon-Spinners .
Stratos (Eli Wallach), the brother of the woman who runs the establishment, is not pleased with the prospect of two strangers staying there and it becomes obvious that something fishy is going on.
The Moon-Spinners was filmed on location in the little village of Elounda and the surrounding countryside in Crete.
In disrepair, and worn to ruin by time and World War II, the village was refurbished from cellar to dome and received, courtesy of Walt Disney Productions, a new hotel and church (still used for worship today) as well as additional roads and communication facilities.
The movie was directed by James Neilson and, taking a page from Hitchcock, Neilson decided to play the story of The Moon-Spinners for all it was worth; and, in many ways, the film is reminiscent of the Hitchcock formula that worked for the master of suspense time and time again.
The Hitchcock-like sequence with Hayley Mills escaping from a windmill by jumping from a window on to one of the blades is masterfully done, with some hair-raising shots from her point of view taken from the air.
The scenery is one of the film’s major assets, with the sea and sky, and coastal landscapes of Crete, providing backgrounds that would almost make anything in front of them look good.
Getting Pola Negri to play the part of Madame Habib was no small coup for the Disney company. The silent-screen star had made her last film in 1943, but her name still spelled glamour and the exotic.
Miss Negri capitulated and in the script she was to have a pet Siamese cat. The star suggested the substitution of a cheetah, which made her scenes all the more fun.
The other main object of attention in The Moon-Spinners was a grown up Hayley Mills. Now 18, it was clear the young actress was ready for more mature roles.
Fortunately age hadn’t diminished Mills’ acting ability or her natural charm; her performance in the movie is excellent.
Although it was only a short time before The Moon-Spinners would be showcased at the Pavilion Cinema in Airdrie in the summer of 1964, I was aware it was showing in Glasgow, so I hopped on the blue train and headed for Scotland’s most luxurious cinema, the Odeon in Renfield Street.
Alas, I hadn’t looked before I leaped; the admission price to the Odeon was far more expensive than the local picture houses and, consequently, I was short of the admission cost.
As I stood fixated on the posters and stills displayed at the cinema entrance, I was approached by the doorman. In those days they wore a smart uniform with the name of the cinema on their hats. After I explained my financial woes, he gave me two shillings and escorted me to my seat.
The Moon-Spinners is a great film and another worthy of a retrospective evaluation.