Tag Archives: Cloris Leachman

North Avenue Irregulars (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Church ladies battle mobsters.

Reverend Michael Hill (Edward Herrmann) becomes the new pastor at the North Avenue Presbyterian Church, but right away things get off to a rocky start when the church’s funds get gambled away on a horse race. When Hill tries to retrieve the money he finds out that it is an illegal gambling joint run behind a dry cleaning business, who are always able to skillfully remove their presence before the police arrive. Hill goes on TV to lambaste organized crime in their town, which catches the attention of two treasury agents (Michael Constantine, Steve Franken) who want Hill to help them close down the gambling joints by having him hire men from his church to place bets at the parlors, but all of the men refuse. Hill then asks for the help of the church women who agree to do it and after some initial setbacks begin to make headway in taking down the area mobsters.

Usually I always say it’s important for films that are aimed for a young audience to have children playing the protagonist, but in this case the children characters have only small supporting roles and yet the film still manages to deliver the laughs. The main reason is the talented female cast who have distinctive personalities and convey comic form in different ways. Cloris Leachman is amusing as the middle-aged cougar with long finger nails, Virginia Capers is quite funny too as a heavy-set woman who doesn’t allow her big build to stop her from running several blocks in order to tail the bad guys and the variety of vehicles she drives with funny phrases painted on their windshields, which are all from her husband’s used car dealership, are humorous too. Barbara Harris as a suburban mother who chases the mobsters while driving in a station wagon packed full of kids in it is great too.

What may be surprising to many is that it’s all based on true events that occurred to Revenrend Albert Fay Hill when he took over as the minister at the North Avenue Presbyterian Church in New Rochelle, NY in 1961. It was there that he became a crusader against organized crime after the murder of a young man for not repaying his gambling debts. Like in the movie his fight gained the attention of US Treasury agents who wanted him to get his male parishioners to place bets with the mobsters, but the men all refused so he recruited their wives whose efforts managed to shut down several gambling houses, which lead to a front page write-up in The New York Times as well as Look magazine.

Of course the movie exaggerates things for comic effect, but it’s forgiven because the stunts are quite funny, which culminates in a massive car pile-up consisting of the demolition of 14 cars at the cost of $155,000. The scene involving the church getting blown up is amusing too because behind-the-scenes when it was first done the cinematographer forgot to put film in the camera forcing the crew to painstakingly rebuild the church just so they could try to do it all over again.

The film’s only weak element is Herrmann whose performance is certainly sincere and likable, but he’s never funny while Constantine is hilarious as the exasperated agent who has a virtual nervous breakdown dealing with the women and for that reason the film would’ve been more engaging had he been the lead character. I was also confused why the Reverend was  a single parent as there’s no explanation I could remember for what happened to the wife. In the book that this film is based, and in the true-life incident, the minster was married, so why was it decided that he should be single here? I got the idea it was because they wanted to create a romance between he and his secretary played by Susan Clark, but since nothing much comes from that it seemed unnecessary.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: February 9, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 40 Minutes

Rated G

Director: Bruce Bilson

Studio: Buena Vista

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Happy Mother’s Day, Love George (1973)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Searching for his father.

Johnny (Ron Howard) is a young man who arrives in a small seaside town searching for the identity of his parents. After speaking with the various eccentric personalities that live there he come to the determination that a waitress at a local cafe named Ronda (Cloris Leachman) is his mother, but she refuses to divulge who the father is and he begins to suspect that the secret may lie in the strained relationship that she has with her sister Cara (Patricia Neal).

It’s hard to tell what motivates people to take on certain projects. Darren McGavin had a great career in front of the camera, but this remains outside of a few TV episodes that he did, his only foray as a director. Yet it means little as the story is quite pedestrian and moves at a slow pace making it seem more like a drama and it takes until the third act before there are any chills at all.

The on-location shooting, which was done in the seaside towns of Mahone Bay and Lunenburg that are both situated in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, is quite scenic and it almost seemed like McGavin and his crew had access to the entire town as the camera follows Howard walking up and down the residential streets while homeowners stare out their windows at him at each house that he passes. If this was a film specializing in the New England vibe it would be a success, but as a horror film the plot progresses too slowly and by the time the mystery finally gets answered you really don’t care  anymore.

The eclectic cast is interesting and really the only reason to watch it. Bobby Darin, in his last film, shows great potential as a feisty short-order cook, but his screen time is painfully limited. Neal gets in a few snarky remarks, but not much else and Leachman essentially channels the same character that she played in The Last Picture Show.

The one that gets the showiest part is Tessa Dahl who was Neal’s daughter in real-life and looks almost exactly like her to the point that I initially thought she was Neal at first. Her British accent helps add some flair as does her knife-wielding finish. Even more ironic is the fact that she has grown in recent years to suffer serious mental health issues much like her character.

As a novelty this film, which was reissued as Run Stranger Run, might be worth checking out just to see Opie with dark brown hair instead of his trademark red, but as a horror flick it lacks punch and has very little scares.

Alternate Title: Run Stranger Run

Released: August 17, 1973

Runtime: 1 Hour 30 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Darren McGavin

Studio: Cinema 5 Distributing

Available: VHS

Foolin’ Around (1980)

foolin around 2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Redneck falls for hottie.

Wes (Gary Busey) is a college student who has moved from Oklahoma to Minnesota to attend the university. Desperate for some extra cash he takes part in a program run by the student science department where he gets strapped to a chair and given an electrical shock every time he gives a ‘right’ answer. The procedure is facilitated by Susan (Annette O’Toole) who’s an attractive coed there. Wes is immediately smitten, but finds himself in an uphill battle as she is already engaged to Whitley (John Calvin) an obnoxious stuck-up social climbing man whose equally arrogant mother (Cloris Leachman) wants her to have nothing to do with Wes and tries to completely shut him out of her life.

Although far from a critic darling this obscurity still manages to have a few funny scenes. The best are Wes’s encounters with Whitley particularly when Whitley tries parking his car in wet cement or trying to subdue an out-of-control carpet cleaner in his office. Wes’s conversation with Susan’s grandfather (Eddie Albert) high up on the edge of a skyscraper under construction is nerve-wracking particularly when Albert walks out to the end of a beam hundreds of feet up and then challenges Busey to do the same. The film also has a unique car chase that features an automobile made to look like a giant hot dog as well as a hang gliding segment through the Minneapolis skyline that is downright exhilarating.

Busey does well as an amiable doofus in a part that seems best suited for his acting ability. O’Toole is at the peak of her beauty and Leachman manages to get a few choice moments as the meddling mother. Tony Randall is fun as a snooty butler with a French accent and it’s great to see William H. Macy in an early, but brief part near the beginning.

The on-location shooting done in the state of Minnesota adds some verve particularly the segment done on the sidelines of an actual Vikings-Rams football game. Unfortunately the script is threadbare with certain gags that become labored and lame and a romantic angle that is sappy and contrived. It is also hard to believe that Susan would for even a remote second consider marrying the Whitley character who is a one-dimensional arrogant asshole to the extreme. It is even more absurd that she would fall in-love with Wes as she is clearly out of his league both physically and intellectually and it’s about as farfetched as Busey ever one day winning the Academy Award.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: October 17, 1980

Runtime: 1Hour 40Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Richard T. Heffron

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS

Scavenger Hunt (1979)

scavenger hunt 3

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Mad dash for money.

When rich toy inventor Milton Parker (Vincent Price) dies all of his relatives gather for a reading of his will hoping to get a giant share of his 200 million dollar estate. There’s his greedy sister Mildred (Cloris Leachman) along with her child-like grown son Georgie (Richard Masur) and shyster lawyer Stuart (Richard Benjamin) his servants (Cleavon Little, Roddy McDowell, James Coco, Stephanie Faracy) a dimwitted cab driver (Richard Mulligan), his nephews Kenny (Dirk Benedict) and Jeff (Willie Aames) as well as his son-in-law Henry (Tony Randall) and his four children.  At the reading they are given a list of items each having a certain point total and told that whoever can collect the most items by the end of the day will be given the inheritance. Everyone then splits off into five teams and scours the city of San Diego looking to collect everything from a fat person, to a toilet and even an ostrich.

The natural inclination would be to write this movie off as being lame right from the beginning as the characterizations are quite broad, the action very cartoonish and the humor at an almost kiddie level, but farce/slapstick is a legitimate movie genre, so lambasting it simply for being silly isn’t really fair. Yes, you will have to park your intellect at the door to enjoy this one, but I found myself laughing more than I thought and it is great mindless escapism for the whole family without ever being crude or offensive. It also has Cloris Leachman who adds to her already legendary and eclectic resume by playing another extreme character and flying with it.

The film has a few hilarious bits including the servants stealing a toilet inside the bathroom of a post hotel and then later on while in a science lab getting attacked by a ‘giant soufflé’. Benjamin’s confrontation with an angry gang of bikers led by Meat Loaf is pretty good and the wild car chase that ensues at the end isn’t bad either. The film successfully interweaves moments of cynical humor as well, which helps make it more agreeable to older teens and adults.

There are also a myriad of famous faces in bit parts that are funnier than the main cast. I loved Ruth Gordon as a tough talking old lady and Robert Morley as the lawyer heading the estate whose facial expression when Leachman hugs him is a gem. Henry Polic II appears as a motorcycle cop who comes into contact with laughing gas and then loses his uniform and there is Arnold Schwarzenegger as an overzealous fitness instructor. I also really liked Scatman Crothers who appears for a while as Mulligan’s partner and then disappears only to come back in a pivotal part at the very end and even sings over the closing credits.

The only thing that really got on my nerves was Richard Masur as the overgrown man-child named Georgie. Acting wise he does it pretty well, but there is never any explanation why a grown man would be acting so infantile. Was he mentally challenged, or just mentally ill? It is never explained, but comes off more as creepy than funny. I also didn’t like Faracy initially as the dumb French maid, but she grew on me and eventually I came to adore her especially when she tells off Coco. Randall, as a beleaguered father is pretty much wasted, but I did like Julie Ann Haddock as his oldest daughter who later went on to play Cindy Webster on the first three seasons of ‘Facts of Life’.

African American director Michael Schultz shows quite the flair for variety. He started his career doing black-themed films like the classic Cooley High and Car Wash only to turn around and direct the Bee Gees in Sergeant. Pepper’s Lonely Club Hearts Band and then this one, which is in every way diametrically different from his earlier work, but still an accomplishment for his ability to take on such varying works and genuinely be successful at them.

Filmed entirely on-location in San Diego this film can be great fun for kids of all ages even those that are over 40.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: December 21, 1979

Runtime: 1Hour 55Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Michael Schultz

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: VHS, YouTube