Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Look What "Happened" to Myrna Loy...

I'm not sure if I have ever, in three and a half years, done a post solely about a made-for-TV movie, but I guess there's a first time for everything (and if I'm being truthful, many better movies to focus on than this one!) For some reason, I was itching to write about this mid-'70s hoot that manages to entertain in spite of itself. It Happened at Lakewood Manor was a 1977 television movie that sought to capitalize on the then-hot trend of nature rebelling against the carelessness and waste of mankind. Later renamed Ants for home video, it assembles an eclectic cast of familiar faces and names.

Many credit the sensational 1975 blockbuster Jaws with spearheading the raft of movies of this type that found their way to cinema and TV screens. However, the year before that, Saul Bass (better known for his striking and innovative credit sequences) directed Phase IV, which dealt with armies of ants rebelling against mankind in the desert. We're on a far smaller scale here as the action takes place in a single day at a careworn lakeside resort.

Lakewood Manor is a generations-old inn, located along the shoreline of a large lake, that is run by wheelchair-bound Myrna Loy and her daughter Lynda Day George. On the day in question, construction is taking place next door as ground is being broken for a new hotel. (It's fairly mind-numbing to imagine staying at Lakewood, trying to enjoy the smallish pool while the endless sound of bulldozers and other heavy equipment rages on ceaselessly!)

One of the construction workers is down inside a gulch (for reasons unknown as a sign clearly says to stay out of there) and becomes covered in ants, swatting away at them furiously. A coworker runs to his aid, but (in an unintentionally amusing moment) another worker topside backs his bulldozer up in a way that causes a collapse of the soil above them, burying them completely! Eventually, after a search for them, they're discovered, barely clinging to life.
They are rushed to the hospital where doctor Stacey Keach Sr (in a blink and you'll miss it performance) informs the head of construction Robert Foxworth that the men are suffering from something he cannot identify and that it is potentially fatal. Foxworth and Casey rush back to the site to see what they can dig up on the matter.
I must also mention that in this telefilm's small, coincidental world, Foxworth and George happen to be a romantic couple! How nice that her boyfriend happens to be working on the construction site right next to her family business so that he can trample into the hotel from time to time and canoodle with her in the men's room!

Meanwhile, real estate developer Gerald Gordon has arrived at Lakewood with his business (and bed!) partner Suzanne Somers. He's interested in buying the resort with the official story that he'll keep it as it is, but with the real intention of razing it and putting up a more modern facility. Since Loy is of two minds about letting go of the family business, even while George begs her to give it up, he has only limited success in securing a deal on the place.
Another story thread concerns lifeguard Barry Van Dyke coming across drifter Karen Lamm, who needs a place to catch a shower, a nap and perhaps more, particularly from him! He smuggles her into his own room at the inn where she can recover from a lengthy, hungry stay on the beach.

Gordon and Somers check in and proceed to change into swimwear, heading to the shoreline rather than the bland, rectangular pool. Gordon has a hilarious exchange with Van Dyke when he is perturbed that Van Dyke is spending more time applying sunscreen to the nomadic Lamm than handing out towels to the patrons of the manor.
As Loy has owned or otherwise worked at the inn for her entire life, some of the returning guests there have grown up before her eyes, including Barbara Brownell and her young son Moosie Drier (yes, that is the actor's name!) 

It is young Drier who, at about a half hour in to the movie, provides the first real belly laugh. As his parents are divorcing and he's afraid they will have no money (even though they're presently staying at a “resort!”), he begins collecting glass soft drink bottles in order to claim the deposit money on them. (Young'ns reading this will have to ask someone older to explain how the old soft drink bottle system worked up until the early-1980s!)

After dropping off some grungy sticky bottles with his mom, who is trying to relax poolside, Drier heads to the dumpster and begins looking through it for more. Naturally, there is an empty glass Coke bottle dead center. He, like virtually every person in this entire movie, has tunnel vision, seeing only what he wants to see within a narrow range while missing the swarming, massing ants that are undulating all over the garbage in the dumpster.

Soon, he is covered in ants and is screaming for his life. He comes barrelling out of the back of the hotel, headed for the swimming pool. He runs frantically into the water as the other guests begin to mill around in concern. (Do note grandpa's little Speedo! Several of the inn's male guests are shown in long shot wearing one.) Foxworth (construction boots and all!) jumps in to save him and an ambulance is called to take him to the hospital.

Aside from Van Dyke's tan torso, I loved the way his little hut had a sign on it that said "NO LIFEGUARD ON DUTY," with a little flap that could be placed over the word "NO" in order to signify that he was there, ready to apply sunscreen and watch construction foremen rescue children in distress.

Another incident comes in the form of clueless, oblivious cook Rene Enriquez, who meanders around the kitchen in sandals (!), slowly, aimlessly preparing some sort of food while swarms of ants come up out of the drain and march onto the floor where they proceed to bite his bare feet! It takes him forever to notice this! Wouldn't YOU? Let me just tell you that I spent fourteen years in the restaurant business and a) no one wears open sandals in the kitchen and b) no one man could casually cook all the food for a resort hotel full of people! Anyway, he is stricken by the little monsters and thus the ambulance is back yet again for the third time in one day!

Now, the health department is called in and we meet Anita Gillette and her cohort Steve Franken. They are alarmed at the number of deaths and near-deaths at Lakewood and proceed to order the place to be evacuated, believing the problem to be a virus of some kind. In Foxworth and Casey's independent investigation (which involved going into the pit where the first two men were felled and shoveling dirt around), they have discovered that ants seem to be the issue. Somehow the ants managed to bite Casey through his thick leather work boots (!), causing temporary paralysis, but Franken will hear none of this. He even puts some of the ants in his hand to prove Foxworth wrong. Also, ridiculously, not even ONE dead ant has been found in the kitchen in the wake of Enriquez' death...
Gillette (who delivers an over-emphatic, sometimes giddily awful performance) is more curious than that, though, and heads to one of her research friends, Bruce French, who shows her a video he happens to have about ant colonies. It seems that ants won't attack unless they are somehow threatened first and also won't attack unless they know that they have the numbers, the ant-power, to win. Thus, Franken's small handful of ants didn't even try to get him.

Foxworth is getting increasingly annoyed at being poo-pooed, however, and in order to prove that the incidents are ant-related preposterously hops on a bulldozer and starts repeatedly pummelling the area in which the first attack happened! He keeps pounding and digging furiously, over and over and over, never once stopping or looking up, as hordes of angry ants then begin migrating en masse to the Lakewood lodge! That's not ivy on the walls, folks, but streams of ants on the move. Note below the incredibly convincing matte work of the encroaching ants!!
Note the haste in which this project was filmed.  As Gordon and Somers embrace in their (quite ugly) suite, you can see the camera cords lying on the carpet in the adjoining room (where an alternate angle is being shot)!  No one noticed that these big black cords were in the frame.  To the casual 1977 viewer using a 23" TV, it might have looked as if snakes were in the hotel, too!

Gordon and Somers are just stirring from a liaison between the sheets when he decides to try one more time to press Loy into selling her beloved establishment. Neither one is aware that the string of deaths and near-deaths has called for an evacuation. As he gets ready (somehow missing the stream of black ants all over the white walls of their room!), Somers languishes on the bed.

Soon after he exits the room, she finds herself covered in the little critters and when she panics and starts brushing them off, they start to bite! Remarkably, it really is Suzanne positively covered with crawling, real ants. Suffering for her art, indeed!

Since her inn is now worth about diddly, Loy is far more open to an offer from Gordon! He lies to her face that she'll always have a place there and that he'll keep its traditions going, not yet aware that it's practically a death trap now.

Once the bulk of the guests have been sent packing, George steps outside to see that the entire back deck is coated in ants! (Hysterically, they have been painted onto the film, very obviously and sloppily.) She gives one of her patented horrified and confused expressions, then darts back inside.

What follows is the scenario of Foxworth, George, Loy, Franken, Van Dyke, Lamm and Gordon being trapped inside Lakewood Manor, which is under siege by the irate any colony, while Casey, Gillette and newly arrived fire chief Brian Dennehy work outside to contain the ants and rescue the folks who are stuck.

Franken darts out on to the deck before anyone can stop him and feels the need to run his hand all the way down the railing of the steps, thus filling it with agitated ants (once again, had he merely looked down at any point before even reaching the steps, any immediate crisis would have been averted...) He then pendulums to the other rail (!) and is bitten repeatedly and falls to his doom. Did I mention that these ants have been subsisting in pollution-contaminated soil for so long that they now emit poison when they bite? A couple here and there are okay, but more than fifty and the victim has had it.
The remaining clatch of survivors is forced to climb up and up into the building, pouring kerosene all the way in an attempt to ward off the colony. They also have to keep lugging Loy's wheelchair up the stairs!  Foxworth, Gordon and Van Dyke really did have to hike Loy and her wheelchair up these steep steps in take after take, so I'm certain they were grateful that neither Kathryn Grayson, Esther Williams or, God forbid, Shelley Winters, were cast in the part!
A firetruck arrives and sends out a huge, expanding ladder to one of the windows and, after some degree of fretting, Lamm attempts to board it. Thing is, the dopey fireman on the tip of it barely makes any effort at all to help her out of the window or to get her securely to the ladder, so she falls, dangling over the ant-covered premises, while he holds her hand! The Einstein-like driver of the truck then, instead of swinging her around to safety and letting her down, opts to raise the ladder to it's ultimate highest height!! She then has to climb all the way down from the top of it...
For whatever reason, they don't even try this again. The stragglers are forced to go up to the top floor of the inn (to the “balcony room,” which has a fortunate opening to the sky.) A rescue helicopter then comes and lowers a basket for them to lob Loy into. They chuck her into the basket and then as the copter is pulling away, the basket gets caught on some of the Tudor-style woodwork and threatens to overturn!

Van Dyke flails forward to free her from being upturned into the ant morass below, but in doing so jettisons himself over the balcony onto a fabric awning that is remarkably free of ants! (Ants have an aversion to lemon-yellow and white candy stripes or what??) As he lays there rather helplessly, Casey gets the idea to go and fetch him from the awning with a wheel loader. Van Dyke does at least shimmy to the edge of the awning so that he can plop down into the jaw of the contraption.

Here comes another hilarious part of the movie. The helicopter carrying Loy goes to land and manages to kick up a gargantuan dust storm that blows thousands of ants onto a gaggle on onlookers who have been gathering behind a police line! As the crowd of rubberneckers (extras who happened to live in the area in which this was filmed) scream, swat and shimmy around, Dennehy has his men turn the firehoses on them all! It is so funny to watch these "talented" extras pretend to swat away the killer ants while being pelted with, first, dust, and then water.

Now it's just Foxworth, Gordon and George left in the inn, with the ants continuing to migrate towards them. Dennehy, at Gillette and French's urging, has been building a moat around the inn to be filled with gasoline in order to contain the ants. This effectively cuts off most rescue attempts, too, but they plan to send a couple of men into the building wearing special suits to rescue the trio. Trouble is, the suits “aren't here yet!”

So, get this, the three remaining survivors are told that they must hold perfectly still and not even BREATHE on the ants until help can arrive. Foxworth rips down a piece of wallpaper and makes breathing tubes for them all. They sit back to back to back with these makeshift tubes in their mouths (which resemble a New Year's Eve party gone horribly wrong) and allow hundreds of ants to climb up their legs, all over their bodies and onto their faces!!
A true and heartfelt shout-out must go to these actors who REALLY DID allow a bunch of ants to crawl all over them for this movie. I do mean ALL OVER them... I hope (but sort of doubt) that they were well paid for their pains.
Again, George delivers one of her doozy facial expressions and has a right eye that seems hell bent on giving its own individual performance.
Only two of the folks end up making it and it shouldn't be too hard to figure out which two. We are never shown how the rescue workers manage to clear all the ants away and dress the two survivors in these space-age suits, but we presume that they bug spray they were toting in massive quantities somehow made it easier. These shots are still from Lakewood and not a Cheech & Chong movie...

Robert Foxworth and Lynda Day George were the stars of It Happened at Lakewood Manor, but by the time the movie aired on ABC, Suzanne Somers (whose role was more of an extended cameo) was suddenly top-billed as the star in the ads! The reason is because in that window of time between shooting and airing, Somers' new sitcom, Three's Company, had become an instant success and Somers (third-billed behind John Ritter and Joyce DeWitt on the show) was a breakout personality.

Still later when the movie was released on home video, a busty, ant-covered photo of Somers (which reveals more than what is seen in the actual movie, or at least allows us to linger on it longer - should we want to!) dominated the cover of the box. Again, she is given top-billing. I imagine that more than a few ants gave their lives in order to make this picture (it would seem inescapable?), but what a way to go...

The back cover features her as well, but at least also gives the actual star Lynda Day George her due in the description as well as in two photos, though the text incorrectly states that Somers is married to Gordon in the story. (Note how it also manages to incorporate the phrase “towering inferno” into the plot description, trying to build off of 1974's The Towering Inferno's success, though nothing at all like that occurs in the movie!)

The actual location which served as Lakewood Manor was Qualicum College, a private boys school building built in British Columbia in 1937. Always a small, select school of seventy students or less, it nonetheless thrived for several decades. By the time the 1970s rolled in, the operating cost of the college paired with a decline in enrollment led to the closing of its doors. The property was then transformed into Qualicum College Inn, which is how it stayed until 2007. The construction that takes place next to the building in It Happened at Lakewood Manor was actually real groundbreaking for additions that were made to the site as it expanded from a school to an inn. The “lake” of the title was in truth the shoreline of The Strait of Georgia.

Foxworth was a stage actor whose starring role on the 1970 TV series Men at Law and in The Crucible on Broadway helped to build his reputation. A frequent TV presence in the '70s, by 1976, he'd landed a starring role in the Disney film Treasure of Matecumbe, but more often found himself cast as schmucks in movies like Airport '77 (1977, as a duplicitous co-pilot) and Damien: Omen II (1978, as one of Satan's modern day minions.)

He famously turned down the role of J.R. Ewing on Dallas in 1978, but in 1981 took the earnest role of Chase Gioberti on Falcon Crest, staying for six seasons and facing the formidable Jane Wyman week in and week out. He was also the longtime companion (and then husband prior to her untimely death) of Bewitched's Elizabeth Montgomery. Now seventy-one, he has begun to slow down what was a steady TV career.

Day George was a busy TV and sometime film actress from the early-'60s on. In 1971, she became one of the more successful (of several) replacements for Barbara Bain on Mission: Impossible, even earning an Emmy nomination as well as a Golden Globe nomination (losing, respectively, to Patricia Neal for The Waltons, before guest stars got their own category, and Michael Learned, also of The Waltons.)

The George part was added to her name when she married Christopher George in 1970 following their work in the John Wayne movie Chisum. They often worked in tandem after that, sometimes in projects that were less than prestigious such as 1982's Pieces. Her zestful line readings from that opus have a somewhat viral following. The same year as Lakewood, she and her husband starred in Day of the Animals about a group of hikers besieged by ravenous wildlife. In the wake of Christopher's untimely death in 1983, George was crestfallen and hardly acted again, though in 1990 she did remarry (and was widowed for a second time in 2010!) She is currently sixty-eight.

Gordon had been working since the late-'50s on television and excelled at playing hard-edged, often shady types. In 1973, he had portrayed a racist criminal ringleader in Hell Up in Harlem and then two years later won a Daytime Emmy for his work as Andrew Jackson in First Ladies Diaries: Rachel Jackson. He continued to act on TV and in movies until the early-'90s before passing away of emphysema in 2001 at age sixty-seven.

Casey was one of many pro football players (playing for the 49ers and the Rams between 1961 and 1968) who later turned to acting. He worked in several Blaxploitation movies like Black Gunn (1972) and Cleopatra Jones (1973) and had a featured role in David Bowie's The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976.) After Lakewood, he continued to stay busy on TV and the occasional movie like Sharkey's Machine (1981) with Burt Reynolds and the James Bond redux Never Say Never Again with Sean Connery in 1983. He also appeared in 1984's Revenge of the Nerds and a couple of its sequels. Retiring in the mid-2000s, he is now seventy-three.

Best known for his long-running stint along side his father Dick on Diagnosis Murder (1993 – 2002), Van Dyke had begun his acting career with his dad way back in 1962 with a guest appearance on The Dick Van Dyke Show. He appeared six times on The New Dick Van Dyke Show as well. He later costarred on the short-lived The Van Dyke Show in 1988! As recently as 2007, the two were working on Murder 101 TV-movies together. Apart from all this work with his father, he also costarred in Galactica 1980 among other TV projects. Now sixty-one, he's been married to his wife Mary since 1974 and they have three sons and a daughter.
Lamm, whose acting career only lasted about a decade from 1973 to 1984, may be of interest to music fans as she was the wife of the band Chicago's singer & keyboardist Robert Lamm from 1971 -1972 and then twice married (and twice divorced!) The Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson between 1976 and 1980. She died of heart failure at only age forty-nine in 2001.

Loy, a shining star from the golden age of Hollywood, had begun in silent pictures in 1925. Her movies include The Thin Man (1934) and its sequels, The Great Ziegfeld (1936), The Rains Came (1939), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) and Cheaper By the Dozen (1950.) She'd popped up in Airport 1975 (1974) a few years before this. Billed here in a “special appearance,” she actually has quite a few scenes and lines.
Thankfully, this was not her final bit of work as she went on to do The End (1978) with Burt Reynolds, Just Tell Me What You Want (1980) and the TV-movie Summer Solstice with Henry Fonda as well as an episode of Tony Randall's show Love, Sidney in 1982. Even more thankfully, she was granted an Honorary Oscar in 1991 for her incredible body of work, having never once been nominated in all the years previously! She died two years later during surgery at age eighty-eight.

Gillette had been a Broadway musical performer since the late-'50s in shows like Carnival!, Mr. President, Guys and Dolls and Cabaret (in which she was a replacement Sally Bowles.) She'd also done a couple of short-lived TV shows like Me & the Chimp (1972) and Bob & Carol & Red & Alice (1973), which was a toothless off-shoot from the hit film. After Lakewood, she returned to Broadway for a Tony nomination in Chapter Two (losing to Jessica Tandy in The Gin Game.) Working ever since in character parts on stage, TV and in the movies, she is currently seventy-six.

The distinctively unusual-looking Franken had been in the biz since the late-'50s, notably in a recurring part on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959 – 1963) and as a tipsy waiter in the Peter Sellers farce The Party (1968) among many other roles.  The year after Lakewood, he played Jeanette Nolan's hapless assistant in the cheap disaster spectacle Avalanche, which starred Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow. Franken continued to work right up until his death from cancer last year at age eighty.

When Dennehy came onto the scene in 1977, he wasn't messing around. Lakewood is only one of TWELVE movie and TV appearances he made in a single year. Soon, the burly actor was winning acclaim in all sorts of parts, progressively becoming more and more respected as an actor.

He was nominated for six Emmys in the miniseries/movie categories for A Killing in a Small Town (1990), The Burden of Proof and To Catch a Killer (both 1992, one supporting and one lead), Murder in the Heartland (1993), Death of a Salesman (2000) and Our Fathers (2005.) The awards went, in order, to Vincent Gardenia in Age-Old Friends, Beau Bridges in Without Warning: The James Brady Story, Hume Cronyn in Broadway Bound, Beau Bridges in The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, Jack Lemmon in Tuesdays with Morrie and Paul Newman in Empire Falls. His role in Salesman did net him a Golden Globe and a SAG Award, however. He also has two Tonys, one for Long Day's Journey into Night and another for Death of a Salesman. Now seventy-four, he continues to work in various mediums.

Keach had enjoyed a long career before this and would continue in the same vein almost until his death of heart failure in 2003 at age eighty-eight. His last role was on son Stacy's Mike Hammer: Private Eye series. French went on to a lengthy career as a character actor on many TV shows and bit roles in movies such as Mission: Impossible III (2006.) He is currently sixty-seven. Enriquez scored a role on the hit show Hill St. Blues from 1981 – 1987, but, sadly, died of cancer in 1990 at only age fifty-six. Drier was actually a veteran at thirteen by the time of Lakewood, having begun acting at age seven. He had a recurring part on The Bob Newhart Show and was featured in the massive 1977 hit Oh, God! with George Burns. His appearances became more sporadic as an adult. He is now forty-eight.

Lastly, we come to Somers (who gets that special “and Suzanne Somers as Gloria” type of prestige billing here.) Prior to this telefilm, Somers had played a variety of bit roles, mostly non-speaking, in movies like Bullit (1968), Magnum Force (1973) and Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977.) Her chief claim to fame was as a seductive blonde in 1973's American Graffiti, a small part that paid off for her when the movie was a runaway success.

As mentioned earlier, Three's Company was a big hit as Lakewood was aired and Somers became a household name. An attempt in 1981 to wring (much) more money out of the show's producers, though, resulted in her being slowly chiseled right out of the show entirely and led to a long period of television ostracism. A Las Vegas act allowed her to continue to work and she also promoted the Thighmaster exercise device, to many folks' amusement. She forged a comeback in 1985 with the miniseries Hollywood Wives and then the syndicated sitcom She's the Sheriff (1987 – 1989.) A more solid success was the later sitcom Step by Step, in which she costarred with Patrick Duffy from 1991 to 1998. Never too far from controversy (including an experimental breast cancer treatment), she hasn't acted since the late-'90s, but has written many books, has a radio program and turned up briefly on a recent installment of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. She is sixty-six.

You may never see this movie on TV, even satellite TV with its dozens and dozens of stations, but the DVD (retitled Ants) provides a startlingly clear picture if you should be inclined enough to sit through it. We all know I eat up all-star projects, even when the stars are as mid-level as most of these are! I also LOVE vintage TV-movies and can never understand why there isn't a channel that plays them in their pristine glory for a new generation to enjoy. Occasionally, one will pop up (the Valerie Harper hoot Night Drive, also from 1977, comes to mind), but they're all too rare in my opinion!

Oh, and lest I forget, this was actually screened in many foreign countries as a feature film! The artwork on this Mexican (?) lobby card not only includes illustrated images that have nothing whatsoever to do with the movie, but also contain sexual semi-nudity that could only result in abject disappointment to anyone who entered the movie theater expecting anything remotely close to this! Only ant-covered Moosie is accurately rendered in drawing and photography...


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