Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Grand Prix

I was thinking about watching and writing about every movie I can find that has an intermission, but after watching Grand Prix (1966) via DVD, I decided that I really only want to do this if I can get a chance to see the movies at a theater. And particularly if the movie is widescreen, and otherwise really benefits from a big screen and a theater around it.

But seeing how I watched this movie and have some stills that are interesting, I'm going to briefly consider it here. Directed by John Frankenheimer, Grand Prix came out in 1966. That's when I saw it at a theater, though I don't recall at that time if it started with an overture. I do remember the title credits and opening, which is as spectacular as any movie I can think of, with a combination of documentary style and split screen, multiple screens, and then seriously loud engine noises leading up to the the Grand Prix of Monaco.

Within minutes we get the background for the whole movie, the backgrounds for the characters—at least the drivers—and it happens as we watch the race—which is to this day my favorite auto racing depiction in a movie. On-board cameras, aerial shots, great editing—besides being exhilarating, it's easy to know exactly what is going on—leading up to a tragic accident that is truly horrifying.

The movie then follows the drivers through a Formula One season, with interconnecting dramas, intrigue, and romance. Unfortunately, it's all a bit overwrought and over-explained, and you're eventually just hoping for more action like the first scene. Not crashes, death, and destruction, necessarily, but the conciseness. But it's not concise. It is, I'm afraid, in some parts, boring.

As a side note, I have a vinyl copy of the soundtrack album which is pretty easy to find; they must have made a ton of them. It opens up, has a page inside with a lot of interesting notes and great pictures. Unfortunately, the score itself is pretty uninspired, particularly the main theme. I can't listen to it.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Born Losers

When I was growing up I was decidedly not a fan of the immensely popular Billy Jack movies—Billy Jack (1971), the much more somber titled The Trial of Billy Jack (1974), and really scary sounding Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977)—which struck me as kind of the Rocky of vigilante movies (even though Rocky came later)—after seeing Billy Jack at the theater, turned off by its moralizing and desire to be loved, as I, probably wrongly, recall now. What I didn’t realize at the time was that The Trial of Billy Jack was pioneering in its “blockbuster” approach to the film release, and this no doubt was something I was reacting against, as with Jaws, the following year, and every blockbuster since. Had I found out more about Tom Laughlin I might have warmed up to him, because if you read about everything he’s done and been involved in, he’s a pretty “out-there” character (Jungian psychology, serious Presidential candidate, celiac disease). And it wasn’t until later, on TV, that I saw The Born Losers (1967) at which time I realized it was actually the first Billy Jack film. At the time I saw it, probably repeatedly on late night TV during the Seventies, I became a fan. It’s one of those movies that’s all over the place, but never boring. In the years since I haven’t been able to see it or even find it, but recently I saw it on TV, riddled with commercials and editing, but still it surprised me with its bold weirdness.

 Not a special effect - shaky camera.

Apparently Laughlin wrote the Billy Jack script earlier and couldn’t get it made, so The Born Losers was an exploitation approach, as the "Outlaw Biker" film had become quite popular. It turns out, then, to be one of the more interesting of the era’s Outlaw Biker movies, as it’s part that, part Walking Tall/Death Wish, part Kung Fu. Billy Jack is a likable character and doesn’t yet have on his iconic black hat with the beaded Native American band, but just a simple ranch worker’s hat. He looks like a regular guy, a camper, or fisherman, driving around in his jeep. Apparently he used to work breaking horses, and so you might imagine him as Montgomery Clift’s character in The Misfits—and like that character (who is OK when up in the highlands with the horses, but is a mess when around people and alcohol)—Billy Jack gets in trouble, as well, down in the lowlands with folks. Anyway, you get the sense that he’s okay with being by himself, maybe a guy who gets no more pleasure than from waking up outdoors and making a cup of coffee over an open fire. But then he keeps running into this biker gang who are terrorizing the good people of this small California town. It’s kind of like a big high school, an enclosed society none of them can escape from and they’re all crossing paths constantly. The bikers seem to know Billy Jack, too, as they derisively call him “Indian,” which isn’t obvious by his appearance (he’s apparently half Native American, half Green Beret Vietnam veteran). So, like a high school, there’s the popular kids, and the outcasts and loners (Billy Jack) and the bullies… represented by this outlaw biker gang called “Born to Lose.”

 Billy Jack just wants to enjoy a cup of Joe, but there is always someone provoking him.

When I was a kid we did not fear “terrorists” the way the kids of today are taught to—though contrary to what you might think we were aware of terrorists… they weren’t invented on September 11, 2001. But we did feel distant from them, with the exception possibly being the airline hijackers and the Manson Family. Besides the likely nuclear annihilation at the hands of the Russians (which was more like an inevitable but distant reality, like death itself) the major domestic terror was that of the outlaw bikers who traveled in large numbers, were out there, but also, occasionally, came to our town. My friends and I, on our bikes, down at our pizza place out by the state highway, once had the fortune of seeing a huge gang of more than a hundred bikers on Harleys come through town, stop at the convenience store and gas up. I don’t recall being afraid at all, but more fascinated by the spectacle. The movies I’d constantly see on TV, though, were about being terrorized by the bikers. Usually a suburban family would be traveling in rural California—husband, wife, a few kids in a station wagon. They’d have an initial run-in with the bikers on the road, and then later, confrontations again and again, as if they were the neighbors from Hell. Somehow the husband and wife would get separated, the wife nearly sexually assaulted—though there was always the glimmer of the idea that the wife might be attracted to the bikers. Later, things would improbably ratchet up to a life and death struggle, and the man of the family would be tested, forced to prove his manhood by protecting his family—but also revealing an unwanted hidden killer under his buttoned-down exterior.  It seemed like one movie after another followed the formula. This combination of disturbing, mixed messages always left a confused and unpleasant taste in my mouth.

The Born Losers was a breath of fresh air in this regard—in that the hero wasn't some suburban dad. The bikers were terrorizing the straight people—who were all assholes, anyway. The gang, Born To Lose, were just downright evil, appropriating and raping women and making them into their “mamas”—who where pretty much sex slaves who also had to cook, clean, and do laundry. The idea that some of the local girls would want this fate is right on the surface, as their home lives are depicted as miserable, and even abusive, pushing the unwise girls from the frying pan into the fire. The bikers, then, of course, immediately reveal themselves to be very bad people, and if one of the girls they have raped tries to testify against them, they are further terrorized into silence. The police are no help at all. This lovely little California town, then, is depicted as a place with no law and order, where terror and fear rule absolutely.

 Daniel with a can of "Bush" - a veiled political statement, perhaps?

Of course, in comes Billy Jack, a man who would be happy out in the woods away from people (though has to come into town to get screwed by the bank)—but maybe there is a side of him that needs people, too, even if it’s in conflict. On one hand you could say he has the basic human need of finding some fulfillment by helping people; on the other hand, you could say he needs some very bad human beings to practice his “Hapkido” on. After all, you can’t hapkido a horse. Is he looking for love, for sex? It’s not on the surface, but you’ve got to think—like every man alive—he holds the fantasy of saving a hot lady from a bad situation and then having her fall in love with him. Though you also get the sense that he’s not interested. Maybe it’s because Tom Laughlin, according to info available on the internet, has been married to the same woman since 1954 (Delores Taylor—who co-produced, co-wrote, and acted in his, or should we say, their, films). Billy Jack, who is of course an extension of Laughlin, may just be one of the last of the faithful men.

 Vicky Barrington - a one woman outlaw biker gang.

This whole thing might sound like a bit of a drag, but the reason it isn’t is because of real focus of this movie, a character named Vicky who arrives riding a white Triumph while wearing a white bikini. She is played by an actress named Elizabeth James who may have had the good sense to quit while she was ahead—this is pretty much her sole film appearance. You can’t find much out about her—and you can feel what it must have been like for all the young men who became obsessed with her after this movie appeared. One thing my sources do tell me is that she was either the screenwriter, or shared screenwriting credits with Laughlin (both under pseudonyms, for some reason). Is this her movie as much as Tom Laughlin’s? As far as what’s on the screen, it is. She is fascinating, the kind of actress you feel like might be the worst actress of all time, but then again, what she’s doing is not acting so much a performing, and she is certainly entertaining and weird. She kind of reminds me of the Sandra Bernhard character in King of Comedy. In her first run-in with the bikers, she masks her fear by being more aggressive than they are, asking, “Whose got the acid?” It’s not coincidental that she also rides a motorcycle, and she has very similar white framed sunglasses to the leader of the biker gang, Daniel, who seems to be thrown off his game by her. The other women in the movie who are victims of the bikers are shown having unhappy home lives, but Vicky just has a dad who was supposed to show up and didn't. It’s almost like there is something otherworldly about her, like she might be a visitor from the spirit world. There is something in this movie going on just beneath the surface—it has to do with the relationship between Billy Jack, Vicky, and Daniel—who is doomed right from the beginning. Maybe all three are doomed. It’s never explained, maybe never fully formed, (maybe edited out for TV), but it’s there, which is what makes this movie so fascinating.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Girl Can't Help It

A year before making his masterpiece, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? in 1957, director Frank Tashlin fashioned what could be seen as a companion piece for that movie: self-referential jokes and comments about the changing world of media and entertainment; corny "introductions" as the set up; Jayne Mansfield. The Girl Can't Help It (1956) is a musical comedy with a sex symbol star and a lot of up-and-coming rock'n'roll acts—with a big budget, widescreen format, and vivid color—but it also served as a vehicle for Frank Tashlin to experiment and innovate—though he might argue it was all about entertaining, which it certainly is. As a musical, it showcases entire songs by quite a few performers. In 1956, rock'n'roll was undeniable, but also still seen as a fad—that many predicted, and hoped, would soon go away, as soon as the kids "grew out of it." But in the meantime, they were buying movie tickets. I have no idea how these bands were chosen. Some of them are obscure enough that it's the only time I've heard them (but if you're a fan, this is your movie!), but others have become cornerstones: The Platters, Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, and Little Richard (who performs the title song).

Little Richard leaps off the screen and threatens to change your life. 

I'm guessing The Platters were a big draw for this movie, with the hit songs they were registering, and I'm wondering how audiences took to the rockabilly acts who even now strike me as extreme. But for me, the best reason to watch this as a musical showcase is Little Richard, a performer so out there that if he were to originate right now, he'd have a very difficult road to any kind of mass market success. You've got to think the young audience of the mid-1950s was hungry for a lot more than the latest handheld, brain-deadening, time wasting pacifier. I can imagine any number of white, middle-class kids seeing this movie and it influencing them to alter their classical studies for jazz, think about moving from the suburbs to the city, possibly coming out of the closet, and doing everything in their power to become black. Apparently both John Lennon and Paul McCartney were profoundly influenced by this movie, and might still be merely performing drunken English pub standards in backwoods English towns without it.

With all the songs in the movie you'd think it has no story, but on the contrary, it has an extremely involved plot that becomes so complex, with so many twists and turns, that even after several viewings I can't really summarize it—but it's the combination of all these elements that makes this film so great. Tom Ewell in the leading part (and just a year after his role in The Seven Year Itch, this makes him the cinema's most iconic "breast man") is kind of the first person narrator, playing an alcoholic press agent—so that if you are someone who likes to have a few, you'll be right there with him. He is immediately dropped into a compromising situation by a gangster named Marty "Fats" Murdock, who has hired him to make a singing star out of his new girlfriend—played by Jayne Mansfield—who has to do nothing but walk into the room for Tom Ewell to fall madly in love with her. Two things about Jayne Mansfield... just kidding.

Another subtle Jayne Mansfield sight gag.

Apparently Tom Ewell's character was previously Julie London's (playing herself) agent, was in love with her, and is still obsessed with her—there is a great scene where she keeps appearing, ghostlike, in his apartment, while singing "Cry Me a River." Anyway, for whatever reason, Fats Marty feels like he can trust Tom with his new girlfriend... and of course he couldn't be more wrong. Not only is Tom Ewell instantly in love, Jayne Mansfield also seems to like him, and confides in him that she doesn't even want to be a singer—in fact, she can't sing—and she claims nothing would make her happier than being a housewife.

Now that he's met the perfect girl, Tom has to try to convince Fats Marty that she has a voice that will shatter light bulbs so that hopefully he'll lose interest in her... but Fats controls a part of the jukebox Mafia, so he is confident that he can make a hit happen no matter who the singer is—and in fact, he has written, while in prison, just the song he thinks will be number one. Here the story gets too convoluted to repeat (or even remember) but Fats' right-hand-man, Mousie, is involved... and the interesting thing here, for me, is that he's played by Henry Jones, an actor who resembles Tom Ewell to the extent that I've often confused them. In fact, Henry Jones has a prominent part in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?—and I went for the longest time thinking he was Tom Ewell!

Which is neither here nor there, as that's not exploited in this story, but it just adds to the oddness of this movie. And finally, the oddest and most surprising thing of all is that Fats Marty is played by Edmond O'Brien as a kind of loud, dangerous, but still lovable goof—especially odd when you consider his grim, serious presence in movies like D.O.A. And then there's the song. We get to hear "Rock Around the Rockpile" several times—first when Fats (in a bathrobe, with a cigar) demos it for Tom (who accompanies on piano), and next in the studio—where Ray Anthony performs it with his orchestra—with Jayne Mansfield relegated to vocalizing the train whistle in the song. Bored, she saunters over to the "Fruit-O-Matic" chilled fruit vending machine for an apple during the recording. And then finally, due to circumstances, a reluctant Fats Marty is forced to perform his own song in front of a live audience, dancing like a "Peanuts" character—he's awkward, but the kids love him! He's great! The funny thing is, you can buy it. Edmond O'Brien could have been a rock'n'roll star. And "Rock Around the Rockpile," which will now forever play in your mind, could have been a hit. But—of course—this is just a movie.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Beneath the Planet of the Apes

I’ve often thought of Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) as my favorite of all the "Planet of the Apes" movies, but it’s been awhile since I watched it, so I’m writing down my observations as I do. The early scene where Brent sees the apes for the first time, at a war rally, where the general of the gorillas (Ursus) is giving a speech about how "the only good human is a dead human!"—I notice he sounds a lot like the reindeer coach in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)—but no, it's actually James Gregory, the character actor who appeared in every cop show known to man. Orson Welles was offered the part, which would have—especially if he had eschewed the ape makeup—taken it to another level. The part of Brent was actually first offered to Burt Reynolds, but they couldn't figure out how to work a Trans Am into the story. It also occurs to me how much better the movie would be with Michael Caine in the Brent part. He’s horrified by the sight of the apes, you can just hear him: “It’s a bloody nightmare, that's what it is.”

The story is about some astronauts who come looking for Taylor and his crew, from the previous movie, somehow retracing their steps... into the future. Brent, the only one who survives, as played by James Franciscus, is kind of lame—pretty much a stand-in for Charlton Heston, who appears only briefly, obviously only available for about a week of filming. Franciscus is a pale substitute… but oddly resembles Heston, to the extent that when meeting him, Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) thinks he is Taylor at first (of course, "all humans look the same"). He looks even more like the white, Western version of Jesus than Heston does. For awhile then, it’s about, on the human side, these beautiful, hot humans, Brent and Nova, running around in animal skins that miraculously keep breasts and genitals covered; you keep watching because it’s only a matter of time before something falls out (but of course nothing ever does; it’s called editing). On the ape side, they try to set up a philosophical allegory with the human condition, which is kind of amusing, but is a bit simplistic. When I was a little kid I thought the different types of apes were supposed to represent different races, not comprehending until later how offensive that is. What I didn't realize then was that they were actually meant to represent stereotypical residents of the the different boroughs of New York—which is also offensive—and doesn't quite work. And the whole story might be most offensive to gorillas, who are highly intelligent, peaceful animals.

For awhile then the movie proceeds as a lame western: there is the chase, the capture, the chase, the capture, on and on... danger, injury, getaway. Finally, it’s a tremendous relief, nearly halfway through the movie, when Brent and Nova venture underground—the “Beneath”—and this is what always inspired my imagination—the weird, underground, tile passageways—a fond memory that has helped make the NYC subway system more bearable as an adult. Unfortunately, the most disturbing part of the movie also comes in here, when the mutants psychically control Brent's mind and make him shove Nova's head underwater in a rancid fountain. I'm sure this scene strikes a chord with the members of the audience who regularly witness domestic abuse, but I could do without it.

"I reveal my Inmost Self unto my God."

Finally, we get to meet the mutants, who are "highly evolved" people who live underground in constant fear of being invaded by the apes. They have lost their exterior layer of skin, I guess due to radiation, or maybe having no need for it, as they never venture into the sunlight. For some reason, however, they wear rubber masks that make them look like "normal" humans. The really disturbing thing, I always thought, was that they actually look scarier —and maybe this is the result of subtle makeup and good acting—with the masks on than off!

Another Biblical pose—it's all in a day's work.

Eventually, Brent and Taylor (Charlton Heston) meet up, and the odd thing is that Taylor is a full head taller than Brent, even though they came from the same time period of the past. It's like Brent is the Taylor ventriloquist dummy. He holds up in a fight, however—and the reason they fight is because one of the mutants uses his psychic ability to make them fight—and because you can't have an action movie without some really, really tedious, brutal, hand-to-hand combat. Brent and Taylor just prove to be too distracting for the mutants, however, who let up their guard and allow the apes to invade their underground hideout. The mutants are only able to hold off the aggressors by using illusions, and ultimately the war loving gorillas are depicted as being too dumb to hold the illusions. It seems the mutants have expected this all along and have prepared for this day by worshiping a doomsday bomb which they seem all too happy to utilize. Really, all along, you realize they suffer from nothing so much as poor self-images. Even in the end they are really pretty lame, and it's Heston who gets to push the button.

Finally, after the action has mercifully ceased, we hear a narrator who seems to have been borrowed from an educational film: "In one of the countless galaxies of the universe lies a medium sized star. And one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead." Who could this be, speaking, if humans are all dead and gone? Well, after this exhausting exercise in self-hatred, who cares—and good riddance. You leave the theater thinking, "At least we won't have to endure another sequel." But wait...

You damn fools won't be making another sequel if Chuck Heston has anything to say about it.

Friday, October 26, 2012


So wrong on so many levels.

No one could figure out why the Batman TV show was such a success, and it’s still baffling, as is the success of the comic and the more recent movie after movie after overpriced movie. I mean, a millionaire who dresses in tights and a cape to fight crime, and he doesn’t even have any superpowers? I guess it’s about technology, and it’s a continuation of the postwar American story… but I know nothing about the history of the comic, and was never a fan of it. I had one reaction to the Batman comic as a kid, and that was an uncomfortable attraction to its homoerotic undertones and overtones and very essence. Not that I knew what homoeroticism was, exactly, but I was attracted and uncomfortable.

Lamp in the foreground. It's an art movie.

I guess I liked the Batmobile and the Batcave, in the TV show, more than anything. But then there was sex, and love, and though it’s hard to say just how important that was to a kid under ten years old, these early episodes are intertwined with my earliest memories of desire—particularly the very first TV episode that aired. That two-part show, introducing the Frank Gorshin Riddler and Jill St. John as his undercover moll, Molly, is for me the best of the TV episodes. She gains entrance to the Batcave by impersonating Robin, which in itself is mind-bending, then ultimately falls into the atomic pile. Meanwhile, as millionaire Bruce Wayne, Batman had fallen in love with her, and so had a pre-teen version of myself.

What is "Chamber 17?" Who knows?

The TV series is still not available on DVD (though last I checked you can see this particular show via YouTube) but this movie, Batman (1966), is a close second. While Lee Meriwether’s Catwoman pales terribly next to both Julie Newmar AND Eartha Kitt’s versions, her undercover character, Russian journalist Miss Kitka is the highlight of the movie with her scheme to seduce millionaire Bruce Wayne. The joke is, there is no way that he cannot know that she is really Catwoman, and there is no way the villains cannot know that Bruce Wayne is Batman… yet they don’t know. (When the Penguin impersonates Commodore Schmidlapp, Batman and Robin immediately know, but go along with it, giving them the upper hand.) Bruce Wayne does actually fall in love with Miss Kitka, and the scene where, as Batman, he finally discovers her true identity, and suffers a broken heart, but then, in the line of duty, sucks it up, is truly the comic highpoint of this movie.

Adam West: Who else can use the word "rend?"

This joining of forces of the four major villains is somewhat overkill, but the extended time with The Joker and The Riddler is worth it. Whenever Cesar Romero’s Joker is in a scene, his insane laugh blankets it like a vile brain altering gas, so that you may not stop to notice how truly frightening he looks. And, for me, Frank Gorshin’s Riddler is the highpoint of every scene, (and episode) he’s in, and the entire franchise. While there is nothing in this movie that can match that first TV episode, every scene with him in this movie is electrifying and somehow oddly sad. Besides his unmatched villain physicality, his voice is like one of the seven wonders of the world. I could research this another time, but I suspect whenever he spoke they recorded or mixed the sound so that it pushed into the normally unacceptable red levels of distortion… but maybe it’s just the quality of its timbre. I have never heard more manic intensity, desperation, insanity, and sadness in a voice all at once. He dresses great, too.

There is a great running joke about "chain of command" - and here, The Joker and The Riddler have a standoff - this stuff is not for kids!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) cannot be examined next to the great works of the cinema, which pale in comparison, because it truly is one of the great works of human achievement in any discipline and can only really make sense when put alongside of the great cathedrals, The Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Moon (that is, if the Moon was manmade). That said, it’s almost entirely unwatchable.

Oh, there’s the nostalgic appeal, the history, the assemblage of great comic geniuses blah, blah, blah… and it’s perfect for Masochist Night (a group my friends regularly get together for an evening of fortified wine, American food, and a movie that is not just bad but torture). I can’t say it’s one of my favorite movies… yet, there is something poignant about a clown accidentally catching himself on fire. I’m not exactly a fan of the opera, either, or machines of war, but as those things are, this movie is awe-inspiring.

The Pause That Refreshes

If you haven’t seen it, don’t come here for a plot summary… you can easily find one of those elsewhere, but writing one, as well as reciting the names of the characters, would be like pulling out fingernails with pliers. Instead I’ll use the actors’ names and just get to the interesting stuff. Jimmy Durante is the only character to die in the movie… appropriate, in that most of his career was spent emulating an animated corpse (though I like to think that there was extra footage shot for a version in which each of the main characters die in random, freak accidents). After a car crash in the desert, he tells a small group of motorists that there is “350 G’s” buried in a park in Santa Rosita under a “Big W”—just before he mutters “rosebud” and drops a glass snow globe (just kidding). Naturally, they all think he was merely delirious and they want to avoid involvement and get on with their journeys. But when Norman Fell—the first plainclothes cop who arrives at the scene—grills them with inpatient intensity as to the dead man’s final words, they all quickly come around to the validity of his dying secret. From this moment on, GREED is the engine driving this movie. The Holy Grail being represented by “The Big W”—too ridiculous to ever forget (especially when you hear Jimmy Durante say it: “…the ‘big dubya’ I tell ya!”) (And prescient, as that would become a name both for “the internet” and an American President who stole two elections.)

The Big W

Then comes the most amazing scene in the annals of negotiation. The five men take off in their four vehicles along with three additional women (who at this point seem to embody the voice of reason: “Go to the police!”) At first they spontaneously decide to try to outrun each other, but then stop to talk and work things out… rationally. Anyone who has ever tired to argue with someone who doesn’t see things their way, or has found math to create more problems than it solves, or has seen money corrupt people’s minds, or has experienced negotiations breaking down (I’m talking about everyone alive) could carry this scene around like a Saint Christopher medal for whenever one of these situations come up—like once a week, if not several times a day—not to solve anything, but to offer solace.

Meanwhile, the police are keeping an eye on the group, suspecting that they have information about where the money is hidden. Spencer Tracy is the detective who has been trying to solve the case for 15 years, and he sees this is finally his chance to recover the money—as well as a fascinating sociological experiment. The rest of the police—watching the whole thing play out from their command center—see it as a kind of sporting event and all develop their favorites. There is an entire subplot involving Spencer Tracy trying to get the chief of police, William Demarest (who is funny even in this unfunny role) to negotiate with the mayor to increase his pension (which is not gong to happen because ST is an “honest cop” who “closed down the houses”). I feel like this whole bit, along with ST’s tortured relationship with his wife and daughter, could be cut out—it’s just there to make him more sympathetic and explain has later actions—I’d like it more if he was just portrayed as a kind of likable, eccentric cop who’s been trying to solve this case for 15 years and is a little nuts. He’s still gonna be likable—he’s goddamn Spencer Tracy!

Goddamn Spencer Tracy

A large part of the movie, then, is just interminable, endless car chases and crashes, screeching tires and crunching metal, people screaming, bickering, whining, and more screaming, all accompanied by the endless, mind-numbing score. The scene where Jonathan Winters destroys the entire filling station—when you first see that, you think it’s the most amazing thing ever captured on film, but on subsequent viewings it’s five minutes of absolute torture. The entire movie is frankly a little hard to stomach, watching it at home, and I’m sure much more enjoyable when you commit yourself to a movie theater seat, particularly because it was shown in “Cinerama”—mega widescreen. The reason I’m watching it now, however, and writing about it, is that between all the explosions and shrill insults are some incredibly funny moments—nuanced and subtle looks and glances, reactions, and perfectly timed and delivered lines. These people weren’t comedic legends circa 1963 for nothing. Supposedly Groucho Marx turned down the father-in-law role eventually filled by Ethel Merman as the mother-in-law. And as much as her character is like three hours of amplified fingernails on the chalkboard, it’s hard to imagine the movie without her. It’s like you get the feeling that before this movie, mothers-in-law were sweet, respected, beloved—and here lies the invention of the mother-in-law joke, its apex, its decline, its postmortem. In fact, the movie ends with a mother-in-law slipping on a banana peel combo—which is every bit as terminal as Slim Pickens’ bull riding the H-Bomb in Doctor Strangelove.

Things really start to heat up when the initial characters who witnessed the crash start meeting up with additional characters, who in each case are engaged to assist on the quest, out of necessity. First Milton Berle and his wife, played by Dorothy Provine, and her mother, Ethel Merman, after their car is wrecked, hitch a ride with Terry-Thomas who is at his best as an easily offended Englishman. He and Milton Berle begin to clash, and he later launches into a jaw-dropping anti-American monologue that you’ll want to hear over several times. Sid Caesar and Edie Adams hire the most dilapidated biplane you’ve ever seen and its barely conscious pilot. Jonathan Winters confides in a motorist, Phil Silvers—who looks like he was drawn by Mad Magazine’s Don Martin—who then double-crosses him. Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett hire a drunken pilot, Jim Backus, who is knocked unconscious while mixing Old Fashioneds, leaving the doofuses to fly the plane. And finally, Ethel Merman tries to call her son Sylvester, played by Dick Shawn, who lives in a Santa Rosita beach house where he apparently spends all day drinking beer and dancing with his girlfriend, Barrie Chase, who (and her black bikini), in just a couple of scenes, launched a thousand masturbatory fantasies.

The misadventures grow increasingly tedious. Sid Caesar and Edie Adams are the first to reach Santa Rosita, far ahead of the rest, but while trying to buy digging tools get locked in the basement of a hardware store… for nearly an hour of the movie! She lights hundreds of candles and he crashes around with a forklift and has misadventures with every tool known to man… while cases of TNT wait patiently in the background. By the time the INTERMISSION comes around, they have finally decided to dynamite the door open, but…. the fuse… sputters….

Finally, with the help of a couple of cab drivers played by Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and Peter Falk, they all arrive at the park, but we, the audience, are first shown the “The Big W”—four palm trees forming a “w”—accompanied by a celestial choir, in case you don’t pick up on it. As they continue to frolic and scheme, then comes the one real poignant scene in the movie—what gives it its heart, if it has a heart, or at least attempts to rescue it from its rampant misogyny. One of the “interchangeable” blondes, the “good girl” played by Dorothy Provine, while taking a step back, and no doubt contemplating fleeing the madness, suddenly sees the “Big W,” and knows. Meanwhile, Spencer Tracy is in on the scene by himself, supposedly not to draw attention to police presence, but of course scheming to wait until the others find the money so he can move in like a buzzard. He notices that Dorothy Provine notices something and makes her acquaintance. Then she confides in him, telling him that if they split the money she could get away from her pathetic husband, her crazy brother, and her overbearing mother, and that she maybe would be able to afford to live in a convent. It’s funny, of course, but it’s also incredibly heartbreaking.

If the comic strategy up until this point was to make you suffer along with the characters, now the movie ratchets up the anxiety to a post-comic level and becomes just plain squirmingly uncomfortable. Spencer Tracy busts them all (without even showing his badge) and gets them to agree to drive over to the police station and turn themselves in. He then takes the money and heads to Mexico. I remember seeing this as a kid and feeling torn… “Don’t do it!” I implored. I cared about him! Then, to make it even worse, on the way to turning themselves in, the entire group realizes that ST isn’t going to the station at all, but heading for the border. And thus ends the movie with an uninspired chase sequence, now all of THEM chasing Spencer Tracy, like a scene from Dawn of the Dead. Eventually ending on a broken fire escape and a wavering fire truck ladder… and it is… really… not… funny…

Zombies On The March

The final scene has them all in a hospital room covered in bandages, actually fairly gruesome and depressing. Buddy Hackett throws a banana peel on the floor. The women come marching in, Ethel Merman nagging full blast, and she slips and falls on the banana peel. All the men break out in spontaneous laughter, and even Spencer Tracy joins them. Not funny, not really uplifting or healing. Not a good ending. By this point, as shrill and annoying as Ethel Merman has been throughout, there is something about her wide-eyed cluelessness that actually made me feel sorry for her, and eventually grow fond of her. Nearly half the movie’s gags are at her expense. I eventually got on her side. Slipping on a banana peel?

At some point in my movie-going life I decided to never criticize the end of a movie without offering my own version, because, really, endings are tough. So… here’s my suggestion. I like how the money blows out of the suitcase into the crowd below, kind of like redistributed wealth. But after that, here’s the changes: The police arrive, and now Spencer Tracy is a fugitive with the rest of them, instead of being chased by them, and he figures out some ingenious way to escape the scene. They all head for the docks and they charter a boat, skippered by Alan Hale, with Bob Denver as the first mate. Except… Dick Shawn stays behind because they’re near his beach house, and by this time, Ethel Merman and Spencer Tracy have been flirting, and they hit it off and stay behind, too. The final scene, then, we see Dick Shawn and Barrie Chase in the beach house dancing, now joined by Ethel Merman and Spencer Tracy, also dancing—to Dee Dee Sharp’s “Mashed Potato Time.”

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

State Theater

I used the "modern" spelling of Theater, rather than "Theatre" only because State Theatre was taken, as a blog address. How in the world was State Theater not taken? Sometimes just the availability of an address pushes me into action. Anyway, it's not a "French thing," if that's what you're thinking. The State Theatre in Sandusky, Ohio was possibly the most important place to me growing up. So this is a fitting address for me to write about movies. Or it might be just another sad hangout for the Ghost Town.