Easter Egg Hunt: THE LIVING CHRIST SERIES – RETREAT & DECISION (Cathedral Films 1951)

Good morning, and Happy Easter (and Passover season!). Today’s holiday treat is from 1951’s THE LIVING CHRIST SERIES , a 12-part retelling of the life of Jesus made by Episcopal minster James K. Friedrich’s Cathedral Films. Though extremely low budget, the films are much more earnest than your typical Hollywood Biblical Extravaganza. As for your Easter Eggs, they’re in the film: see if you can spot Familiar Faces Gregg Barton, Jeanne Bates, Lawrence Dobkin, James Flavin, Lowell Gilmore, William Henry, ‘TV’ Tommy Ivo, Dennis Moore, and Will Wright as you bear witness to Jesus preaching, performing miracles, and making His decision on His road to destiny. Narrated by ‘Familiar Voice’ Art Gilmore, and starring Robert Wilson as The Lord, enjoy RETREAT & DECISION:

     Happy Easter & Passover from Cracked Rear Viewer!

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The Dork Knight: Steve Martin in DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID (Universal 1982)

Quick, name a film noir that stars Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd, Vincent Price, and… Steve Martin? There’s only one: 1982’s DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID, the second collaboration between that “wild and crazy guy” Martin and comedy legend Carl Reiner. I remember, back in 1982, being dazzled by editor Bud Molin’s seamless job of incorporating classic film footage into the new narrative while simultaneously laughing my ass off. Things haven’t changed – the editing still dazzles, and I’m still laughing!

Martin and Reiner’s first comedy, 1979’s THE JERK, was an absurdist lover’s delight, and this time around the two, along with cowriter George Gipe, concocted this cockeyed detective saga after combing through old black and white crime dramas (we didn’t call ’em film noir back then) and cherry picking scenes to build their screenplay around. Martin plays PI Rigby Reardon, a hard-boiled knucklehead who takes on the case of Juliet Foster’s missing father, a famous scientist and cheesemaker. Rigby instantly falls for the femme fatale (“I hadn’t seen a body like that since I solved the Case of the Murdered Girl With the Big Tits”), and who can blame him, since she’s played by the delicious Rachel Ward, who shot to fame in SHARKY’S MACHINE and the TV miniseries THE THORN BIRDS!

“For God’s sake, Marlowe, put on a tie!”

The case leads him to discovering a conspiracy involving “The Friends and Enemies of Carlotta”, but the plot is strictly secondary to Martin’s interacting with movie stars of the past. Rigby’s got a partner named Marlowe, none other than Bogie himself, using footage from THE BIG SLEEP , DARK PASSAGE , and IN A LONELY PLACE . His interaction with Fred MacMurray in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, dolled up in a blonde wig and tight sweater to resemble Barbara Stanwyck, is a scream. Martin dons drag again as James Cagney’s mother in a funny riff on WHITE HEAT .

Besides those previously mentioned, other classic stars appearing include Edward Arnold, Ingrid Bergman, William Conrad, Jeff Corey, Brian Donlevy, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Charles Laughton, Charles McGraw, Ray Milland, Edmond O’Brien, Barbara Stanwyck, and Lana Turner, from films like THE BRIBE , DECEPTION, THE GLASS KEY , HUMORESQUE, I WALK ALONE, JOHNNY EAGER, THE KILLERS , KEEPER OF THE FLAME, THE LOST WEEKEND, NOTORIOUS , THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, SORRY WRONG NUMBER, SUSPICION, and THIS GUN FOR HIRE (and by the way, that’s 70’s Exploitation queen Rainbeaux Smith doubling for Veronica Lake in her scene opposite Martin).

There are some great running gags throughout the film, like Juliet’s unique way of extracting bullets (“It’s really for snakebite, but I find it works for everything”), Martin going berserk every time he hears the phrase “cleaning woman”, and his constant chiding of ‘Marlowe’ for not wearing a tie. DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID was the last film for a pair of Hollywood greats: composer Miklos Rozsa and costume designer Edith Head. Both went out on a high note, a loving homage to films noir past, and a brilliant piece of work that itself stands the test of time.

De-Coded: Wheeler & Woosley in KENTUCKY KERNALS (RKO 1934)


The comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woosley  join forces with Our Gang’s Spanky McFarland in KENTUCKY KERNALS, directed by Hal Roach vet George Stevens. Sounds like the perfect recipe for a barrel of laughs, right? Well, while there are some laughs to be had, the (then) recent enforcement of the Production Code finds W&W much more subdued than in their earlier zany efforts, and playing second fiddle to both Spanky’s admittedly funny antics and the plot at hand, a takeoff on the famed Hatfield-McCoy feud.

Weirdly enough, the film starts off with a lovelorn man attempting suicide by jumping off a bridge. Fortunately for him, he lands in a fishing net owned by down-on-their luck vaudevillians Elmer (Woolsey) and Willie (Wheeler), living in a waterfront shack. The two convince him to adopt a child, and go to the orphanage, where they find cute little Spanky, who has a thing about breaking glass! The man winds up eloping with his true love, and the boys wind up in charge of the glass-smashing Spanky!

Informed Spanky is sole heir to “a large Kentucky estate”, the trio head south, with Willie falling for pretty Gloria Wakefield aboard the train. When they arrive in the Bluegrass State, they get embroiled in a bitter feud between the Wakefields and Spanky’s clan, the Milfords. W&W manage to mend fences between the two warring factions, until Spanky pops a bottle of champagne. The Wakefields think it’s a gunshot, and the feud is back on in full force…

There are plenty of quick quips and good sight gags here, but that anarchic spirit Wheeler & Woolsey brought to  their Pre-Code comedies is sadly lacking. There are missed opportunities as well; Marx Brothers nemesis Margaret Dumont is utterly wasted as the orphanage headmistress. Just imagine the fun Woolsey could have had jousting verbally with Miss Dumont a few short years earlier! Ingenue Mary Carlisle (who died this past August at age 104!) is appealing as Gloria, but not given very much to do except look pretty. Willie Best is unfortunately stereotyped as the Milford handyman Buckshot, although he does play off Spanky well. Even the main song “One Little Kiss” isn’t up to the usual standards of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby (“I Wanna Be Loved By You”, “Three Little Words”, “A Kiss To Build  A Dream On”).


Spanky of course steals every scene he’s in with his antics and facial expressions. The six-year-old tyke was already a show biz veteran, having debuted with Our Gang two years earlier and quickly becoming the group’s most popular member. In fact, the film itself feels more like a Hal Roach comedy than a Wheeler & Woolsey outing, with Dorothy Granger and Charlie Hall appearing in small roles. Noah Beery Sr. (whose son later worked for Roach) plays the meanie Col. Wakefield, while Lucille LaVerne is Milford matriarch Aunt Hannah.

KENTCUCKY KERNALS is a pleasant enough if minor comedy, but a disappointment for Wheeler & Woolsey fans thanks to the Code restrictions. It takes away the sense of chaos they brought to the screen and turns them into just another pair of comics. Damn you, Joseph Breen!

Happy Birthday Charlie Chaplin: CHAPLIN’S ART OF COMEDY (Independent-International 1968)

Today we celebrate the birthday of the immortal Charlie Chaplin , born on this date 130 years ago. Chaplin made his film debut 105 years ago this year, and the world hasn’t stopped laughing since! His silent comedies featuring the endurable character “The Little Tramp” (or as Chaplin called him, “The Little Fellow”) have stood the test of time, and his mix of humor and pathos elevated slapstick comedy to high art. The compilation film CHAPLIN’S ART OF COMEDY highlights Chaplin’s early efforts at Essanay Studios from 1914-15, and contains some of his best work.

The success of Robert Youngson’s 1959 film THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY (spotlighting silent luminaries like Laurel & Hardy, Ben Turpin, and others) had spawned a whole host of imitators over the next decade utilizing low-to-no cost silent footage and repackaging it into a new feature film. Some were good, others lackadaisically put together, most just out to make a quick buck. CHAPLIN’S ART OF COMEDY is more than a few notches above, thanks to the genius that was Charlie Chaplin. The film was put together by Sam Sherman, and if that name sounds familiar, you must be an Exploitation Movie Buff! Sherman was the movie-mad founder of Independent-International Pictures, producing most of low-budget auteur Al Adamson’s output (PSYCHO A-GO-GO, SATAN’S SADISTS, DRACULA VS FRANKENSTEIN, GIRLS FOR RENT, BLAZING STEWARDESSES, NURSE SHERRI), and giving work to faded stars like John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr., Robert Livingston, Kent Taylor, and The Ritz Brothers, among other former luminaries.

CHAPLIN’S ART OF COMEDY salutes the art of slapstick comedy, which never really goes out of style. Here we see Chaplin’s Little Tramp coming into his own, with excerpts from nine Essanay classics. THE CHAMPION is a particular favorite, with down-on-his-luck Charlie becoming a sparring partner turned boxing contender. THE BANK casts The Tramp as a janitor who foils a heist (and wins the hand of lovely Edna Purviance, who costars in most of these shorts). Charlie creates mayhem at a movie studio in HIS NEW JOB, A WOMAN features him in drag trying to fool Edna’s disapproving dad, and POLICE has him an ex-con trying to go straight, until he hooks up with his former cellmate (played by future director Wesley Ruggles).

A real treat is A NIGHT IN THE SHOW, a change of pace with Chaplin playing a dual role as a tipsy playboy and a rowdy bum, based on the famous skit “A Night in an English Music Hall”, performed by Chaplin during his days with Fred Karno’s comedy troupe, where Charlie got his first break. It’s a rare chance to see what the early fuss was about, not to mention a very funny piece that still holds up well. CHAPLIN’S ART OF COMEDY is well worth your time, taking a nostalgic trip back to when comedy was king, and Charlie Chaplin was the king of ’em all!

(Oh by the way, Charlie Chaplin shares his birthday with another movie-mad, though much less famous, personality – me!!)

CHAPLIN’S ART OF COMEDY is available for viewing on The Film Detective , streaming everywhere right now!    

 

Happy Patriots Day: Abbott & Costello in THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES (Universal 1946)

Good morning! While most of you in America are fretting over Tax Day, here in Massachusetts we’re celebrating Patriots Day, commemorating the 1775 Battles of Lexington and Concord that kicked off the American Revolution. It’s a state holiday, and the Boston Marathon is held every year on this date, with the Red Sox playing their traditional 11:00am game. It’s been a tradition on this blog (well, since last year, anyway ) to feature Revolutionary War-themed films, and today we’ll take a look at THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES, an Abbott & Costello comedy that’s one of the duo’s best.

THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES differs from the usual A&C formula, with Bud and Lou playing separate characters rather than working as a team. The film begins in 1780, as Costello’s Horatio Prim, tinker by trade and true patriot, rides to visit his lady-love Nora. In his possession is a letter of recommendation from George Washington himself, but Abbott’s Cuthbert Greenway, jealous of Nora’s affection for Horatio, locks him in a trunk. Meanwhile, the lady of the house, Melody Allen, discovers her man Thomas Danbury is a traitor to the cause. Helping Horatio escape, the two are mistaken for British sympathizers, shot, and tossed down a well as the rebels ransack Danbury Manor and burn it to the ground. The rebel leader curses Horatio and Melody to spend eternity on the grounds unless it’s proven they weren’t traitors after all.

Fast forward 166 years and, as the ghosts of Horatio and Melody are still trapped on Earth, Danbury Manor is restored to its former glory by Sheldon Gage, planning to turn it into a tourist attraction. He brings along his fiancé June, her Aunt Millie, and his pal Dr. Ralph Greenway, a descendant of Cuthbert. There’s also servant Emily, said to possess psychic powers, as well as the power to creep people out (June  to Emily: “Didn’t I see you in REBECCA?”).

Our disembodied duo decide to haunt the joint in hopes of finding Washington’s letter and free their earthbound souls, and that’s when the fun really begins in this excellent fantasy-comedy directed by Charles Barton, who went on to make nine more movies with the team. Bud Abbott gets a chance to stop playing straight man and takes the brunt of the comic mayhem, as the ghostly Horatio mistakes him for Cuthbert (Bud plays both parts). But it’s Lou Costello who truly shines as Horatio, combining his farcical facial expressions and high-pitched vocal squeals with moments of pathos. Audiences weren’t used to seeing Bud and Lou as separate entities (though they also went this route in their previous film LITTLE GIANT), and they returned to  their tried-and-true routines with their next, BUCK PRIVATES COME HOME.

Marjorie Reynolds , fondly remembered for the Christmas classic HOLIDAY INN, makes a good foil for Lou as the ghostly Melody. Academy Award winner Gale Sondergaard didn’t play much comedy in her career, but she’s perfect as the weirdo Emily (and no, she wasn’t in REBECCA ; that was Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers). Binnie Barnes gets off some snappy one-liners as Aunt Millie (Bud during the séance scene: “We’ve all got to make our minds completely blank” Binnie: “Well, that should be easy for you!”). John Shelton and Lynn Baggett are bland as Sheldon and June, but veteran Donald MacBride livens things up as a cop towards the conclusion.

There’s plenty of spooky shenanigans to be had, as Horatio and Melody encounter modern (well, 1946 modern) technology, the séance sequence manages to be both funny and eerie, and the special effects hold up well for the most part. To cap it all off, there’s a hilarious final sight gag that’ll leave you laughing. Even non-A&C fans will enjoy THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES, a scare comedy that’s as patriotic as George Washington! With that, let’s all celebrate Patriots Day:

(Hey, I told you it’s a Massachusetts thing!)

New York After Midnight: 99 RIVER STREET (United Artists 1953)

The trio that brought you KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL – star John Payne, director Phil Karlson, and producer Edward Small – teamed again for 99 RIVER STREET, and while it’s not quite on a par with their film noir classic, it’s crammed with enough sex’n’violence to hold your interest for an hour and a half. Karlson’s direction is solid, as is the cast (including a knockout performance by Evelyn Keyes), and the camerawork of the great Austrian cinematographer Franz Planer gives it a wonderfully brooding touch of darkness.

The story itself is highly improbable yet highly entertaining: ex-boxer Ernie Driscoll (Payne), once a heavyweight contender now reduced to driving a cab, is married to ex-showgirl Pauline (the delectable Peggie Castle), who’s two-timing him with crook Victor Rawlins (slimebag Brad Dexter ). Ernie catches them making out through the window of the flower shop Pauline works at, and his PTSD is triggered. Then when his friend, struggling actress Linda Jordan (Keyes) sets him up as a patsy so she can nail an acting job, Ernie explodes and beats up the play’s producer and crew!

Meanwhile, Victor and Pauline try to sell a load of hot diamonds to fences Christopher and Mickey (Jay Adler, Jack Lambert ), but they balk at dealing with a woman – that and the fact Victor killed a man during the heist. So the dirty douche strangles Pauline and dumps her body in Ernie’s cab. The cops are already looking for Ernie after his meltdown at the theater, and that old familiar noir downward spiral rapidly escalates as Ernie, with the help of Linda, races to find the killer at large and clear his name…


Payne does a fine job as the guy who’s taken one too many blows to the head, and although things like PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injuries aren’t specifically mentioned, it’s obvious Ernie’s troubles go deeper than just financial or marital. Good as Payne is, Evelyn Keyes totally stole the show for me as Linda. The scene where she tricks Payne into believing she’s murdered someone had not just Payne’s character fooled, I was totally taken in! Later, she impersonates a drunken floozie in a sleazy waterfront gin joint while trying to lure Dexter’s Victor out in the open. Keyes, best known as Scarlet O’Hara’s little sister Suellen in GONE WITH THE WIND and her years at Columbia (making, among other films, THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK , A THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS, THE JOLSON STORY, and JOHNNY O’CLOCK), never really got a chance to strut her stuff, and she certainly delivers the goods here.

DP Franz Planer makes the backlot look and feel like New York After Midnight. The veteran’s career stretched back all the way to 1919 in his native Austria-Hungary. Leaving war-torn Europe in 1937, he came to America and worked on films both large and small. Planer’s name doesn’t get mentioned a lot in the film noir conversation, but he was the man behind the camera on gems like the aforementioned FACE BEHIND THE MASK, THE CHASE, CRISS CROSS , and CHAMPION . Perhaps it’s because his other work overshadows his noir efforts: among his resume you’ll find classics such as PENNY SERANADE, ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, CYRANO DE BERGERAC, ROMAN HOLIDAY, THE CAINE MUTINY, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA , and BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S . He was working on SOMETHING’S GOT TO GIVE when that film was shelved due to the untimely death of Marilyn Monroe; it proved to be his last job, as Planer himself died a year later.

After 99 RIVER STREET, the trio of Payne, Karlson, and Small went their separate ways, though they worked together in various combinations on occasion. Pairing this film with KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL would make a dynamite film noir double feature, perfect examples of what can be accomplished on a low budget with little money and a whole lot of talent before and behind the cameras.

One Hit Wonders #25: “Vehicle” by The Ides of March (Warner Brothers Records 1970)

The hard-driving jazz-rock hit “Vehicle” cruised to #2 on the Billboard charts back in May of 1970:

Everybody who heard the song thought it was a new Blood, Sweat, & Tears single at first: the signature brassy sound and gruff vocals reminded us of BS&T and lead singer David Clayton-Thomas.  No one had heard of The Ides of March – unless of course you were from the Chicago area, where they’d been having regional success since 1966.

The band formed in Svengoolie’s favorite town – Berwyn, Illinois – in 1964, and originally were called the Shon-Dels, consisting of Jim Peterik (guitar), Larry Millas (guitar), Bob Bergland (bass), and Mike Burch (drums), changing their name to The Ides of March in ’66 to avoid confusion with Tommy James & The Shondells, who were riding to the top of the charts at the time with “Hanky Panky”. Adding trumpeter Steve Daniels a year later, they added two additional horn players to capitalize on the success of jazz-rock bands like BS&T and Chicago. “Vehicle”, written and sung by Peterik, became Warner Brothers’ fastest-selling single up to that time, but despite incessantly touring and recording a follow-up LP, no more hits were forthcoming, and The Ides of March broke up in 1973.

Jim Peterik continued to write and perform, joining the jazz-rock band Chase, who had a hit of their own with 1971’s “Get It On”:

In `1978, Peterik cofounded the band Survivor with Frankie Sullivan. Their work was reminiscent of then-popular pop bands like Journey and REO Speedwagon, and Peterik soon had a #1 hit when he and Sullivan cowrote the song “Eye of the Tiger” for Sylvester Stallone’s ROCKY III:

Peterik continued to write or cowrite several tunes for other artists, including REO, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Cheap Trick, Sammy Hagar, The Beach Boys, and .38 Special’s 1981 hit “Hold On Loosely”:

The Ides of March reformed in 1990 with Peterik and the original members, plus new horn players, and continue to tour the nation even today, while “Vehicle” has proved to still have plenty of miles on it. A 2001 General Motors ad campaign featured the song, and it found a new audience when Bo Bice performed it on AMERICAN IDOL in 2005 (Bice is now lead singer for Blood, Sweat, & Tears, bringing things full circle). Artists as diverse as Tom Jones, jazzman Chet Baker, Erykah Badu, and STAR TREK: VOYAGER actor Robert Picardo have recorded cover versions. It’s one of those One Hit Wonders whose hooks get stuck in your head, and will probably be performed and enjoyed long after I’ve played my final chord.

“GRRRReat God in Heaven, you know I loo-ooo-oove yoooou” – dah dah, dah dah dahhhhhhh – DAHHHHH!