Way Out West: BLAZING SADDLES (Warner Brothers 1974)

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So last night I tried watching Seth MacFarlane’s A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST. At about the twenty minute mark, I came to the conclusion the film totally sucked, and deleted it from the DVR. I was still in the mood for some Western comedy though, and fortunately I had Mel Brooks’ BLAZING SADDLES in the queue and ready to roll. BLAZING SADDLES never fails to make me laugh out loud no matter how many times I watch it. Nobody does fart jokes like Mel Brooks:

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The story revolves around Cleavon Little as Bart, a black man appointed sheriff of Rock Ridge by Governor LePetomane (Google it!). This doesn’t go over well with the God-fearin’ town citizens, since Bart is black, and they’re a bunch of redneck racists. It’s all a scheme by the Gov’s crooked Attorney General Hedy Lamarr…oops, that’s HEDLEY!  You see, Hedy (err, Hedley) knows the railroad is going to go through Rock Ridge and wants to drive the townsfolk out so he can buy up all the land. No one stands by Bart’s side except The Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), formerly the fastest gun in the West, now a broken down drunkard.

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Hedy (ahem, Hedley!) sends Mongo, the meanest man in the West, to terrorize Rock Ridge and get rid of Bart. Unfortunately, Mongo has a brain the size of a pea, and is easily outwitted by Bart. So the devious Hedy (THAT’S HEDLEY!) sends his ace in the hole, German chanteuse Lily Von Schtupp to seduce him. The tables are turned when Lily finds out just how “gifted” Bart is! Finally, the most dastardly villains of the West are assembled, “an army of…rustlers, cutthroats, murderers, bounty hunters…muggers, buggerers, horse thieves, bull dykes”  to raid Rock Ridge and kill everyone in sight! The grand finale breaks the fourth wall as a wild and wooly slapstick melee ends up going through the Warner Brothers lot!

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Little is a riot as Bart, his cartoonish antics making him a black Bugs Bunny come to life. Wilder gives a sly performance as The Waco Kid, and Harvey Korman is hysterical as the fiendish Hedley Lamarr (whom everyone calls Hedy in a running joke). Western vet Slim Pickens is funny too, as Hedley’s lunkheaded henchman Taggart. Madeline Kahn does her best Marlene Dietrich impression as Lily Von Schtupp, with the pronunciation of Elmer Fudd. Her song, “I’m Tired”, is one of many highlights. Football legend Alex Karras plays the hulking Mongo as an overgrown kid, while John Hillerman, David Huddleston, George Furth, and Dom DeLuise also add to the fun.

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BLAZING SADDLES

Mel Brooks directed and had a hand in the screenplay, as well as playing three roles (The Gov, a Yiddish speaking Indian, and one of Lily’s Prussian back-up dancers). Like any Mel Brooks comedy, there’s enough here to offend everybody:  racist humor, politically incorrect gags, sexual innuendo, slapstick tomfoolery, plus lots of Hollywood in-jokes to savor in this no-holds-barred comedy classic. When it comes to spoofing the Western genre, sorry Seth, but Make Mine Mel! I’ll give the last word to that prairie philosopher, Mongo:

 

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Ol’ Vic’s having a reblog party….come on down!!

Just Plain Ol' Vic

Take this opportunity to:

  • Leave a link to your blog!
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That’s Blaxpolitation! 5: The CLEOPATRA JONES Saga

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Standing six-foot-two, the beautiful former model Tamara Dobson was Warner Brothers’ answer to Pam Grier. The first female action star, Grier was killing it at the box office with hits like COFFY and FOXY BROWN, and Warners’ cast the Amazonian Dobson in the title role of CLEOPATRA JONES (1973). While Dobson made a foxy badass mama in the role, she wasn’t a very good actress. Which is alright in the world of action films, as long as the violence comes fast and hard, and CLEOPATRA JONES delivers in that department.

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Our girl Cleo is a special government agent in Turkey helping to wipe out some large poppy fields (“Thirty million worth of shit”, says Cleo). This causes drug smuggling crime boss Mommy to freak out and seek revenge. Mommy is played by Shelley Winters in one of her patented over the top roles, wearing a series of bad wigs and screeching at the top of her lungs. Mommy sics her goons on Cleo’s pet charity, a rehab for addicts run by her boyfriend. When Cleo gets back stateside, there’s hell to pay as she takes down Mommy’s gang of cutthroats with the aid of her street friends.

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There’s plenty of car chases, kung-fu fighting, and close calls here, along with plenty of familiar faces. Antonio Fargas plays Mommy’s rival Doodlebug, a flashy dresser looking to cut in on her turf. Bernie Casey is Cleo’s love interest, Brenda Sykes a hooker, Bill McKinney as a corrupt cop, and Esther (GOOD TIMES) Rolle as a diner owner whose two sons, Malcom and Melvin, are kung-fu experts that help Cleo take down Mommy and her thugs. Even SOUL TRAIN impresario Don Cornelius makes a cameo appearance. CLEOPATRA JONES didn’t cover any new ground in the Blaxploitation field, but it did well enough at the box office to warrant a sequel two years later.

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1975’s CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD came next, and it’s one of the rare instances where I liked the sequel better than the original. This time around, Cleo’s in Hong Kong up against the villainous Dragon Lady, played by a spectacular looking Stella Stevens as a lesbian drug queen. Norman Fell is Stanley, Cleo’s liason/agent-in-charge, who warns Cleo to tow the line. Maalcom and Melvin are back, but this time they’re more of comic relief than kick-ass kung-fu fighters. The action’s handled by Dobson and her co-star Ni Tien (billed here as Tanny), playing a private eye who’s more than a match for Cleo. Hong Kong cinema legend Run Run Shaw is credited as co-producer, and he definitely knew his chop-socky action flicks (FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH, MAN OF IRON, LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES). CASINO OF GOLD is more a traditional action flick than just another funky Blaxploitationer, and could’ve continued as a James Bond-like series, with Dobson much better suited to the glamorous international spy role than street chick. But box office returns were poor for this entry, and Warners pulled the plug on the Cleopatra Jones series.

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Tamara Dobson’s film career went south after that. Her few remaining credits included a stint on the Saturday morning sci-fi show JASON OF STAR COMMAND, featuring STAR TREK’s James Doohan and the great Sid Haig as the cosmic bad guy. She died of MS in her hometown of Baltimore in 2006 at age 59, leaving behind her two CLEOPATRA JONES films as her legacy. Both are fun to watch, with CASINO OF GOLD especially as a precursor to what could have been. They’re definitely worth rediscovering for lovers of action and Blaxploitation movies. Thanks for the memories, Cleo.

 

FILM LOVERS: Please Show Support For Baby Peggy!

Silent film star Baby Peggy (Diana Serra Cary) needs your help!!

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Today I heard the news that the legendary Diana Serra Cary, aka Baby Peggy, has just been refused financial support from the Motion Picture and Television Fund (MPTF). Ms. Cary is 97 and in need of non-medical assistance to supplement the small pension she currently lives on. Apparently, her pension is considered “enough” by the organization and her silent era career is deemed too insignificant to qualify her for aid.

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Friends, this is a disgrace. Here’s more details:

From the Vitaphone Project’s Ron Hutchinson:
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URGENT! PLEASE READ, THEN RESPOND WITH REQUESTED ACTION!
Baby Peggy (Diana Serra Cary), beloved star of silent films, received over a million fan letters for her 150 shorts and features. Her highly-praised autobiography, Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy?, spawned a feature-length documentary. Now 97 and healthy but alarmingly frail, she has attempted for months to find financial support for modest in-home, non-medical care from…

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Pre Code Confidential #2: KONGO (MGM 1932)

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Torture! Prostitution! Nymphomania! Drug Addiction! Ritual Sacrifice! What is this, some forgotten 70s Grindhouse flick? No, it’s KONGO, a 1932 release from prestigious MGM studios. This twisted little tale stars an over the top Walter Huston as ‘Legless’ Flint, a sadistic cripple who rules over a native tribe in deepest, darkest Africa with his “ju-ju” magic tricks. Flint has a bone to pick with Gregg, the man who kicked his spine in and stole his wife, so he has Gregg’s daughter Ann kidnapped from a convent. After selling her to a whorehouse for two years, he fetches her to his jungle lair, plying her with alcohol while he degrades and humiliates her. His plan is to lure her father into his encampment to have the final laugh before killing him. Things take a turn for the worst when it’s discovered Ann is not Gregg’s daughter after all, but Flint’s! Now he has to scramble to save her before the tribe burns her alive in their voodoo ritual pyre.

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Huston has a field day as the nasty Flint. He dominates the film, whether he’s  getting  off on torturing Ann, berating his comrades, or performing cheap magic tricks for the superstitious natives. Huston was more than familiar with the role, having originated it on Broadway. KONGO was first filmed in 1927 as WEST OF ZANZIBAR, with Lon Chaney Sr. in the Huston role as Phroso. Tod Browning (Dracula) directed it. I haven’t seen the silent version, but it’d be hard to top this one for sheer perversion.

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Beautiful Virginia Bruce (The Invisible Woman) plays Ann, and it’s a far cry from her more glamorous roles. She’s bruised, battered and hopeless, her only solace in the shots of booze Flint sparingly gives her. It’s a remarkable acting job, and Miss Bruce pulls it off with just the right amounts of pathos and fear.

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“Mexican Spitfire” Lupe Velez is on hand as Flint’s nympho girlfriend Tula, who’ll fuck just about anything that moves. Lupe spends the movie half-naked, which is a treat for all you voyeurs out there! Silent star Conrad Nagel plays a doctor who wanders into the camp, drug-addled on byang root, who falls in love with the pathetic Ann. The scene where he saves Tula from having her tongue ripped out by Flint, only to be buried in a swamp so leeches will suck the drugs out of him, is alone worth the price of admission.

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KONGO is one of the most bizarre Pre-Codes you’ll ever see, a sick and demented trip into the heart of the jungle. You won’t find Tarzan here (though Lupe Velez was once married to Johnny Weismuller), just plenty of shocks and grotesqueries guaranteed to keep you glued to the action. Just don’t watch it while chewing byang root!

 

Happy Thanksgiving from Cracked Rear Viewer!

Before I stuff my face with turkey, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, etc, I’d like to share a holiday laugh with you all. Here’s an MGM cartoon from 1945 directed by the great Tex Avery titled JERKY TURKEY, with the voices of Daws Butler and Bill “Droopy” Thompson. Enjoy, and have a safe and happy holiday!

Long Live The King!: Boris Karloff in THE BODY SNATCHER (RKO 1945)

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William Henry Pratt, known to horror lovers as Boris Karloff, was born on November 23, 1887. He toiled for years on stage and in small film roles until being cast as The Monster in 1931’s FRANKENSTEIN. Karloff became an overnight success at age 44, and starred in some of the era’s most memorable fright films (The Mummy, THE BLACK CAT, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN). After conquering Broadway in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (in a role tailor made for him), he triumphantly returned to Hollywood and signed a three-picture deal with producer Val Lewton at RKO. Lewton was making intelligent, subtle horror films and Karloff had taken notice. Their first together, THE BODY SNATCHER, was not only their best, but one of the genre’s best, a masterpiece’s of Lewton’s brand of quiet terror.

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Based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, THE BODY SNATCHER is set in 1831 Edinburgh, Scotland. Karloff plays Cabman Gray, who drives a carriage by day and robs graves by night, selling the bodies to anatomist Dr. MacFarlane. The two are old acquaintances, and Gray holds a dark secret over the doctor. He delights in torturing MacFarlane verbally, calling him by the nickname ‘Toddy’, mocking him at every turn, claiming “You’ll never be rid of me”. When we first meet Gray, he’s dropping off a crippled young girl and her mother to MacFarlane’s home. The cabman is sweet and kind to the poor child, but then we see him at night in the graveyard, smashing a barking dog’s head in as he digs up a fresh body to sell. Gray is in turn charming and chilling, not above committing murder to provide ‘specimens’ to MacFarlane, against the doctor’s wishes. This dichotomy is what sets Gray from being just a stereotypical boogeyman. It’s a fascinating performance, and of all Karloff’s roles, I think this is his best.

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MacFarlane is a brilliant doctor, but cold as a mackerel. The crippled girl could be cured by an operation, but MacFarlane refuses, saying his duties at his medical school are more important. It’s only when Gray goads him into performing the operation that he consents. It’s hard to feel any sympathy for the doctor, especially after we learn he was assistant to the notorious Dr. Knox, who worked with the murderous ‘resurrectionists’  Burke and Hare. Gray once took the rap for MacFarlane, and won’t for a second let him forget it. MacFarlane has an assistant of his own, the student Fettes, who’s uncomfortable with accepting bodies from the odious Gray. When a blind street singer’s body is brought in, Fettes realizes she was murdered by Gray. But Fettes signed for the body, and could now be considered an accomplice to the gruesome scheme.

THE BODY SNATCHER is also memorable as the last pairing of Karloff and fellow horror icon Bela Lugosi. While Boris became the toast of Broadway, Bela had fallen on hard times, appearing in a series of no-budget shockers at Poverty Row Monogram Studios. His role as the blackmailing Joseph was small but pivotal to the film. Gray smiles while paying the dimwitted Joseph off, then proposes they become partners in crime. My words can’t possibly do the scene justice, so here’s the last shared screen time of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi:

When MacFarlane discovers Joseph’s body in a vat of brine, he’s finally had enough. Confronting Gray at his home, the two engage in a fight in which the doctor kills the cabman. He then brings the body home and dissects it for the student’s use. He travels to another town to sell Gray’s horse and carriage, thus believing he’s finally rid of the sadistic graverobber. Fettes comes into the tavern and tells MacFarlane the little girl is now walking. The two then do their own graverobbing, and return to Edinburgh in a blinding rainstorm. But MacFarlane keeps hearing Gray’s voice mockingly calling, “Toddy….Toddy”. He hears Gray’s voice in rhythm with the clip-clop of the hoofs, :Ne-ver get rid-of me, ne-ver get rid-of me”.  He stops the carriage and has Fettes get out to light a lamp. MacFarlane takes a look at the corpse and sees Gray. His scream causes the horse to  wildly take off, Gray’s corpse bobbing alongside the doctor. The carriage goes off a cliff, killing MacFarlane. Fettes looks at the corpse, but sees only a dead woman. It was all in MacFarlane’s mind, Gray haunting him til the end.

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THE BODY SNATCHER is an early directorial effort from Robert Wise, who went on to helm blockbusters like WEST SIDE STORY and THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Wise never forgot his horror roots though, with the ghost stories THE HAUNTING and AUDREY ROSE also on his resume. The art and set direction evoke the time period, and Robert DeGrasse’s cinematography is dark and moody as the best noir. Roy Webb adds a haunting score peppered with Scottish folk songs. The entire crew deserves a round of applause for contributing to this eerie film.

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Dr. MacFarlane is played by Henry Daniell, one of the screen’s greatest villains in films like CAMILLE, THE GREAT DICTATOR, THE SEA HAWK, and JANE EYRE. Daniell even played Professor Moriarty, matching wits with Sherlock Holmes in THE WOMAN IN GREEN. The only weak link is Russell Wade as Fettes, as bland an actor as there was.  But it’s King Karloff’s performance as Gray that makes the movie, a showcase role proving he was not just another scary face, but a great actor as well. Cabman Gray stands tall in Karloff’s Rouge’s Gallery, and THE BODY SNATCHER is a film that frightens to this day. Happy  birthday, Boris!