Special Memorial Day Edition: Audie Murphy in BATTLE AT BLOODY BEACH (20th Century Fox 1961)

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When I was in college, I wrote a paper on Audie Murphy for history class. Murphy was a real American hero, the most decorated combat soldier of World War II. He held off an entire squad of German soldiers alone, armed with a machine gun and bleeding from a leg wound, under fire from both foot soldiers and tank fire. Then he rejoined his men and led an attack on the Germans, driving them back and earning the Medal of Honor for his valiant efforts.

Murphy was noticed by Hollywood upon his return from the war, and soon was cast in a successful series of Westerns: THE KID FROM TEXAS, KANSAS RAIDERS, DUEL AT SILVER CREEK, RED BADGE OF COURAGE, GUNSMOKE, and a remake of DESTRY. His autobiography TO HELL AND BACK was a national best seller, and Audie played himself in the film version. Surprisingly, Murphy only starred in one other war film, 1961’s BATTLE AT BLOODY BEACH.

The thirty-second movie of Audie Murphy. Starring Audie Murphy, Gary Crosby, Dolores Michaels, Alejandro Rey, Marjorie Stapp, Barry Atwater, and E. U. Andre. Summary: Audie Murphy performs in his second World War II movie after his autobiographical movie, TO HELL AND BACK. In this movie, Audie plays Craig Benson who is a civilian employee of the Navy working to help supply guerrilla insurgents in the Philippine Islands during World War II. The Japanese have already occupied the Pacific island country and the job is extremely hazardous. But Craig Benson has an ulterior motive for working in the enemy occupied islands. He is looking for his wife Ruth, played by Dolores Michaels, who has been fighting in the resistance with a group of local guerrillas with whom he was separated from two years before. Unfortunately, she believes her husband to be dead and has become romantically involved with the Filipino resistance leader Julio Fontana, played by Alejandro Rey.

Audie’s fighting the Japanese in this one, as Craig Benson, an American who was separated from his wife Ruth when the Japanese took over the Philippines.  Since then, he’s spent the past two years working with the U.S. Navy, helping to arm guerillas and searching for Ruth in the process. Benson’s dropped off with a shipment of arms on one of the islands, where he’s met by Army sergeant Sackler, who lends him his guide Blanco to search for rebels.

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Benson and Blanco are ambushed by the insurrectionist army of “General” M’Keever, who wants the arms Benson has brought. Benson doesn’t trust the wily general, and with good reason. M’Keever pulls a gun on Benson when, out of nowhere, Julio Fontana and his own rebel army attack the camp. After rescuing Benson, Fontana tells him he has seven Americans hiding out with him. Benson says needs to get the Americans to safety, and he’ll give Fontana the arms to battle the Japanese. But to Benson’s shock, one of the Americans is Ruth.

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Benson leads Fontana, Ruth, the Americans, and a few fighters across the dangerous terrain to the shore where the arms are kept, while Fontana’s right hand man Tiger Blair and the rest wait behind. What Benson doesn’t know is Ruth and Fontana are now an item, as she thought him long dead and joined with the freedom fighters. They arrive back at the shoreline, where the arms are stashed in an old wrecked ship, when they’re suddenly surrounded by the Japanese army, and now must fight for their lives to survive despite insurmountable odds.

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BATTLE AT BLOODY BEACH is a great title, but the film’s only so-so. Although there are some flashes of violence in the beginning, the “battle” doesn’t really get started until we’re about two-thirds of the way through. It’s talky and melodramatic, spending too much time on the love triangle and not enough on the battle. Audie Murphy had great screen presence, but truthfully he wasn’t so great as an actor.  Given the right material, like in RED BADGE OF COURAGE and NO NAME ON THE BULLET, he excelled. Unfortunately, this film doesn’t give him much to work with, and the result is, except a few brief moments, rather tame.

The supporting cast consists of mainly Familiar Faces from the ranks of television. Dolores Michaels (Ruth) was a B starlet of the 50’s who ended her career in episodic TV. Alejandro Rey (Fontana) makes his American film debut here, and he’s good; his best known role was Carlos Ramirez, friend of THE FLYING NUN. Gary Crosby (son of Bing, ADAM-12) plays Sackler, and winds up getting eaten by a shark for his troubles! Ivan Dixon (Tiger) is better known as Kinch on HOGAN’S HEROES. William Mims, who’s flamboyant as M’Keever, popped up all over episodic TV in guest spots. One of the Americans, the wounded Jeff, is Barry Atwater. If that name rings a bell, you’re probably a horror fan, as Atwater portrayed the vampire Janos Skorzeny in the classic TV Movie THE NIGHT STALKER.

Young Lt. Murphy receiving the Medal of Honor on 6/2/45
Young Lt. Murphy receiving the Medal of Honor on 6/2/45

Director Herbert Coleman was associated with Alfred Hitchcock as an assistant director and producer. Producer/screenwriter Richard Maibaum’s credits stretch back to 1936’s WE WENT TO COLLEGE, but film buffs will surely recognize his name as writer of 13 James Bond movies, beginning with the first, DR. NO. BATTLE AT BLOODY BEACH isn’t the most exciting war film, but it has its moments, and it does star a real war hero, Audie Murphy. Today, while you’re at your family cookouts, take time to remember men like Murphy, who gave so much to this country in the service of freedom. We owe them a huge amount of gratitude. Even in these crazy, divided political times, there’s no country I’d rather be a part of than the United States of America!

 

Love Means Never Having To Say You’re Ugly: THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (AIP 1971)

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For a 13-year-old monster-crazed kid in 1971, attending the latest Vincent Price movie at the local theater on Saturday afternoon was a major event. Price was THE horror star of the time, having assumed the mantle when King Karloff passed away a few years before. Not to take anything away from Mr. Cushing and Mr. Lee, but “Vincent Price Movies” had become, like “John Wayne Movies “, a sort of genre unto themselves. AIP had squeezed about every nickel they could  out of the Edgar Allan Poe name so, with the release of THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, a new character was created for the horror star, the avenging evil genius Dr. Anton Phibes.

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Phibes is a concert organist, theologian, scientist, and master of acoustics who uses his knowledge and vast wealth to gain revenge on the nine surgeons who (to his mind) botched an operation that killed his wife. We first see Phibes in his art-deco lair, playing the organ ala THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Winding up his animatronic band (Dr. Phibes’ Clockwork Wizards), his silent, deadly, and beautiful assistant Vulnavia enters, and the two dance to “Darktown Strutters Ball” (and yes, that familiar singing voice is good ol’ Paul Frees !). Phibes and Vulnavia then proceed to visit one of the doctors, dropping a battery of killer bats into the sleeping surgeon’s bedroom.

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This is just the first of many gruesome deaths Phibes has planned for the surgical team. With the Old Testament Ten Curses of Egypt as his template, the fiendish Phibes exacts his revenge using frogs (a frog’s head mask at a masquerade ball squeezes its victim’s neck, decapitating him), blood (draining every last pint out of Terry-Thomas ), hail (a locked car is equipped with an ice making machine), rats (a biplane pilot trapped with the furry little devils), livestock (impaled by a catapulted unicorn’s head), and locusts (boiled Brussels sprouts poured on another sleeping victim, descended upon by locusts who eat her flesh).

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Inspector Trout of Scotland Yard has been assigned to investigate the bizarre goings-on, feeling the heat from his superior Crow, who keeps calling him “Pike”. Trout learns the dead doctors all worked with the eminent Dr. Vesalius, and on one case in particular. But Victoria Regina Phibes husband was killed in a car accident, so it couldn’t be him… could it? Vesalius is given reason to belive that somehow, Phibes escaped the fiery crash, and is alive and unwell somewhere in London. The two men exhume the Phibes’s coffins, discovering ashes in Anton’s coffin. Trout suspects they belong to Phibes’ chauffeur, and when they open Victoria’s coffin, her body isn’t there.

Phibes kidnaps Visalius’s son, vowing to place the death of the firstborn curse on him. He implants a key into the boy’s ribcage, and Visalius must race against time to remove it and free his child before the slowly dripping acid hits his face and kills him. Trout and his men show up, looking for Phibes. Vulnavia sacrifices herself so the mad Phibes can carry out the final curse for Victoria and himself… the curse of darkness.

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Price has a field day as the deranged doctor. With tongue placed firmly in cheek, the role requires him to act mainly with his eyes and body. His voice is only heard through an electronic box he’s invented with his acoustical genius. Phibes speaks haltingly, lips not moving, due to the horrific damage done to him in the accident (which he reveals to Visalius during the climax). Trevor Crole-Rees’ makeup job on Price is sufficiently eerie (remember when makeup artists were horror film rock stars?). By the way, Phibes’ wife’s name is an in-joke for Price fans, as he first came to fame acting in a Broadway play titled “Victoria Regina” opposite Helen Hayes.

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Joseph Cotten costars as Dr. Visalius, a long way from CITIZEN KANE and Jedediah Leland. My favorite actor here is Peter Jeffrey as the put-upon but dogged Trout. Jeffrey was offered but turned down the role of Doctor Who in the mid-sixties. Oscar winner Hugh Griffith (BEN-HUR)  plays a helpful rabbi. Model Virginia North, who appeared in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, is the bewitching vixen Vulnavia. Another Bond Girl, Caroline Munro (THE SPY WHO LOVE ME), plays Victoria… sort of. We see her only in photographs and, at the end, as a corpse. Munro was also a veteran of Hammer horrors (CAPTAIN KRONUS- VAMPIRE HUNTER, DRACULA A.D. 1972), Ray Harryhausen’s THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, and starred as Stella Star in the cult classic STARCRASH.

The movie’s campy tone and art deco look can be credited to director Robert Fuest, a former set designer who began directing on British TV’s THE AVENGERS. Fuest also did the sequel DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN,and the horrors THE DEVIL’S RAIN and THE LAST DAYS OF MAN ON EARTH. Noted for his “black humor”, Fuest wasn’t given many opportunities to direct, but when he did, he put his own unique stamp on the project. The art direction on THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES is credited to Bernard Reeves, his only feature credit. I suspect Fuest had a hand in some of the set designs here, melding thirties style design with a futuristic touch. The score by Basil Kirchin incorporates some familiar thirties tunes, including a particularly memorable one made popular by Judy Garland in THE WIZARD OF OZ (you know which one I’m talking about!)

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Vincent Price starred in the sequel, and had other successes with the revenge horrors THEATER OF BLOOD and MADHOUSE. But by the mid-70’s, tastes in terror were changing, and soon slasher shockers would rule the horror roost. The classic monsters (and the actor’s who portrayed them) gave way to Michael Myers, Freddie Krueger, and Jason Voorhees. And though change is inevitable, there are still fans of the masters like Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney, Lee, Cushing, and Vincent Price today. As long as there are classic movie buffs, both those who grew up with these films and younger fans discovering them via TCM and other media outlets, the works of these genre greats will live on. Helping to keep them alive is what makes blogging here on Cracked Rear Viewer and Through the Shattered Lens so rewarding for me.

 

 

Happy Birthday John Wayne: SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (RKO 1949)

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My all-time favorite actor was born Marion Mitchell Morrison on May 26, 1907 in Winterset, Iowa. But John Wayne the movie star was born in 1930 when, after years of bit parts, he landed the lead role in Raoul Walsh’s THE BIG TRAIL. The movie flopped at the box office, but it got Wayne noticed. After scuffling along in low-budget, juvenile B-Westerns for most of the 30’s, Wayne was cast as The Ringo Kid in John Ford’s blockbuster STAGECOACH , and his career took off like a wild stallion.

“The Duke” (a nickname he picked up as a kid) was an A-Lister now, the biggest star at Republic Pictures. Wayne and Ford continued their film collaborations throughout the 40’s. At the end of the decade RKO released the second of the Wayne/Ford “Cavalry Trilogy”, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON. The film was a smash hit, a rousing adventure bolstered by Wayne’s portrayal of a man twenty years older than himself, Captain Nathan Brittles.

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Nathan Brittles is a  by-the-book horse soldier who rose through the ranks to make captain. He lives by his choices, his code summed up in his favorite saying: “Never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness”. His practical, no-nonsense manner make Nathan a well-respected cavalry officer, but mask his softer side. Nathan Brittles is a true sentimentalist, making nightly visits to speak with his deceased wife at her gravesite. He’s loyal to his men, especially his Irish Top Sergeant Quincannon, who has a penchant for the bottle. And his gruff demeanor with Lieutenants Cohill and Pinnette are designed to bring out the best in them. Nathan Brittles is a completely different performance from Wayne’s other two 1949 roles (John Breen in THE FIGHTING KENTUCKIAN and Sgt. Stryker in SANDS OF IWO JIMA), and The Duke proves once again he’s not only a “star”, but a fine actor.

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Nathan’s just six days away from retirement, eager to ride west to the untamed California territory.  His superior officer Major Allshard gives him one last assignment: a final patrol to talk peace with the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, who’ve left the reservation to band together with renegades seeking to wage war with the whites after The Battle of Little Big Horn. But there’s a catch, as the Major wants Nathan to take his wife and young niece Olivia along, sending them away from the potential threat of war. Nathan protests (in writing, according to protocol), but reluctantly leads the troop through hostile territory, assisted by his lieutenants Cohill and Pinette, both of whom are vying for Olivia’s affections. They’re to drop the ladies at the stagecoach station on the way. However, advance scout Sgt. Tyree discovers a horrific tableau, and Nathan and his men ride out to discover the station burned, the man and woman who run it dead, their children left orphans. Now Nathan must take these children along and return to Fort Starke, his mission a failure.

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Nathan, disheartened by his perceived failure, inspects the troops one last time, the men presenting him with a silver watch for his retirement, inscribed “To Captain Brittles from C Troop, Lest We Forget”, choking the stoic leader up. He tricks Quincannon into donning civilian togs and gives him money to spend at the bar. Quincannon is arrested for this and put in the guardhouse, after a comic barroom brawl. Nathan has done this for Quincannon’s own safety, as he knows the Irishman has two weeks to go before his own retirement, and his fondness for whiskey would probably end up with Quincannon getting booted from the service without Nathan to keep him in check. (Plus, the brawl itself is hilarious, staged by some of Hollywood’s top stuntmen, including Frank McGrath and Gil Perkins. And what’s a John Ford film without a good barroom brawl!)

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Nathan has four hours remaining before his time with the Cavalry is up, so he rides with Tyree straight into enemy camp. He has a powwow with Chief Pony-That-Walks, hoping to avoid the potential bloodshed. The two old warhorses believe that “old men should stop wars”. Pony-That-Walks agrees, but believes it’s “too late, young men don’t listen…many will die”. Having failed, Nathan and his men devise a nighttime raid that scatters the Indian’s horses, thus leaving them on foot. The Indians, having lost face, must now walk back to their reservations, and the war has been averted. Nathan Brittles, “ex-Captain of Cavalry USA”, now heads west to California, “towards the setting sun, the end of the trail for all old men”. Suddenly, Tyree rides up on him with news from the war department… Nathan has been made Chief of Scouts, and given the rank of Lt. Colonel by his contacts in Washington (including President Ulysses S. Grant!). Nathan and Tyree return to Fort Starke, where a dance is being held in his honor. But first, he excuses himself, returning once again to his wife’s grave to give her the good news.

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John Ford  surrounds Wayne with a solid supporting cast. John Agar and Harry Carey Jr. play the rival Lieutenants, with Joanne Dru (Wayne’s RED RIVER costar) as the object of their affections. Victor McLaglen (Quincannon) is the comic relief, and almost steals the picture. George O’Brien (Major Allshard) was a silent star thanks to Ford’s 1924 THE IRON HORSE and F.W.Murnau’s classic SUNRISE, and later made a series of B-Westerns. Ben Johnson (Tyree) was a champion rodeo rider and stuntman, a favorite of both Ford and his spiritual heir Sam Peckinpah. Johnson won a supporting actor Oscar for 1971’s THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. Other Ford favorites here are Mildred Natwick, Arthur Shields (brother of Barry Fitzgerald), Ford’s own brother Francis, Chief John Big Tree, Noble Johnson, Tom Tyler, and Paul Fix. Actor/director Irving Pichel narrates the tale.

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John Wayne’s main costar is once again Monument Valley, Ford’s favorite shooting spot. Its rugged terrain forms the perfect background for Nathan’s rugged individualism, and Winton Hoch Technicolor cinematography won the Oscar for his breathtaking filming of the beautiful scenery. Hoch had honed his skills as cameraman on the James A. Fitzpatrick TRAVELTALKS shorts, and was awarded the Oscar on four separate occasions.

SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON is the best of the Ford/Wayne “Cavalry” films, a colorful, grand entertainment that provides another acting showcase for John Wayne. So here’s to The Duke on his 109th birthday anniversary, continuing to bring the American West to vibrant life in films like this one. And remember, “Never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness”!

A Fast Look at THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS (AIP 1955)

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I’ve never seen any of those FAST AND FURIOUS movies with Paul Weller, Vin Diesel, and The Rock (yeah I know, Dwayne Johnson, but he’ll always be The Rock to me). Nope, not even one. I just never had much interest in them. I’d heard of the 1955 THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, an early Roger Corman production, but never watched it either, until now. Seems I wasn’t missing anything.

THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS is Corman’s second film as producer, and first release for American International Pictures, under the moniker American Releasing Corporation. It’s an inauspicious debut for the company, to put it mildly. The story concerns escaped con Frank Webster, who kidnaps sports car racer Connie Adair and her white Jaguar (which is a nice car, by the way). They bicker with some tough-talking dialogue, as Frank plans on crossing the border to Mexico by driving the Jag in a road race to Mexico. The movie only comes to life during the racing scenes at the end. Otherwise, it’s pretty dull going.

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Corman wrote the story because of his love for racing. Allegedly, he does the driving of the car racing neck and neck with Webster. Corman got John Ireland to star as Webster by promising him the chance to codirect. Ireland handled the dramatic scenes, while editor Edwards Sampson did the racing action. It’s Ireland’s second stint as a director. Not surprisingly, he didn’t get a third. Roger Corman figured he could do much better, and took the director’s chair for his next film FIVE GUNS WEST, beginning a long and prosperous career.

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Dorothy Malone  adds sex appeal as Connie, if nothing else. Not her fault, as the script isn’t all that good. Iris Adrien, the poor man’s Joan Blondell, as a bit as a brassy diner waitress. Corman regulars Bruno Ve Soto and Joanthan Haze appear, as does Roger in a Hitchcockian cameo as a state trooper. Silent comedy star Snub Pollard has a role as a caretaker. Hmmm, what else… oh, did I mention the racing scenes are cool?

As you can probably tell, I wasn’t very impressed with THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS. It’s historically important as AIP’s first film, and Roger’s second, but it’s lackluster thanks mainly to Ireland’s uninspired direction. Maybe I should give those newer FAST AND FURIOUS flicks a chance. What do you think, Rock?

Rockin’ in the Film World #3: BEACH PARTY (AIP 1963)

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Finally! The weather here in New England has begun to break, and we’re heading into summer. I even managed to get some beach time in today. TCM beat me to the punch when they aired BEACH PARTY as part of their month-long salute to American International Pictures, a blast from the past filled with sand, surf, teenage sex, and plenty of good ol’ rock’n’roll! BEACH PARTY spawned a series of films and a whole slew of imitators , but AIP did ’em first and best.

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Teen idol Frankie Avalon and ex-Mouseketeer Annette Funicello starred in most of the AIP’s, using the same plot over and over. Frankie wants sex, but Annette wants to wait for marriage. They fight, and try to make each other jealous by dating someone new, but wind up together by film’s end. Simple, and rehashed using gimmicks like bodybuilding, drag racing, sky diving, and skiing to make things seem fresh. Even the old “haunted house” chestnut got used in the series’ last entry, GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI (with Tommy Kirk and Deborah Walley replacing Frankie & Annette).

Here, the beach antics involve Frankie & Annette on school vacation, where horny Frank plans to spend quality time alone with her. But not so fast: Annette’s invited the whole gang to join them at their rented beach house. Frankie is pissed, and gets with Hungarian hottie Ava (Eva Six, Miss Golden Globes of 1963), a waitress at the gang’s hang-out, Cappy’s (played by Morey Amsterdam). Cappy’s an overage beatnik who harbors Big Daddy, a mysterious beachfront guru from whom everyone’s waiting to hear “the word”.

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Bearded anthropologist Dr. R.O. Sutwell (Robert Cummings) is on the beach doing research, studying the mating habits of teens. He compares them to Aborigine tribal customs, with their slang talk and wild watusi-ing.  Sutwell’s accompanied by assistant Marianne (Dorothy Malone, Oscar winner for WRITTEN ON THE WIND), who pines for the uptight, clueless professor. Annette uses the older man (who the kids mockingly call “pig-bristles”) to get back at Frankie’s philandering with Ava.

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Enter Eric Von Zipper and his Rats. Arguably the most popular character in the entire series, he’s played by Harvey Lembeck, memorable in Billy Wilder’s STALAG 17 and as costar of Phil Silver’s SGT. BILKO show. Von Zipper’s clearly patterned after Marlon Brando in THE WILD ONE, but this bumbling biker’s dumb as a bag of rocks. With his catchphrase “You stupids!” and exaggerated Brooklyn accent, Lembeck steals the film with his comic zaniness. The best part is when he confronts Sutwell, who gives him the ancient “Himalayan finger”, causing its victims to revert to a state of suspended animation.

Also appearing in the cast and subsequent “beach party” flicks is pushing-30 John Ashley, who was in AIP’s 50’s epics HOT ROD GIRL and MOTORCYCLE GANG, and went on to star Eddie Romero’s Filipino “Blood” trilogy, and later produced TV hit THE A-TEAM. Candy Johnson was the girl in the fringe whose wild shimmying literally knocked the boys off their feet. Jody McCrea, son of Western star Joel, makes his debut appearance as Deadhead, the loveable goofball of the gang (later changed to Bonehead for some strange reason). Andy Romano and Alberta Nelson are the most recognizable Rats, while Meredith McRae, Valora Noland, and Gary Usher represent the surfers. And cult star Yvette Vickers (ATTACK OF THE 50-FOOT WOMAN, THE GIANT LEECHES) has an uncredited bit as one of Cappy’s yoga girls.

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Plenty of music is provided by surf guitar legend Dick Dale and his Del Tones, who perform “Swing’ and Surfin'” and “Secret Surfin’ Spot”. Frankie rocks out to the twist number “Don’t Stop Now”, while Annette sweetly sings “Treat Him Nicely”, and the duo duets on the theme song “Beach Party Tonight”. All these hijinks are ably handled by veteran director William Asher, who directed the bulk of TV’s I LOVE LUCY episodes, and produced and directed the series BEWITCHED for his wife Elizabeth Montgomery. Asher’s flair for comedy is highlighted by  wild brawl that turns into a pie fight at the conclusion.

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Oh, and Big Daddy is finally revealed to be none other than our old friend, Vincent Price, who gives us “the word”: “The Pit… bring me my pendulum, kiddies, I feel like swingin'”. Yep, it’s a plug for Vinnie’s upcoming Edgar Allan Poe flick THE HAUNTED PALACE. AIP may not have been known for highbrow product, but they sure knew how to cross-promote!

Take it away, Candy!!!:

 

On Willis O’Brien and THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (Allied Artists 1959)

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Willis O’Brien was the pioneer stop-motion animation wizard who fathered the immortal KING KONG . For that alone, he will be remembered as one of Hollywood’s giants. O’Brien started at the dawn of film, working for the Thomas Edison Company. He created an early dinosaur movie THE GHOST OF SLUMBER MOUNTAIN, which was cut down to eleven minutes by one Herbert Dowley, who took credit for O’Brien’s work. His crowning silent achievement was 1925’s THE LOST WORLD, an adaptation of the Arthur Conan Doyle adventure story that astounded filmgoers of the era.

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That same year, O’Brien married Hazel Collette, who bore him two sons. The O’Brien’s marriage was not a happy one, and they divorced in 1930. Hazel was mentally unstable, and diagnosed with tuberculosis the following year. Willis, whose drinking and philandering contributed to the marriage’s deterioration, remained devoted to his boys, especially young Willis Jr., who was born tubercular, and eventually lost his eyesight. After the success of KONG, O’Brien embarked on the sequel, SON OF KONG, and his sons visited the set to watch dad work. A short time after that visit, Hazel Collette O’Brien took a gun, murdered her own children, and attempted a botched suicide. She died in a Los Angeles prison hospital a year later.

This tragedy seemed to take the heart out of Willis O’Brien. He went back to work with his friend, producer Merian C. Cooper, on THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII, and did some work on Orson Welles’ classic CITIZEN KANE. But despite a loving and successful remarriage, the rest of his life was filled with unfinished dreams of film projects that never came to fruition. A small comeback was mounted in 1949, when O’Brien and his latest protégé Ray Harryhausen did the special effects for MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, a Cooper production that garnered an Oscar for the film pioneer. But by the late 50’s, Willis O’Brien was reduced to creating effects for low-budget monster movies like THE BLACK SCORPION and THE GIANT BEHEMOTH.

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THE GIANT BEHEMOTH was O’Brien’s last “giant monster’ movie. It starts off with a bang: an A-bomb explosion! A group of scientific minds has gathered in Britain to watch footage and hear a lecture from American Marine Biologist Steve Kearns (Gene Evans) on atomic waste. Meanwhile, trouble’s brewing off the coast of Cornwall, as dead fish are washed ashore, and a pulsating mass is causing those near it to burn. Kearns and Professor Bickford (Andre Morell) investigate, and the fish test positive for radiation. Rumors of a “sea monster” run rampant, and when the steamship Valkyrie is found beached with no survivors, Kerns and Bickford are convinced a Behemoth is on the loose!

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Alerting the local navies of England, France, and Germany, the search for the monster begins. Kearns and Bickford visit eccentric Dr. Sampson (Jack MacGowan ), who helps them identify Behemoth as a prehistoric creature. Behemoth hits land and attacks London, the military is called in (of course), but they’re no match for the berserk Behemoth. It returns to the sea, and Kearns and the forces of good track it down in a sub, blasting it with a torpedo hit and ending Behemoth’s reign of terror (though there’s a neat little twist at the film’s end!).

Sound familiar? Hell, yeah. Director Eugene Lourie was brought in to make the original script (from blacklisted writer Daniel James) more like his 1953 hit THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. He certainly succeeded in that respect. Star Gene Evans is about as credible a scientist as I am, but does make a sturdy hero. The acting honors go to MacGowan (THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, THE EXORCIST) as the slightly daft Dr. Sampson. But THE GIANT BEHEMOTH is fun on a Saturday matinée popcorn movie level, and though it’s derivative of Lourie’s other monster movie (and GODZILLA, to a certain extent), it does feature O’Brien’s visual effects. In fact, the scenes of Behemoth terrorizing London stomping on cars and spreading his deadly radioactivity, are the film’s highlights.

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Willis O’Brien contributed to one more movie, some scenes at the end of IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD , before his death in 1962. His life story is tragic, but his artistry lives on through legendary movies like KING KONG and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. And as much of a rehash as THE GIANT BEHEMOTH is, it’s still a last chance to see the screen’s mightiest maker of monsters work his magic one last time.

 

 

Egging The McGufffin: HIGH ANXIETY (20th Century Fox 1977)

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Mel Brooks loves films as much as the rest of us do. After skewering Westerns in BLAZING SADDLES and horror movies in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, Mel set his satirical sights on Alfred Hitchcock in HIGH ANXIETY. The result is a film buff’s dream, with the gags coming fast and furious as Mel and his band of merry pranksters pay a loving but hysterical homage to the films of the Master of Suspense.

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Mel takes the lead here as Dr. Richard Thorndyke, the new head of the Psycho Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. Thorndyke’s aide, the inept Brophy, thinks the former director was “a victim of foul play”. At the Institute, he meets oily Dr. Montague and starched Nurse Diesel, whose S&M/B&D relationship isn’t their only secret. Thorndyke has an ally in his mentor, Prof. Lilloman (say it slowly). The professor works as a consultant, and tries to help Thorndyke conquer his own phobia, “high anxiety” (fear of heights to you laymen).

Thorndyke discovers some very rich patients are being held there, but Montague assures him they’re very sick people, such as Zachary Cartwright, who sees werewolves, and Arthur Brisbane, who thinks he’s a Cocker Spaniel. After the mysterious death (“murder… I mean accident, accident”, sputters Montague, Thorndyke is encouraged to attend the psychiatric convention in San Francisco. A “Mr. McGuffin” called and moved his room to the 17th floor! Once he makes it up there, a typical Hitchcock blonde bursts in, saying “They’re after me!” Turns out she’s Victoria Brisbane, daughter of Arthur. Thorndyke shows her a picture and she tells him the Cocker Spaniel-wanna-be is not her father at all!

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After completing his lecture on penis envy (which he has to alter when a colleague show up with his two young daughters!), Thorndyke and Victoria meet up in the piano bar, where we get to hear Mel croon his self-penned “High Anxiety” in his Sinatra-via-the-Catskills style. Monatgue and Diesel have hired a killer named “Braces” to disguise himself as Thorndyke and commit murder. Now Richard Thorndyke must clear his name and find out the truth about what’s really going on at the Psycho Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous!

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Brooks loaded the cast with comedy pals like Harvey Korman as Montague, and Cloris Leachman as Nurse Diesel, who’s a cross between REBECCA’s Mrs. Danvers and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST’s Nurse Ratched. Madeline Kahn (Victoria), draped in a blonde wig, spoofs Hitchcock leading ladies like Grace Kelly and Tippy Hedren. Ron Carey, Charlie Callas, and Jack Riley add to the fun, and Oscar-winning Special Effects genius Albert Whitlock (who worked on nine Hitchcock films) plays the real Brisbane. Even Mel’s co-writers get into the act, including future director Barry Levinson (DINER, RAIN MAN) as a deranged bellboy.

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Fans of the Master will get most of the jokes right off the bat. Besides the obvious shower scene from PSYCHO and Mel being chased by THE BIRDS (pigeons who shit all over him… hey, nobody ever said Mel Brooks was subtle!), there are references to THE 39 STEPS, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, SABOTEUR, SPELLBOUND, REAR WINDOW, DIAL M FOR MURDER, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, and of course VERTIGO. Even Hitchcock supposedly liked HIGH ANXIETY, sending Mel a case of expensive wine after watching it with a note reading, “A small token of my pleasure, have no anxiety about this”(1). Movie fans will have a ball picking out the Hitchcock allusions in HIGH ANXIETY…. once they stop laughing!

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(1) quote from “It’s Good to Be the King: The Seriously Funny Life of Mel Brooks” by James Robert Parrish (2008, Wiley & Sons, ISBN 9780470225264)