Bloody Pulp Fiction: THE SET-UP (RKO 1949)

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The seedy worlds of professional boxing and film noir were made for each other. Both are filled with corruption, crime, and desperate characters trapped in situations beyond their control.  Movies like CHAMPION, BODY AND SOUL, and THE HARDER THEY FALL expose the dark underbelly of pugilism. One of the best of this sub-genre is THE SET-UP, Robert Wise’s last film for RKO studios. He doesn’t fail to deliver the goods, directing a noir that packs a wallop!

THE SET-UP follows one night in the life of aging, washed up fighter Stoker Thompson ( Robert Ryan ). Stoker’s 35 now, ancient in boxing terms, but still has delusions of making the big time. Wife Julie (Audrey Totter ) is tired of going from one tank town to the next, and fears for Stoker’s safety. She refuses to go to tonight’s fight, a matchup with up and coming young contender Tiger Nelson. Julie, unlike Stoker, knows the man is running out of time.

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Time plays an important role in this movie, as the script is laid out in real-time, three years prior to the Oscar-winning HIGH NOON. The clock in Paradise City’s town square looms large in the film’s beginning (9:05) and end (10:16). Clocks pop up frequently throughout the movie, letting us know, as Julie already does, that Stoker’s time is running out. Wise’s brisk direction keeps the 72 minute film marching towards Stoker’s inevitable date with destiny.

Stoker’s manager Tiny (George Tobias) and trainer Red (Percy Helton) have made a deal with crooked gambler Big Boy (Alan Baxter) for Stoker to lose in the third round. But they don’t tell Stoker because they assume the bum will lose anyway, and why split the dough three ways? But they fail to realize the fighter in him, angry his wife hasn’t shown up and determined to prove himself worthy, won’t allow him to do anything but his best.

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The locker room is filled with fighters on their way up and down. Young Shanley (Daryl Hickman) is a bundle of nerves before his first professional bout. Cocky Danny (Edwin Max) lives for wine, women, and song, while devout Tony (Phillip Pine) depends on a Higher Power. Black fighter Luther (James Edwards) has big dreams ahead, but punchy Gunboat (David Clarke) has taken one too many blows to the head. The locker room is held together by cynical Gus ( Wallace Ford ) who’s seen ’em come and go, and knows that no one here gets out alive.

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The main event between Stoker and Tiger Nelson is well choreographed by ex-welterweight Johnny Indrisano, a stuntman and bit player (GUYS & DOLLS, SOME LIKE IT HOT, JAILHOUSE ROCK ). The bout is intense and realistic, with Wise using three cameras to capture the brutality. DP Milton Krasner’s use of shadows and light should’ve been Oscar nominated, but wasn’t (Paul Vogel won B&W cinematography that year for BATTLEGROUND). Editor Roland Gross ( THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD ) intersperses the action with shots of the bloodthirsty crowd, including a fat man who keeps stuffing his face, a blind spectator and his pal who interprets the carnage, a young couple, an older couple (the husband seems appalled at his wife’s blood lust), and a gentleman trying to watch the fight and listen to the ballgame on his transistor radio.

Tiny and Red finally tell Stoker to lay down, but the proud fighter is determined to prove himself one more time, and winds up knocking Tiger out. This doesn’t sit well with Big Boy, who just lost a bundle. The gambler, Nelson, and his people confront Stoker in the locker room. He tells them the truth, he didn’t know the fix was in. Tiny and Red have taken a powder, and now Stoker is truly alone. He attempts to leave through the arena, which is locked, and has no recourse than to head out through the alley, where Big Boy and his crew await. He valiantly fights back, but the odds are against him once again, and he’s held down as Big Boy crushes his hand with a brick. Julie sees her husband stagger out of the alley through their hotel window and rushes to him. Bloodied but unbowed, his meal ticket hand ruined, Stoker tells his wife “They wanted me to lay down… I took that kid… I can’t fight no more”. “I won tonight. I won”, he says, and Julie tells him “We both won tonight”, as the camera pulls back to show the town square clock, signaling time has finally run out for Stoker Thompson.

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The powerhouse script is  by ex-sportswriter Art Cohn, who died in the same 1958 plane crash as producer Mike Todd. It’s based on a poem by Joseph Moncure Marsh, with the protagonist changed from a black man to white due to the unsteady race relations of the era (RKO didn’t think a film starring a black boxer would sell in the segregated South). The casting of James Edwards (HOME OF THE BRAVE) was a crumb tossed to black audiences. Even with the change of race, THE SET-UP is still one of the best boxing films in film noir, and holds up well today. Special mention should be made to the use of sound in the movie, with Phil Brigandi and Clem Portman’s work outstanding. Plenty of Familiar Faces show up, like Herbert Anderson, Bernard Gorcey (Louie Dumbrowski of THE BOWERY BOYS series), Donald Kerr ( THE DEVIL BAT ), Tommy Noonan , Charles Wagenheim, and Constance Worth. Famed New York crime photographer Arthur “Weegee” Fellig has a cameo as the timekeeper.

THE SET-UP is downbeat as all hell, but that’s what makes a good noir, a glimpse into the dark side of life. With its squalid boxing milieu and shady cast of characters, this is one movie fans of the genre will not want to miss.

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A YEAR OF CRACKED REAR VIEWING!

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On June 26, 2015, I published my first post, a look at the 1941 Peter Lorre film THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK (appropriate, since today is Mr. Lorre’s birthday). Since then, Cracked Rear Viewer has published over 280 posts, covering mostly classic movies. It’s been a year in which I’ve left my long-time job to take a new position, only to have the rug pulled from under me when my program was defunded by the government. Fortunately, I’ve managed to land on my feet relatively unscathed, at least for the moment. My love for spreading the gospel of Classic Films, however,  has not dissipated, and despite continuing time constraints, I’ve been able to keep this blog going strong.

That’s directly because of you, Dear Readers, who’ve supported my efforts to bring you ‘Fresh Takes on Retro Pop Culture”. Though I mostly deal with classic film, I’ve also sprinkled in some looks at books, television, and music I thought would be of interest to you. We’re now 250 followers strong (not including reposts to Facebook, Twitter, and the good people at THROUGH THE SHATTERED LENS) and viewership continues to grow. Over 11,376 views and counting, with over 6,367 visitors as of this morning. The USA is #1 with 7,642 views, followed by Great Britain, Canada, Germany, and France,  with Australia and Spain in hot pursuit. Never did I imagine I’d gain an international following!

The posts you’ve liked best are an eclectic mix to be sure, due to the eclectic nature of this blog. Here are links to the Top 20 posts of the past year:

Love That Dirty Water: Johnny Depp in BLACK MASS 

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My Living Doll: ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 7: Film Noir Festival

Unfunny Business: Bela Lugosi in ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY

Happy Birthday Robert Mitchum: OUT OF THE PAST

Beyond Redemption: 1947’s BORN TO KILL

FILE – NOVEMBER 23, 2012:  The American romantic movie drama Casablanca celebrated its world premiere on November 26, 1942. Starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman the film was a solid success in its initial run, winning three Academy Awards, and its characters, dialogue, and music have become iconic. It now consistently ranks near the top of lists of the greatest films of all time. Please refer to the following profile on Getty Images Archival for further imagery: http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/Search/Search.aspx?EventId=113854183&EditorialProduct=Archival&esource=maplinARC_uki_12nov Humphrey Bogart (1899 - 1957) and Ingrid Bergman (1915 - 1982) star in the Warner Brothers film 'Casablanca', 1942. (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Top Ten Reasons CASABLANCA is The Greatest Movie Ever Made!!

Have a Bucket of Fun!: THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE

The Farce Awakens: PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 4: B-Movie Roundup!

A Dying Man, Scared of the Dark: John Wayne in THE SHOOTIST

Hidden Gem: Natalie Wood in PENELOPE

The Devil Made Me Do It: EQUINOX

Homeless to lose some spots after 2 New Bedford transitional housing programs lose HUD funding

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(tie) Irish Eyes Are Smiling: THE QUIET MAN

(tie) Halloween Havoc!: THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE

(another tie) I Wish I Were A Fish: Don Knotts in THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET

(another tie) Madeleine LeBeau: Vive La France!

A Star is Born in Monument Valley: John Wayne in John Ford’s STAGECOACH

Halloween Havoc!: Peter Lorre in MAD LOVE

Highway Star: VANISHING POINT

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Happy 82nd Birthday Donald Duck! 

I initiated some continuing series early on, and “Cleaning Out the DVR” has proved the most popular, with capsule descriptions of five different films. Other series have been “That’s Blaxploitation!”, “Pre-Code Confidential”, and “Rockin’ in the Film World”, with a possible new series in the works (stay tuned!). October’s “Halloween Havoc!” horror marathon was both successful and challenging, and will return this year with a post a day on your favorite monster movies (I’ll definitely  be getting a head start this season!).

So thank you one and all who follow this labor of love, and I hope to continue doing it for years to come. I’d like to end here with a request for some feedback from you Dear Readers. What would you lie to see more of here, what would you like to see less of? Are there any specific films or actors you’d like to see covered? You guys make this site happen, and your feedback is important to me, so let me know! And again, thank you for reading Cracked Rear Viewer!

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Saddle Sore: BILLY THE KID (MGM 1941)

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What kind of topsy-turvy world is this? Perennial bad guy Brian Donlevy is on the side of the law, loveable Gene Lockhart is the villain, and almost 30 Robert Taylor is BILLY THE KID. This 1941 Technicolor horse opera has only a passing resemblance to reality, and was actually a remake of a 1930 film starring Wallace Beery and Johnny Mack Brown, which depicted the outlaw’s legend a bit more truthfully… but not much!

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In this version, Billy joins up with ruthless cattleman Hickey, who’s out to takeover Lincoln County. They start a stampede of rival Keating’s cattle, and during the commotion Billy encounters childhood friend Jim Sherwood, now working for Keating. Billy and his pal Pedro switch sides, and Pedro takes a bullet for it. The Kid is out for revenge, but Keating’s cooler head prevails, and he sets out to seek help from the territorial governor.

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But Keating doesn’t make it, as we see the familiar trope of his empty horse returning to the ranch. Hickey tries to make it look like Keating was killed escaping the law, but the hotheaded Billy ain’t a-buying it. He, Jim, and the Keating hands ride into town, but when kill-crazy Billy goes too far, Jim has him locked up while he negotiates with Hickey. Billy escapes of course, and hunts down the men responsible for Keating’s death. Jim and Hickey corral Billy, who shoots the bad hombre in the back. Billy and Jim have a final showdown, which Billy loses on purpose by drawing with his right hand instead of his usual left.

Yeah, that’s the whole shootin’ match in a nutshell, pardner. You might recognize some of the Monument Valley locations, but you’ll notice the painfully obvious matte shots more. The color cinematography was Oscar nominated, but lost to THE BLACK SWAN. Director David Miller’s no John Ford either; he had an uneven career, his best film being 1962’s LONELY ARE THE BRAVE, an existential tale of a cowboy at odds with modern society starring Kirk Douglas.

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Robert Taylor is stoic and tight-lipped as Billy, and not in a Gary Cooper way. Taylor was a handsome hunk who made the girls swoon, but not a great actor by any measure. He had a long film career based on his looks, though I can’t think of any movies he really stands out in. Brian Donlevy was better cast as a slimy villain in Westerns like UNION PACIFIC, DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, and THE VIRGINIAN; as a hero he’s only so-so here. It’s jarring to see Gene Lockhart as the baddie after having so much sympathy for him in 1938’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL , where he played Bob Cratchit. Lockhart is one of those character actors who’s good in whatever role he did, one of my favorites being the weasely sheriff in HIS GIRL FRIDAY.

"Even a man who's pure of heart, and says his prayers by night..."
“Even a man who’s pure of heart, and says his prayers by night…”

Let’s not forget the Familiar Face Brigade, and this movie’s loaded with them. Lon Chaney Jr is one of Keating’s henchmen, just before turning into THE WOLF MAN that same year. Ian Hunter (Keating) was King Richard in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD and the long-lost dad in Shirley Temple’s THE LITTLE PRINCESS. Every cowboy movie’s gotta have an ingénue, and undistinguished MGM starlet Mary Howard fills the bill here. Thar’s plenty of sagebrush vets filling out the rest of the cast, including Olive Blakeney, Dick Curtis, Arthur Housman, Cy Kendall, Henry O’Neill, Kermit Maynard, Frank Puglia, Chill Wills, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, and Grant Withers.

BILLY THE KID strives to be a thrilling action epic, but falls far short of the mark. It has more in common with Saturday matinee B-Westerns than John Ford or Cecil B. DeMille. The casting leaves a lot to be desired, especially with stiff Taylor in the title role. Speaking of which, why did they even bother to use the real William Bonney as the protagonist in this unfactual flick? Why not GEORGE THE KID, or SIX-GUN STEVE, or even A BOY NAMED STU? If you want Billy the Kid, you’re better off catching Paul Newman in THE LEFT HANDED GUN or Sam Peckinpah’s PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID.

Soda Pop Cops: THE SEVEN-UPS (20th Century Fox 1973)

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Theater screens of the 70’s were awash in blue as the “tough guy cop” film put a chokehold on Hollywood. DIRTY HARRY Callahan took on punks in a series of action flicks, SERPICO took down corruption in New York, and L.A. detective Joseph Wambaugh’s novels were adapted into big (and small) screen features.  Producer Philip D’Antoni helped usher in this modern take on film noir with 1968’s BULLITT starring Steve McQueen, followed by the Oscar-winning THE FRENCH CONNECTION , with Gene Hackman as brutal cop Popeye Doyle.

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D’Antoni decided to direct his next effort, 1973’s THE SEVEN-UPS. CONNECTION costar Roy Scheider gets his first top-billed role as Buddy Manucci, head of an elite “dirty tricks” squad that takes down perps whose felonies will land them seven years and up in jail (hence the title; it has nothing to do with the lemon-lime soda!). Manucci’s childhood pal Vito Lucia (Tony LoBianco) is an informer giving Buddy tips on criminal activities in The Big Apple. Mobster Max Kallish is a target, until he’s kidnapped and ransomed for $100g’s. When a second gangland figure is snatched, Buddy senses something’s going down in the streets. What he doesn’t sense is his friend Vito’s the mastermind behind the mob kidnappings, playing both ends against the middle.

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This sets the stage for action, double-crosses, and one of D’Antoni’s signature car chases through the streets of New York that almost (but not quite) matches THE FRENCH CONNECTION in intensity. Staged by ace stunt driver Bill Hickman (who also plays one of Vito’s thuggish partners-in-crime), it takes us on a ten minute joyride through Manhattan, across the George Washington Bridge, down New Jersey’s Palisades International Parkway, and ends on Tacoima State Parkway with Buddy’s car smashing into the rear of a semi, tearing the top off and almost decapitating him ala Jayne Mansfield!

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Scheider was Gene Hackman’s costar in FRENCH CONNECTION, and takes the lead here as Buddy. Two years later, he’d star in the shark shocker JAWS, followed by hits like MARATHON MAN, ALL THAT JAZZ (a personal favorite), BLUE THUNDER, 2010, and 52 PICK-UP. LoBianco is probably best known for the cult chiller THE HONEYMOON KILLERS. Richard Lynch plays Moon, Vito’s other goon, and was the villain in scores of 70’s and 80’s films. Other in the cast were Larry Haines, Ken Kercheval (of TV’s DALLAS), Victor Arnold, and real-life NYC homicide detective Jerry Leon.

Sonny Grosso, another real NY cop, wrote the story based on true life incidents. Grosso was the basis for Scheider’s character in FRENCH CONNECTION. Jazzman Don Ellis once again provides the score, and DP Urs Furrer (SHAFT) captures the grittiness of early 70’s New York. As for Philip D’Antoni, he moved to the small screen after THE SEVEN-UPS, producing the series MOVIN’ ON, about a pair of cross-country truckers (Claude Aikins, Frank Converse) and their exploits on the road. D’Antoni never directed again, and that’s a shame, because THE SEVEN-UPS is a well-paced thriller. It may not be as fondly remembered as BULLITT or THE FRENCH CONNECTION, but the movie doesn’t disappoint in the action department, and is worth a look for genre fans.

Happy Birthday Errol Flynn: DESPERATE JOURNEY (Warner Brothers 1942)

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The actor known for his “wicked, wicked ways”, Errol Flynn was born June 20, 1909 in Hobart, Australia. The dashing Flynn skyrocketed to fame with a series of swashbuckling exploits: CAPTAIN BLOOD , THE SEA HAWK, and most notably THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD. He was also featured in some of the great Westerns of the era (THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, SANTA FE TRAIL). Like all stalwart screen heroes, during the 1940’s Flynn made a number of wartime propaganda films to boost morale for the masses. One of these was DESPERATE JOURNEY, a totally improbable but highly exciting action yarn from the two-fisted, one-eyed Raoul Walsh, director of such macho fare as THE ROARING TWENTIES, HIGH SIERRA, and WHITE HEAT.

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An RAF bomber squad is sent on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines to take out a train depot. They accomplish the task, but are shot down by Nazi heavy artillery. Forced to crash-land, the survivors (Aussie Flight Lt. Terry, American Flight Officer Johnny, Canadian Flight Officer Jed, Brit Flight Sgts. Kirk and Lloyd)  are captured by the evil Nazis and taken before Major Baumeister. The Major tries to get airplane intel out of Johnny, but the cocky American gives him the double-talk and knocks the evil kraut out with the old one-two! The other men overtake the Nazi guards and escape, stealing some classified German documents on their way out (Johnny, reading one: “Degenerate democracy! That’s a great crack coming from Adolph!”) .

This pisses the Major off, of course, and he vows to hunt them down. But our plucky band of heroes thwart the Fascists at every turn, making monkeys out of them. After jumping some soldiers and stealing their uniforms, the crew hops a train (and it’s Goering’s private car, to boot!), and make their way into Berlin. They plot to blow up a chemical plant, and succeed, but Lloyd takes a bullet in the process. Terry meets up with a beautiful member of the German underground (what’s an Errol Flynn movie without a beautiful woman?) who tries to help them. She directs them to her parents place, and all seems well… until she walks in and discovers it’s not her parents, but Nazi sympathizers! Baumeister and his hoard surround the farmhouse, but the gang escapes yet again by stealing Baumeister’s car! (Though brave old Kirk doesn’t make it)

The furious chase continues until the Major’s car runs out of gas. Fortunately, our heroes stumble upon a captured British plane the Nazi’s plan on using to blow up a strategic waterworks. The trio manages to overpower the Nazis, but Major Baumeister and his men arrive on the scene, wounding Jed. Heroic Terry begins mowing down the Nazis with the plane’s machine gun, then takes off for the skies while heroic Johnny finishes the mowing down. All’s well that ends well, as Terry, Johnny, and Jed fly back to London, with Terry vowing, “Now for Australia and a crack at those Japs!!”

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WWII moviegoers must’ve cheered wildly at the spectacle of Nazis cut down by machine gun fire, and being made fools of throughout the film. DESPERATE JOURNEY was a box-office smash, even though Flynn was on trial for statutory rape at the time of its release (he was acquitted for those of you unfamiliar with Hollywood history). The film’s special effects were nominated for an Oscar, but didn’t win (nominee Byron Haskin later went on to direct the sci-fi classic WAR OF THE WORLDS). Arthur T. Horman’s script was pure fantasy, more like something out of Marvel Comics’ “Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos” than real life, but it hit all the right patriotic notes. Speaking of notes, Max Steiner contributes another of his rousing scores.

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Flynn shared  top billing in this with Ronald Reagan, who plays Johnny as a typically brash, wisecracking American. His “double-talk” scene earned kudos from both audiences and critics. This was Reagan’s last film before beginning a four-year hitch in the Armed Forces (he was stationed stateside).  When he returned to Hollywood, Reagan was relegated to B-movies, and his film career slowly fizzled out. That’s okay though, as Ronald Reagan found even greater success in his next career- politics.

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Major Baumeister is the epitome of Nazi evil as played by Raymond Massey. The growling, sneering Hun is a far cry from Massey’s noble ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS. Alan Hale Sr (Kirk) adds comic relief; he was Little John to Flynn’s Robin Hood in 1938 (offscreen, Hale was one of Flynn’s good drinking buddies). Arthur Kennedy is the sober-sided Canadian Jed. Ronald Sinclair (Lloyd) played young Ebeneezer Scrooge in A CHRISTMAS CAROL ; he later became a film editor mostly associated with Roger Corman. Other Familiar Faces in the cast are Sig Ruman, Nancy Coleman, Lester Matthews, and Albert Basserman. If you look close, you’ll also spot John Banner (HOGAN’S HEROES’ Sgt. Schultz), Walter Brooke, Helmut Dantine, and Phillip Van Zant.

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Then there’s Errol Flynn himself, with that rascally charm and roguish smile, leading his band of brothers through peril after peril. The virile Errol was actually classified 4-F during the war, suffering from heart ailments, chronic TB and Malaria, and assorted venereal diseases (not to mention his struggles with alcohol and morphine). But that didn’t stop Warner Brothers from casting him in more wartime dramas like DIVE BOMBER and OBJECTIVE BURMA. At least he could fight for his adopted country onscreen, kicking Nazi and Japanese ass and sending war-weary audiences home happy, at least for a while. Errol Flynn continued to make movies and carouse until his death in 1959, when his abused body finally gave out, a victim of his own “wicked, wicked ways”. He left behind a legacy of classic films for Hollywood fans to enjoy for years to come.

Rockin’ in the Film World #5: Elvis Presley in JAILHOUSE ROCK (MGM 1957)

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It’s hard for younger audiences to understand what a truly subversive figure Elvis Presley was in the 1950’s. Throughout the 1960’s he made safe, sanitized films that seem quite tame today, and his later Las Vegas persona has been parodied to death (and indeed, Presley became a parody of himself in the 70’s). But back in the day, Elvis was the original punk rocker, his gyrating hips and perpetual sneer causing quite a scandal among adults brought up on sedate Bing Crosby-type crooners. Teenagers were attracted to this new, rebellious musical style, and Presley became their King. Hits like “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Hound Dog”, and “All Shook Up” topped the charts, and a plethora of rock’n’roll artists jumped on the bandwagon. Elvis had already done two films by the time JAILHOUSE ROCK was released, a triumph of punk attitude about a convict’s rise to the top of the music heap.

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Young hothead Vince Everett (Elvis) kills a man in a bar fight over a woman, getting him ten years in jail for manslaughter. The cocky Vince is schooled in prison life by his cellmate Hunk, an ex-country singer who runs the prison’s black market economy where cigarettes are “the coin of the realm”. Hunk finds out Vince’s a pretty fair singer himself and lands him a spot in the warden’s talent show, being broadcast coast-to-coast to promote a good image. Vince sings “I Want to Be Free” and the jail’s flooded with tons of fan mail. Hunk has it all withheld and concocts a scheme to draw up a 50/50 contract with the brash younger con.

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Eventually Vince is released, and the warden gives him his sacks of mail. Hunk has arranged for Vince to work at the Club LaForito, which turns out to be a sleazy strip joint, whose owner wants him to bar back. He bombs onstage, but PR lady Peggy takes a shine to him, and soon he’s in the studio recording “Don’t Leave Me Now”. Peggy takes Vince to a swanky party hosted by her parents. To say he doesn’t fit in is an understatement, as the guests are discussing the latest in modern jazz. Vince leaves after insulting everyone, and when Peggy follows, he gives her a rough kiss, stating “It’s just the beast in me”.

“Don’t Leave Me Now” becomes a hit, but not for Vince, as the Geneva Records owner steals the arrangement and gives it to his biggest star Mickey Alba. Hotheaded Vince gets hot again and beats the tar out of the weasel. He and Peggy hire a lawyer and begin their own label. Vince records “Treat Me Nice” (one of Presley’s 50’s hits) and go out on the hustle, promoting the disc with DJ’s and stores. The song breaks big, and next thing you know Vince is a national star.

Television comes calling, and Vince is booked to appear in a number titled “Jailhouse Rock”. This is probably Presley’s finest moment in movies, an uptempo rocker set in a cellblock. Elvis choreographed his own dance moves, and though the tune’s a bit Hollywoodized compared to the original recording (adding a con’s chorus and some horns), it captures the spirit of young Elvis Presley at his best:

Success goes straight to Vince’s head. Hunk is released and, learning their jailhouse contract isn’t valid, is made into Vince’s flunky. His womanizing with starlet Sherry Wilson causes a rift between him and Peggy. When Vince wants to sell out his company and leave Peggy in the cold, Hunk loses it. A fight between to the former cellies winds up with Vince getting punched in the throat, unable to breathe. He’s rushed to the hospital with a damaged larynx, and may never sing again. But who are we kidding, of course he does, and we get a happy Hollywood ending with Vince reprising the song “Young and Beautiful”.

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Elvis’s surly demeanor as Vince is right on target. Of all his films, JAILHOUSE ROCK is right up top (along with KING CREOLE and FLAMING STAR ) as showcases for his acting ability. Not only that, he gets to sing some great Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller songs. Besides those I mentioned earlier, The King does another of his great rock anthems, “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care”. The music here’s better than the sappy tunes he sung in his sanitized 60’s films, and only KING CREOLE comes close in the soundtrack department.

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Pretty Judy Tyler (Peggy) was known to 50’s children as Princess Summerfall Winterspring on the pioneering TV show HOWDY DOODY. After filming JAILHOUSE ROCK, she and her husband were tragically killed in a car accident, causing Elvis so much grief he never watched this, his best movie. Mickey Shaughnessy (Hunk) was a dependable comic character actor who appeared in dozens of films and TV shows. Future Disney star Dean Jones has a role as a friendly DJ, while other Familiar Faces are Vaughn Taylor, Bess Flowers, Percy Helton, Bill Hickman, Donald Kerr , and Glenn Strange. Elvis’s backup band Scotty Moore, Bill Black, and DJ Fontana play Vince’s band, aided on keyboards by songwriter Stoller.

Guy Trosper’s screenplay was based on a story by blacklisted former actor Nedrick Young, who would come back the next year working with Stanley Kramer. Director Richard Thorpe was an old MGM warhorse dating back to the 20’s who lensed everything from Tarzan’s swinging adventures to Esther Williams splashtaculars. Producer Pandro S. Berman, another of Hollywood’s old guard, was coaxed into making an Elvis movie by his wife. Berman put his usual care into the production, and came up with another big hit for both the studio and Elvis. Critics of the time ripped JAILHOUSE ROCK apart, but today it’s seen as a milestone of the rock’n’roll movie, and Elvis Presley’s brightest, shiningest moment on the silver screen. Those of you who only think of Elvis as a bloated, jumpsuited Vegas lounge singer need to see JAILHOUSE ROCK to discover why he’s called The King. His loyal subjects (including yours truly) already know.

 

Bombs Away: THE ROOKIE (20th Century Fox 1959)

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If there’s a film room in hell, you can be sure THE ROOKIE is playing there continuously. This totally unfunny service “comedy” stars the team of Tommy Noonan and Peter Marshall. They’re about as funny as having a spike driven through your forehead. The only reason I’m writing about this atrocity is to give you all fair warning: DON’T WATCH IT!!

The story makes no sense whatsoever. Tommy is drafted just as WWII is over, and demands to be put through boot camp. A mix-up occurs at the Pentagon when two drunken janitors answer the phone, and Camp Clyde is ordered to stay open and put Tommy through basic training. This doesn’t sit well with Sgt. Peter Marshall, who was looking forward to discharging and marrying his sweetheart, starlet Lili Marlene (Julie Newmar, who’s wasted in this mess).

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News of this nonsense makes Lili’s PR man (Jerry Lester) come up with a brilliant idea: Lili will be the girl Tommy left behind, and drum up more pub for her career. The premise serves to spotlight a number of slapstick schticks and downright lousy jokes (Tommy: “I have laryngitis”- Peter: “Then why aren’t you whispering?”- Tommy: “Why, it’s no secret”). Peter gets to sing an ersatz rock number that’s as bad as you’d think it could be. Somehow or other, Noonan, Marshall, and Lili end up on a deserted island where they’re threatened by two Japanese soldiers who don’t know the war is over. The two are also played by Noonan and Marshall, and was probably as offensive back then as it is today.

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George O’Hanlon, of the “Joe McDokes” shorts (and the voice of George Jetson), directed this mishmash from a screenplay by himself and Noonan. It’s easy to see why he never got to direct again. I won’t mention the other cast members here, and I’m sure they would’ve wanted it that way. Believe it or not, the film actually turned a profit, and Noonan and Marshall starred in a sequel, SWINGIN’ ALONG, that didn’t do so well and mercifully put the nail in their screen coffin for good.

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After the team went their separate ways, Peter Marshall went on to success as the host of TV’s THE HOLLYWOOD SQUARES. And Noonan? He would make a couple of nudie-cuties, PROMISES PROMISES (with Jayne Mansfield) and THREE NUTS IN SEARCH OF A BOLT (with Mamie Van Doren) before succumbing to a fatal brain tumor in 1967. There’s an easy joke in there, but I’m not gonna make it. Just do yourselves a favor… do not waste your precious time watching THE ROOKIE. You’ve been warned!

Twilight of the Gods: HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE (Woolner Brothers 1967)

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Let’s face it, HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE is a lousy excuse for a movie. The acting is atrocious, the script derivative and juvenile, and the direction nearly non-existent. It’s a scare comedy that’s neither scary nor funny, and if you’re not a fan of 60’s style Country & Western music you’ll absolutely hate it. The only reason this Woolner Brothers drive-in dreck is remembered today is the presence of horror icons Basil Rathbone , John Carradine, and Lon Chaney Jr as the villains. But even this trio of terror can’t save the movie.

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The plot (such as it is) concerns country entertainers Woody Weatherby (Ferlin Husky, a classic country singer who can’t act), Boots Malone (blonde bombshell Joi Lansing), and Jeepers (country comic Don Bowman) forced to spend the night in the eerie Beauregard Mansion. There put through the usual fright paces with ghosts (obvious sheets on strings), a “weird-woof” (as Jeepers calls it), and a gorilla (George Barrows, Ro-Man of the immortal ROBOT MONSTER). Of course, it’s all a plot by some nefarious spies led by Madame Wong (Linda Ho, CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER) and the horror vets. A secret agent from the Master Organization To Halt Enemy Resistance aka MOTHER (Richard Webb, TV’s CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT) rescues the singers, and a “real” ghost (a Confederate general, no less) helps in bringing down the bad guys.

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Then we get about half an hour of Ferlin Husky introducing acts at the Nashville Jamboree. If you’re not into twangy 60’s honky tonk country you might as well turn the film off, but if you are, you’ll get to see the late Merle Haggard perform “Closing Time”, lovely Molly Bee singing “Heartbreak USA”, Husky doing “One Bridge I Haven’t Crossed”, Bowman talk/sing a novelty tune about a drunk who can’t find his house, and the sexy Miss Lansing do the upbeat “Part Time Lover”.  I think I enjoyed this part of the movie more than the actual “story”.

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As for the classic heroes of horror, Chaney comes off best as Maximilian. Despite his ragged appearance and bloated body from years of alcohol abuse, Lon gives the most energetic performance here, clowning around with the gorilla, cruelly locking Joi Lansing in an Iron Maiden, and seemingly enjoying himself. Carradine, once a fine actor in films like STAGECOACH and THE GRAPES OF WRATH, had been coasting for years now in Grade-Z trash like this. He hadn’t made a prestigious picture since 1962’s THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, and wouldn’t again until 1976’s THE SHOOTIST with old pal John Wayne.

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The fall from grace was even harder for Basil Rathbone. Once hailed as a Great Screen Villain in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, DAVID COPPERFIELD, and A TALE OF TWO CITIES, Rathbone hit it big portraying master sleuth Sherlock Holmes in a series of films that remain popular even today. He is widely considered THE filmic Sherlock Holmes, and I certainly won’t debate that! But Rathbone tired of being typecast and fled Hollywood to return to the New York stage, causing resentment among certain studio types. When he returned to movies he was cast in smaller supporting roles, and by the 60’s was reduced to low-budget crap like THE MAGIC SWORD and VOYAGE TO THE PREHISTORIC PLANET. HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE was Rathbone’s last American film (he did one more in Mexico, AUTOPSY OF A GHOST), a sad ending for one of movies greatest actors. Basil Rathbone died later that year at age 75. (This was also the last feature for director Jean Yarbrough, the man who brought you THE DEVIL BAT !)

So there are a few reasons to watch this turkey: (1) if you’re a classic horror buff and want to see these icons one more time (2) if you’re a Country & Western fan and are willing to sit through the bulk of this nonsense to get to the music (3) if you’re into the pneumatic Monroe/Mansfield/Van Doren wannabe Joi Lansing . If you’re not in any one of those three categories, steer clear.

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Rockin’ in the Film World #4: WILD IN THE STREETS (AIP 1968)

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If you think today’s political climate is tumultuous and crazy, wait’ll you get a load of WILD IN THE STREETS. Filmed in the chaotic year 1968, this satirical look at the counter-culture vs the establishment revolves around a power-mad rock star whose call to lower the voting age to 14 results in him becoming President of the good ol’ USA, and sticking it to the over 30 crowd by interring them in concentration camps loaded with LSD-spiked water supplies!

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Christopher Jones is Max Frost, née Flatow, the charismatic leader of rock band Max Frost and the Troopers. Pre-credits flashbacks show Max’s unhappy childhood with an overbearing mother (Shelley Winters at her over-the-top best) and abrasive dad (Bert Freed). Max learns to hate all adults and dabbles in making LSD and bombs. After he blows up dad’s car, the rebellious Max leaves home and winds up becoming a mega rock star rivaling the Beatles in popularity.

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Frost’s Troopers include 15-year-old lead guitarist and financial whiz Billy,  former child star now acid head Sally LeRoy, drummer/anthropologist Stanley X, and anarchist trumpeter The Hook. Aspiring Senator Fergus, running on an 18-year-old voter platform (which in reality didn’t go into effect until 1971), hires Max and his band to play at a political rally. But the shrewd Max comes up with a new song “Fourteen or Fight”, aimed at getting teenyboppers the vote, and urges his young “troops” to descend on the Sunset Strip to protest. This goes up the ass of the ultra-establishment Senator Allbright sideways, and a summit meeting is held at Fergus’s home, resulting in a compromise to fifteen and a promise from Max not to lead the teenagers to riot.

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Teens from across the country flock to the Strip in droves, with stock footage of the real Sunset Strip riots, exploited by AIP in 1967’s RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP… but that’s another post for another day. Suffice it to say, Max gets what he wants, and the 14 year olds get the vote. Max runs 25-year-old Sally for a vacant congressional seat, and she’s overwhelmingly elected. Stoned out Sally proposes lowering the age to hold office to 14 for congress, senate, and president, causing chaos among the old guard and riots in the streets of Washington, with twelve teens shot down and killed. Max and his merry pranksters devise a plan to spike the D.C. water supply with LSD, resulting in a psychedelic scene of tripped-out elected officials giving a unanimous vote to change the age limits!

The Republican Party (!) ask Max to run for President because “Nixon would look dumb with long hair and Ronald Reagan would look even worse!” Max is elected in a landslide and calls for mandatory retirement at age 30, then sending 35-year-olds to his LSD concentration camps to live out their days under blissful control. Max’s “troops” become storm troopers rounding up the oldsters, including his own mother and Senator Fergus, who’s picked up by his own son Jimmy. Revolutions spring up across the globe, as teenagers everywhere take over the world!

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Sound far-fetched? You bet, but the folks at American International Pictures had been doing teen exploitation pics for years, and knew it’s audience well. This one has a better cast than most AIPers, with lead Christopher Jones doing his best James Dean as the pony-tailed rebel Max. Jones was familiar to youngsters as star of the TV series THE LEGEND OF JESSE JAMES, portraying the outlaw as an anti-establishment hero. His  brief but memorable career saw him star in the sexploitation comedy THREE IN THE ATTIC, 1970’s THE LOOKING GLASS WAR, and David Lean’s lavish production RYAN’S DAUGHTER before he decided to drop out of movies altogether and devote his time to painting and sculpting. Christopher Jones is one of my favorites of the era, and made a final film appearance in 1996’s MAD DOG TIME as a favor to director Larry Bishop, who plays The Hook here (and was son of Rat Packer Joey Bishop).

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Besides Shelley Winters’ outrageous performance as Mrs. Flatow, the adults are represented by Hal Holbrook as Senator Fergus (who went on to star in a TV series called THE SENATOR), Oscar winner Ed Begley as Sen. Allbright, and Millie Perkins (THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK) as Fergus’s wife. Former child star Kevin Coughlin plays Billy, Diane Varsi (PEYTON PLACE) is Sally, and Richard Pryor makes an early film appearance as Stanley X. Another James Dean wannabe, Michael Margotta, plays Fergus’s rebellious son Jimmy. THE BRADY BUNCH’s Barry Williams is Max as a child, and AIP vet Salli Sachse is a hippie mom. Some famous names of the times have cameos as themselves: Army Archerd, Melvin Belli, Dick Clark, Pamela Mason, and the venerable Walter Winchell. And yes, the narrator is none other than Paul Frees, who seems to be  in every other film I write about!

Director Barry Shear did mostly television, but his feature credits include a couple good ones: the Blaxploitation drama ACROSS 110th STREET and the Western THE DEADLY TRACKERS. Screenwriter Robert Thom (married at the time to Millie Perkins) also penned COMPULSION, ALL THE FINE YOUNG CANNIBALS, BLOODY MAMA, and THE PHANTOM OF HOLLYWOOD, but is probably best remembered for DEATH RACE 2000. And believe it or not, WILD IN THE STREETS was actually Oscar nominated, for the fine editing work of Eve Newman and Fred Feitshans (it lost to BULLITT, but what the hell… a nomination for low budget AIP!)

But it really should’ve been nominated for was its rocking score. The Troopers songs (played offscreen by members of Davie Allen and the Arrows) were written by Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, the team responsible for classic hits by The Animals (“We Gotta Get Outta This Place”), The Drifters (“Saturday Night at the Movies”), Dolly Parton (“Here You Come Again”), Paul Revere and the Raiders (“Hungry”, “Kicks”), and The Righteous Brothers (“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”, “Soul and Inspiration”). A song from WILD IN THE STREETS made it to #22 on the Billboard charts, and was in heavy rotation on radio during 1968 (I still have the 45!) It’s “Shape of Things to Come”, a proto-punk call to revolution after the kids are gunned down in D.C.:

So if you’re sick of politics as usual (and who isn’t!),  WILD IN THE STREETS is just the thing to take your mind off all the noise and nonsense going on today. It’s a loopy time capsule of the hippie days, when you didn’t trust anyone over 30. I’m WAY past 30 now, but I’m thinking maybe we should send Hillary and The Donald to an LSD camp. Not Bernie though.. he’d probably dig it too much!

 

Happy 82nd Birthday Donald Duck!

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It’s hard to believe, but that wild-tempered waterfowl Donald Duck made his first appearance 82 years ago in the 1934 Disney short THE WISE LITTLE HEN, part of the ‘Silly Symphonies’ series. Donald’s next film ORPHAN’S BENEFIT teamed him for the first time with frenemy Mickey Mouse, beginning a comic rivalry that lasts to this day. The immoderate mallard began starring in his own cartoons in 1937, begetting a cast of characters such as girlfriend Daisy Duck, nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie, and uncles Ludwig Von Drake and Scrooge McDuck.

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Donald’s flying-off-the-handle personality and riotous fits of anger caused fits of laughter for generations of moviegoers. He made the perfect foil for straight-mouse Mickey, and carried the brunt of their comedic load. The quacking voice of Clarence “Ducky” Nash went a long way towards putting Donald’s over-the-top antics over the top. Every kid tried to imitate that unique duck-like voice (admit it, you did too!). Nash voiced Donald for fifty years until his death in 1985, when animator Tony Anselmo assumed the mantle.

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The ballistic bird also found fame on television, video games, Big Little Books, and most memorably in a comic book series by legendary illustrator Carl Barks that are worth big money to comic collectors today. Donald even won an Oscar for 1943’s DER FUEHER’S FACE. In fact, he made many a patriotic propaganda film during the World War II era, including THE SPIRIT OF ’43, where the question is posed to pay your taxes or support the Axis:

So happy birthday to my second favorite animated duck (sorry, but Daffy’s #1 in my book!). Long may you rant and rave!

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