“A Little Nonsense Now And Then Is Relished By The Wisest Men”: RIP Gene Wilder

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The world just got a little sadder. News has been released that funnyman Gene Wilder has passed away at age 83 from complications due to Alzheimer’s Disease. Wilder was without question one of the greatest comic actors of the late 20th Century, beloved by both filmgoers and peers for the manic energy he brought to his everyman characters.

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Born in Milwaukee, Gene Wilder (nee’ Jerome Silberman) made his film debut in the small part of Eugene, hostage of the outlaw duo BONNIE & CLYDE. He then scored the plum role of neurotic accountant Leo Bloom, caught by in Zero Mostel’s scheme to produce a Broadway bomb in Mel Brooks’ THE PRODUCERS. This was the first of three Wilder/Brooks collaborations, each one funnier than the last. BLAZING SADDLES casts Wilder as The Waco Kid, an alcoholic ex-gunfighter who helps Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little) bring peace to Rock Ridge. Best of all was YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (“That’s Fronkensteen!”), a hysterical send-up of the Universal horror movies of the 30’s and 40’s that’s a film buff’s dream, which Wilder co-wrote and starred as Fredrick Frankenstein, descendant of the monster maker who creates his own monster (Peter Boyle) with hilarious consequences.

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Wilder was the original Candy Man in 1971’s WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, playing the delightful trickster of the title. The film wasn’t initially a hit, but gained momentum to become a cult classic beloved by millions. Wilder’s next film, Woody Allen’s episodic EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX (BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK) did hit box office gold, and Wilder’s sequence as a psychiatrist who falls in love with a sheep named Daisy, is side-splittingly funny.

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In 1976, Wilder began another film collaboration, as he played opposite Richard Pryor in Arthur Hiller’s SILVER STREAK. The scene where Pryor teaches Wilder to act black, so he can escape the bad guys, is another comic gem. Their best pairing is undoubtably 1980’s STIR CRAZY, as two muttonheads framed for bank robbery and sentenced to 125 years in max. Once again, Pryor has to teach Wilder the ways of the streets by “acting tough”, (“That’s right, we bad, uh-huh”) with riotous results. As for their last two, SEE NO EVIL HEAR NO EVIL and ANOTHER YOU… well, as Joe E. Brown says in SOME LIKE IT HOT, “Nobody’s perfect”.

HANKY PANKY, from left: Gilda Radner, Gene Wilder, 1982. ©Columbia Pictures
HANKY PANKY, from left: Gilda Radner, Gene Wilder, 1982. ©Columbia Pictures

But Wilder’s most important collaboration came in 1981 when, while filming HANKY PANKY, he met SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE alumnus Gilda Radner. The two fell in love and were married in 1984. After making THE WOMAN IN RED and HAUNTED HONEYMOON together (both films written and directed by Wilder), Gilda began feeling fatigued, and was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She battled bravely but succumbed to the disease in 1989, devastating Wilder. Though he did remarry a few years later, he never quite got over Gilda, his comic match.

Besides those mentioned, Wilder also wrote, directed, and starred in THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER and THE WORLD’S GREATEST LOVER, the former as Holmes’ jealous brother Sigerson, the latter a silent film spoof with Wilder as Rudolph Valentino wanna-be Rudy Hickman. Gene Wilder was one of the 70’s biggest box-office stars, a true renaissance man of the movies. He may be gone, but surely won’t be forgotten by anyone as long as there are film fans eager for classic comedy. Thanks for the laughter, Gene. You’ll be missed.

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Hammer Time!: KISS ME DEADLY (United Artists 1955)

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Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels have long been one of my favorite Guilty Pleasures. Spillane’s books were the literary equivalent of knocking back shots of Jack Daniels with no chaser. The misanthropic Mike Hammer’s Sex & Violence filled adventures are rapid paced, testosterone fueled trips through a definitely un-PC world where men are men, women are sex objects, and blood and bullets flow freely through a dark, corrupt post-war world.  Spillane turned the conventional detective yarn on its ear and, though critics hated his simplistic writing, the public ate up his books by the millions.

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The film version of Spillane’s KISS ME DEADLY turns film noir on its ear from its opening shot of Christine Bailey (a young Cloris Leachman) running down a lonely highway, almost getting run over by Mike Hammer. The PI picks her up and the opening credits roll backwards to the strains of Nat King Cole crooning “Rather Have The Blues”. This beginning set-up lets us know we’re not about to see a routine mystery yarn, but something wildly unique courtesy of a promising young producer/director named Robert Aldrich .

The script by A.I. Bezzerides is as convoluted as a Spillane novel, though he changed much of the original book, much to Spillane’s displeasure. I’ll try to capsulize the goings-on without writing a novel myself: Mike Hammer picks up hitchhiker Christine Bailey, whom he discovers has escaped from an insane asylum. “Get me to that bus stop and forget you ever saw me”, she says. “If we don’t, remember me”. They don’t, as Hammer’s car is cut off, the pair are kidnapped, Christine’s murdered, and Hammer wakes up in a hospital bed surrounded by his girl Friday Velda and police pal Lt. Pat Murphy.

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When he’s released, Hammer’s grilled by members of the Interstate Crime Commission, some bigwigs from Washington looking for clues. They know all about him: he’s a third-rate shamus who specializes in divorce cases, “a bedroom dick” who uses Velda for tawdry set-ups. Pat warns Hammer to forget the whole thing and revokes his PI and gun licenses so Hammer won’t go taking the law into his own hands.. fat chance of that! When Mike Hammer finds a thread, he pulls at it until he finds a string, and with the big boys from D.C. interested in this thread, he knows bigger things are at the end of the string.

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That string leads Hammer to murder, kidnapping, torture, and brutality as he bulls his way forward, searching for “The Great Whatsit”. It’s Hitchcock’s McGuffin, Sam Spade’s Maltese Falcon, Kane’s Rosebud, the device that the plot revolves around. Velda describes it perfectly: “Does it exist? Who cares! Everyone, everywhere is involved in a fruitless search for what?” In KISS ME DEADLY, it’s a mysterious suitcase, hot to the touch, containing radioactive nuclear material everyone’s after, with “deadly” consequences.

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But it’s not the what that matters, it’s how Hammer gets there. The violence in this movie comes swift and savage, and is surprising for a 1955 release. The scene where Hammer’s followed by a thug, who he takes out, is shocking in its brutality. Aldrich pulls no punches, with one ferocious scene after another. The film was cited by the Kefauver Commission for corrupting the morals of America’s youth, prompting Aldrich to launch a letter-writing campaign in favor of free speech for independent filmmakers. Bravo, Mr. Aldrich!

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Ralph Meeker plays Hammer as the ultimate anti-hero, a penny-ante goon bulldozing his way through the mean streets of LA. Meeker rose to fame in the original Broadway production of William Inge’s PICNIC, and soon landed in Hollywood. Never a major star, he nonetheless added a macho presence to tough films like BIG HOUSE USA, Kubrick’s PATHS OF GLORY, SOMETHING WILD, Corman’s THE ST. VALENTINE DAY’S MASSACRE, and THE DETECTIVE. He also worked again with Aldrich in a small role as the Army shrink in THE DIRTY DOZEN  . Besides the excellent TV version played by Stacy Keach, Meeker is my favorite of all the screen Hammer, and that includes author Spillane, who played his own character in 1963’s THE GIRL HUNTERS.

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The movie features the film debuts of both Leachman and Maxine Cooper, who makes a sexy Velda. The other main female character here is Gaby Rodgers as the mysterious Lily Carter, who’s not what she seems. Gaby only made one other film before this, an indie called THE BIG BREAK, and did some TV appearances, but never appeared on the big screen again. It’s too bad, because she’s a standout as Lily, and would’ve added greatly to some films of the era. In real life, Gaby was married to songwriter Jerry Leiber   , who penned rock’n’roll classics like “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” with partner Mike Stoller. As of this writing, Miss Rodgers is still with us at age 88.

Tough guy actors abound in KISS ME DEADLY, including Albert Dekker as the sadistic Dr. Soberin, Paul Stewart as mobster Carl Evello, and a pair of Jacks- Jack Elam  and Jack Lambert as Evello’s hoods. Other Familiar Faces are Wesley Addy, Fortunio Bonanova , Nick Dennis, Juano Hernandez, Paul Richards, Percy Helton , Leigh Snowden, and Strother Martin in a small role as a witness to murder. Frank DeVol’s music score hits all the right notes, and DP Ernest Laszlo’s photography keeps things dark and moody.

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The only quibbles I have with KISS ME DEADLY are strictly as a Hammer purist. Moving the action from Hammer’s New York City base to Los Angeles seems sacrilegious, and having him use Velda for his sordid set-ups with suckers makes Hammer look like a douchebag. But I suppose I’ll have to grant Aldrich and Bezzerides their artistic license here, because for the purpose of this film it all works. KISS ME DEADLY is like a cinematic punch in the face, and the best Mike Hammer adaptation ever, despite my quibbles. I just wish I’d have kept all my Mickey Spillane paperbacks, because viewing this film and writing this post makes me want to dive back into the Sex & Violence-filled world of Mike Hammer once again!

 

Master of Horror: Boris Karloff in BEDLAM (RKO 1946)

 

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(This post is part of the TCM SUMMER UNDER THE STARS blogathon hosted by Kristen at JOURNEYS IN CLASSIC FILM! )

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Boris Karloff made a trio of films for producer Val Lewton in the mid-40’s: THE BODY SNATCHER , ISLE OF THE DEAD, and BEDLAM. The Old Master of Terror was given the opportunity to show off his acting prowess in these dark, psychological horrors. Freed from the restraint of playing yet another mad scientist or creature, Karloff excels in the roles of murderous Cabman Grey, plague-ridden General Pherides, and here as the cruel martinet of Bedlam, Master George Sims.

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Lewton cowrote the script with director Mark Robson  , “suggested by” William Hogarth’s 8th painting in the series “A Rake’s Progress”. There are a lot of sly references to Hogarth in BEDLAM, and the artist even gets a screenwriting credit. It’s 1761 London, and the class struggle between rich and poor rages (the more things change… ). One of the inmates of St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum (known to the locals as Bedlam) attempts to escape via the rooftop, but a guard stomps on his fingers, plunging him to his doom. Corpulent Lord Mortimer (Billy House) calls Master Sims, the “apothecary general of St. Mary’s” and noted poet, on the carpet for the death. The unctuous Sims, who’ll do anything to keep his position, offers to amuse Mortimer by having his “loonies” put on a performance for the Lord and his upper crust cronies. Mortimer’s “protégé” Nell Bowen (Anna Lee) is appalled when one of the inmates, a young boy gilded in gold paint, dies while doing a recital.

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Nell tours the asylum, and is further dismayed at the squalid, deplorable conditions the inmates are forced to live in, and at Sims’ cruelty, referring to them as animals and even keeping some in cages. “They’re all in themselves and by themselves”, she says, and gets Mortimer to agree to make changes. But the wily Sims appeals to Mortimer’s pocket book, and Nell leaves the Lord in a fit of pique. Sims and Mortimer conspire to have Nell committed to Bedlam, and she lives in fear for her life as she becomes a prisoner of Sims’ house of horrors.

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BEDLAM is more costumed drama than out-and-out horror, though there are more than enough shocks to satisfy genre fans. Director Robson made his first five films under Lewton’s aegis, and along with cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, conveys a sense of dread throughout the film. Of course, the fact they had horror’s King Karloff as Sims didn’t hurt. Boris gives us a restrained depiction of evil as the master of Bedlam, his purring voice belying the corruption that lies within. He’s subservient to Lord Mortimer, his rich and powerful benefactor, and takes out his self-loathing on those less fortunate, the “loonies” in his charge. Sims will do anything to retain his minute amount of power, and gets no sympathy when he gets his comeuppance at the film’s powerful conclusion. It’s a bravura performance, and alongside Grey in THE BODY SNATCHER, Boris’ best of the 40’s.

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Anna Lee had played opposite Boris before, in the 1936 British horror THE MAN WHO LIVED AGAIN. She became a favorite of John Ford , and was featured in seven of his films, including HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, FORT APACHE, and THE LAST HURRAH. Miss Lee was also in the horror classic WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, and known to millions as Lila Quartermaine on the long-running soap GENERAL HOSPITAL. She goes toe-to-toe with Boris here, and her transformation from silly plaything for the rich to enlightened woman is a good job of acting itself.

Billy House (Lord Mortimer) was an old burlesque comic who transitioned into a fine character actor, particularly in Orson Welles’ THE STRANGER. The rest of the cast isn’t well-known, but Richard Fraser does well as a Quaker who aids Nell. More Familiar Faces to film buffs include Ian Wolfe (a standout as a former lawyer, now an inmate of Bedlam), Jason Robards Sr, Elizabeth Russell, Skelton Knaggs, Ellen Corby, Tommy Noonan,  and future horror/sci-fi star Robert Clarke.

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This was the last of the Lewton/RKO entries, sending the series of intelligent psychological horror films out on a strong note. Karloff lovers won’t want to miss this one, as Boris adds another fine portrait to his Rogue’s Gallery. He wouldn’t get as good a role as Master Sims until the monster revival in the 60’s, and it’s his last great film of the classic horror era. BEDLAM does with its modest budget what many bigger films fail to do, sending a potent message while entertaining the audience at the same time.

Tall (Tales) in the Saddle: THE LAW WEST OF TOMBSTONE (RKO 1938)

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Cowboy star Harry Carey had been around since motion pictures were knee-high to a cactus. He made his first film in 1908, working with pioneer director D.W. Griffith. He was already one of silent film’s biggest sagebrush stars by the time he made 1918’s STRAIGHT SHOOTER, the directorial debut of John Ford. When the  talkies rolled around, Carey was over fifty and his leading man days were behind him. He transitioned into a fine character actor, and his talents are given a good showcase in the low-budget Western THE LAW WEST OF TOMBSTONE.

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Carey is champion liar Bill Barker, a charming rascal who spins tall tales of his bravery fighting bloodthirsty Indians. The old windbag gets himself thrown out of New York circa 1881 when he tries to run a con on Wall Street tycoon Sam Kent. Not even his ex, a former saloon girl now passing herself off as continental singing sensation Clary Martinez, can save him. Bill travels to El Paso and manages to get tossed out there too, but the judge, who’s been raising Bill and Clary’s daughter Nitta, will wipe the slate clean if Bill can bring in the daring highwayman known as The Tonto Kid.

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The Kid is played by Tim Holt, son of action star Jack Holt. Young Tim was just getting his career started, and THE LAW WEST OF TOMBSTONE gives him a chance to shine as well. Holt was noticed in this film by John Ford, who cast him in his classic STAGECOACH  . This led to an RKO contract, and a popular series of budget Westerns that made Tim one of the biggest box-office cowboys of the late 40’s/early 50’s. The actor displays a boyish charm here that served him well throughout the years, and he has great chemistry with the veteran Carey.

Bill, after bushwhacking Tonto and rescuing daughter Nitta (who believes her father was killed “carrying the Stars & Stripes at Gettysburgh”), gets elected mayor of Martinez, Arizona, where the railroad has gone through. The eloquent old scoundrel appoints himself judge, and opens The Texas Rose Café, where he dispenses whiskey and justice ala Judge Roy Bean. There’s a dispute over water rights with the low-down McQuinn brothers, who are old enemies of Bill. The events culminate in a shootout, with Bill and Tonto victorious. But some of the town elders have grown tired of Bill’s tall tales and frontier justice, and an election is held. Is this the end of the line for the boastful Bill? You’ll have to watch to find out.

Carey has a field day as the blowhard Bill, with his yarns about Indian fighting and being a personal friend of President Garfield. A particularly tense scene has Bill and Tonto at odds, with the older man taking a pistol with one bullet and goading the Kid into shooting at each other. With one last shot, The Tonto Kid backs out of the challenge, but we soon discover there was NO ammo after all. It’s a cool scene and works thanks to Carey and Holt.

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Jean Rouveral  is Nitta, and she’s a good match for Holt. Esther Muir plays Madame Moustache, leader of Bill’s dance hall girls. Silent siren Evelyn Brent gets a plum role as Clary Martinez. Clarence Kolb does his usual fine work as rich Sam Kent. The rest of the cast is a cowboy movie lover’s dream, with Allan “Rocky” Lane, Ward Bond, Bob Kortman, Bradley Page, Monte Montague, Martin Garralaga, Kermit Maynard, Charles Middleton, Bud Osbourne, and Chief Thundercloud all taking part in the action.

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Former actor Glenn Tryon keeps the comedy and the action equally balanced as director. THE LAW WEST OF TOMBSTONE attempts something different from the usual sagebrush saga, and succeeds largely due to Harry Carey’s charisma. I can see where John Wayne learned a lot of his screen tricks, including the way Carey pronounces “cat-ridges” for cartridges, and some of his small bits of business. The movie is a testament to the acting chops of one of Hollywood’s first cowboy stars, and an unpretentious, fun little ‘B’ that Western fans will certainly enjoy.

 

The Holy Grail of Bad Cinema: THE PHYNX (Warner Brothers 1970)

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(WARNING: The movie I’m about to review is so bad, I can’t even find a proper poster for it. Beware… )

I was so excited when I  found out TCM was airing THE PHYNX at 4:00am!  I’d heard about how bad it for years now, and couldn’t wait to view it for myself today on my trusty DVR. I wasn’t disappointed, for THE PHYNX is a truly inept movie, so out of touch with its audience… and just what is its audience? We’ve got a Pre-Fab rock band, spy spoof shenanigans, wretched “comedy”, and cameos from movie stars twenty years past their prime. Just who was this movie made for, anyway?

The film defies description, but I’ll give it a whirl because, well because that’s what I do! We begin as a secret agent attempts to crash into Communist Albania in unsuccessful and unfunny ways, then segue into some psychedelic cartoons credits, also unfunny. Agent Corrigan (Lou Antonio)has failed, and his boss Bogey (Mike Kellin doing a terrible Humphrey Bogart impression) convenes a meeting of the Super Secret Agency. The agents are disguised as hookers, KKK members, student protesters and riot-squad police, Madison Avenue Ad Men, and even Boy Scouts. Oh, the hilarity! Number One addresses the crowd; his identity’s hidden by a box covering his head, and his voice is Rich Little impersonating Jimmy Stewart (no, I’m not making this shit up!).

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Albania’s strongman has taken “important world figures” hostage. Namely, George Jessel, Butterfly McQueen, Colonel Sanders, and Johnny “Tarzan” Weissmuller… you know, really “important world figures”! Ideas like “parachuting Bob Hope into Albania” are shot down, and the agency goes to MOTHA for help. That’s MOTHA, “Mechanical Oracle That Helps America”, a sexy super-computer with a huge pair of antenna:

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Careful, you’ll poke your eye out! MOTHA comes up with a plan to create a “pop music group and get invited to Albania”. One of the scouts thinks “pop rock secret agents is a capital idea”, so the SSA rounds up four young dudes to star in their spy show. There’s a nerdy campus protester dude, a studly surfer-type dude, a “young Negro, uh colored guy.. African-American” dude, and a Native American dude fresh from college whose dad states, “White man turn son pansy”. Again, I’m not making this shit up!

The four are taken to a secret SSA installation, and train to become rock star spies. Sgt. Clint Walker teaches them discipline, Harold “Oddjob” Sakata karate, Richard Pryor “soul” (presumably by cooking soul food!), and Trini Lopez music. They’re given instruments to learn and yes, of course the black guy’s the drummer! After passing muster by none other than Dick Clark (who pronounces them “unbelievable, freaked out, kookoo”), the agency sends for uber-rock producer Philbaby (Larry Hankin, who’s actually funny as a Phil Specter type), along with his assistant, Andy Warhol superstar Ultra Violet.

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The Phynx cut a record called “What is Your Sign?” that’s pretty fucking bad. And I don’t mean “bad” as in badass.. I mean it totally sucks!  The SSA gets right to work promoting the boys, starting at the top with an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, holding the venerable TV host at gunpoint while he introduces them! The hype is on as SSA agents dressed as 20’s gangsters take over record stores, spelling out PHYNX in machine-gun bullet script. President Nixon changes Thanksgiving to Phynxgiving, and the U.S. Mint begins printing out $3 bills with the band’s mugs plastered on them. James Brown presents the group with a gold record for “the largest selling album in the history of the world”!

Now that The Phynx are ready, the government throws them the world’s tamest orgy, and after another lame tune, the boys head to Europe. They must uncover a secret three part map tattooed on the bellies of the three nubile daughters of Martha Raye. Yes, I said Martha Raye! The girls are scattered across the continent, so it’s off to London, Copenhagen, and Rome. London’s easy, Copenhagen finds them performing sex with thousands of blondes, and in Rome they use their secret weapon.. X-Ray Specs! Honestly, I am NOT making this shit up!

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Now it’s off to Albania at the request of Col. Rostinov (Michael Ansara) to help celebrate National Flower Day. The Albanian national flower is a radish. Let that sink in… a radish. Our intrepid heroes tunnel into the palace of the president and first lady (George Tobias, Joan Blondell) and their “hip” son, who speaks in 40’s hepcat slang and is president of the Albanian Rock and Roll Appreciation Society. At last we learn the truth about the missing celebrities.It seems American born Blondell misses her country, and since they can’t leave Albania, they decided to bring washed-up American stars to them! Oh, NOW it makes perfect sense!

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The Phynx perform before the assembled body of guests, and what a guest list. Take a deep breath: Patty Andrews, Edgar Bergen (with Charlie McCarthy), Busby Berkeley (with the original Golddiggers), Xavier Cugat (and his Orchestra!), Cass Daley, Andy Devine, Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall (wearing what looks like their original Monogram Bowery Boys outfits!), Louis Hayward, George Jessel, Ruby Keeler, boxing champ Joe Louis, Marilyn Maxwell, Butterfly McQueen, Pat O’Brien, Maureen O’Sullivan, Rudy Vallee, Johnny Weissmuller, and The Lone Ranger (John Hart) and Tonto (Jay Silverheels). What, Clayton Moore was busy that week, so they had to settle for Hart?

The band plays a ungroovy patriotic tune that has the crowd in tears. Now they all realize they must get back to the good ol’ USA. Huntz Hall comes up with the master escape plan. Let THAT one sink in.. Huntz Hall has the master plan! (And no, I’m STILL not making this shit up!!) The stars hide in carts pulling the national radishes, while The Phynx play their concert. An army of rock fans armed with guitars are able to crumble the wall of Albania with sonic noise, and the pop culture stars escape Communism and are free! Rock and roll saves the world once again!

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The music in THE PHYNX was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, architects of early rock and doo-wop. Unfortunately, times had changed, and the tunes are hopelessly out of date, even for 1970. Even the psychedelic-style song they penned is about three years too late. Lee H. Katzin gets (dis)credit for directing this nonsense, though it doesn’t seem like he did much of anything except say “Action!” and “Cut! Print it!”. The screenplay by Stan Cornyn contains some of the most putrid dialog you’ll ever hear, save for one cute moment between Weissmuller and O’Sullivan that film fans will dig. Warner Brothers quickly pulled the plug on THE PHYNX when it was first released; it’s now achieved cult status and is available on DVD through Warner Archives. I think I’ve finally figured out who the audience for this mess is- bad film connoisseurs like me, who can’t wait to sit through it and pick it apart again!

(FYI- The Phynx were A. Michael Miller, Ray Chippeway, Dennis Larden, and Lonnie Stevens. Larden was in the mid-60’s band Every Mother’s Son, and had a hit with “Come On Down to My Boat”. Stevens is active as an acting coach. I have no information on the other two Phynx…nor do I particularly care!!)

Arthur Hiller: An Appreciation

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Peter Brooker/REX/Shutterstock (379086do) ARTHUR HILLER OSCARS / ACADEMY AWARDS AT THE KODAK THEATRE, LOS ANGELES, AMERICA - 24 MAR 2002

The name Arthur Hiller doesn’t really spring to mind when I think about great directors. However, when I heard the news he passed away last night at age 92, I looked him up on the IMDb. Much to my surprise, Arthur Hiller was responsible for some of my favorite funny films. Hiller wasn’t a distinct stylist or auteur, just a skillful handler of actors with a deft touch for comedy. In remembrance of the man, here are a few of my favorite Hiller-directed films, in chronological order:

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PENELOPE (1966): I covered this movie in-depth at this link about a year ago. It’s a silly, saucy comedy starring Natalie Wood as a neglected housewife who robs a bank. A quintessentially 60’s flick with comic support from Peter Falk, Dick Shawn, Jonathan Winters, and a good turn by Arlene Golonka as a hooker. It’s definitely worth your time if you haven’t discovered it yet.

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THE TIGER MAKES OUT (1967): Another movie that could only be a product of the 60’s. Husband and wife team Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson star in this howler about an isolated mailman plotting to kidnap his dream girl, and winding up snatching a middle-aged housewife. The pair play it over the top, which makes for a whole lot of fun. Dustin Hoffman makes his film debut here.

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SILVER STREAK (1976): The first screen pairing of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor was a box-office smash. The Hitchcockian plot involves murder on a train trip from Chicago to Los Angeles, with Jill Clayburgh, Patrick McGoohan, and Ned Beatty all on board. The scene where Pryor helps Wilder disguise himself as a black man is pure comedy gold. Highly recommended!

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THE IN-LAWS (1979): Frantically funny with Peter Falk and Alan Arkin in rare form. Arkin’s a deranged ex-CIA agent who puts Falk through the wringer on a road trip from hell. Another big hit for Hiller, and an uproarious good time! See this one and avoid the 2003 version.

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TEACHERS (1984): This underrated comedy-drama features Nick Nolte as a burned-out teacher in an urban battle zone of a school mentoring young Ralph Macchio. Richard Mulligan is hilarious as an escapee from the nut house who mistakenly becomes a history teacher! JoBeth Williams is Nick’s former student and current love interest, and the cast includes Judd Hirsch, William Schallert,  Art Metrano, and early appearances by Laura Dern and Crispin Glover. The distinctly 80’s soundtrack features Bob Seger, Night Ranger, ZZ Top, and a hit theme song by .38 Special. Another film worth discovering.

Arthur Hiller is most remembered today for the 1970 tear-jerker LOVE STORY, but his comedy films are what I’ll remember him for the most. Thanks for the laughs and rest in peace, Mr. Hiller.

 

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 9: Film Noir Festival Redux

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Welcome back to the decadently dark world of film noir, where crime, corruption, lust, and murder await. Let’s step out of the light and deep into the shadows with these five fateful tales:

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PITFALL (United Artists 1948, D: Andre DeToth) Dick Powell is an insurance man who feels he’s stuck in a rut, living in safe suburbia with his wife and kid (Jane Wyatt, Jimmy Hunt). Then he meets hot model Lizabeth Scott on a case and falls into a web of lies, deceit, and ultimately murder. Raymond Burr  costars as a creepy PI who has designs on Scott himself. A good cast in a good (not great) drama with a disappointing ending. Fun Fact: The part of Scott’s embezzler boyfriend is played by one Byron Barr, who is not the Byron Barr that later changed his name to Gig Young.  

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THE BRIBE (MGM 1949, D:Robert Z. Leonard) Despite an A-list cast, this tale of a G-man (boring Robert Taylor ) assigned to break up a war surplus smuggling racket is as tedious as Taylor’s monotone voice overs. Agent Rigby is sent to the island town of Carlotta, off the coast of Central America, to crack the ring responsible for illegally selling airplane engines. He falls in love with married nightclub singer Ava Gardner (who can blame him?), whose booze soaked hubby (John Hodiak) is a major suspect. The oppressive heat in Carlotta seems to make the film’s players sluggish, like the movie itself. Obvious bad guys Charles Laughton and Vincent Price engage in a ham-slicing contest, with a slight edge going to Laughton here. Fun Fact: I couldn’t watch this without being reminded of the superb noir send-up DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID, which borrows some of this movie’s names (Rigby, Carlotta) and many of it’s scenes. Watch that instead of  THE BRIBE, it’s a lot more fun!

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THE WINDOW (RKO 1949, D: Ted Tetzlaff) This taut little thriller became a major hit for RKO, and child star Bobby Driscoll won a special Oscar for his performance as a 9 year old who likes to tell tall tales witnessing a murder. No one believes him, not his parents (Arthur Kennedy , Barbara Hale) or the cops, and he’s punished by Mom and Dad. Dad works nights and Mom’s called away to visit her sick sister, so little Tommy gets locked in his room overnight, and the killers who live upstairs (Paul Stewart, Ruth Roman) come to get him. The chase through an abandoned building is gripping, and former DP Tetzlaff (MY MAN GODFREY, NOTORIOUS) ratchets up the suspense. Filmed on location in NYC (a novelty in those days) and based on a Cornell Woolrich short story, THE WINDOW is unique, entertaining, and well worth watching. NOT SO FUN FACT: Disney star Bobby Driscoll (SONG OF THE SOUTH, TREASURE ISLAND, voice of PETER PAN), unable to shake the child star label, became a hopeless drug addict, drifting through a life of arrests and addiction. In the mid-60’s, he was briefly associated with Andy Warhol’s Factory group of underground filmmakers. Sometime early in 1968, he died alone in an abandoned New York tenement house. The body wasn’t identified, and Driscoll was buried in a pauper’s grave. His mother, seeking Bobby in 1969, asked the police for help, and through fingerprints he was finally ID’d. Bobby Driscoll was 31 years old.

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THE HITCH-HIKER (RK0 1953, D: Ida Lupino) Fear is the theme of this dark, disturbing psychological tale based on the true story of serial killer Billy Cook. Director Lupino cowrote the script with producer hubby Collier Young, about two pals on a fishing trip (Frank Lovejoy, Edmond O’Brien) who pick up a hitchhiking killer (William Tallman), and are taken hostage and forced to do his bidding. Extremely tense drama enhanced by Nicholas Musuraca’s camerawork, and a chilling performance from Tallman as Emmett Myers, as cold-blooded a killer as there is in noir. His deformed, unblinking dead eye will give you nightmares! O’Brien is also outstanding here, as usual. Fun Fact: Tallman is of course best known to audiences as perennially losing DA Hamilton Burger on TV’s long-running PERRY MASON, where he was outwitted every week by noir icon Raymond Burr.

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THE PHENIX CITY STORY (Allied Artists 1955, D: Phil Karlson) Another true story, this one of corruption in a small Alabama town ruled by gambling, prostitution, dope peddling, and murder. The unique prologue features real-life newsman Clete Roberts interviewing some of the locals, including the widow of slain Attorney General candidate Albert Patterson. Then the story unfolds, as Patterson (John McIntyre) refuses to get involved in the efforts to clean up the town. When son John (Richard Kiley) returns home, he does, and finally the older man relents, after the violence escalates to include the murder of a child, and a family friend. That violence is shockingly brutal for the era, and realistically handled onscreen by director Phil Karlson, who’d later helm another Southern crime tale, WALKING TALL. Screenwriters Crane Wilbur (HOUSE OF WAX) and Daniel Mainwaring (OUT OF THE PAST, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) pull no punches, and supporting actors Edward Andrews, Kathryn Grant (the future Mrs. Bing Crosby), James Edwards , Jean Carson (one of the “Fun Girls” from THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) and John Larch are all top-notch. Don’t miss this one! Fun Fact: This is one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite movies, and there are plenty of examples of it’s influence on his films to keep an eye out for here!

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