The Origin of Billy Jack: BORN LOSERS (AIP 1967)

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The character Billy Jack, star of the wildly popular 1971 film (and its two sequels), made his debut in this 1967 exploitation flick about a sociopathic biker gang and the lone man who stands up to them. Tom Laughlin, a minor figure in Hollywood at the time who had appeared in GIDGET and THE DELINQUENTS, conceived the character way back in 1954. Unable to get his original screenplay produced, he and co-star Elizabeth James banged out this motorcycle drama and he was given the opportunity to direct by American International Pictures, always on the lookout to make a quick exploitation buck.

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The Born Losers are a degenerate gang of outlaw bikers terrorizing the small town of Big Rock. Ex-Green Beret Billy Jack, a half-breed Indian back from ‘Nam, saves a local kid from getting an ass kicking by breaking out his rifle, winds up the one locked up and given 120 days in jail or $1,000 (plus court costs, of course!). Billy and the gang’s leader Danny go way back, and there’s animosity between the two. Local Deputy Sheriff is also at odds with the bikers.

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College girl Vicki (James) rides her own bike, and the Losers chase her down and take her to their clubhouse. There she finds other local coeds being raped, but she escapes before being “turned out” herself. Vicki runs out of gas though, and is brutally raped by two members of the club. Vicki ends up in the hospital, and six of the Losers wind up arrested for the rapes.

The victims are threatened by Danny and his gang, coerced into not testifying. Vicki’s in protective custody, but the Losers try to kidnap her. They’re stopped by Billy Jack, who takes the girl to his forest hideaway. The Losers then sneak into his encampment and, though the pair aren’t there, they steal Billy Jack’s $600. He confronts them at a gas station, beating the crap out of their biggest dude, and gives them 24 hours to return the money. The gang grab Vicki and another victim, and the local authorities do nothing, so brave Billy Jack goes it alone against the Born Losers, seeking revenge for the girls and himself.

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The Billy Jack character isn’t quite fully formed here, but we’re given a good preview of things to come. He’s a hero to the underdog, a peace-loving man who’s unafraid to use violence to combat the evil in our midst. His martial-arts skills are touched on in this film, though not as much as in the 1971 movie. Laughlin does well in the role and, though never a great actor, has a charming screen presence. His direction (under the pseudonym T.C. Frank) is more than adequate, aided by some fine camerawork from Gregory Sandor.

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Classic film star Jane Russell  appears about halfway through the film as Mrs. Sloan, stripper mom of one of the victims. Russell’s given “Special Guest Star” status in the credits in what amounts to a cameo. She naturally gives the movie’s best performance as a tough-as-nails dame who wants justice for her daughter. This was one of the former RKO star’s last films, and she makes good use of her limited screen time.

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BORN LOSERS is filled with biker genre veterans, including Jeremy Slate as gang leader Danny, who was in THE MINI-SKIRT MOB, HELL’S BELLES, and HELL’S ANGELS ’69. Other biker flick vets are Jack Starrett (HELL’S ANGELS ON WHEELS, ANGELS FROM HELL, HELL’S BLOODY DEVILS), Robert Tessier (THE GLORY STOMPERS,  RUN ANGEL RUN, THE HARD RIDE), and Paul Prokop (THE PEACE KILLERS). William Wellman Jr. , son of the legendary director, appears as second-in-command Child.

Tom Laughlin is rightly hailed today as a pioneer of indie filmmaking. Most of his movies were self-financed, in the days before things like GoFundMe existed. Billy Jack remains an iconic character, his anti-establishmentarianism as popular with young audiences today as it was almost half a century ago. Critics like Roger Ebert and Leonard Maltin called Laughlin’s fighting violence with violence stance Fascism, but I see him as an American hero, breaking down the false constructs of legalism in the cause of true justice. There are times when one is forced to make a stand. If you’re interested in the origin of Billy Jack, start here with Laughlin’s low-budget masterpiece BORN LOSERS.

“Where No Man Has Gone Before”: Fifty Years of STAR TREK

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Gene Roddenberry’s space odyssey first sailed onto the small screen on September 8, 1966. I can remember being allowed to stay up late (I was only 8 at the time!) to watch it with my dad, who was a big science-fiction buff. As a career Navy man, I think he related to the idea of a ship’s travels (he was also a fan of VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA). Being a young’un at the time, I was more into the weird creatures the Starship Enterprise crew encountered on their “five-year mission”.

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Unless you’ve been living in another galaxy the past half century, you know all the characters. There’s William Shatner as the headstrong Capt. James Tiberius Kirk, emoting as only Shatner can. Leonard Nimoy became something of a teen idol as the logical Vulcan Mr. Spock (something about those pointed ears, maybe?). DeForrest Kelly played the ornery Dr. “Bones” McCoy, forever at odds with Spock’s emotionless thinking. His tagline “Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor, not a…(fill in your own word)” became a pop culture punchline, though he only repeated it in eleven episodes. James Doohan (Engineer Scotty), Nichelle Nichols (Communications Lt. Uhura, who shared a then-controversial interracial kiss with Kirk in a 1968 episode), George Takei (Helmsman Sulu), and Walter Koenig (Ensign Chekov, who joined in Season Two) round out the Enterprise’s crew.

What set STAR TREK apart from other sci-fi shows was the writing. Television viewers were used to juvenile space operas like CAPTAIN VIDEO AND HIS VIDEO RANGERS and TOM CORBETT, SPACE CADET, but Roddenberry was determined to mix social commentary in with the futuristic proceedings, and hired some of the best science fiction/fantasy writers around. Top names like Robert Bloch, Harlan Ellison, George Clayton Johnson, Jerry Sohl, and Theodore Sturgeon crafted intelligent, thought-provoking scripts light years apart from the old comic strip stylings of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.

Everyone has their own personal favorite episodes, and I’m no different, so here are my Top Ten STAR TREK episodes:

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  1. “City on the Edge of Forever” (Season 1, Episode 28; D: Joseph Pevney W: Harlan Ellison)- McCoy travels through a time portal and changes the course of history, so Kirk and Spock must correct it by following him to Depression Era New York. Joan Collins guest stars as Edith Keeler, who must die to prevent the Nazis from winning World War II. I think this is the best of the entire series, and many Trekkies agree with me. Powerful in every department.

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2.”The Trouble With Tribbles” (Season 2, Episode 15; D: Joseph Pevney W: David Gerrold)- Without a doubt the funniest episode, and a very close second for me.An important grain shipment on Deep Space Station K7 is threatened by Tribbles, furry little creatures that multiply prolifically when fed. One of the series’ strongest supporting casts, with the late William Schallert,   William Campbell, Stanley Adams, Whit Bissell, and Michael Pataki.

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3.”Space Seed” (Season 1, Episode 23; D: Marc Daniels W: Gene L. Coon and Carey Wilbur)- The episode that introduced Ricardo Montalban as Khan Noonein Singh, a genetically altered megalomaniac from Earth’s past who shanghais the Enterprise and its crew. Montalban returned to do battle with his nemesis Capt. Kirk in the best of the STAR TREK films, 1982’s STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN.

4.”Assigment: Earth” (Season 2, Episode 26; D: Marc Daniels W: Art Wallace)- The Enterprise travels back in time to 1968, where they encounter Gary Seven (Robert Lansing), an alien sent to avert the nuclear destruction of Earth. This was the pilot for a new sci-fi series to star Lansing and Teri Garr, but it wasn’t given the green light. Too bad, because this is one of STAR TREK’S top entries, and the idea held much promise.

5.”A Piece of the Action” (Season 2, Episode 17; D: James Komack W: David P. Harmon and Gene L. Coon)- Another humorous episode with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beaming down to a planet molded after Roaring Twenties gangster days. Anthony Caruso and Vic Tayback play the bosses of rival gangs out to control Sigma Iotia II. Kirk and Spock dressing and acting like old Warner Brothers hoods is a riot!

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6.”The Naked Time” (Season 1, Episode 4; D:Marc Daniels W: John DF Black)- A space virus infects the Enterprise crew, causing them to lose all inhibitions. George Takei has called this his favorite episode, and who can blame him- he gets to jump around like a swashbuckling Errol Flynn!

7.”Patterns of Force” (Season 2, Episode 21; D: Vincent McEveety W: John Meredyth Lucas)- Kirk and Spock visit planet Ekos to search for missing Federation observer John Gill, and discover he’s become the leader of a culture patterned after Nazi Germany. Another fine “message” episode featuring David Brian (FLAMINGO ROAD) in the role of Gill.

8.”The Devil in the Dark” (Season 1, Episode 25; D: Joseph Pevney W: Gene L. Coon)- Mining planet Janos VI is being threatened by a mysterious space creature called the Horta. A plea for tolerance of “the other” disguised as science-fiction, William Shatner has said this is his favorite episode.

9.”Amok Time” (Season 2, Episode 1; D: Joseph Pevney W: Theodore Sturgeon)- Spock is suffering from the Vulcan condition known as “pon farr”, and must return to his planet to mate or he will die. Kirk joins him, and the two friends must battle to the death when T’Pring requests a challenge. (Celia Lovsky , who plays Vulcan leader T’Pau, was once married to actor Peter Lorre.)

10.”Mirror, Mirror” (Season 2, Episode 4; D: Marc Daniels W: Jerome Bixby)- The Enterprise meets and battles its evil doppelgänger from a parallel universe. Though this plot has been used over and over in the sci-fi genre, this episode does a great job, with dual roles for everybody.

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STAR TREK has spawned four TV sequels, STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE, STAR TREK: VOYAGER, and STAR TREK: ENTERPRISE, with a fifth scheduled to premiere in 2017 on the streaming channel CBS All Access, titled STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. There was even a Saturday morning cartoon series in 1973 featuring the original cast lending their voices to the characters. Thirteen feature films based on the Star Trek Universe have been made, including the most recent, STAR TREK BEYOND. Now one of the most popular science-fiction franchises of all time, it’s hard to believe STAR TREK almost got cancelled in its second season, saved only by a letter-writing campaign by its fervent fans. After the third and final season, the 79 episodes went into syndication, where it found its audience. Trekkie conventions sprung up, and the series became a pop culture phenomenon. These days, its referred to by fans as STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES, but to me it’ll always be just STAR TREK. Happy Golden Anniversary, Enterprise crew… here’s to fifty more years of going “where no man has gone before”!

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(Do you have a favorite episode or any STAR TREK memories to share? Feel free to comment below!)

 

 

The Wild & Wacky World of Dickie Goodman

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“Sampling” in popular music today is as common as a cold, with hip-hop and electronica artists cutting in bits and pieces from other artist’s songs to create something entirely new. You could say Dickie Goodman was “The Godfather of Sampling” and not be far from the truth. Goodman and his partner-in-crime Bill Buchanan were the originators of “break-in” records, novelty discs that spliced snippets of contemporary hit tunes into comic scenarios, starting with the 1956 smash “The Flying Saucer Pts. 1 & 2”.

Goodman was born in Brooklyn on April 19, 1934. He was a struggling young songwriter when he and Buchanan came up with the idea of producing a comedy record based on Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast, using lines from rock records as answers to man-on-the-street questions. Goodman played the DJ while Buchanan acted as reporter “John Cameron Cameron”, a play on noted newsman and Timex pitchman John Cameron Swayze. The silliness gained airplay in New York, and soon went national, climbing to #3 on the Billboard charts:

 The song created quite a buzz among listeners, but some of the artists sampled (including Fats Domino) were not amused, suing Buchanan and Goodman for copyright infringement. The case went to court, and the judge ruled in the defendent’s favor, stating the record was a parody and as such considered a new piece of work. Buchanan and Goodman went on their merry way poking fun at virtually every fad or trend that came along. They even parodied their own legal battles with “Buchanan and Goodman On Trial”:

The duo eventually parted ways, and Goodman went solo, parodying every trend from TV crime shows (“The Touchables”) to monster movies (“Frankenstein of ’59”) to spy flicks (“James Bomb”). One of my favorites is Goodman’s take on the mid-60’s superhero camp craze, “Batman and His Grandmother”:

Goodman continued in this satirical vein spoofing politics with records like “On Campus”, “Watergate”, and “Mr. President”. He went toe-to-toe with “Mr. Rocky”, flew into space again with “Star Warts”, and had his biggest success ever with the 1975 spoof “Mr. Jaws”:

Dickie Goodman’s life took a turn for the worst in the 80’s when his wife left him. Heavily in debt due to his gambling addiction, Goodman shot himself on November 6, 1989. The party was over, but his legacy lives on. Goodman’s son Jon wrote a book on his father called “The King of Novelty” in 2000, which is still available on Amazon. Dickie Goodman’s “break-in” records brought loads of laughs to his listeners, and are still funny today as a nostalgic look back at the fads and foibles of yesteryear. I’ll leave you with one of his latter-day efforts, the Reagan-era “Mr. President”. Enjoy!

Secret Agent Double-O Dino: THE SILENCERS (Columbia 1966)

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Out of all the James Bond-inspired spy spoofs made in the Swingin’ 60’s, one of the most popular was Dean Martin’s Matt Helm series. Based on the novels of Donald Hamilton, the films bore little resemblance to their literary counterparts, instead relying on Dino’s Booze & Girlies Rat Pack Vegas persona. First up was 1966’s THE SILENCERS, chock full of gadgets, karate chops, and beautiful babes, with sexual innuendoes by the truckload.

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Our Man Matt is a semi-retired agent of ICE (Intelligence and Counter-Espionage) living in a Playboy Mansion-style pad, and working as a globe-trotting photographer. He’s luxuriating in his bubble bath pool with sexy secretary Lovey Kravezit (“Lovey Kravezit? Oh that’s some kinda name!”) when former boss Mac Donald calls. Evil spy organization Big O (Bureau for International Government and Order) is once again plotting world domination, and the reluctant Helm is pulled back into service.

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Matt is teamed with his former partner Tina to thwart Operation Fallout, a nefarious plot to detonate nuclear bombs at Alamagordo and set off a war between the U.S. and Russia. The two spies are sent to Phoenix to retrieve a computer tape from operative Sarita, who works as the featured attraction at the Slayboy Club. Sarita is assassinated onstage, and the tape winds up in the hands of beautiful but klutzy Gail Hendricks. Matt thinks she’s an enemy agent, and they make their way to San Juan, where they’re captured. Tina turns out to be a double agent, and Matt must battle the odds inside Big O headquarters to stop Operation Fallout and defeat evil leader Tung Tze.

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All this serves as an excuse to surround Dino with gorgeous women and make with the double entendres in his smooth as Bourbon voice. Dean’s basically playing himself here, or at least his public image of a fun-loving, skirt chasing, boozy lounge lizard. His easygoing charm makes it work, and he has a ball as the ring-a-ding spy. Dean can be heard singing on the soundtrack whenever he’s thinking of girls, and there’s a funny moment when, while driving with Gail, Frank Sinatra comes on the radio crooning “Come Fly With Me”. “Oh, turn him off”, says Dean, “He’s terrible”. He switches the station and Dean himself is on singing his own hit “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometimes”. Martin smiles and says, “Now that guy can sing!”.

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All the women are appropriately attractive. Stella Stevens is the graceless Gail, an innocent caught up in the sinister skullduggery. She give a fine comic performance, and can take a slapstick pratfall with the best of them. A former Playmate of the Month, Stella’s seen to best advantage in the films THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (with Dean’s ex-partner Jerry Lewis), Sam Peckinpah’s THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE, and Irwin Allen’s THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. Daliah Lavi (Tina) was an Israeli actress featured in the spy spoofs THE SPY WITH A COLD NOSE and 1967’s CASINO ROYALE, as well as Mario Bava’s THE WHIP AND THE BODY. Beverly Adams (Lovey Kravezit) was in HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI, but was best known as the wife of celebrity hairstylist Vidal Sassoon. Nancy Kovack appears as counterspy Barbara, who tries unsuccessfully to knock off Helm. Kovack was a 60’s staple who acted in countless TV shows of the era (MAN FROM UNCLE, STAR TREK, BATMAN, etc), and played the ingénue in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and THE OUTLAWS IS COMING (The Three Stooges’ last feature), and retired from films after marrying conductor Zubin Mehta .

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Cyd Charisse gets “Guest Star” billing as Sarita, the dancing spy. The former MGM musical star gets to strut her stuff once again in both the movie’s opening credits (where she does a striptease number) and onstage at the Slayboy Club (her vocals are dubbed by singer Vicki Carr). It’s basically a cameo role, but it’s good to see the leggy Miss Charisse dancing onscreen again.

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The males are all Familiar Faces to movie fans, composed of a fine set of 60’s  character actors. Victor Buono plays villain Tung Tze, and though he’s about as Oriental as Dino, he’s always a welcome presence. Gruff James Gregory is ICE chief MacDonald, and Robert Webber , Roger C. Carmel, and Arthur O’Connell are various Big O bad guys. Director Phil Karlson, known for his tough films like KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL and THE PHENIX CITY STORY , shows his lighter side in this one and balances the comedy and action well.

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Producer Irving Allen was once the partner of Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, who broke up when Cubby decided to bring James Bond to the silver screen. Allen wasn’t interested, and missed the boat on a franchise that’s still going strong today. After seeing the success of the Bond films, Allen jumped on the bandwagon and obtained the rights to the Matt Helm novels, adding more comedy to the mix. THE SILENCERS and its sequel MURDERER’S ROW were box-office hits, but the final two (THE AMBUSHERS and THE WRECKING CREW) didn’t do so hot, as the spy craze was ending. Martin declined to do a fifth (THE RAVAGERS) and Matt Helm went into retirement. Attempts to revive the character have failed, including a weekly TV series starring Tony Franciosa. The Matt Helm movies are a product of their era, with Dean Martin’s breezy style carrying the load. All the wink-and-a-nod sexual innuendoes seem innocent in today’s anything goes world, but the Matt Helm series is worth watching as artifacts of a time past, no classics but still entertaining.

Back to the Beach: MUSCLE BEACH PARTY (AIP 1964)

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The “Beach Party ” gang’s back and so’s the familiar formula in MUSCLE BEACH PARTY, second in the American-International series. It’s Easter vacation and Frankie Avalon is still horny, Annette Funicello’s still waiting for marriage, and a beautiful foreign woman is again coming between them. This time it’s Lucianna Paluzzi as Countess Julie, a rich heiress who wants to make Frankie a singing star and her personal property.

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Eric Von Zipper and his Rats aren’t around this time, replaced by a bunch of bodybuilders led by trainer Jack Fanny (the inimitable Don Rickles). Julie first sets her sights on “Mr. Galaxy” Flex Martian, but dumps him when she spies Frankie. This leads to war between the surfers and the musclemen, with the inevitable slapstick melee. Flex is played by Rock Stevens, a real-life bodybuilder who muscled his way through a few Italian peplum films before reverting to his real name of Peter Lupus and co-starring in the long-running TV series MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE.

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The gang’s all here: John Ashley, Jody McCrea, Candy Johnson, Valora Noland, and Dick Dale and the Del-Tones. Alberta Nelson, usually one of Von Zipper’s Mice, is cast as one of the muscle girls. Newcomer Donna Loren makes her series debut singing “Muscle Bustle” with Dale and company. Miss Loren was spokesperson for Dr. Pepper soda, and the soft drink is prominently featured in some scenes… coincidence? I think not!

Rickles made his first of four series appearances as Fanny, although always in different roles. He’s Big Drag in BIKINI BEACH, Big Bang in PAJAMA PARTY, and Big Drop in BEACH BLANKET BINGO. Morey Amsterdam returns as Cappy, owner of the gang’s hangout. Comic Buddy Hackett is Julie’s business manager S.Z., and Peter Turgeon, primarily a stage actor who once played Dr. Woodward on DARK SHADOWS, is her hapless lawyer Theodore. 13-year-old Stevie Wonder makes his film debut jamming with Dick Dale and the Del-Tones on “Happy Street”:

There’s some fun with Frankie Avalon constantly breaking the Forth Wall, California surf artist Michael Dormer’s opening cartoon credits, and plenty of cool surfing footage. Beach Boy Brian Wilson co-wrote six of the tunes to add some authenticity. The most fun for film buffs is undoubtably the surprise cameo by Peter Lorre as Mr. Strangdour,  the silent partner of Jack Fanny’s  bodybuilders (“he bends things”), at the movie’s conclusion. A tag line at the end touts Lorre’s next appearance in BIKINI BEACH, but alas it wasn’t to be. After making Jerry Lewis’ THE PATSY, Lorre died on March 23, 1964, ending a great screen career.

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MUSCLE BEACH PARTY isn’t as good as BEACH PARTY, but sequels rarely top the originals. The formula was already in place for the series, and would continue right up to GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI, the final film. While certainly not high cinematic art, the “Beach Party” series are goofball drive-in flicks designed for viewers to shut off their brains for an hour and a half and enjoy a few summertime laughs. And honestly, what more can you ask for out of a drive-in flick than that?