Off-Brand Spaghetti: MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE (United Artists 1969)

It’s hanging day at a remote Arizona prison outpost, and four men are scheduled to swing from the gallows. After they’re executed, the four pine boxes pop open, and outlaw Luke Santee and his gang commence firing, their six-guns blazing, as they try to free Luke’s baby brother. The escape attempt is an epic fail as ‘Killer’ Cain, a prisoner for 18 years now up for parole, stops the brother from leaving his cell and getting slaughtered, with Luke vowing revenge…

That opening scene, a violent, gory bloodbath, makes one think MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE is going to be a Sergio Leone-inspired American Spaghetti Western. It even stars a former TV Western hero named Clint – big Clint (CHEYENNE) Walker ! But the episodic nature of George Schenck’s script kills that idea, as the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Spaghetti or Traditional Western? Character study, comedy, drama? It plays more like an extended pilot episode for a new TV series, thanks to director Robert Sparr, who worked with Clint on CHEYENNE and whose credits include episodes of VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, THE RAT PATROL, STAR TREK, and THE WILD WILD WEST.

Clint does get to encounter some colorful characters along the way. Chief among them is Vincent Price , taking a break from his AIP horrors, as carny spieler Dan Ruffalo, who goads Clint into picking up his gun once again and traveling through the Southwest as part of a Wild West sideshow. Price is worth the price (sorry) of admission, though he can’t help looking somewhat demonic after spending all those years with Roger Corman. Anne Francis plays a pretty artist from back East who meets and falls in love with Clint. Another brawny actor, former NFL star and movie Tarzan (and the future Junior Justice of SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT!) Mike Henry is the vengeful Santee. But Paul Hampton, whose claim to fame is as cowriter of the early rock hit “Sea of Heartbreak”, overacts as young psycho sharpshooter Billy, who’s jealous when Clint joins the carny. Some Familiar Faces on the trail include Frank Baxter, Robert Foulk, Emile Meyer , and William Woodson, whose face may not be all that familiar, but you’ll immediately recognize his voice as the narrator of TV’s SUPER FRIENDS and THE ODD COUPLE.

So the question remains, is MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE worth your time? Well, I guess if you’re a Western buff, Clint Walker die-hard, or Vincent Price completist, then you’ll want to view it. I stuck with it til the end (which was quite bizarre and unexpected), but I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it. It’s one of those kinda, sorta in-the-middle movies that are okay for a late-night-can’t-sleep or rainy-day-let’s-clean-out-the-DVR watch. Don’t run away from it, but don’t go out of your way to see it, either.

Naughty Or Nice: SUSAN SLEPT HERE (RKO 1954)

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Looking for something a little offbeat in a Christmas movie? Try SUSAN SLEPT HERE, a film that could never get made today, as it concerns the romance between a 17 year old girl and a 35 year old man. I know some of you out there are already screaming “EEEEWWW!!!”, but indulge me while I describe the madcap moments leading to said romance.

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For starters, the movie is narrated by Oscar. Not Oscar Levant, but THE Oscar, the fabled Academy Awards statuette. This particular Oscar was won by Mark Christopher, screenwriter of fluffy Hollywood comedies yearning to pen a dramatic yarn and prove his mettle as a writer. Into his life comes teenage Susan Landis, a juvenile delinquent dumped on his doorstep by two cops who don’t want to lock her up til after the holidays. They figure Mark can watch her and get a good story idea in the process before she winds up on a prison farm until she turns 18.

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This idea doesn’t sit well Susan, who thinks the old rascal wants to get in her pants. Mark’s fiancé, the blonde ice princess Isabella, isn’t too happy with the situation either. Susan soon begins to fall for Mark’s kindness and gives him a big kiss under the misseltoe, just when his pal Virgil and attorney Harvey walk in the door. Mark decides he’s going to marry Susan – in name only, of course – in order to keep her out of the hoosegow, so he drives her over state lines for a quickie Vegas wedding, and keeps her up dancing all night so they won’t have time to consummate the honeymoon. Then Mark and his secretary Maude take off for Sun Valley so he can work on his script, leaving Susan alone with Virgil.

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Lawyer Harvey tries to get Susan to sign annulment papers, but she refuses. Later, Harvey sees Susan at a lunch counter- eating strawberries and pickles! Fearing the worst, he calls Mark to chastise him for getting her pregnant, but innocent Mark thinks it’s Virgil that did the dirty deed while he was away. Alls well that ends well, as we find out Susan’s not really preggo, she just digs eating strawberries and pickles! Mark soon realizes he’s fallen in love with Susan, and she pulls him into the bedroom to, uh, well… consummate!

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Screenwriter Alex Gottleib peppers his script with plenty of double entendrees and innuendoes, but it’s Frank Tashlin’s direction that makes the film come to life. Tashlin got his start in cartoons, working for animation studios Terrytoons, Van Buren, Ub Iwerks, Screen Gems, and most notably Warner Brothers’ “Looney Tunes”, cranking out classics with Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and (during the war) Private Snafu. He put his cartoon training to good use in films starring Martin & Lewis (ARTISTS AND MODELS, HOLLYWOOD OR BUST), Bob Hope (SON OF PALEFACE), and many of Jerry Lewis’s early solo efforts. Tashlin was also responsible for two of the 50’s funniest comedies, THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT and WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?, both with Jayne Mansfield. Most of his films resemble live-action cartoons, with wild sight gags galore, and filled with vibrant, eye-popping Technicolor, captured in SUSAN SLEPT HERE by Nicholas Musuraca, usually associated with the dark world of film noir!

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22 year old Debbie Reynolds plays 17 year old Susan, and she’s a frantic, funny ball of energy as the delinquent teen. 50 year old Dick Powell plays 35 year old Mark, and the difference in their ages really shows. You can tell he’s uncomfortable about the whole thing, and the filmmakers wisely chose to make Debbie the aggressor, chasing Powell with wild abandon. There’s a crazy dream sequence that has Powell in a spangled sailor suit, harkening back to his early Warner Bros musical days, with Debbie a sweet little bird in a gilded cage, and lovely Anne Francis (Isabella) as the Spider-Woman coming between them.

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Glenda Farrell , who was Powell’s age but looks much older, is his girl Friday Maude, and she gets the best lines, calling Isabella “Dracula’s daughter”, having an exchange with Powell’s maid (Maid: “Didn’t he just write a hit for Jane Russell?” Glenda: “His story is NOT what made that picture a hit!”), and this bit with Virgil; Him: “What do you know about motherhood?” Her: “I happened to have typed the script for ‘Stella Dallas’!”. Virgil is Alvy Moore, best known as Mr. Kimball on TV’s GREEN ACRES. Other Familiar Faces are Herb Vigran and Horace McMahon as the cops, Les Tremayne as the lawyer, and bits from Benny Rubin, Ellen Corby, Rita Johnson, and in a funny cameo, Red Skelton .

Times and tastes change, and Tashlin’s 50’s films today may be considered sexist. I like his stuff, as he brings that cartoony sensibility to all his films. You’ll have to decide for yourselves whether SUSAN SLEPT HERE belongs on your Christmas watch-list. I enjoyed it, it’s full of Hollywood in-jokes and skewers all Tashlin’s favorite targets- teenagers, television, psychiatry, and SEX! Give it a shot; if you feel offended by it, I’ll be glad to send you a safety pin.

Shakespeare in Space: FORBIDDEN PLANET (MGM 1956)

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Well, not quite. FORBIDDEN PLANET is very loosely based on The Bard’s THE TEMPEST, drawing on some of its themes and characters, and putting them in an outer space setting. But the film is much more than that. It’s full of screen firsts, and one of the most influential science fiction movies ever. While watching I was more than reminded of STAR TREK, and wasn’t surprised while doing research that Gene Roddenberry cited it as “one of his inspirations”.

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Today no one thinks twice about movies being set completely in outer space, but FORBIDDEN PLANET did it first. The art and set direction by MGM vets Cedric Gibbons and Arthur Lonergan are wonders to behold, shot in beautiful CinemaScope and Eastmancolor by George J. Folsey. The cinematographer began in silent pictures, and carved a niche with big, splashy musicals like MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, THE ZIEGFELD FOLLIES, TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME, and SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, earning 13 Oscar nominations in the process. Folsey’s camerawork, along with a battalion of special effects technicians (including Disney animator Joshua Meador), help make Altair-IV a believable world without any CGI (most of you know how I feel about CGI by now!)

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The film follows the adventures of the crew of United Planets ship C57-D, on a mission to find the long-lost Bellerophon expedition on Altair-IV. Commander Adams and his crew are warned not to land by Dr. Morbius, one of the expedition’s scientists. But Adams has his orders, and they arrive to meet Morbius and his beautiful daughter Altaira, along with their servant Robby the Robot (we’ll talk more about him later!) Morbius tells Adams and company the other members of the party were killed, “torn limb from limb”, by some strange, unknown creature. He’s spent the last twenty years studying the ancient knowledge of the Krell, a race of highly intelligent beings who trod Altair-IV nearly 2000 centuries ago. The Krell’s sophisticated scientific advances have given Morbius a superior IQ through their machinery. But something strange is happening again on Altair-IV, as the C57-D’s crew members begin getting picked off by an invisible monster.

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Adams and his men try to combat the thing, but their weaponry is useless against the monster. When Adams and Doc return to Morbius’s lair, Doc tries the IQ machine on himself. It’s power kills him, but before he dies, he uncovers the truth about the monster. It’s a manifestation of Morbius’s own subconscious, a monster from the Id that must be stopped or the crew of the C57-D will be destroyed by it!

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The cast of FORBIDDEN PLANET is terrific, with veteran star Walter Pidgeon as Dr. Morbius leading the pack. Pidgeon made seven films with Greer Garson, including the wartime drama MRS. MINIVER, and was a well-respected actor on the MGM lot. Adams is played by Leslie Nielsen, another serious dramatic actor, that is until 1980’s AIRPLANE! discovered his untapped comic talents. Beautiful Anne Francis (Altaira) starred in BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK and THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE before being cast in the mid-60s Private Eye cult series HONEY WEST. Warren Stevens (Doc) is remembered best for his many guest shots in episodic TV, while Adams’ second in command Lt. Farman was Jack Kelly, later one of the MAVERICK brothers. Earl Holliman (Cookie) is well known for his Western appearances, and his stint as Angie Dickinson’s boss on POLICE WOMAN. Other crew members include George Wallace (Commando Cody in the Republic serial RADAR MEN FROM THE MOON), Richard Anderson (Oscar Goldman on THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN), James Drury (TV’s THE VIRGINIAN), James Best (DUKES OF HAZZARD’s Rosco P. Coltrane), and William Boyette (ADAM-12). Director Fred McLeod Wilcox handles the ensemble well, though he’s better known for directing another MGM star in several films, Lassie!

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Then there’s Robby the Robot. The now-iconic Robby made his debut here, and unlike robots before him, he has a personality and character all his own. Robby’s a servant in name only, he’s more like one of the family to Morbius and Altaira. The erudite robot was voiced by Marvin Miller,  long-time radio actor and film narrator who gained success in the TV series THE MILLIONAIRE. Inside Robby was former juvenile lead Frankie Darro. The diminutive (5’3″) Darro manipulated the controls in the robot costume, uncredited until it was revealed in 2000. Darro starred in a series of Monogram comedy mysteries in the early 40s with black actor Mantan Moreland, a rarity in that Moreland was portrayed onscreen as Darro’s pal rather than the stereotyped subservient role. Robby itself went on to costar in THE INVISIBLE BOY before a slew of TV guest shots in THE ADDAMS FAMILY, MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., MORK AND MINDY, and LOST IN SPACE, where he was teamed with the Robinson’s own iconic Robot.

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The score for FORBIDDEN PLANET was another screen first. Bebe and Louis Barron were pioneers in the electronic music world, and the film was the first to feature an all-electronic score. Most filmgoers had never heard such sounds, and the movie’s weird music adds to the feeling of being on a distant planet. Probably the most well thought out science-fiction film of the 50s, certainly the most expensive, FORBIDDEN PLANET stands out among its peers as the greatest space opera of its era. It’s a film that should be seen by not only sci-fi buffs, but by everyone that has an interest in movie history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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