Criminally Underrated: George C. Scott in BANK SHOT (United Artists 1974)

I’m a big fan of the novels and short stories of Edgar Award-winning writer Donald E. Westlake , named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. His comic-laced crime capers featuring master planner Dortmunder were well suited for films and the first book in the series, THE HOT ROCK, was filmed by Peter Yates in 1972 with Robert Redford as the mastermind. Two years later came BANK SHOT, the second Dortmunder novel, starring George C. Scott but changing the character’s name to Walter Ballentine due to legal issues. Dortmunder or Ballentine, BANK SHOT is a zany film with a fine cast of actors that deserves another look.

Ballentine is doing life in Warden “Bulldog” Streiger’s maximum security prison, but when his shady “lawyer” and confidant Al G. Karp visits with an idea for a new “shot”, the hardened criminal makes his escape. Karp needs Ballentine’s expertise to plan the robbery of Mission Bell Bank, currently headquartered in a trailer while construction is finished on a new building. Karp’s assembled a nutty robbery crew that includes his ex-FBI agent nephew Victor, ditzy, amorous financial backer Eleonora, looney driver Stosh Gornik and his con artist mom, and trigger happy wanna-be politician Hermann X. The brainy Ballentine decides they won’t just rob the bank… they’ll steal the entire kit’n’kaboodle! Ballentine and company pull off an elaborate, ingenious heist that baffles everyone but “Bulldog”, who’s hot on the fugitive’s trail.

 

Scott, complete with bushy eyebrows and a pronounced lisp, is the lynchpin holding BANK SHOT together, playing straight man to the wackiness going on around him. When he learns the job is in LA, he grumbles it’s “freak town- kook city – where the nuts are – trouble”, and he’s not wrong. Sorrell Booke (THE DUKES OF HAZZARD’s Boss Hogg) goes strictly for laughs as his partner-in-crime Karp. Joanna Cassidy (WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBITT?) has one of her earliest roles as the constantly giggling Eleonora, as does Bob Balaban (credited as Robert) as young Karp. One of my favorite comic character actors Don Calfa (WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S) plays the manic Stosh, with Bibi Osterwald (THE WORLD OF HENRY ORIENT) as his swindler mom. Ex-NFLer Fred McRae (48 HRS) makes a funny Hermann X, but it’s the late Clifton James (Sheriff J.W. Pepper of LIVE AND LET DIE and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN ) who stands out as the ornery, doggedly determined Warden “Bulldog” Streiger.

Director Gower Champion was a former MGM musical star famed for his dancing with wife Marge Champion. He was more successful as a Broadway director (BYE BYE BIRDIE and HELLO DOLLY! were among his many hits) than on film, in fact BANK SHOT was only his second (and last) feature. It was a good swan song, as the film captures the Westlake flavor nicely. The movie has a daffy, anarchic spirit to it, and though sometimes it can be over-the-top silly, is worth watching when you’re in the mood for a good, solid belly-laugh.

Screwball Comedian: Joe E. Brown in ALIBI IKE (Warner Brothers 1935)

We’re about a quarter of the way through the baseball season, so let’s take a trip to the ballpark with Joe E. Brown in ALIBI IKE, a 1935 comedy based on a story by Ring Lardner, one of the best baseball writers of the early 20th Century. Brown, known for his wide mouth and comical yell, is an admittedly acquired taste; his “gosh, golly” country bumpkin persona is not exactly what modern audiences go for these days.  But back in the 30’s he was one of Hollywood’s top box-office draws, specializing in sports themed comedies  revolving around wrestling (SIT TIGHT), track and field (LOCAL BOY MAKES GOOD), swimming (YOU SAID A MOUTHFUL), polo (POLO JOE), football ($1,000 A TOUCHDOWN), and racing (boats in TOP SPEED, airplanes in GOING WILD, bicycles in SIX DAY BIKE RACE).

ALIBI IKE is the final chapter in Brown’s “baseball trilogy”. The first, 1932’s FIREMAN, SAVE MY CHILD, found him as a player for the St. Louis Cardinals who doubles as a fireman and part-time inventor. 1933’s ELMER THE GREAT has Brown as an egotistical rookie for the Chicago Cubs. In ALIBI IKE, he’s back in a Cubs uniform as Frank X. Farrell, a hick-from-the-sticks with an unorthodox pitching style and a blazing fastball. His teammates nickname him “Alibi Ike” for his proclivity to come up with an outrageous excuse for everything, but his raw talent sets the league abuzz, raising the hopes of the Cubs long-suffering manager Cap (played by Fred Mertz himself, cranky William Frawley).

The rube’s never been interested in women until he meets Cap’s sister-in-law Dolly, who thinks he’s “cute”. This was movie audiences first glimpse at a 19-year-old actress who definitely had a future before her… Olivia de Havilland ! Olivia had already filmed A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT DREAM (also featuring Brown) and THE IRISH IN US, but ALIBI IKE was released first. She’s pretty darn “cute” herself as Dolly, and has great chemistry with Brown. Later that year, Olivia would costar with Errol Flynn in CAPTAIN BLOOD , becoming half of one of the screen’s most romantic couples.

Ike is paid a visit by the president of “The Young Men’s High Ideals Club”, which he soon finds out is a front for a gambling ring that threatens him to throw some games or else! When Dolly breaks up with him over a misunderstanding, the lovestruck hurler loses his first game. Through circumstances, Cap and the team’s president think he’s in with the gamblers, and on the night of the big pennant deciding game against the Giants, Ike is kidnapped! Of course, you just know he’ll escape and wind up winning both the game and the girl, right?

The only quibble I have with ALIBI IKE is the big night game is played on the Cubs’ home field, which as all us baseball fans know didn’t get lights for night games until 1988! Otherwise, this is one of the all-time great baseball comedies, with actors that actually look like ball players for a change. The cast includes Familiar Faces Ruth Donnelly (as Frawley’s wife), Roscoe Karns, Jack Norton  (sober for a change, as a reporter!), Frank Coghlin Jr (Billy Batson in the serial CAPTAIN MARVEL), and Fred “Snowflake” Toones. Hard-core baseball enthusiasts may recognize former old-time players Gump Cantrell, Cedric Durst, Mike Gazella, Don Hurst, and Bob Meusel, as well as Jim Thorpe, whose life story was made into a 1951 biofilm starring Burt Lancaster.

William Wister Haines adapted his screenplay from Lardner’s story, giving Brown plenty of comic opportunities, and director Ray Enright ( PLAY-GIRL , ANGELS WASH THEIR FACES, GUNG HO!) keeps things moving along at a brisk pace. ALIBI IKE is a wonderful place to start if you’re not familiar with Brown’s work, classic movie lovers will want to catch it for Olivia’s screen debut, and baseball fans for the sheer joy of it. Honestly, I think even non-baseball fans will get a kick out of ALIBI IKE. Now let’s play ball!

 

Something Wilder: THE ADVENTURE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER (20th Century-Fox 1975)

The late Gene Wilder was well loved by filmgoers for his work with Mel Brooks, his movies alongside Richard Pryor, and his iconic role as Willie Wonka. Wilder had co-written the screenplay for Brooks’ YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, and now branched out on his own as writer/director/star of 1975’s THE ADVENTURE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER.

The zany tale, set in 1891, finds Sherlock’s jealous brother Sigerson (Wilder, who derisively calls his more famous sibling “Sheer-Luck”) assigned to the case of music hall singer Jenny Hill (Madeline Kahn) who’s being blackmailed by opera singer Eduardo Gambetti (the enormously funny Dom DeLuise ). Assisting Sigerson is his own Watson, the pop-eyed Sgt. Orville Stacker (Marty Feldman), blessed with “a photographic sense of hearing” that he can only access by whacking himself upside the head. The plot thickens as Sigerson learns Jenny’s a practiced liar (who only trusts men when she’s sexually aroused), she’s actually the daughter of British Foreign Secretary Redcliff… which is another lie; she’s Redcliff’s fiancé, and has handed over an important document to Gambetti, who’s about to sell it to none other than the infamous Professor Moriarty (Leo McKern)!

Wilder displays a keen eye for film in his directorial debut. Like his friend Brooks, he’s obviously a student of the medium, and the film is a visual delight. There’s plenty of laughs to be had, like the scene where Sigerson and Sacker are trapped by Moriarty and Gambetti in a tiny room menaced by a buzzsaw, and escape by the seats of their pants… literally! The comic highlight is “A Masked Ball”, an opera parody starring Gambetti and Jenny invaded by Sigerson, Sacker, and Moriarty’s henchman (Roy Kinnear) where the document is passed around, all with expert comedy timing. Following this is a swashbuckling sequence with Wilder taking on the dastardly McKern.

Wilder, Feldman, and Kahn are all reunited from YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, while McKern and Kinnear were previously paired in The Beatles film HELP! Douglas Wilmer, who starred as Sherlock in the 60’s BBC TV series, donned the deerstalker cap once again; his Watson is Thorley Walters, who essayed the part in three Holmes films. And yes, that’s the voice of Mel Brooks behind the door in a parody of “The Lady or The Tiger?’.

There are plenty of musical sequences in the movie, including the bizarre “Kangaroo Hop”. THE ADVENTURE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER is a madcap romp, but just a notch below Wilder’s films with Brooks. He’d go on to write and direct three more films; THE WOMAN IN RED was his most popular, though I prefer his silent era spoof THE WORLD’S GREATEST LOVER (let’s not talk about HAUNTED HONEYMOON). Still, it’s a solid first effort for Wilder in the director’ seat, with a sterling cast of comic pros, and if you like Mel Brooks’ brand of buffoonery, you’ll definitely enjoy this film, too.

 

Musclebound Mess: HERCULES IN NEW YORK (RAF Industries 1969)

Well, I can finally cross HERCULES IN NEW YORK off my bucket list. This fantasy-comedy starred the team of bespectacled, scrawny comic actor Arnold Stang and musclebound ‘Mr. Universe’ Arnold Strong. Who? Why, none other than the Governator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger, making his film debut as the Greek Demi-God paying a visit to modern-day Earth. Hercules is all-powerful, and can only be defeated by one thing… a lousy script!

The plot, if you can call it that, has half-human Herc pining to go to Earth against father Zeus’s wishes. Zeus finally relents and transports the headstrong Herc to Terra Firma, where he befriends Stang playing Pretzie, so named because he sells pretzels. Brilliant! The two then have a series of adventures. Herc battles an anemic looking grizzly bear in Central Park! Herc becomes a pro wrestler! Herc falls in love with a mortal! Meanwhile, on Mount Olympus, Juno conspires with Pluto to get rid of Herc once and for all. This all culminates in a “wacky” chase involving some shady gangsters, and a happy ending is had by all.

Arnold isn’t very good in this. His accent is so thick you’d have to cut it with a chainsaw to understand him half the time. The original version (released in New York in 1969, nationwide in ’70) dubbed his lines, only restoring it when Arnold soared to fame in the 80’s. Arnold Stang’s Brooklynese accent is just as thick, but then again that was his trademark. Stang was a voice actor in radio and cartoons (TOP CAT) who made a few films (THE MAN WITH THE THE GOLDEN ARM, IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD ); he’s certainly an acquired taste, you either like him or you don’t. I do, though I’ll admit this isn’t his finest hour.

Producer/screenwriter Aubrey Wisberg is mainly responsible for the film’s failure. Wisberg had his good days ( MAN FROM PLANET X ) and bad (THE NEANDERTHAL MAN ). HERCULES IN NEW YORK definitely falls into the latter category. The script’s lack of quality, combined with the extremely low budget and non-existant direction by Arthur A. Seidleman, ruin what was a not-bad idea. The supporting cast consists of mostly unknown New York actors, familiar only to fans of 60’s-70’s TV soap operas, except former MGM demi-starlet Tania Elg (LES GIRLS). I will give props to Michael Lipton as Pluto, giving a hammy performance worthy of Price or Carradine!

HERCULES IN NEW YORK is a curiosity for sure, being Arnold’s screen debut and all, but is it worth watching? I’ll be honest, it’s not very good, but I’ve seen worse drive-in flicks. The NYC location filming has some historic value, including a chariot ride through Times Square showing what things looked like during the era (EASY RIDER is playing at one theater). It’s in the “so-bad-it’s-good” category of movies, and if you’re into that, give it a shot. Otherwise, stay away.

Strange Days Indeed: Woody Allen’s SLEEPER (United Artists 1973)

(I’m posting a bit earlier than usual so I can head up to the Mecca of baseball, Fenway Park! Go Red Sox!!)

Full disclosure: I lost interest in Woody Allen around the time he decided to become a “serious” filmmaker beginning with INTERIORS. Sure, I thought ZELIG and PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO were funny, and A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHTS SEX COMEDY had its moments. But for me, the years 1969-1977 were Woody’s most creative period, spanning from the absurd TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN to the Oscar-winning ANNIE HALL. Landing right about midway in that timeline stands his brilliant sci-fi satire SLEEPER, which owes more to Chaplin and Keaton than Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.

The fun begins when Miles Monroe (Allen) is woken from his cryogenic sleep in the year 2173. Two hundred years earlier, Miles had been the proprietor of the Happy Carrot Health Food store, and went in for minor surgery on his peptic ulcer. Somehow he was cryogenically frozen, and is now a stranger in a strange land. The premise just serves as an excuse for Allen to indulge in some of the wackiest schtick and sight gags he’s ever done. Some of the funniest involve him disguised as the robot servant of wacky poet Luna (Diane Keaton, Woody’s significant other at the time). Ersatz robot Woody gets into a battle with a bowl of pudding that grows to Blob-like proportions, gets wrecked on the Orb (a futuristic drug that’s passed around at a party), and is brought in by Keaton to have a head change, where he engages in a sped-up slapstick fight that’s reminiscent of the great silent comedies.

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Allen and Keaton have a wonderful comic chemistry, a sort of 70’s neurotic version of Tracy and Hepburn. Keaton’s Luna is a ditzy bubblehead who comes into her own when she joins the underground movement against the oppressive totalitarian regime, and the two of them sparkle as they infiltrate government headquarters masquerading as doctors and kidnap The Leader, or rather what’s left of him… seems the rebels have blown him up and all that remains is his nose, which is about to be cloned! This scene features a send-up of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY complete with the voice of HAL (Douglas Rain) as a medical computer. A hysterical scene in the rebel camp has Allen and Keaton parodying A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, with Woody as Vivien Leigh’s Blanche and Diane imitating Brando’s Stanley Kowalski!

A Woody Allen film isn’t complete without his trademark one-liners in the grand tradition of his heroes Groucho Marx and Bob Hope (1), and SLEEPER is packed with some gems. Asked to become a spy by the underground, Allen quips, “I’m not the heroic type, I’ve been beaten up by Quakers!”. Keaton asks, “What’s it like to be dead for 2,000 years”, to which Allen replies, “It’s like spending a weekend in Beverly Hills”. When she inquires nonchalantly if he wants to “perform sex”, he rakishly answers, “I’m not up to performing, but I’ll rehearse with you”. Nervous about infiltrating the government, Allen remarks, “I’m 237 years old, I should be collecting Social Security”. Allen’s political philosophy comes into play when he states to Keaton, “Political solutions don’t work, I told you, it doesn’t matter who’s up there, they’re all terrible”. The movie’s last line, with Keaton asking him since he doesn’t believe in God, science, or politics just what does he believe in, is a classic: “Sex and death, two things that come once in my lifetime. But at least after death, you’re not nauseous”.

The jokes and gags come fast and furious, from escaping the stormtroopers via The Hydraulic Suit, to the Yiddish robot tailors voiced by comedians Jackie Mason and Myron Cohen, to Woody discovering the wonders of The Orgasmitron, all set to an incongruous Dixieland Jazz score by Allen and The Preservation Hall Jazz Band. SLEEPER is silly and ridiculous and loads of fun, though some of the jokes are a bit dated (spoofing Howard Cosell, for example). Nevertheless, it’s one of Woody’s best efforts, and as a whole it holds up nicely. Woody Allen is still making films today, one of the last of a dying breed of 70’s filmmakers who helped change the course of cinema. He’s a genius of the cinema of the absurd, and SLEEPER is one you won’t want to miss!

(1) according to Conversations with Woody Allen (2007) by Eric Lax (New York City; Knopf), SLEEPER is dedicated to Marx & Hope.

RIP, Ya Hockey Puck: Don Rickles on Film and Television

“Mr. Warmth”, the great Don Rickles, died yesterday at age 90. He was outrageous, rude, definitely non-PC, and hysterically funny. Rickles threw his verbal brickbats at everybody regardless of race, creed, national origin, or political persuasion, and it was all in good-spirited fun. There will never be another stand-up comic quite like Don Rickles, especially in today’s “safe space” world, and it’s a pity, because if we can’t all laugh at ourselves, if we can’t take a joke, then it’s time to pack it in.

Something I didn’t know about Don Rickles is he didn’t start out to be “The Merchant of Venom”. He intended to become a serious actor, studying at the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan. Frustrated with his lack of acting jobs, Don began doing stand-up as a way to gain exposure. When he was heckled by some audience members, he heckled ’em right back, and a style was born. When Frank Sinatra caught one of Rickles’ gigs, the comedian started lobbing his insult grenades at the superstar. Sinatra loved it, and Rickles’ career took off like one of his verbal poisoned arrows, landing spots on TV shows like Ed Sullivan and especially Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

Don made his movie debut in RUN SILENT RUN DEEP, a 1958 submarine drama alongside Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster. Not bad company for a Jew from Queens! Highlights from his film career include the role of the shady carnival partner of Ray Milland in Roger Corman’s X – THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES. Rickles also appeared in four of AIP’s “Beach Party” flicks, playing basically different variations of the same character (Jack Fanny , Big Drag, Big Bang, Big Drop). He was “Crapgame”, the hustling supply sergeant, in Clint Eastwood’s 1969 WWII heist movie KELLY’S HEROES, and had a memorable role as Robert DeNiro’s lieutenant in Martin Scorsese’s 1995 CASINO. That same year, Rickles gained a whole new audience when he began voicing Mr. Potato Head in the TOY STORY series.

But it was episodic television where Rickles truly got a chance to shine. Rickles never headlined a successful sitcom on his own (the closest he got was two seasons as CPO SHARKEY), but his guest shots are among some of my favorite Don Rickles performances. For example, his Newton Monroe on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW ,   a nebbishy door-to-salesman who’s given a boost of confidence by Andy and Barney (“I’m not inept anymore! I’m ept!!”). Or the renegade Hekawi Bald Eagle, son of Chief Wild Eagle, on F TROOP. He was fugitive kidnapper Norbert Wiley, raising a ruckus on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND. Rickles hilariously played Sid Krimm, old Army buddy of Maxwell Smart (“When do we meet the broads, Max?”) on a two-part GET SMART, with his close friend Don Adams as Agent 86. Best of all was his 1990 appearance on HBO’s TALES FROM THE CRYPT episode “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy”, as the mentor to Bobcat Goldthwait, one of the creepiest in the series!

And we can’t talk about Rickles without mentioning his insulting every star in Hollywood on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts:

We’ve been blessed to have such a man as Don Rickles to make us laugh over the years. Hail and farewell, ya hockey puck! We’ll miss you!

 

 

Lunatic Fringe: Wheeler & Woolsey in HOLD ‘EM JAIL (RKO 1932)

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The comedy team of Wheeler & Woolsey is pretty esoteric to all but the most hardcore classic film fans. Baby-faced innocent Bert Wheeler and cigar-chomping wisecracker Robert Woolsey made 21 films together beginning with 1929’s RIO RITA (in which they’d starred on Broadway), up until Woolsey’s untimely death in 1937. I had heard about them, read about them, but never had the chance to catch one of their films until recently. HOLD ‘EM JAIL makes for a good introduction to W&W’s particular brand of lunacy, as the boys skewer both the prison and college football genres, aided by a top-notch comic supporting cast that includes a 16-year-old Betty Grable.

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Football crazy Warden Elmer Jones (slow-burn master Edgar Kennedy ) is the laughing-stock of the Prison Football League. His team hasn’t had a winning season in years, and he sends a message to the president of “the alumni association” to send some new recruits “for the old alma mater”. He goes to the president’s office, and enter Wheeler and Woolsey, two novelty salesmen who proceed to drive him crazy. When he leaves, the real “alumni” show up, and after the boys brag about their gridiron prowess, they’re set up to stick up the joint with real guns instead of their water pistols.

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Of course, the framed fools are sent to Bidemore, where Spider trades barbs with the warden’s spinster sister Violet (the marvelous Edna May Oliver ) and Curley tries to romance daughter Barbara (Miss Grable). They continue to infuriate the poor warden with their antics, especially when Violet has them made trustees. When Bidemore’s star quarterback gets paroled, Woolsey touts Wheeler as a superstar. Let’s just say Tom Brady, he ain’t!! This all culminates in the most improbable victory since Super Bowl LI , with Bidemore winning the game and getting cleared of the frame-up to boot.

The deliriously funny script is by S.J. Perelman, Walter Deleon, and Eddie Welch. Perelman was a writer for The New Yorker magazine, and one of the early 20th century’s best known humorists. He wrote two of the Marx Brothers movies (MONKEY BUSINESS and HORSE FEATHERS), the stage and screen versions of ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, and won an Oscar for his screenplay AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS. His fingerprints are all over the film’s dialog, as in this exchange between Woolsey and Oliver- Edna: “I spent four years in Paris. Of course, I’m not a virtuoso”. Woolsey: “Not after four years in Paris”. Edna (pausing a beat): “I trust we’re talking about the same thing!”. Earlier in the film, W&W get booted out of a swanky nightclub on their keisters, followed by this-  Wheeler: “You know, I met that bouncer’s foot before”. Woolsey: “Yeah, I met it behind”.

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Deleon was no slouch when it came to comedy either, having written films for W.C. Fields , Bob Hope, Jack Benny Abbott & Costello , and Martin & Lewis. Welch seems to be a kind of “comedy doctor”, with three other W&W films to his credit, and an uncredited contribution to Laurel & Hardy’s SONS OF THE DESERT . All this madness was directed under the deft hand of Norman Taurog, who began in films in 1912, won an Oscar for 1931’s SKIPPY, and directed all the great comics of the classic era. Wheeler & Woolsey’s slapstick sight gags and pun-tastic wordplay are on a par with other teams of the time, and are worth rediscovering. Start right here with HOLD ‘EM JAIL.