Summer Fun with Bill Murray in MEATBALLS (Paramount 1979)

Summer is finally here, so what better way to celebrate than with a summer movie starring Bill Murray!  Bill had joined the cast of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE in 1979 (back when it was actually funny) and quickly became a fan favorite with his smarmy, snarky persona and silly characterizations. After the film success of John Belushi, it was only natural for Hollywood to come calling, right? Wrong, bucko… it was Canada that lured Bill for his first starring vehicle, the oh-so-70’s teen comedy MEATBALLS! Yeah, you heard right, ’twas the Great White North that plucked Bill away from being “Live from New York” to a location shoot at good ol’ Camp White Pines in the wilds of Ontario.

Bill’s fellow ‘Second City’ alumnus Harold Ramis (or as he was called in SCTV’s credits, ‘Ha-Harold Ramis’!) was a cowriter of the screenplay, beginning a long string of movie collaborations between the two (STRIPES, CADDYSHACK,  GHOSTBUSTERS I & II). It’s director is Ivan Reitman, who produced Belushi’s smash NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE, a film from which MEATBALLS derives much of its anarchic spirit, minus much of the raunch, though sex is still a pervading theme (hey, it’s a 70’s teen comedy, whaddaya want?).

Bill is Tripper Harrison, the smart-assed senior member of rundown Camp North Star, in charge of the CIT’s (that’s counselors-in-training). Tripper has the hots for his female counterpart Roxanne (Kate Lynch), but she’s turned off by his amorous attempts. He takes new camper Rudy (Chris Makepeace, MY BODYGUARD), a shy kid shunned by the other campers, under his wing, and the relationship between Rudy and Tripper is kinda sweet, in a nutty-Bill-Murray sort of way.

Rival Camp Mohawk is full of snotty rich kids, and they’ve beaten Camp North Star at the annual Olympiad the last twelve years. This time around, things are going much the same, until Tripper gives a rousing, non-sequitur filled speech (like Belushi in ANIMAL HOUSE) to rally the troops. After some chicanery, the score’s close, and Rudy ends up sacking the quarterback… wait, wrong Rudy… he wins the marathon race to lead Camp North Star to victory!

MEATBALLS is populated by the usual stereotyped characters you find in these films. There’s the nerdy Spaz (complete with taped glasses and a pocket protector), chubby Fink (who wins the hot dog eating contest), studly Crockett, and perennially put-upon camp director Morty. A special shout-out goes to sexy Kristine DeBell as knockout A.L. Kristine starred in the X-Rated musical spoof ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1976) at age 22, and appeared in I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND, Paul Mazursky’s WILLIE AND PHIL, THE BIG BRAWL (as Jackie Chan’s girlfriend), and TAG: THE ASSASSINATION GAME. She’s gained somewhat of a cult following for her roles, and is fondly remembered by fandom.

The music score is by Elmer Bernstein. Yes, THAT Elmer Bernstein, of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN fame. He also cowrote the goofy disco-flavored theme song, with Rick Dees (of “Disco Duck” and SOLID GOLD fame). David Naughton’s one hit wonder “Makin’ It” can also be heard in the movie – though why anyone would want to is a mystery to me! Pop singer Mary MacGregor (“Torn Between Two Lovers”) contributes the sappy “Good Friends”.

MEATBALLS is perfect fare for a summer’s eve, a silly but sweet comedy that showcases Bill Murray’s zaniness. Like most teen comedies of the era, it won’t tax your brain, and though not nearly as outrageous as ANIMAL HOUSE, you’ll get some chuckles out of it. Now, for all you angry David Naughton fans, here’s “Makin’ It”. Excuse me while I leave the room. Happy summer, everybody!:

A Malignant Odor: SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (United Artists 1957)

Watching SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS is like taking a slog through a sludge-filled, rat infested sewer. It’s “a cookie full of arsenic”, with two of the most repellant characters to ever worm their way across the silver screen. It’s also a brilliant film, with superb performances from stars Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, wonderfully quotable dialog by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, tense direction by Alexander Mackendrick, and stunning black and white photography by James Wong Howe . It’s a movie that demands repeated viewings; just make sure to take a shower after each one!

Powerful Broadway columnist J.J. Hunsecker is dead set on destroying the relationship between his kid sister Susie and up-and-coming jazz guitarist Steve Dallas. To achieve this goal, he uses his toady, press agent Sidney Falco. Sidney, forever trying to curry favor with the great Hunsecker, pimps out cigarette girl Rita to rival columnist Otis Elwell, in exchange for Elwell printing a blind item linking Dallas with marijuana use, not to mention being a card-carrying Commie! Of course, none of it’s true, and Dallas confronts Hunsecker and Falco. For daring to stand up to him, Hunsecker goes for the jugular, and gets Falco to plant some weed on the musician, siccing his psycho-cop friend Kello on him. Falco’s reward will be to take over Hunsecker’s column while he and Susie take an ocean cruise. But as in any good film noir, the best laid plans of rats and men go horribly awry…

Burt Lancaster made his name in 40’s film noir (THE KILLERS,  BRUTE FORCE CRISS CROSS ), but nothing tops his turn as the malicious J.J. Hunsecker. He’s got ice water in his veins and a razor-sharp tongue (when Falco first fails to breakup the romance, Hunsecker tells him: “You’re dead, son. Go get yourself buried”). Cold, cruel, and callous, J.J will do anything to save his twisted relationship with his sister. Wrapping himself in the American flag and wound tighter than a coiled spring, Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker is said to be based on famed columnist Walter Winchell.  Whether this is completely true or not, J.J. Hunsecker stands tall in the noir pantheon of heels.

Good as Lancaster is, Tony Curtis runs away with the film as the self-loathing publicist Sidney Falco. Sidney will do whatever it takes to get in J.J.’s good graces (and get his clients in J.J.’s column). Sid’s a real shit, a sniveling sycophant with the morals of… no, below an alley cat. The duplicitous, brownnosing Falco is a far cry from Curtis’ 50’s good-guy roles, and his best screen performance by far. Though nominated for an Oscar the next year in THE DEFIANT ONES, Tony Curtis should’ve won for this (Red Buttons took supporting honors that year for SAYONARA). The film wasn’t even nominated; apparently, even Oscar was repulsed by these characters!

“Match me, Sidney”

Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman’s screenplay is dense and filled with some quotable poison-pen dialog. Besides the famous “cookie laced with arsenic” line, here are a few venomous samples:

Sidney to J.J. about Dallas: “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river”

Sidney to Elwell after hooking him up with Rita: “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. That leaves a lot of leeway”

Rita, upon finding out Sidney’s set her up: “What am I, a bowl of fruit? A tangerine that peels in a minute?”

J.J., on New York City: “I love this dirty little town”

Barbara Nichols as Rita

The supporting cast is equally good. SWET SMELL OF SUCCESS is also Martin Milner’s  finest hour on the big screen as earnest young Steve Dallas; he of course went on to smell success with TV’s ROUTE 66 and ADAM-12. Susan Harrison (Susie) didn’t; she’s best remembered as the ballerina in the TWILGHT ZONE episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”. Barbara Nichols shines as not-so-naïve Rita, a small but standout role. Barbara’s other credits include THE KING & 4 QUEENS, PAL JOEY, WHERE THE BOYS ARE, and the cult sci-fi flick THE HUMAN DUPLICATORS. Another small part cast David White as the lascivious Elwell; he’s known to TV viewers as BEWITCHED’s Larry Tate. Other Familiar Faces among the denizens of this dirty little town are Sam Levene , Edith Atwater, Jeff Donnell, Lawrence Dobkin, John Fiedler, Bess Flowers Emile Meyer , Queenie Smith, Lurene Tuttle, and Phillip Van Zandt . Jazz drummer Chico Hamilton plays himself, and vaudeville veteran Joe Frisco plays a comedian.

“I love this dirty little town”

The choice of director was an unusual one. This was Alexander Mackendrick’s first American film, after helming such Ealing Studios comedies as THE MAN IN THE WHTE SUIT and THE LADYKILLERS. It turned out to be a good one; the British director, aided and abetted by the great James Wong Howe as DP, perfectly capture the grittiness of Times Square nightlife in the 50’s, making the area a character itself. Elmer Bernstein’s powerful score (along with some  Chico Hamilton Quintet bebop numbers) add to the flavor of the film. SWEET SMALL OF SUCCESS did not do well at the box office upon release, as audiences were undoubtably turned off by it’s repulsive main characters. Only later has it become a classic, one of the best in the noir canon, certainly one of the decade’s best movies. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to take a shower!

It’s the original THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN- or is it? (United Artists 1960)

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There’s a large hue and cry about the upcoming remake of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (and remakes in general) among classic film fans. “How dare they”, it kind of goes, “Why, that’s blasphemy!”. The truth is, Hollywood’s been cannibalizing itself since almost the beginning, and remakes have long been a staple of filmmakers. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is a remake of Akira Kurasawa’s Japanese film SEVEN SAMAURI, moved to the American west by producer/director John Sturges . And while quite frankly most remakes can’t hold a candle to the originals, this 1960 action epic can stand on it’s own as one of the great Western adventures.

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Sturges assembled a macho cast to tell the tale of bandits terrorizing a small Mexican village, and the seven hired guns who take on the job of defending them. Top billed is Yul Brynner as Chris, the black clad gunslinger who puts together the crew. First among them is Steve McQueen   , star of TV’s WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE and on the cusp of film stardom after appearing in 1959’s NEVER SO FEW. McQueen plays Tanner, honing his ultra-cool persona in this breakthrough role. He also gets the best lines, like “We deal in lead, friend”. Cool indeed!

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Charles Bronson had been around awhile before taking on the role of O’Reilly, and his scenes with the adoring Mexican children who idolize him are standouts. Bronson would do a bunch of these all-star actioners (THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE DIRTY DOZEN  ) before becoming a solo action icon in a series of 70’s films. Lanky young James Coburn was just beginning to get noticed in movie and TV appearances when he was cast as the knife-throwing Britt. Robert Vaughn   was another up-and-comer at the time, essaying the part of Lee, an outlaw who’s losing his nerve. (That would never happen to Napoleon Solo, his star-making role in TV’s THE MAN FROM UNCLE!) Brad Dexter was a veteran actor, usually cast as the heavy; he adds humor to the part of soldier of fortune Harry Luck.

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Horst Buchholz, “The German James Dean”, was already a star in Europe when he took the role of Chico, a cocksure young gun out to prove himself with these seasoned professionals. Buchholz was just beginning to branch into English-speaking productions, which later included Billy Wilder’s ONE TWO THREE and the excellent NINE HOURS TO RAMA. He probably would’ve been a bigger star if he hadn’t turned down the part of The Man With No Name in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. Clint Eastwood is forever grateful for that!

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These seven take on bandit chief Calvera, played to perfection by Eli Wallach, foreshadowing his Tuco in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY. While the rest of the cast plays it low-key, Wallach’s over-the-top bad guy offers a nice contrast, dominating every scene he’s in. Veteran Vladimir Sokoloff as the village elder gives a solid performance. Familiar Faces include Whit Bissell, Val Avery, Bing Russell, Robert Wilke, Jim Davis, and Victor French in minor roles. Mexican actress Rosenda Monteros is also on hand as the love interest for Buchholz.

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William Roberts gets credit for the screenplay, but it’s a bit more complicated then that. Blacklisted writer Walter Bernstein did the original adaptation, which was rewritten by Walter Newman. Roberts made some changes while on location and asked for a co-credit, prompting Newman to ask for his name to be removed from the credits. I’m not sure just who wrote what, only that the screenplay works as one of the all-time action greats. Charles Lang’s majestic cinematography is a work of art in itself, as you’d expect from the man behind the camera on such classics as THE BIG HEAT  and SOME LIKE IT HOT. Speaking of works of art, Elmer Bernstein’s score is one of Hollywood’s best known and best-loved. That theme has been sampled in countless movies, TV shows, and recordings, enjoying a second life as the theme for countless TV commercials for Marlboro cigarettes in the 1960’s.

So the question is, will I go see the new version? Probably not. I’ve seen the trailers, and it looks okay. It might even be pretty cool. But it won’t be Steve McQueen/Charles Bronson/James Coburn cool. And there lies the rub as far as remakes of classic films goes. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is the perfect action flick in every respect, and it’s hard to top perfection. The 1960 movie does it by bringing Kurosawa’s samuari original to the Old West, adding a new spin to the story. But for the most part, remaking a classic (or even semi-classic) film seldom works. Now, if they had put the new Seven epic in outer space, we might be having a completely different conversation about this latest Hollywood remake!

*Author’s Note: TCM is showing this movie tonight (9/22/16) at 8:00PM EST. Watch and enjoy!