Rockin’ in the Film World #16: Herman’s Hermits in HOLD ON! (MGM 1966)

In yesterday’s  ‘One Hit Wonders’ post on the Blues Magoos, I told you Dear Readers my first concert was headlined by Herman’s Hermits, five non-threatening teens from Manchester, UK – Karl Greene, Barry Whitwam, Derek ‘Lek’ Leckenby, Keith Hopwood, and lead singer Peter Blair Denis Bernard Noone, known as Herman for his slight resemblance to cartoon character Sherman (of “Mr. Peabody and…’ fame). Their infectious, peppy pop rock and Herman’s toothy grin made the teenyboppers scream with delight, with hits like “I’m Into Something Good”, “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter”, and “I’m Henry the VIII, I Am”. Even parents liked The Hermits, and they seemed destined to follow in the cinematic footsteps of The Beatles. MGM, who released their records stateside, concocted a ball of fluff for Herman and the lads called HOLD ON!, and any resemblance between that title and The Fab Four’s HELP! is strictly not coincidental!

It’s your basic Sam Katzman production, who’d been cranking out teen oriented rock flicks since 1956’s ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK . Like most (okay, all) Katzman movies, the budget is decidedly on the low side, aided and abetted by some clever camerawork and plenty o’stock footage, not to mention veteran director Arthur Lubin, who’d been around since the 1930’s, directed the first five Abbott & Costello films, the Francis the Talking Mule series, and created the TV sitcom MR. ED. He wasn’t outstanding, but very competent, especially when it came to comedy.

The plot? It’s thin as a cup of weak tea, with Herman’s Hermits going on a big U.S. tour, and NASA astronauts (or rather, their kids) wanting to name their new space capsule after the band, causing an apoplectic State Department official to send a man to follow the boys a “get a full report”! A couple of subplots (yes, there are subplots!) involve a publicity hungry starlet determined to be linked with Herman, and a rich young girl who falls for the singer. There’s some merry mix-ups and slapstick gags along the way, as a charity ball the Hermits play becomes a catastrophe, but by the end everything works out for the best, as these things usually do.

This flimsy story, written by Robert E. Kent (WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS ) under the pseudonym James B. Gordon, serves as an excuse to hold together a plethora of songs by Herman’s Hermits. Besides the title tune, we get hits like “A Must to Avoid” and “Where Were You When I Needed You”, as well as lesser songs “All the Things I Do For You, Baby”, “Got A Feelin'”, and “Wild Love”. There are a couple of fantasy sequences set to “The George and Dragon” and “Leaning on the Lampost”, but again, this is a Sam Katzman production… don’t expect anything fancy!

The supporting cast consists mainly of TV actors. Bernard Fox (BEWITCHED’s Dr. Bombay, HOGAN’S HEROES’ Col. Crittendon) plays the band’s manager, whose job is to keep girls away from Herman (and vice versa!). Shelley Fabares (THE DONNA REED SHOW, COACH) plays Herman’s love interest, and gets the chance to warble “Make Me Happy” (Shelley had a #1 hit of her own in 1962 with “Johnny Angel”). Herbert Anderson (DENNIS THE MENACE’s dad) is the put-upon State Department guy spying on the Hermits, getting constantly doused with water for his troubles. Sue Ane Langdon, a frequent TV gust star who costarred with Elvis in FRANKIE & JOHNNY, is the publicity-mad actress.

I loved this when I saw it in the theater, but then again I was only 8! Times change, and now that I know a little more about films, I can tell you it’s not all that great. If you’re not a fan of the band, you won’t understand what all the hype was about. The songs are good, but you won’t find any thespic talent among Herman and his Hermits. It’s a time capsule movie of a more innocent era, when the group was riding high on the pop charts. As I said, times change, and the harder, more experimental rock sounds of the late 60’s soon left Herman’s Hermits by the wayside. I still like ’em though, and even own a double-CD of their music (and break it out of a couple times a year).  In fact, I’ve heard Peter Noone himself will be playing the Cape Cod Melody Tent later this summer with another 60’s pop rock group, Tommy James & The Shondells. Yeah, you just KNOW I’ll  be there!

Creature Double Feature 2: IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA and 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (Columbia, 1955 & 1957)

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Let’s return to those thrilling days of yore before CGI and enter the wonder-filled world of Special Effects legend Ray Harryhausen! I’ve covered some of Harryhausen’s fantastic work before (ONE MILLION YEARS BC EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS THE VALLEY OF GWANGI ), and most of you regular readers know of my affection for his stop-motion wizardry. So without further ado, let’s dive right into IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA.

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An atomic submarine picks up a mysterious large object on its sonar. The sub’s hit hard, and radiation is detected in the surrounding area. The damaged sub is taken to Pearl Harbor for repairs, and a substance found on it is determined to be from a “living creature” by eminent scientist Dr. John Carter (Donald Curtis) and beautiful marine biologist Prof. Leslie Joyce (Faith Domergue ). Sub Commander Pete Matthews (Kenneth Tobey ) and Leslie immediately butt heads, which means they’re going to hook up before it’s all over. But let’s face facts, no one cares about the romantic subplot, we’re here for the monster, determined to be a gigantic octopus!

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Ocky (as I’ve taken to refer to him) has been disturbed by H-Bomb tests in the Pacific, and his radioactivity has caused the fish he usually feeds on to flee, so now Ocky is going after larger prey. He attacks a tramp steamer and eats everyone but a small raft of survivors, who confirm Leslie’s theory. The U.S. Navy goes out in full force hunting for Ocky, who eats a deputy sheriff off the coast of Oregon. The entire Pacific Coast is shut down, as Ocky makes his way to San Francisco, wreaking havoc at the Golden Gate Bridge. The fabled bridge has been wired with electricity to shock the beast, and Pete and Dr. Carter board the sub with a special jet-propelled torpedo to launch into Ocky’s brain. Meanwhile, Ocky’s on the loose in the Market Street area, causing destruction, snatching a helicopter out of the sky, and allowing the filmmakers to add plenty of shots of panicked citizens running down the streets of San Francisco!

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Army flamethrowers drive Ocky back to the sea, and our intrepid heroes launch their super-duper torpedo. But Ocky catches the sub in it’s six-armed grip- that’s right, el cheapo executive producer Sam Katzman held the budget reins so tight, it only allowed Harryhausen to animate six octopus arms! Anyway, Pete scubas out and uses a harpoon gun to shoot plastique explosives at Ocky, but isn’t successful, so Dr. Carter bravely does the deed, hitting Ocky square in his octopus eyeball and blowing his head off, making the Pacific Coast safe for surfers once again!

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Ocky’s stop-motion scenes of destruction are exciting, but there’s only so much you can do with a giant octopus. The monster in our main attraction is another story. 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH begins with a spacecraft crash-landing off the coast of Sicily. Some brave fisherman (with bad Italian acc-a-centas) board and find two humans still alive. They pull them off before the ship sinks, and little, annoying Pepe (played by future VEGA$ co-star Bart Braverman) is sent to get help from a visiting doctor (Frank Puglia ) , but Dr. Leonardo is only a zoologist, so he sends his med student granddaughter Marisa (Joan Taylor) to attend the surviving crewmen. One dies, but Col. Bob Calder (William Hopper, PERRY MASON’s Paul Drake) demands to speak to his superiors, butting heads with Marisa in the process (and you already know what that means!). Meanwhile, enterprising Pepe finds a capsule loaded with a mysterious, jellylike substance, so he sells it to Leonardo for 200 lira (so he can buy a “Texas cowboy hat”!).

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The jelly hatches a tiny, strange-looking creature, so Leonardo and Marisa put it in a cage with plans to take it to the Rome Zoo for study. But next morning the thing has grown larger, and escapes while in transit. Annoying Pepe tells Air Force brass he sold the stuff in the capsule to Leonardo, and they track him down. Seems that spacecraft was a secret expedition to Venus, and the creature in question is a Ymir (though it’s never called that in the film).

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The Ymir wanders the countryside scaring horses and sheep, coming across some sulfur in a barn, which happens to be the Ymir’s favorite food. While snacking, Ymir is attacked by a dog… bye, bye dog! The local farmer stabs it with a pitchfork, and Ymir attacks him! This pisses off the local Commissario, who no longer wishes to cooperate with the Americans and wants Ymir dead. The Italian higher-ups give Calder one last chance to capture Ymir, and they do, using a net and zapping poor Ymir into unconsciousness with high voltage.

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Ymir (who’s now grown to gigantic proportions!) is kept sedated by electricity and studied at the Rome Zoo. The Air Force holds a press conference and allows three reporters to view the beast. When an accident short-circuits the electricity, Ymir breaks free from his bondage, and engages in a titanic battle with a zoo elephant. Ymir goes on a rampage through the streets of Rome wreaking havoc, and you guessed it, we get shots of panicked citizens fleeing for their lives! The armed forces can’t stop Ymir as it heads to the Colosseum, where bazookas finally take it down, as it hangs on for dear life before plunging to its demise.

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The Ymir is Harryhausen’s most iconic (and lifelike) creation. Like Frankenstein’s Monster and King Kong before it, the Ymir is a frightened and misunderstood creature  trapped in a world it never made. The scene where police are tracking down Ymir with dogs is reminiscent of an old Universal horror; all that’s missing are the torches and pitchforks. Ymir definitely gets the viewers to sympathize with its plight, and I felt sorry to see the poor beast persecuted to its inevitable doom.

20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH is my favorite of the two, and I consider it Harryhausen’s masterpiece. IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA is fun, but the story of the Ymir still resonates, and is a certified science-fiction classic. See them both and enjoy the genius of Ray Harryhausen!

Halloween Havoc!: Bela Lugosi Meets The East Side Kids… Twice!

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Ten years after making horror history as DRACULA,   Bela Lugosi signed a contract with Monogram Studios producer Sam Katzman   to star in a series of low-budget shockers. The films have been affectionately dubbed by fans “The Monogram Nine” and for the most part are really terrible, redeemed only by the presence of our favorite Hungarian. Two of the films were with the East Side Kids, SPOOKS RUN WILD and GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE, making them sort of Poverty Row All-Star Productions for wartime audiences.

I won’t go too deeply into all the Dead End Kids/East Side Kids/Bowery Boys variations here. Suffice it to say original Dead Enders Leo Gorcey   (Muggs), Huntz Hall (Glimpy), and Bobby Jordan (Danny) landed at Monogram after their Warner Brothers contracts expired, much to Jack Warner’s relief. The young actors were a rowdy bunch, and Jack was probably glad to be rid of them! Anyway, the trio were popular with the masses, and Katzman snapped them up to star in a quickie comedy series about a gang of slum kids getting involved in the usual movie-type shenanigans (boxing, high society, etc etc).

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The first teaming of Lugosi and the East Side Kids was 1941’s SPOOKS RUN WILD, an “old dark house” flick that plays on Bela’s Vampire King persona. The movie suffers from extremely poor lighting and camerawork, not to mention a lousy script by Carl Foreman, who went on to much better things (CYRANO DE BERGERAC, HIGH NOON, BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI) later in his career. Bela’s an obvious red herring but is seen to good advantage. The plot has the Kids reluctantly going to summer camp for the underprivileged while a “bloodthirsty monster” is on the loose. They wind up at your standard “old, dark house” with the usual spiders, skeletons, and secret passageways before they discover Bela’s a mere stage magician and the real maniac is finally caught.

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Besides the original Dead Enders, SPOOKS RUN WILD features Sunshine Sammy Morrison as Scruno, the only black member of the Dead End/East Side/Bowery conglomerate. Morrison was a former silent child star and original Our Gang member, and he’s pretty funny in a Mantan Moreland sort of way. Dave O’Brien (REEFER MADNESS THE DEVIL BAT ) is on hand as a camp counselor, and 2′ 11″ actor Angelo Rossitto skulks about as Bela’s assistant, as he did in two other Lugosi vehicles (THE CORPSE VANISHES, SCARED TO DEATH ). Little Angelo had a lengthy film career that stretched from the silent to the 1980’s (MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME), and included supporting roles in Tod Browning’s FREAKS, the exploitation classic CHILD BRIDE, a pair of Al Adamson shockers (BRAIN OF BLOOD, DRACULA VS FRANKENSTEIN), and a recurring role on Robert Blake’s 70’s detective series BARETTA.

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Bela and the boys reteamed two years later for GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE, with our man Lugosi as a legitimate villain this time, leader of a Nazi propaganda ring. This is the better of the two, as the series began to hit its stride. Once again, the boys get involved in some haunted house gags that were as moldy as the house itself, with moving pictures, mysterious laughter, and the like. Gorcey’s still the leader of the pack, mangling the English language as only he could (“I’m gonna send you to an optimist and have yer eyes examined”), and there’s more slapstick added, with Gorcey and Hall beginning to gel as a screen comedy team. Jordan and Sunshine Sammy return, and perennial messenger boy/elevator operator Billy Benedict makes one of his first appearances with the gang, as does Stanley Clements (GOING MY WAY), who would later take over the Gorcey part in the series last few Bowery Boys entries.

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Extra added interest to movie buffs is the young lady playing Glimpy’s sister. She’s none other than Ava Gardner, at the time a struggling bit player best known for being married to Mickey Rooney. This was Ava’s first billed role, and though she isn’t really given much to do, she’s certainly lovely to look at. Ava would go on struggling a few more years, until 1946’s THE KILLERS made her a star.

The two films have their moments, with a few chuckles to be found, but they’ll never make anyone’s Ten Best Lists. It’s fun watching Gorcey and Hall come together, and their ad-libbing is funnier than the most of the dialog they’re given. Bela Lugosi completests (like yours truly) will want to catch these, as will any East Side Kids/Bowery Boys fans out there (and I must admit I have a nostalgic soft spot for these movies) . For the rest, I’d recommend GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE for the presence of Miss Gardner, and skip the wretchedly made SPOOKS RUN WILD.

 

 

Rockin’ in the Film World #1: ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK (Columbia 1956)

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I’m kicking off this new series on the marriage of rock’n’roll music and film with what many believe is “the first rock’n’roll movie”, 1956’s ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK. The title tune was used in the opening credits of 1955’s THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE and caused teen fans to riot in theaters upon hearing that Big Beat. Producer Sam Katzman, always ready to jump on the latest bandwagon, put this quickie together and had a box-office smash on his hands. Adults were perplexed, but teenagers stormed theaters in droves, eager to plunk down their hard-earned cash to get a glimpse of rockers Bill Haley and His Comets, The Platters, and other hitmakers of the era.

Bill Haley & His Comets rehearse at the Dominion Theatre in London, where they will open their British tour. The Comets include accordion player Johnnie Grande, bassist Al Rex, and saxophonist Ruddy Pompilli.

The plot is virtually non-existent: band manager Steve Hollis and his sidekick Corny, tired of the dead big-band scene, make their way to New York to seek work with Corrine Talbot’s talent agency. Stopping in small town Strawberry Springs, they notice hordes of young people heading to the Saturday night dance. They discover Bill Haley and His Comets rocking out to “See Ya Later, Alligator”,  with everyone dancing up a storm. Corny asks a youngster what this strange music is called, and she exuberantly replies, “It’s rock and roll, brother, and we’re rocking tonight!” The dance floor clears when brother and sister duo Lisa and Jimmy Johns hit it for “Rock a Beatin’ Boogie”. The team’s played by Lisa Gaye and Earl Barton and hey, they’re pretty damn good:

Steve and Lisa fall in love, much to Corrine’s chagrin. She spends the rest of the film trying to put the kibosh on the romance. But ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK isn’t about plot, it’s about the new (at the time) artform called rock’roll. Besides Haley and his band (who’d soon be replaced as Rock King by some guy named Elvis), you’ll see doo-wop greats The Platters doing their hits “Only You” and “The Great Pretender”, the energetic Freddie Bell and the Bell Boys, and Latin jazz combo Tony Martinez and his Mambo Band (Martinez would later play Pepino in TV’s long running THE REAL MCCOYS, starring Walter Brennan). Legendary DJ Alan Freed also appears as himself in the film. It’s a bit cornball today, but as a time capsule to a more innocent era, it’s highly enjoyable. You’ll dig all the crazy hep talk, Daddy-O, and your feet won’t stop tapping while watching ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK. So don’t be a square, man, grab your honey and get rockin’!

Halloween Havoc!: EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS (Columbia 1956)

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UFOs have been spotted across the globe. Dr. Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe) and his wife Carol (Joan Taylor) are on their way to the secret headquarters of Operation Skyhook when they’re strafed by a saucer! They tell Carol’s dad, General Hanley (Morris Ankrum) what occurred. The General in turn reports all the satellities they’ve sent up have been destroyed by mysterious forces. When Marvin and his crew send up the next one, the base is attacked by saucers, and the rocket launch incapacitated. Soon General Hanley is captured by the aliens, and Marvin learns to communicate with them. The alien’s intent: destroy Planet Earth! Our weapons are useless against their superior technology! CAN EARTH BE SAVED FROM THE FLYING SAUCER INVASION?!?!

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If you’re a fan of 50s sci-fi, you already know the answer. And if you’re a fan of Sam Katzman movies, you know it’ll be chock full of stock footage and made on a miniscule budget. The saving grace of EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS is the special effects wizardry of Ray Harryhausen. Ray gives us alien spacecrafts instead of the usual giant monsters in this one, and they look fantastic. It’s fun to see Harryhausen’s saucers blowing up famous Washington landmarks (including the Capital building…beware, Congress!).

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Director Fred F. Sears keeps the movie moving along at a brisk clip, so you almost don’t notice the budgetary limitations. Well, almost. The cast perform their parts fine. Movies like EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS aren’t about the acting anyway, it’s all about the space aliens and their weapons of mass destruction. There are two cast members I’d like to single out, though. These guys don’t appear in the film, but you’ll recognize their voices. William Woodson narrates the movie, and if the name doesn’t ring a bell, the voice certainly will. He made a career out of narrating films and TV shows, most notably the 60s series THE INVADERS and the first season of THE ODD COUPLE. The other gentleman portraying the disembodied voice of the alien is Paul Frees. If I took the time to cite even half his credits we’d be here all day, so I’ll just tell you he’s most famous as the voice of Boris Badenov, arch-enemy of Rocky the Flying Squirrel and his pal, Bullwinkle J. Moose! If you want more info, all you’ve got to do is Google.

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EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS is the type of movie where you can just shut your brain off and enjoy. You’ve seen it all before, and you know the good ol’ USA will emerge triumphant. The fun is in getting there, and you’ll enjoy the trip watching EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS. So pop some corn, put your feet up, and get ready to be entertained!