Thursday, September 3, 2009

Can These Marriages Be Saved?

Has married life got you down? Has your once attentive fiance turned into a couch potato husband? Have your dreams of eternal romantic love scattered to the winds just like the rice pitched at your wedding?

There, there dear. Junk Cinema understands. Over the decades it has featured an endless stream of desperate housewives coping with less than ideal husbands and suburban angst. So before you turn Kate Gosslin-like on your your "lame fish" hubby (who probably deserves it for carrying on with the nurse who assisted with your tummy tuck), please consider how these gals coped with marital disappointment.

"Beyond the Forrest" (1949)-Rosa Malone (Bette Davis) is a "midnight gal" stuck in a "9 o'clock town". Making things worse, she's stuck with a panty waste husband and a smart-mouth teenage maid. Rosa is left with nothing to do but tweeze her brows, sneer at her husband's yokel friends and shoot porcupines. Then she begins a torrid affair with a city slicker who promises to whisk her away to Chicago. He backs out of the deal, of course, and poor Rosa finds herself with an inconvenient bun in her oven. When a withered old coot threatens to reveal Rosa's affair, she shoots him, which takes care of one problem, and then throws herself over a highway embankment, which takes care of her other problem. But not for long. As all sinners must be punished, Rosa develops a lurid brain fever and begins slathering her face with make-up. Then she begins to drag her slowly expiring carcass across the rail road tracks in a last ditch attempt to leave her puny hamlet. "It's tough on a girl like Rosa living in a town like this," a neighbor observes. "It's tough on the town," retorts her friend. Amen.

"The Bride and the Beast"(1958)-Here's a question I bet etiquette expert Emily Post never got asked: how long should a bride wait to tell her new husband after the wedding that she's no longer in love with him, but is in love with gorilla he keeps chained in the basement? Such is the dilemma faced by Laura Carson (Charlotte Austen) in this Ed Wood scripted domestic drama.

Worried that his wife and Spanky the gorilla are becoming unnaturally close, hubby Dan consults with an eminent psychiatrist who hypnotises Laura. What they discover is a corker: Laura was a gorilla in her past life! No wonder she can't resist Spanky's animal magnetism! This revelation, however, may be good for Laura's peace of mind, but bad for her marriage. Realizing she can't deny her true self any longer, Laura dumps Dan and runs off to Africa with live some mountain gorillas.

If this movie has a major flaw, it's what prompts Laura to realize she was a gorilla in her past life: an angora sweater. See, she puts on the sweater and it arouses her past life memories. Viewers are left to wonder why Laura's reaction to angora didn't reveal that her past life was as an angora goat. But that would be too logical and there was nothing Ed Wood avoided more in his movies than logic. The real reason scriptwriter Wood chose an angora sweater for the catalyst to Laura's monkey shines is because he had a thing for angora. Wood put angora sweaters in his movies every chance he got, whether it made sense or not. In "Glen or Glenda?", the angora sweater Glen's confused fiance Barb owns becomes a symbol of their reconciliation and you could argue that made sense (Glen had always wanted to wear it). However, in "The Bride and the Beast", the angora sweater connection doesn't work. The best way to get through any Ed Wood movie is to realize it's his world and your just living in it.

"I Married a Monster from Outer Space!"(1958)-No, this is not the name of Kate Gosslin's new reality show. It's the heart wrenching ordeal of new bride Gloria Talbott, who's dreams of marital bliss are torpedoed on her wedding night. Seems hubby Tom Tryon just can't bring himself to consummate their union. He's also spending a lot of time with his "friends" who are equally uninterested in their wives. Gloria knows something is wrong and boy is she right: her husband's body has been taken over by an alien who wants to mate with earth gals in hopes of reviving his dying race. The problem is the aliens haven't quite figured out the intricacies of human copulation. What will Gloria do when she learns the truth? Will anyone believe her? And if the aliens finally figure out the ways of human love, will Gloria succumb?

Some people have argued that this oh-so-serious sci-fi flick is actually A) a subtle jab at commies-under-every-bush paranoia or B) a subtle jab at closeted gay men who married to keep up appearances. Either way, you can't help but feel bad for Gloria, who wrings her hands in the best women-in-distress fashion and blames herself for all her troubles. However, in this case of marital misery, it's definitely the guy's fault.

"Frigid Wife"(1961)-The title says it all. The only interesting thing about this flick is that double Oscar-winner Sally Field's mom Margaret has the title role.

"Suburban Roulette"(1967)-Love thy neighbor as thy self? Herschell Gordan Lewis takes a break from his usual drive-in blood baths for a look at that seething cauldron of lust, the suburbs. Here folks try and take their mind's off their 30 year mortgages by doing drugs, getting stewed, having orgies, indulging in wife swapping and throwing the occasional barbecue. The real danger in this neighborhood, however, is not unkempt lawns or too loud stereos, but husband and wife switch-hitters Ron and Margo (Tony McCabe and Allison Louise Downe). No gal is safe from these two, including poor Ilene Fisher (Elizabeth Wilkinson) who's foray into suburban sleaze drives her attempt suicide. Although Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm" covered this topic with more taste and restraint, Herschell Gordan--and Junk Cinema--got there first. Not recommended for anyone who wants to respect themselves in the morning or head their local neighborhood association.

Of course, no salute to wifely misery would be complete without mentioning actress Constance Ford. Although best remembered today as the the saintly and long suffering Ada on the defunct soap "Another World", Ford had quite a run in the late 1950's and early 1960's as the ultimate desperate housewife and shrewish mom. Her reign of terror includes "A Summer Place"(1959), where Ford hasn't let husband Richard Egan touch her in years and forces teen daughter Sandra Dee to wear cast iron griddles so she won't "bounce when she walks". In "Claudelle Inglish" (1961) Ford is the bitter wife of a poor farmer who actually encourages her teen daughter Diane McBain to sleep around. When Claudelle refuses to become the trophy wife of rich Claude Akins (and who could blame her?), Constance swipes her kid's best dress and runs off with the future "Sheriff Lobo" star herself. Last but not least is 1963's "The Care Takers", where Robert Stack tries out his controversial group therapy techniques on a zany collection of mental hospital patients (like grieving mom Polly Bergen, ex-hooker Janis Paige and "Breaking Away" mom Barbara Barrie) while head nurse Joan Crawford practice judo moves on the very devoted Constance Ford. Paging Dr. Phil!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Is There A Doctor In The House?

Health care reform is the most contentious issue facing Americans today. Across the country, town halls are jam packed with citizens testifying, arguing, rallying and criticising. The air is thick with tension as the shrieks of sky high premiums! Socialized medicine! Government take over! Death panels! and Pre-existing conditions! shoot off like thousands of fire works over a Fourth of July weekend.

Is there anywhere in this great nation where people have access to quality, affordable health care, where doctors can treat their patients with a minimum of red tape, where cost containment doesn't lead to the specter of rationed health care and millions more uninsured?

Yes there is. It's on TV.

Just turn on your favorite soap opera or medical drama and you will see folks getting top notch care without exorbitant co-pays or double price hikes.

The long-running CBS sudser "The Young and the Restless" is a perfect place to start. Currently, there are 3 residents of Genoa City facing a serious health care crisis, but figuring out how to pay for it isn't one of them.

First up is model Lily. Newly married and hoping to start a family, she has since learned she has cancer. We know Lily is really suffering because she has lost her hair and wears nothing but sweats these days. However, she's bravely enduring chemo with the full knowledge that her teenage bout with VD has not been ruled a "pre-existing condition", thus denying her provider the chance to drop her coverage just when she needs it the most.

In fact, Lily is not the only gal on "Y&R" that has battled cancer and was subsequently treated humanely by the insurance industry. Several years ago, master chemist and Jabot heiress Ashley Abbot was diagnosed with breast cancer. She bravely pulled through and never once fretted about co-pays, rising premiums or being referred to one of Sarah Palin's ominous "death panels". Indeed, freed from these pressures, Ashley could concentrate on her recovery and, more importantly, decide if she should tell her young daughter Abby that Brad, the man who has raised her, is not her biological father, but that super tycoon Victor Newman is (Ashley wisely chose to stay silent for the time being).

But back to the present. While Lily is bravely enduring her trials, across town spokes model Sharon is experiencing a different type of medical crisis.

The death of her daughter, a divorce and an unhappy remarriage have pushed Sharon to a shattering mental breakdown. What's more, she's pregnant with no less than 3 guys (husband Jack, ex-husband Nick and brother-in-law Billy) as a possible sire. However, her health insurance clearly recognizes that mental illness is every bit as real as cancer and thus covers its treatment equitably. That's why even though Sharon is confined to a lock-down facility, she has her own room, is allowed visitors, receives prenatal doctor visits and still sports her designer wardrobe and high heels.

Last, but not least, is plucky toddler Summer. The daughter of Nick (Sharon's ex) and his possessive wife Phyllis, Summer has one of those Extremely Rare Food Allergies and landed in ICU a few weeks back. She, too, received top notch care and while her parents ranted and raved about who poisoned their child (it was nut job Patty/Mary Jane), neither Nick or Phyllis wondered how they would pay the resulting hospital bill. Furthermore, Nick and Phyllis' health insurance has no long waits for referrals. Turns out, little Summer needs to see a specialist and their health care provider quickly recommended one--in Zurich. When last seen, Phyllis and Summer were heading to the airport with hopeful hearts and comprehensive coverage intact.

Of course, no health care delivery system is perfect and Genoa City is no exception. Their primary lapse, however, is not in treatment or cost containment, but security. For instance, Ashley was able to artificially inseminate herself with Victor Newman's banked sperm without anyone being the wiser--including Victor and the sperm bank's staff. And she wasn't the the only gal in town to pull off this stunt. Another of Victor's ex-wives also swiped his "man juice", but apparently forgot to read the fine print. Thus, when her bundle of joy arrived, it turned out to be not Victor's kiddie, but Jack Abbot's--Jack having banked his sperm at the same place.

Nor is this shocking laxity confined to "Y&R". Over on "The Bold and the Beautiful" ("Y&R"s spin-off), Taylor was horrified to discover the eggs implanted in her body (which allowed her to conceive baby Jack) were not her own, but arch-rival-for-Ridge's-affections, Brooke. Other than that, everybody on both shows is perfectly happy with their health care.

Soap operas, of course, are notorious for being especially wacky. After all, where else on earth do people age from 6 months to 12 years in a weekend, folks regularly come back from the dead and a revolving door of marriage and divorce and remarriage threaten to turn any child born into their own first cousin? Thus, let us turn our attention to another TV staple, the medical drama.

Whether it be "ER", "Grey's Anatomy" or "Private Practice", the hard working doctors and nurses portrayed there in ply their healing skills in a network of hospitals and clinics that combine comprehensive care with an effective, stream-lined administration process that has little if any red tape or unnecessary cost-over runs. That doesn't mean everything is perfect, however. Observant viewers will no doubt have detected these abnormalities among this framework of efficiency:

1) All the doctors and nurses appear to have paid for med school by being Chippendale's dancers or Oil of Olay models.

2)You or someone you love could be having a serious medical crisis, but your doctor's personal life comes first. That's why "Private Practice" doc Tim Daly can leave a waiting room full of patients experiencing everything from an ear ache to the advanced stages of the Plague while he makes whoopee in his office.

3)A person can be refused treatment for reasons that have nothing to do with pre-existing conditions, coverage gaps or reduced benefits. Back on "Private Practice", one of their female ob/gyns refused to treat a gal experiencing a difficult pregnancy because the said gal's husband confessed he no longer loves his wife, but is love with her. Conversely, a distraught mom with a sick child can refuse to allow an assigned doctor to treat her son because she discovered he liked porn.

These quirks aside, American citizens might want to ask themselves the following question: "If my soap opera characters and medical drama cast members can enjoy universal health care coverage in a single-payer system with minimum administrative costs that employs nothing but hot looking doctors and nurses who enjoy wild nights of passion after curing the sick, why can't we have such a system in the real world?"

Sunday, August 23, 2009

To Bee or Not to Bee: A Short Primer on Bee Movies

Let us stop and consider the bee, shall we? Whether they are Bumble Bees, Wasps, Hornets, Honey Bees, Yellow Jackets, Queens or Drones, we humans have a love/hate relationship with these fuzzy little buggers. On the one hand, we appreciate their hard work pollinating our crops and flowers. We enjoy the honey they make. Their hives are models of community organization. However, we also fear their stingers, which cause pain and even death. The sight of bees gently buzzing around wild flowers in a spring meadow is a lovely image, but hordes of angry bees dislodged from their nests by a stick or a stray baseball is anything but. The best way for humans and bees to coexist, I believe, is through mutual respect and recognition of personal boundaries.

However, in the mid-1970's, the always tenuous human/bee dynamic was sorely tested when TV newscasts began reporting, with mounting hysteria, that swarms of "killer bees" were heading for our shores. These nasty fellows were leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake and, what's more, they were mating with other bees and spawning a race of natural born killers that no can of Raid could defeat.

Hollywood and Junk Cinema capitalized on the growing bee frenzy by churning out a series of flicks dramatizing the coming apocalypse. Although to be fair, Junk Cinema had seen the potential of "bee movies" long before the major studios got into the act. But whether the picture was an exploitation quickie made for the drive-in crowd or a big budget Irwin Allen release, movies about bees vs. humans had one thing in common: unbridled hilarity. So, without further ado, lets browse the bee movie section and see what all the buzz was about.

"Wasp Woman"(1960)--Cosmetics tycoon Susan Cabot is growing a bit long in the tooth, so she starts giving herself experimental beauty treatments of royal jelly. Naturally, she starts turning into a man killing wasp thanks to Roger Corman's bargain basement special effects. Ms. Cabot was a regular member of the Roger Corman stock company, often playing villains such as "Inga the Dark" in "The Viking Women vs. the Sea Serpent" and the nasty, roommate spanking psycho is "Sorority Girl".

"The Deadly Bees"(1962)--An exhausted pop star arrives in the picturesque British countryside hoping for a little peace and quiet. Instead, she discovers a mad man is training bees to attack people on his command. This low budget English import has lots of people screaming in pain from bee stings and even (boo, hiss) has a dog stung to death. This dreary little movie was later lampooned on "MST3K", this highest accolade it would ever receive.

"The Invasion of the Bee Girls"(1973)--Bees are industrious little critters, yes, but they are also as horny as all get out. When the Queen Bee is ready to mate, the guys line up, have great sex with her and then promptly die--but at least they die happy.

This unsavory fact of bee life was no doubt the inspiration for "The Invasion of the Bee Girls", a low-budget sex schlocker about plain housewives turned into man killing sex machines.

Filled with ugly '70's clothes and cheesy special effects, the producers of "Bee Girls" probably thought they were being really racy, but they were just being really stupid.

"The Swarm"(1987)--Probably the greatest bee movie ever made, "The Swarm" hoped to cash in on the mounting public fear that killer bees were heading for our shores. Produced and directed by "The Master of Disaster" Irwin Allen, "The Swarm" assembled the greatest cast ever to act out this menace, with Henry Fonda, Michael Caine and Olivia de Havilland (Oscar winners all) cavorting next to the likes of Katherine Ross, Silm Pickens and Fred MacMurray

The plot of "The Swarm" is deceptively simple. An angry mob of African killer bees swoop down on the good old U.S. of A, derailing trains, downing jets, exploding nuclear power plants and even swiping sandwiches from horrified families out picnicking.

The winged creatures appear to have the upper hand until Michael Caine comes up with a brilliant plan: he lowers speakers into the Gulf of Mexico that blast the Queen Bee's mating call. The horny buggers then dive into the water, then the Air Force--get this--pours oil on top of them, which is promptly set on fire. Completely ignorant about the environmental destruction they have caused, the surviving cast members congratulate each other on a job well done.

Perhaps the best things about "The Swarm" are the special effects and the dialogue. The killer bees, the stars of the show, are aptly played by Styrofoam pellets tossed at the long suffering actors. Even more hysterical were the coordinated bee attacks, in which folks ran about in slow motion, flapping their arms like rabid geese. In one instance, some poor bastard runs straight into a telephone pole.

Then there was the dialogue. I don't know what Allen was paying his cast, but I'm betting it took some serious greenbacks to get his actors to say the following lines with a straight face. To wit:

Henry Fonda: "They're more virulent that the Australian Brown Box Jelly Fish!"

Richard Widmark: "Houston on fire. Will history blame me or the bees?"

Olivia de Haviiland (to school kids, no less): "A swarm of killer bees are coming!"

Fred MacMurray: "Maureen, how long have we known each other? About thirty years? All that time, have you ever heard me beg? Maureen, I'm willing to beg now. I want you to marry me. I know people look at me and think I'm just the man behind the aspirin counter, but inside I love you."

Katherine Ross: "I need an anti-toxin!"

Michael Caine: "I never thought it would be the bees! They've always been our friends!"

In the end, "The Swarm" went down in movie history as one of the worst flicks ever made--and the funniest. In fact, "The Swarm" was a top vote getter in the first Golden Turkey Awards Worst Film poll.

Before we close this posting, it's worth noting some important facts about bees the producers of these flicks may have ignored:

*Bees not only produce honey, but beeswax.

*There are 20,00 species of bees in 7 to 9 recognized families.

*Bees are found everywhere but in Antarctica.

*The menacing killer bees hyped in these movies and in TV news broadcasts have yet to appear.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Tone Deaf: More Musings on Bad Songs

Welcome back, music lovers! As the poet once said, "Music can soothe the savage beast." But what if the music itself is beastly? Here below are my picks for some of the worst songs ever recorded--dunder headed ditties that make radio static sound like the lilting strains of Mozart by comparison. And away we go!

"Muskrat Love"--Brought to you by The Captain and Tennille, a name you can trust. This stomach turning ballad is about muskrats Suzy and Sam who decide, after an apparently lengthy courtship, to get married. The happy couple then celebrate their impending nuptials by having sex. They must have had the best sex ever known to muskratdom because you can plainly hear bride-to-be Suzy having a chirpy climax in the background.

Believe it or not, The Captain and Tennille actually had a variety show at one time and when they sang this song on their program, they had actors dressed up
as Suzy and Sam cavorting in the background, acting impossibly cute. Unfortunately, in real life, muskrats aren't the least bit cute. The are actually water rodents and, according to Webster's Dictionary, they give off "a musky odor". In other words, they stink--just like this song.

"Afternoon Delight"--This one-hit-wonder celebrating the joys of lunch hour quickies has received a tidal wave of scorn over the years and deservedly so. However, my objection with The Star Land Vocal Band's signature tune is the sheer impossibility of its premise. To wit: that a horny couple can sneak off during their respective lunch hours, rut like minks and then return to work as if nothing had happened.

The problems with this song starts with the male soloist, a smarmy cad who's personal philosophy is "when it's right, it's right"--code for "when it's right for me"-- and would have sex every hour on the hour if only his partner were willing. This he justifies by warbling, "Why wait till the middle of a cold, dark night?"

As the song drones unmercifully on, it assumes that the couple in question have not only the same lunch hour schedule, but work at establishments reasonably close together so they can easily meet. Moreover, "Afternoon Delight" never takes into account traffic jams, accidents, car trouble or work place emergencies that might unexpectedly crop up and thus delay their assignation. Furthermore, the song writers fail to acknowledge that most lunch hours are only 30 to 50 minutes long. Factoring in time travel and the need to tidy up a bit, that doesn't leave much time for sex. And, of course, you still have to eat lunch.

Of course, the couple in question could work at the same business, which would cancel out the need for transportation. However, they would still have to find a private place to have sex without arousing suspicion from their co-workers. And they still have to tidy themselves up and have lunch. Judging from all hurdles you have to navigate to make this meeting possible, maybe you are better off waiting "till the middle of the cold, dark night".

"(You're) Having My Baby"--An unplanned pregnancy is hardly the stuff of tender love ballads. Shock, horror, tears, arguments, nasty accusations about paternity and unfaithfulness, shot gun weddings--these are are the usual responses to unplanned pregnancies. But not in this putrid Paul Anka song. Instead, the unwed-dad-to-be couldn't be more thrilled--but then, he's not the one staring nine months of weight gain, stretch makers, sore nipples and swollen ankles in the face, either. Expressing a sentiment Sarah Palin would whole-heartedly approve of, Paul croons "Didn't have to keep it/ wouldn't put ya through it/ you could have swept it from your life/but you wouldn't do it." Meanwhile, the gal with the surprise bun in her oven warbles in response "And I love what's goin' through me."

And just what, exactly, is "goin' through" her? Waves of nausea? All the urine she's expressing in copious quantities because of the extra pressure on her bladder? The quick silver hormone changes? Wild food cravings? Gas? Paul, who penned this ditty, never tells us.

After suffering through this song, you begin to yearn for the days of forced sterilization.

"Midnight at the Oasis"--Back in 1921, Rudolph Valentino shot to stardom in "The Sheik", a silent hoot fest where Rudy (in the title role) kidnaps a British heiress and rapes her. Naturally, the gal in question (Agnes Ayers) loves being violently attacked and later declares, "I am not afraid with your arms around me, Ahmed, my desert love, my sheik".

If you think that's pretty cringe worthy, try and keep your food down while listening to "Midnight at the Oasis" as sung by Maria Maldour. This song is so nutty, you'd swear it was a parody from the glory days of "Saturday Night Live".

Basically, this tune is about some chick trying to lure some guy into her tent. She's not very subtle, especially when she yodels "I'll be your ballet dancer/prancer/and you can be my sheik." When that offer fails to do the trick, she promises "you won't need a harem, honey/when you're by my side/and you won't need no camel/no,no/when I take you for a ride."

With all due apologies to Maria Muldaur, the best version of this song was performed by Fred Willard and Catherine O'Hara, who chose it as their audition piece in "Waiting for Guffman". Needless to say, they are hysterical.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"Harper's Island" or Till Death Us Do Part--Literally

Destination weddings are all the rage now, so it's only natural Trish and Henry would gather their nearest and dearest around them for their gala wedding on scenic Harper's Island.

On second thought, maybe having your nuptials celebrated on the same island where a notorious serial killer strung up his victims like ghoulish Christmas tree ornaments might not be such a good idea after all.

"Harper's Island" was a multi-part CBS mini-series where the primary appeal was waiting to see which member of the wedding party was going to get offed next--it couldn't have been for the acting of the large but doomed cast. While some might see parallels to the Agatha Christie's classic "Ten Little Indians", it was clear as the series rolled on that the real inspiration must have been those "Friday the 13Th" movies, where the seemingly indestructible Jason sliced and diced his way through a passell of sex crazed camp counselors and the like.

"Harper's Island" got off to a bloody start, with one hapless jerk tied to the underside of the wedding party's chartered boat and subsequently hacked to death by the ship's propellers. From there, it's a march to the death house as various folks are picked off in increasingly shocking ways: the minister is impaled by a chandelier; a groomsman is stabbed through his Adam's apple; his distraught girlfriend jumps to her death to avoid her assailant; and the the blushing bride, clad in her Vera Wang-ish wedding gown, has her stomach slit open like she was a gaffed salmon.

By now, you're probably wondering what monster is responsible for all this mayhem. His name is Wakefield, a predictably feral and wild-eyed creature who grinds his morning coffee with his teeth and boils it with his own rage. He's Harper's Island's most notorious citizen, having killed a bunch of folks several years back. Among the victims was wedding guest Abby's mom. Abby also happens to be groom Henry's childhood best buddy. Of course, Wakefield is suppose to be dead, but he's not, of course. And as the bodies keep piling up in increasingly complex ways, it's clear Mr. W has an assistant.

For my money, however, the creepiest character has to be the only kid in the cast, a little girl named Morgan. A morbidly sullen tot, she spends her days being hateful and frying bugs with her magnifying glass. Of course, Morgan might come by her personality disorders honestly, considering that her parents are two chilly icebergs experiencing marital problems. Needless to say, those problems will decrease after dad is knocked off in gruesome fashion.

With the cast thinning out faster than Uncle Ernie's hair and transport off the island an impossibility, sensitive viewers might wonder why Wakefield has it in for these people. Turns out Abby's mom once dated Wakefield, but sensibly ended the relationship. Then she discovered she was preggers. The resulting baby boy was in turn adopted by a well-meaning but colorless family in Tacoma, all of which sent Wakefield off his dot. That child, it just so happens, was Henry, the groom-to-be. And it is Henry who is Wakefield's accomplice, helping his dear old dad hack the wedding party into bite size pieces.

The one character on "Harper's Island" who has thus far escaped harm is the plucky Abby. Naturally, she's horrified when Henry reveals himself to be a serial killer. When Abby demands to know how he could be party to such needless bloodshed, Henry said it was simple: his folks never bothered to tell him he was adopted. Worse, growing up, Henry had these "weird urges" he could never explain. However, when he was reunited with his biological father Wakefield, it all made sense. Father and son then bond over a killing spree in Seattle, which lays the ground work for the blood bath at Harper's Island.

None of this impresses Abby much, especially when Henry says he did it all for her. See, with everybody on the island dead, the two childhood chums can now live happily ever after. Henry doesn't seem to realize that as half brother and sister, they can't legally do that. It also doesn't help matters when a supposedly dead character is found to be alive. That would be Henry's brother Jimmy, who he unsportingly had planned to blame the whole mess on. As every serial killer movie fan knows, this revelation will lead to an Abby/Henry showdown with predictably fatal consequences, at least for Henry.

Whether "Harper's Island" was a hit for CBS, I can't say, but it was another troubling example of slaughter chic. From the "CSI" franchise to "Criminal Minds" to those "Hostel" movies, we've seen murder become a spectator sport. It's just bottom feeding on the human psyche and you can't helping thinking, "What's next?" A mini-series set in Disneyland where Mickey and Minnie pick-off would-be mouseketeers? Department store Santas knocking off bratty kids? Or maybe a lethal librarian who snuffs out patrons with overdue books? At the rate we're going, anything is possible.

In the mean time, if I'm invited to a destination wedding in the near future, I think I'll pass.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Tone Deaf: A Page From The Junk Cinema Song Book

Greetings, music lovers! When movies learned to talk, they also learned to sing. Hollywood has given us countless musical memories over the years and provided us with songs that have become American classics: "(Somewhere) Over the Rainbow", "Singin' in the Rain", "Dancing Cheek to Cheek" and "New York, New York", to name just a few.

But what about the flip side? Junk cinema lovers can't resist a tacky tune, whether it is warbled by a no-talent teen idol (like Christopher Atkins or Arch Hall, Jr.) or a chart-topping super group of dubious artistic merit (The Village People, anyone?). So the next time you want to add to your play list, consider including some of these ear-bending moments from junk cinema's treasure trove of musical monstrosities.

"You Light Up My Life" from the film "You Light Up My Life"(1977). Taking its place along side "Feelings", "Muskrat Love", "Baby I'm-a Want You", "Cherry Pie" and "Afternoon Delight", this Debbie Boone ballad has the distinction of being one of the worst songs were written. Although it's supposedly about Debbie's love for Jesus, that's still no excuse. After all, there are plenty of songs extolling religious reverence--"Ava Maria" and "Amazing Grace" come to mind--that don't turn your stomach or burn your brain cells. "You Light Up My Life", on the other hand, does all that and more.

Believe it or not, this saccharine little ditty caused quite a stir at the Academy Awards back in '77. Nominated for "Best Song"(!) honors, it was announced with much fanfare that joining Deb on stage would be "eleven young ladies" from the John Tracy Clinic for the Deaf who would be signing the tune's lyrics--thus ensuring that hearing impaired viewers would be just as nauseated as everybody else. No sooner had this production number began, however, than the phone lines lit up in anger. Turns out the moppets were not affiliated with the John Tracy Clinic for the Deaf, but hailed from Torrance, California. Worse, their signing was pure nonsense. Red-faced, the Academy later apologized.

However, at least one person liked Debbie's number: host Bob Hope, who commented admirably, "That Debbie Boone sure is something."

The movie "You Light Up My Life", by the way, bombed with critics and audiences and barely lasted in the theaters willing to show it. The tune, however, was the biggest selling single of the decade-- proof that the 1970's were a truly foul decade.

"Burning Rubber Tires" from "Pod People"(1983). This hilariously inept, badly dubbed and strangely fog shrouded flick is about a bickering rock group and their deadly encounter with a furry, ambulatory, long-snouted critter from outer space. Before the band members start meeting their maker, however, we are treated to their latest recording session, where they are laying down the tracks for their next hit single, "Burning Rubber Tires". The exact lyrics of this tune are lost to history--and the singers. While three female back-up singers twist with wild abandon, temperamental perfectionist lead singer Rick warbles about "feeling the wind in my eyes" because "my system's ready to go."

Fans of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" have made "Pod People" one of the show's most beloved episodes, especially for the once-over they gave this musical interlude. With Joel playing Rick (and Crow, Gypsy and Tom glammed-up as his back-up singers), the SOL crew sang their version of what they believed "Burning Rubber Tires"s lyrics might be: "With a pickle mind/we kick the nipple beer/steady as a goat/flyin' over trout/ hideous control now..."

"Pod People" was made in 1983 in Spain to cash in on the world-wide success of "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial". It's original title was "Los Nuevos Extrsterrestres". The opening and closing scenes from "Pod People" were pinched from the 1985 film "The Galaxy Invader". The best critique of this movie and its signature tune is delivered by snippy Rick himself. After the group finishes the song, the sound engineer asks Rick how he felt the take went. Rick smiles, makes the "OK" sign and the declares, "It stinks!"

"Vickie" from "Eegah!"(1962). Looking for a dreamy love ballad? Well, you won't find one here. Arch Hall, Sr.'s do-it-yourself junk masterpiece (he wrote, produced, directed, starred and created the sound effects) about a cave man's love for a Palm Springs teen queen is also a showcase for the dubious talents of his son, Arch Hall, Jr.

Cursed with a face only a mother could love and a body with all the dexterity of Gumby, Arch Hall, Jr., as teen hero Tommy, is given every opportunity to make an ass out of himself and he does not disappoint. No doubt the highlight of Arch Jr.'s performance is when he sings poolside for girlfriend Roxy (Marilyn Manning, a secretary who had previously worked in an office building Arch Sr. owned). While Rox splashes about in a hotel swimming pool, a deeply sunburned Tommy plays the guitar and yodels the tune "Vickie". The song's lyrics are as follows:

"I love you, Vickie/ you know I do/my whole life has changed/though the first day we meet/was my last day with you...

"Vickie/oh, Vickie/ what have I done?/Why can't we make up?/ We could have/ so much fun...

"If you don't love me/ I was a fool/ Oh, Vickie/You are my love...

"Vickie/Oh, Vickie/I'm so alone/If you could just talk to me/If I could just call you/on the phone/ Would you give one more chance/to a fool?/Oh, Vickie,/ you are my love..."

It's important to note that while Arch, Jr. is caterwauling this masterpiece of teenage angst, an unseen heavenly chorus of female voices are heard in the background singing "ah-h-h." Not only are these unseen gals in tune (something Arch isn't), but their melodious harmonizing would be better suited for a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta than Arch Hall, Sr.'s drive-in hoot fest. Never the less, Arch Jr. solders on to the tune's end, no doubt deeply grateful nobody pushed his amps in water or shot him.

Of course, junk cinema fans know "Eegah!" isn't the only place Arch, Jr. sang "Vickie". As a dumb hick turned singing sensation in "Wild Guitar", Arch also warbled this tune in one of his character's many TV appearances. Only in this flick, instead of an adoring poolside audience, Carolyn Brandt (Mrs. Ray Dennis Steckler, wife of Arch's "Wild Guitar" co-star and dad's protege) performs an eye-popping interpretive dance with a scarf while Arch tries to keep a straight face.

It's a relief to know Arch, Jr. didn't sing in his pop's next pictures "The Sadist" (as a sniveling psycho holding a group of teachers hostage) and "Deadwood '73" (where he is mistaken for Billy the Kid) and settled down to a respectable career as a commercial pilot.

"Are You Happy In Your Work?" from "I Accuse My Parents"(1944). Meet Jimmy Wilson, a recent high school grad who is stuck with parents who gamble, cheat and get stewed on a regular basis. Hoping for a better life, Jimmy takes a job in a shoe store where he meets singing star Kitty Reed (Mary Beth Hughes, a B-movie starlet of note). When his neglectful parents decide they'd rather party at the beach with their friends than help Jimmy celebrate his 18th birthday, he hightails it to the Paradise Nightclub to catch Kitty's act. It's there Kitty belts out this ditty about work place contentment, "Are You Happy In Your Work?":

"Are you happy/in your work?/Do you never, ever shirk?/Does your morning menu/really send you on your way?

"Are you grateful/ you're alive?/ Is your day full/ 9 to 5?

"Livin' in the rhythm/ that I'm speakin' of/ you'll be happy in your work/ if you're in love..."

Since working in a shoe store doesn't pay so good, Jimmy starts doing odd jobs for Charlie Blake on the side, who happens to be the town's crime boss and Kitty's sometime boyfriend. When Jimmy finally figures all this out, he's forced to go on the lam when an "errand" ends in gun fire. After a series of convoluted events, Charlie is dead and Jimmy is put on trial. It's there he tells the judge the whole mess is the fault of his drunk folks. Believe it or not, the judge agrees with Jimmy(!), suspends his sentence(!) and releases him into the custody of his drunk folks(!). Jimmy and Kitty are reunited and everybody lives happily ever after.

This little exploitation gem also features the tunes "Love Came Between Us" and "Where Can He Be?". It ends with the judge lecturing the audience on good parenting skills. Let's hope they listened.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Good Girls Go To Heaven, But Bad Girls Go Everywhere

Are you a bad girl? Do you rat your hair, pierce your ears, try a little tobacco? Do you sneak out after curfew, park in cars and shake your tail feathers at roadside dives? Can you size men up for the dopes they are and then play them like a fiddle at the annual saps convention? Is your philosophy of life that a low-cut neckline does more for a gal's future than a Harvard MBA?

If you answered "yes" to any of the above queries, you might be a tramp.

Lucky for you, Junk cinema Loves tramps. These gum-smacking bad girls have a rich tradition in bad movies. Whether played by Bette Davis, Mamie Van Doren or Peaches Paige, tramps enliven any flick they appear in.

The Golden Age of Tramps was from the 1930's to the early 1960's, before the sexual revolution and the pill. This was also the heyday of the Motion Picture Production Code, when Hollywood censors could be persuaded to allow illicit behavior on screen as long as the evil-doers were punished in the last reel and justice triumphed in the end. So, for example, Bette Davis in "Beyond the Forest"(1949) could emasculate her husband, have a wild affair, get pregnant, induce a miscarriage and commit murder as long as she dies of fever by the flick's end, which she does. Unlike the female lead in "The Last Seduction", tramps could never profit from their crimes.

Why, if tramps are so immoral, do Junk Cinema lovers like them so much? Because tramps are often the only fun people in the picture. Consider Claudette Colbert as Empress Poppaea in C. B. De Mille's "The Sign of the Cross" (1932). Saddled with a husband who would rather spend his time in the company of scantily clad slave boys, she's got nothing better to do than take milk baths and make goo-goo eyes at Roman hunks like Marcus Superbus (Fredric March). Naturally, a good time gal like Poppaea can't understand why Marcus would rather spend time with squeaky clean Christian girl Mercia (Elissa Landi)--and neither can we. Yes, Mercia is devout and loyal and long-suffering (her parents were covered in oil and set on fire to act as human torches, after all), but she's dry as dust. Never the less, Marcus joins her in the Colosseum to do battle with the lions rather than join Poppaea in one of her many milk baths. No doubt, the Empress mourned this dope very briefly and found any number of willing substitutes to scrub her back.

Another reason tramps are so popular in Junk Cinema is because they are smarter than the other cast members, especially the male cast members. Take Barbara Stanwyck in "Baby Face"(1933). She has no illusions about who she is and who is responsible for it. "I'm a tramp! And who's to blame? My father!" she screeches. Escaping to New York City for a better life, Babs heads over to the Gotham Trust Company and bluffs her way into an office job--even though she can't type.

"Do you have any experience?", the personnel clerk asks.

"Plenty," she replies.

Before long, Stanwyck is climbing the corporate ladder one man at a time. Among her conquests is a bit player named John Wayne. When a scandal involving Barbara and an ex-paramour threatens to topple the bank, Stanwyck negotiates an even cushier job for herself at their Paris branch. She appears to be living the high life with no regrets until the movie's tacked on ending has her forsaking it all for true love. Sure.

Tramps also have great dialogue. "Why do you think you're such a smoky something when you're just nothing painted blue?" growls Ann-Margret in "Kitten with a Whip"(1964). "My motor never runs down," Tura Satana proclaims in "Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!"(1966), "do you want to check under my hood?" "Just remember," tramp Terry Moore counsels in "Peyton Place"(1957),"men can see much better than they can think. A low-cut neckline does more for a girl's future than the entire Britannica Encyclopedia!" "Stop treating me like a saint," Mamie van Doren purrs to Russ Tamblyn in "High School Confidential (1958). "Relatives should always kiss each other hello and goodbye." "You're not too bright," Kathleen Turner observes about William Hurt in "Body Heat" (1981). "I like that in a man."

What makes a gal a tramp? That's complicated. Heredity can play a role: if your mom is a tramp, chances are you'll end up a tramp, too. Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones) in "Duel in the Sun" (1946) has a trampy saloon dancer for a mom, so it's a forgone conclusion she'll end up the same way. Joey Heatherton in "Where Love Has Gone" (1964) is saddled with tramp Susan Hayword for a mom, who brags to her cuckolded husband,"You're not the first today--I'm just getting warmed up!" Therefore, is anyone really surprised when Joey goes on trial for stabbing the stud mom was shacking up with? Or that both mom and daughter may have been having an affair with the guy? In "Claudelle Inglish"(1961) Diane McBain's mom Constance Ford actually encourages her daughter to be a tramp, especially after her high school boyfriend dumps her once they finally have sex. Then, after Diane refuses the advances of rich Claude Akins, Ford decides to run off with him herself. When Diane's pa wonders where his wife is, Claudelle gleefully informs him she's "down by the willows" with Akins, adding, "We watched them!"

Some gals become tramps because they are bored. That's Bette Davis' fate in "Beyond the Forest". Described as a "midnight gal in a nine o'clock town", Bette's stuck with a wimpy husband and a crummy house. "What a dump!" she famously declares. Then Bette takes up with a city slicker who promises to take her to Chicago. He later dumps her and leaves her pregnant. As one of Bette's neighbors observes, "It's tough on a girl like Rosa living in a town like this." To which her friend replies, "It's tough on the town".

Other gals think being a tramp will snag them a rich husband. In "The Carpetbaggers"(1964) Carroll Baker started out as George Peppard's girlfriend, but she immediately throws him over to marry his rich dad Leif Erickson, becoming his stepmother. "Peyton Places"s Terry Moore uses her tramp wiles on rich boy Barry Coe to the same effect. Later, when Coe dies in World War II, Moore confesses she was only being trampy because Coe liked trampy girls.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't address the social injustices that made some girls opt for trampdom. During the decades these films were made, the double standard was in full swing; any female caught having sex outside of marriage was automatically branded a tramp. A "reputation" was something women had to avoid, but men were encouraged to build. In "Claudelle Inglish", Diane McBain is ruined when she has sex with her high school sweetheart, but her ex, on the other hand, is in the free and clear to marry someone else and remains a citizen in good standing. As Joan Crawford points out in "Johnny Guitar" a man can lie, cheat and even commit murder, but "as long as he hangs onto his pride" he's still a man. However, "if a woman slips just once, she's a tramp."

A great many tramp characters came from poor families, had little educational opportunities and were stuck in low paying, dead-end jobs. If a gal became pregnant out-of-wedlock, she was stuck with the blame and the shame, but the father could easily deny paternity or skip out of town. People also didn't discuss self-esteem issues, co-dependancy or addiction.

But maybe that discussion is for another time. And maybe in the realm of Junk Cinema, tramps are perfectly comfortable with who and what they are. Maybe there's a lesson there.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Bio-Hazards: When Live Actors Make Horrible Movies About Dead Stars

Big screen biographies of famous people are one of Hollywood's oldest, most enduring and best-loved genres. When done right, bio flicks can bring acclaim and accolades to everyone involved. "Boy's Town", "Raging Bull", "Funny Girl", "Coal Miner's Daughter", "Lady Sings the Blues", "Frances", "Sweet Dreams", "The Private Life of Henry VIII", "Elizabeth", "The Queen", "Ray" and "Patton", to name just a few, are proof of this.

However, when big screen biographies are done badly, they can be tantamount to character assassination. Whoever said you can't libel the dead obviously never sat through any of these "bio-hazards":

  • "Gable and Lombard"(1976)--Clark Gable was "The King" of Hollywood and gifted commedianne Carol Lombard was his queen. When she died in a plane crash while on a bond raising tour, the devestated Gable never recovered. It's a good thing neither

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Everybody's A Critic: A Sampler of Rotten Reviews

Imagine you've just completed a long-cherished film project. You wrote it, produced it, directed it, maybe even acted in it. This film is your baby, your cinematic declaration of independence. Then, after the big opening night premiere, you open the newspaper to find not rose petals tossed in your honor, but rotten tomatoes.

For fans of informed viciousness, nothing is more entertaining than reading a hilarious, caustic review. Listed below is just a sampling of the cornucopia of memorable critical brickbats.

  • "As uplifting as a whalebone bra--and just as dated."--Arthur Cooper of Newsweek on "Lost Horizon" (1973).

  • "Myra Breckinridge' is about as funny as a child molester. It is an insult to intelligence, an affront to sensibility and an abomination to the eye."--Time (1970).

  • "The Omen' is certainly all dog from snout to tail."--John Simon, New York (1976).

  • "The most godawful piece of pseudo-romantic slop I've ever seen! Even a director who had made no movies would have a hard time making one as bad as this."--Roger Ebert on the Faye Dunaway/Marcello Mastroianni tear jerker "A Place for Lovers" (1969).

  • "One of the biggest piles of pretentiousness ever made. Laughlin's once quiet Billy Jack has turned into an unbearably preachy Billy Jerk."--John Barbour in Los Angeles on "The Trial of Billy Jack" (1974).

  • "If one must spend the better part of two hours following the adventures of a bird, far better that the hero be Daffy Duck than Jonathan Livingston Seagull."--Jay Cocks in Time on "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" (1973).

  • "To criticize it would be like tripping a dwarf."--Wilfrid Sheed passes judgement on "Hurry Sundown" (1967) in Esquire.

  • "A flop. Omar Sharif can no more interpret the fiery revolutionary than Elvis Presley could portray Lenin."--Sherwood Ross in Christian Century in "Che!" (1969).

  • "Mr. Stallone and Ms. Stone (in) a meeting as disastrous as the Hindenburg crashing into the Titanic."--Caryn James commenting on "The Specialist" (1994) in The New York Times.

  • "A trashy, violent action film that will appeal to comic readers, curiosity seekers and prison inmates throughout the land."--Janet Maslin of The New York Times on Pamela Anderson's big screen debut "Barb Wire" (1996).

  • "It looks as if it wanted to be 'Basic Instinct', though it winds up more like 'Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS'".--Vincent Canby in The New York Times on Madonna's 1992 fiasco "Body of Evidence."

  • "It's offensive on every level I can think of...No, it's not particularly dirty or sexy or anything fun like that, it's just merely, totally, thoroughly disagreeable, like a closet full of smelly underwear."--Peter Buckley in Films and Filming on 1971's "Such Good Friends".

However, the award for The Worst Reviewed Film Ever goes to 1975's "At Long Last Love" written, directed and produced by Peter Bogdanovich. Just imagine how Bogdanovich and his cast of Burt Reynolds, Cybill Sheperd, Madeline Khan and Duilio Del Prete (who?) felt when they read these missives:

  • "If this Peter Bogdanovich fiasco were any more of a dog, it would shed."--John Barbour, Los Angeles.

  • "Sitting through this movie is like having someone at a fancy Parisian restaurant who neither speaks nor reads French read out stentoriously the entire long menu in his best Arkansas accent, occasionally interrupting himself to chortle at his cleverness."--John Simon, Esquire.

  • "Staring Cybill Shepard and Burt Reynolds, who have, between them, four left feet and who sing with the gallantry that reminds me of small children taking their first solo swim across the deep end."--Vincent Canby, The New York Times.

  • "In dancing (the stars) resemble a troop of hikers trying to extinguish a campfire."--Jay Cocks, Time.

  • "(Cybill Sheperd's) singing voice, which is as sing-songy as her speaking voice, causes one to yearn for the days when Marni Nixon dubbed in the songs of every tone-deaf Hollywood leading lady. As for Sheperd's dancing, the best to be said is that it may not be recognizable as such: when this horsey ex-model starts prancing around, she tends to look as if she's fighting off a case of the trots."--Frank Rich, New Times.

  • "Burt Reynolds sings like Dean Martin with adenoids and dances like a drunk killing cockroaches."--John Barbour, Los Angeles.

Considering these reviews, is it any wonder that "At Long Last Love" has yet to be released on either VHS or DVD? Or that Bogdanovich's career, which includes such films as "The Last Picture Show", "Paper Moon" and "What's Up, Doc?", has never recovered? Perhaps star Burt Reynolds sumed it up best: "I think we bombed!"

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Junk Drawer: Spotlight on Mystery Science Theater 3000

Once upon a time, there was a TV station called KTMA. With a programming diet consisting mainly of reruns, commercials and wrestling reviews, their ratings were not exactly going through the roof. If KTMA was going to stay on the air, it was going to need a injection of fresh ideas. But where would those ideas come from? And who would provide them? Just when things seemed to be at their bleakest, however, a hero arrived.

His name was Joel Hodgson. An established writer and stand-up comic, Joel proposed a series centered around the worst movies ever made. However, instead of just showing the films, he added a unique twist: feature an audience that would provide a running commentary of witty put downs, wise cracks, quips and insults. Intrigued by the proposal, the powers at KTMA decided to give Joel's idea a chance.

Of such humble beginnings a classic was born.

"Mystery Science Theater 3000" ran for a year on KTMA, developing a loyal following almost immediately. In 1989 it was picked up by Comedy Central. "MST3K" (as it is known in shorthand) was a critical and commercial hit, garnering legions of devoted fans (this writer included) who proudly dubbed themselves "Mysties". Besides being laugh-out-loud funny, "MST3K" introduced a whole new generation to the joys of junk cinema while celebrating the dubious talents of Coleman Francis, Beverly Garland, Ed Wood and Roger Corman.

The basic premise of "MST3K" was as follows: Joel Robinson (Hodgson), the janitor at Gizmonics Institute, is shot into space by Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) an evil (but inept) mad scientist. Assisted by his devoted (but inept) sidekick TV's Frank (Frank Conniff), "The Mads" forced Joel to watch cheesy movies while they monitored his mind. Helping Joel riff on the flicks were robot pals Crow T. Robot (voiced by Beaulieu) and Tom Servo (voiced by Kevin Murphy). Running the higher functions of the Satellite of Love (where Joel and company are marooned) is Gypsy (voiced by Jim Mallon) and shooting the show was the little seen Cambot.

When Joel and the 'bots weren't heckling such films as "Warrior of the Lost World" (which starred "that 'Paper Chase' guy"), "Teenage Caveman" and "Attack of the Eye Creatures", they put on clever skits and sang such original ditties as "My Wild Irish Ireland" (praising the "Alien from L.A." star Kathy Ireland), "The Creepy Girl" (Tom Servo's crush from "Catalina Caper") and "Clowns in the Sky". Another key element were the "Invention Exchanges" that took place between the Mads in Deep 13 (their lair) and Joel. These included such handy items as "The Junk Drawer Organizer", a karaoke machine that played only public domain songs (like the "impish 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star'"), "The Rat Pack Chess Set" (with Sinatra, naturally, as king) and a "Do-It-Yourself Fabio Kit".

But the cornerstone of "MST3K" was its smart, funny writing. A typical episode featured thousands of jokes, which ranged from put downs ("This has more pauses than a Pinter play!") to pithy one-liners ("Here's Speedy Delivery Guy and has he got a package!") to pop culture references and spot-on vocal impersonations. Along the way, "MST3K" popularized such catch phrases as "Hi-keeba!" (uttered by Wendell Corey in "Women of the Prehistoric Planet"), "Oh, bite me, it's fun" and "They're on a collision course to wackiness!"

After 5 years at "MST3K"s helm, Joel Hodgson stepped down to pursue other projects. In his place was "MST3K"s head writer Michael J. Nelson. Often when a beloved star leaves a series, the quality and popularity of a show is seriously compromised, sometimes fatally. But Nelson easily slipped into his role as temp worker Mike, shot into space after Joel escaped (with Gypsy's help) in an escape pod labeled "Hamdingers". Also working in Nelson's favor was the fact that "MST3K" fans already knew him from such choice cameo bit as Morrissy, Torgo and Steve Reeves.

"MST3K" would go on for another five years, but the departures of Beaulieu and Conniff and a move to the SciFi channel weakened it a bit. In 1999, the movie sign went off for good, saddening Mysties everywhere.

Fortunately, "MST3K" lives on in VHS and DVD form. There is also their big screen feature film "Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie" which earned a coveted "Two Thumbs Up" from Siskel and Ebert. For a more detailed look at "MST3K", there is The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide written by the show's performers and writers. My own personal copy of this book is dog-eared from use.

Gone, but certainly never forgotten, "MST3K" is a wonderful reminder that originality and creativity can still flourish on television. Or, to quote, Ruskin, "When love and skill work together expect a masterpiece."

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Junk Drawer: Spotlight on Mystery Science Theater 3000

Once upon a time, there was a TV station called KTMA. With a programming diet consisting of mainly reruns, commercials and wrestling shows, their ratings were not exactly going through the roof. If KTMA was going to stay on the air, it was going to need an injection of fresh ideas. But where would those ideas come from? And who would provide them? Just when things seemed to be at their bleakest, a hero arrived.

His name was Joel Hodgson. An established writer and stand-up comic, Joel proposed a series centered around the worst movies ever made. But instead of just showing the films, he added a unique twist: feature a captive audience that would provide a steady stream of witty put-downs, wise cracks, ad-libs and insults while the films were being screened. The powers at KTMA decided to give Joel's idea a shot.

Of such humble beginnings a classic was born.

"Mystery Science Theater 3000" debuted on Comedy Central after running a year at KTMA in 1989. It was both a critical and commercial hit, garnering legions of devoted fans (this writer among them) who proudly call themselves "Mysties". It introduced a whole new generation to the joys of junk cinema while celebrating the dubious talents of Coleman Francis, Beverly Garland and Ed Wood.

The basic premise of "MST3K" (as its known in short hand) was as follows: Joel Robinson (Hodgson), the janitor of Gizmonics Institute, is shot into space by Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu), an evil (but inept) mad scientist. Assisted by his devoted (but inept) sidekick TV's Frank (Frank Conniff), "the mads" force Joel to watch cheesey movies while they monitor his mind. Helping Joel out in the riffing chores were robot pals Crow T. Robot (voiced by Beaulieu) and Tom Servo (voiced by Kevin Murphy). Running the higher functions of the Satellite of Love (where Joel and company are marooned) is Gypsy (voiced by Jim Mallon), a sweet, gentle soul who happens to be the world's greatest Richard Basehart fan. Shooting the show is the little seen Cambot.

When Joel and the 'bots weren't heckling such films as "Warrior of the Lost World", "Teenage Caveman" and "Attack of the Eye Creatures", they put on clever skits or sang original songs like "My Wild Irish Ireland" (which celebrated the "Alien from L.A." star Kathy Ireland), "The Creepy Girl Song" (Tom's crush from "Catalina Caper") and "Clowns in the Sky".

Another prize element of "MST3K" were the "Invention Exchanges" that took place between the mads in Deep 13 (their lair) and Joel. These included such handy items as The Junk Drawer Organizer, a karaoke machine that plays nothing but public domain songs, A Rat Pack Chess Set (with Sinatra as king, of course) and a Do-It-Yourself Fabio kit.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

You Haven't Lived Until You've Seen This Movie: "Zardoz"

  • And now, gentle readers, I wish to acquaint you with one of the weirdest, most warped and possibly the wackiest movies you could ever shake a stick at: "Zardoz"

  • Lovingly conceived, written, produced and directed by the otherwise sane John Boorman (who gave us "Point Blank", "The Emerald Forest" and "Hope and Glory") in 1973, this tale of civilization run-a-muck (circa 2293) features a cast of characters seen nowhere this side of a fever dream. To wit:

  1. "The Brutals", hairy men with little intellect who worship guns and shoot anything that moves. Any similarities to NRA members is probably not a coincidence.

  2. "The Eternals", snippy egg-heads who've given up on sex and procreation because they can't die. They spend their days growing organic veggies and baking bread when they are not torturing those they deem inferior.

  3. "The Renegades", former Eternals voted out of "the community" for various offenses. They are prematurely aged and cursed with senility. Renegades spend their fun-filled days dancing to a jazz combo and fighting among themselves.

  4. "The Apathetics", quasi-zombie off shoots of the Eternals. Slower than the sloths of the rain forest, they simply stare vacantly out into space. How they got this way is never explained, but they are the chief recipients of the Eternals baked goods.

  5. Zed, our hero. He's played by Sean Connery, 007 himself, cavorting in nothing more than a red jockstrap and a Scottish burr. Later he slips into a frilly wedding dress. Honest.

  6. Consuelo, played by Charlotte Rampling. She's one of the snippiest of the Eternals and has trouble keeping her crocheted halter top on. For the life of her, she can't figure out why Zed gets a bulge in his pants whenever she's around.

  7. Zardoz (AKA Arthur), he's a particularly annoying Eternal who's facial hair appears to be inked on by a Sharpie marker. He grandly calls himself "The Puppet Master" and likes to toss out such philosophical bon mots as "Is God in show business too?"

Saturday, April 11, 2009

And The Winner Is: Memorable Oscar Campaigns

Actors like to talk a good game about how they aren't that into prizes and honors. They usually insist their work is their prize. The Oscars are different, however. Except for George C. Scott and Marlon Brando, nobody turns down an Academy Award or, once nominated, can resist doing a little politicking on their own behalf. Below are some of Hollywood's most colorful attempts to mine Oscar gold.

  • Tea for Two(or More)--Silent screen icon Mary Pickford rose to fame playing spunky child-women in such films as "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" and "Little Annie Rooney". With the advent of sound in the late 1920's, America's Sweetheart (and co-founder of United Artists) realized she needed a new image. "I'm sick of Cinderella parts, of wearing rags and tatters," Pickford said. "I want to wear smart clothes and play the lover." So she lopped off her trademark long curls and took the lead in "Coquette", playing a dangerous femme fatale. The movie got mixed reviews, but Mary was nominated for Best Actress anyway. Eagar for the award, Pickford started campaigning right away. She invited all the members of the Centeral Board of Judges (who chose the winners in those days) to tea at her fabled estate, Pickfair. The get-together worked; Mary was named Best Actress for 1928-29.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

And the Winner Is: Memorial Oscar Canpaigns

Actors like to talk a good game about how they aren't that into prizes and honors. They usually insist that their work is their prize. The Oscars are different, however. Except for George C. Scott and Marlon Brando, nobody turns down an Academy Award or, once nominated, can resist doing a little politicking on their own behalf. Here are some of Hollywood's more creative attempts to mine Oscar gold.

  • Tea for Two (or More) Silent screen icon Mary Pickford rose to fame playing spunky child-women in such films as "Rebeca of Sunnybrooke Farm" and "Little Annie Rooney". With advent of sound in the late 1920's the co-founder of United Artists realized she needed a new image. "I'm sick of Cinderella parts, of wearing rags and tatters", Pickford said. "I want to wear smart clothes and play the lover." So she loped off her trademark curls and took the lead in "Coquette", playing a dangerous femme fatal. The movie got mixed reviews, but Pickford earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress anyway. Eager for the award, Mary started campaigning right away, inviting all the members of the Central Board of Judges for tea at Pickfair, the fabled estate she shared with husband Douglas Fairbanks. The get-together worked; Mary was named Best Actress for 1928-29.
  • Write-Ins and Wrongs--The big movie news in 1934 was the stunning performance Bette Davis gave in "Of Human Bondage". Life magazine even went so far as to declare that Davis gave "probably the best performance ever recorded on the screen by a US actress." However, when the Oscar nominations were announced, Bette's name was not listed for Best Actress. Furor was so great over Davis' Oscar snub that the Academy agreed to let members write-in Bette's name on their nominating ballots. It didn't help. The winner was Claudette Colbert for "It Happened One Night". Davis later claimed Jack Warner, head of Warner Brothers where she was under contract, sent out the word that no one was to vote for her. From then on, the firm of Price, Waterhouse handled all the tabulation chores. The following year, Davis earned the Best Actress statuette for "Dangerous", but she wasn't happy about it. Bette called her new Oscar "a consolation prize", adding "Even if the honor had been earned, it had been earned last year."
  • The Comeback Kid--Joan Crawford was ready for a comeback in 1945. Let go by MGM, Crawford signed a deal with Warner Brothers for a reduced salary. She turned down so many of the scripts they sent her that Joan took herself off salary until the studio gave her the right part. The right part was the title role in "Mildred Pierce", where Joan played a self-scarifying mother two-timed by her ungrateful daughter. While making the film, Joan had her publicist start spreading reports that she was doing such a great job she was a cinch to win the Oscar. Soon, the Hollywood trade papers were filled with word about Crawford's comeback. "Mildred Pierce" was a hit and Joan received the best reviews of her career. Nominated for Best Actress, Joan got cold feet the night of the ceremony and had her doctor release a statement that she was too ill to attend the gala. When she was alerted that the Oscar was hers, Joan put on her best nightie and dolled herself up for the cameras. The front pages of the next days papers featured Joan in bed cradling her Oscar.
  • Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better--The race for Best Actress in 1948 was between Jane Wyman and Olivia deHavilland. Both actresses had showy roles that Oscar loves to honor: Wyman played a deaf woman fighting to keep her child in "Johnny Belinda" and deHavilland portrayed a gal struggling with mental illness in "The Snake Pit". Their respective Oscar campaigns quickly became a contest of one-up-man ship, as Wyman and deHavilland went to great lengths to show who put more effort into their acting. Wyman, for example, put cotton in her ears, studied sign language and learned to lip read. deHavilland, meanwhile, toured mental hospitals in preparation for her part. When the London Film Critics awarded Jane their best actress citation for "Johnny Belinda", Olivia's flacks reminded newspaper columnists that "The Snakepit" hadn't opened in England yet, implying that Wyman's win wasn't that big a deal. The Oscar eventually went to Wyman who, at the moment of her victory, was struck by this thought as she strode up to the podium: "Did I or didn't I put on my girdle tonight?"
  • Kissing Cousins--Grizzled character actor Chill Wills left no stone unturned when he snagged as Oscar Nomination for "The Alamo" in 1960. He hired a fellow named W.S. "Bow-Wow" Wojciechowicz as his press agent, who sent letters out to Academy members reminding them that powerful Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper had praised Wills' performance as Oscar worthy. The only problem was Bow-Wow hadn't gotten Hedda's OK to quote her. When she got wind of the mailing, an angry Hopper withdrew her support for Wills, declaring, "He's just lost my vote". Chill apologized to Hedda, admitting, "my representative may have gone too far", but he added "that Miss Hopper has also".
  • Bow-Wow's next trick was to place ads in the Hollywood trade papers with a picture of Wills and the names of Academy members in ABC order. The text read, "Win, lose or draw, you're all my cousins and I love you all." After Groucho Marx saw the ad, he placed one of his own. "Dear Mr. Chill Wills," Groucho wrote, "I am delighted to be your cousin, but I voted for Sal Mineo".
  • Bow-Wow was just getting warmed up. In The Hollywood Reporter, he created an ad that featured Wills as his "Alamo" character and featured copy that read, "We of 'The Alamo' cast are praying harder than the real Texans prayed for their lives at the Alamo for Chill Wills to win the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. Cousin Chill's acting was great. Your Alamo cousins". This missive enraged John Wayne, "The Alamo"s star, director and producer. In an open letter that appeared in Daily Variety, Wayne said neither he or his production company had anything to do with Chills' "untrue and reprehensible claim". After this last stunt, even Bow-Wow admitted he went too far. The publicist apologized for the ad and said Wills knew nothing about it. The damage was done, however. On Oscar night Wills' cousins gave the Oscar to Peter Ustinov for "Spartacus".
  • Come Blow Your Horn--Eccentric actress Sally Kirkland had been knocking around Hollywood for years, but had yet to become an above-the-title movie star. In 1987, she received the best reviews of her career in "Anna", an independent film about a struggling actress. Deciding it was now or never, Kirkland campaigned for an Oscar nomination as if her life depended on it. She hired two publicists. Ads trumpeting her reviews for "Anna" became a fixture in the trades. Kirkland even sent letters to every Academy member on her own behalf. Then she got friend (and two-time Oscar winner) Shelley Winters to make 150 phone calls pumping for votes. Sally got her Best Actress nomination, but she wasn't through campaigning by a long shot. Kirkland was always ready for interviews and talk show appearances, declaring at one point an Oscar would make her "the happiest woman in the world and my belief in God will be reaffirmed." The Oscar went to Cher for "Moonstruck", but Sally refused to be disheartened. After making all the Oscar after parties, Kirkland took time to discuss her future film projects with the press, even hinting that one role was "definitely an award winning part". Kirkland has yet to earn another Oscar nomination.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Junk Drawer: Spotlight on Sonny Tufts

"The Male Sensation of 1944!" Sonny Tufts.

He first rose to stardom as "The Shirtless GI" in "So Proudly We Hail!" He was trumpeted as "The Male Sensation of 1944!" and Paramount studios called him their "Reigning Pin-up King". So great was his potential that a film distributors poll pegged him as a super star in the making.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you...Sonny Tufts!?

Yes, as every dedicated Junk Cinema lover knows, Sonny Tufts was one of the most hilariously inept actors ever to stumble across the silver screen.

Born into a wealthy, socially prominent family (his ancestors founded Tufts University), Sonny could have led a comfortable life in business or banking, but fate had other plans in store. After graduating from Yale and studying voice at The Metropolitan Opera, Sonny was spotted in the chorus of the musical "Sing for your Supper" and whisked off to Hollywood for a screen test.

During the hey-day of the star system, studios regularly signed up unknown performers with the hope that 1 in 1,000 had the makings of a real star. These hopefuls were often obliged to change their names, alter their appearance and under go singing, dancing and acting classes before making their debuts. Sonny was one of the recipients of this strategy. Standing 6 feet, 4 inches tall with blond hair and blue eyes, Sonny appeared to have all the necessary attributes for screen stardom--except the ability to act. This was abundantly clear when studio executives reviewing his screen test thought he was doing a comedy bit, not a dramatic reading. However, as WWII had depleted the ranks of young leading men, Paramount signed Sonny up and a Junk Cinema legend was born.

Sonny Tufts (left) and co-stars bicker over directions in "Cat Women Of The Moon."

Among the more notable flops in Sonny's impressive string of cinematic stinkers is 1953's "Cat Women on the Moon". An early 3D hoot-fest, Sonny plays the head of an expeditionary force sent to the dark side of the moon. It's there his crew run afoul of the fabled Cat Women (played by "The Hollywood Cover Girls"), who look like Lily Munster and dress like Martha Graham. Although the Cat Women exert mind control over lone female crew member (and Sonny's love interest) Marie Windsor, the guys manage to foil their plans to take over the Earth.

By the mid-1950's Sonny's once promising career had tanked. However, he still held out the hope of a comeback. In 1959, he launched a very public campaign to join the cast of John Wayne's "The Alamo", declaring, "I'm crusading for the role of Jim Bowie in 'The Alamo' the way Frank Sinatra fought for Maggio in 'From Here to Eternity'". He was not hired.

If Sonny's acting was often bland and colorless, his private life was anything but. In 1951, he entered a messy divorce, with Mrs. Tufts accusing Sonny of rampant drinking and wasting money. Most notoriously, a stripper named Melody Carol sued Sonny for $250,000 in 1953 for taking a bite out of her thigh. They settled out of court for $600.

Sonny's last screen appearance was in 1968's "Cottonpickin' Chickenpickers", a hillbilly musical which saw "The Male Sensation of 1944!" cast as "Cousin Ernie". The part, needless to say, was not Academy Award material, although it did give Sonny a chance to show off his impressive burping skills.

While Sonny's film career was relegated to reruns on the late, late, late show, bad film fanatics took him to their collective hearts and have labored tirelessly to keep his legacy alive. Johnny Carson regularly used Sonny as a running gag in his "Tonight Show" sketches and The Golden Turkey Awards dedicated a whole chapter ("The Worst Performance by Sonny Tufts") to his unique accomplishments as a Junk Cinema icon. And Sonny was also known as Bullwinkle J. Moose's favorite actor; one of his most prized possessions was a signed picture of Sonny Tufts, which Boris Badenov stole.

Cartoon meanie Boris Badenhov stole Bullwinkle's autographed picture of Sonny Tufts

Sonny passed away at age 54 in 1970.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Junk Drawer: Spotlight on Mental Hygiene Films

Starting in the 1940's and ending in the mid-1970's, countless milions of America's young people sat through an endless stream of educational short subjects. Often referred to now as "mental hygiene" films, these quick little flicks, lasting from up to 5 minutes to an hour, covered every topic under the sun--and I do mean everything. There were shorts dedicated to safe driving, how to sew your own clothes, improving your table manners, keeping your home accident free, avoiding strangers, walking quietly in the halls, making friends, becoming a better speller, throwing a dinner party, even how to take a proper bath.
Educational shorts were a by-product of World War II, which required the massive mobilization and training of troops and civilian workers to defeat the Axis powers. During this time, motion pictures became a way to instruct people quickly and efficiently on any number of war time realities: combat, industrial, VD and how to spot a foreign agent on American soil. The success of the American war effort seemed to prove movies could be teachers as well as entertainers.
It was with this philosophy in mind that progressive educators decided to turn their attention to the country's young people and used film to inform, guide, influence and shape their behavior for the better. No aspect of daily life was without an educational short to call its own. Even such benign subjects as avoiding illness and playing with your toys were covered.
However, where it was hoped mental hygiene shorts could do the most good was in educating young folks about the dangers of modern life: drug and alcohol addiction, premarital sex and poor socialization skills. Just how effective they were is unclear. The tone of a lot of these shorts is ham-handed and paranoid; they seemed more intent on scaring kids that honestly discussing complex issues. But they were an admission on the part of adults that their kids would be living in a very different world than the one they lived in as kids.
Like the very best of junk cinema, mental hygiene films had lofty goals and inspired to greatness, but were under cut by their minuscule budgets, amateur actors, Victorian prudishness and basic cheesiness. Below are just a few examples of the cornucopia of mental hygiene short subjects.

  • "The Home Economics Story"(1951)--High school senior Kay doesn't know what to do after graduation. Luckily, she sees the light after attending an "all girls" assembly on the glories of studying home economics in college. It's there Kay will learn to prepare herself for a "wonderful future" in such jobs as tea room manager. The curriculum home ec majors are subject to is pretty intense: physics classes where the gals learn to make tomato soup and study the inner workings of a blender. Later, a bunch of home ec majors are forced to live in the "Home Management House" where they cook, shop for groceries, clean house, do the laundry and baby sit. Kay aces all her classes, graduates in no time and quickly finds a job. I'm sure she lived happily ever after.

  • "Mr. B Natural"(1957)--Nerdy, socially inept Buzz Turner just can't fit in. While the other kids are dancing at Jeanne's house, Buzz is home working on a history essay. Who should then pop into his room but Mr. B Natural, who wants Buzz to know about "the spirit of fun in music". Buzz is clearly terrified and no wonder: Mr. B Natural is played by a woman dressed up as a cross between Peter Pan and a Smurf. Bouncing off the walls and shrieking like a dental drill, Mr. B Natural tells Buzz that "a clarinet is not just a clarinet; it's a happy smile!" Browbeaten into submission, Buzz takes up the instrument and soon becomes the toast of the town. His/her work done, Mr. B Natural flits off in search of other lost souls to save and God help them when he/she does.

  • "Are You Popular?"(1947)--Are you a bad girl? Do you park in cars? Do you kiss on the first date? Sure, you might think acting this way will make you popular, but as the narrator of this flick explains,"Girls who park in cars are not really popular." A better example of female popularity is personified by Caroline Ames, who hasn't been touched by a breath of scandal. Caroline's popularity is cemented when the equally popular Wally asks her to go skating. "Are You Popular?" was made for a whooping $11,000 and was praised in Educational Screen for presenting "excellent examples of good grooming" and "foresight in making arrangements".

  • "The Story of Menstruation"(1946)--I actually saw this film in the fifth grade. It's a cartoon starring a gal with a big head and a tight sweater who learns the joys getting her monthly period. No mention of PMS, bloating, headaches, weight gain and weird chocolate cravings, this flick explains why menstruation is necessary to have a baby, but it never explains how women get that baby in her tummy. It also urges young girls to buy Kotex sanitary products to meet their monthly needs. Other advice? "Don't be droopy! Good posture is important!"

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Junk Drawer: Spotlight on Coleman Francis

In the pantheon of junk cinema, some names naturally shine brighter than others: Ed D. Wood, Jr., Ray Dennis Steckler, Sonny Tufts. However deserving these individuals are for their renown, it is possible that their radiance unintentionally blinds junk cinema lovers from learning about other, equally deserving practitioners of this most singular of art forms.

Such is the case befalling one Coleman Francis. He's the forgotten man of junk cinema. Unlike Ed Wood, he did not carry on an eccentric private life. Nor did he leave behind a large body of work like William "One Shot" Beaudine who directed over 150 films and 70 episodes of the "Lassie" TV series. Nor did Coleman keep making the same movie over and over again like "The Godfather Of Gore" (or "The Wizard of Gore") Herchell Gordon Lewis. He also didn't rely on an endless supply of cheap gimmicks and publicity stunts like William Castle
(who gave the world such innovations a "death by fright" insurance and the "punishment poll" at the end of his 1961 masterpiece "Mr. Sardonicus") to get viewers into the theater. In stead, Coleman Francis did something more subtle and simple: he crafted a trio of ultra-low budget flicks that set new standards in technical incompetence, wretched acting and sheer philosophical stupidity.

Coleman Francis was born on January 24, 1919. Throughout the 1940's and 1950's he appeared in bit parts for various Poverty Row studio productions. This experience must have convinced Coleman he could make a rotten movie as bad as anyone else, so he switched to directing in the early 1960's. Shooting his films on the cheapest, cruddiest film stock available and employing friends and family members to emote on screen, Mr. Francis' directing career came to an abrupt halt after he finished "Red Zone Cuba" in 1965. After that, he returned to playing bit parts for the likes of Ray Dennis Steckler and Russ Meyer until his death in 1973( there is suspicion that he may have taken his own life).

Despite the brevity of Coleman Francis' directing career, his films nonetheless explored a collection of themes that were obviously important to him. The most prominent of these were anti-communism, nuclear proliferation, light planes, skydiving, chain smoking and coffee drinking. He also worked with a regular "stock company" of actors (Tony Cardoza, Harold Saunders and Eric Tomlin) who wouldn't be able to find acting jobs anywhere else on earth. The biggest "names" Francis worked with were Tor Johnson (the ex-wrestler best known for his association with Ed Wood) and character actor/icon John Carradine, who made a cameo appearance in "Red Zone Cuba" and even sang the movie's theme song(!).

Mr. Francis' directorial debut was "The Beast of Yucca Flats"(1961), where Tor Johnson played a defecting scientist who has the bad luck to toddle onto a nuclear testing range just as they are detonating a bomb. Poor Tor thus becomes the titled beast, wandering around the landscape and strangling unsuspecting tourists. Sheriff Tony Cardoza works tirelessly to stop Tor, even though "it's 100 degrees in the shade and there is no shade". There is also no dialogue. The actors never utter a peep on camera; the only voice you hear is Coleman making voice-over observations along the lines of "Flag on the moon. How did it get there?" and "Nothing bothers some people--not even flying saucers". "The Beast of Yucca Flats" ends with Tor finally vanquished and having a cute little desert bunny snuggling into his lifeless meaty paw for a nap.

Next up is "Skydivers"(1963) a film that promised "thrill jumping guys, thrill seeking gals, daring death with every leap" and delivering nothing of the kind. Instead, it's drab morality play set in a sport parachute jumping school run by serial adulterers Harry (Tony Cardoza again) and Beth (Kevin Casey). Harry is cheating on Beth with slutty Suzy who happens to be engaged to Frankie, the mechanic at the parachute jumping school who was fired for being drunk. Beth is cheating on Harry with Joe Moss (Eric Tomlin), a buddy of Harry's who takes over the fired Frankie's job. When Harry decides to quit cheating with Suzy she gets so mad she concocts a plan to pour acid on Harry's parachute on the eve of his big "night jump". Also adding to the fun is a pug-faced skydiver who pesters Beth to let him do a free fall. When the leads in "Skydivers" aren't cheating on their spouses or jumping out of planes, they are sucking down enough coffee to sink a battleship. "Skydivers" is distinguished by a wild twist party before the historic night jump and two cameo appearances by Coleman Francis himself: as a cigar chomping skydiving groupie and the policeman who leads the manhunt for Suzy and Frankie after Harry tumbles to his death.

Last, but not least, is "Red Zone Cuba"(1965), Coleman's stick-it-in-you-ear response to Fidel Castro and the botched Bay of Pigs invasion. Teaming up with Tony Cardoza and Harold Saunders, Coleman joins a secret government operation to invade Cuba and liberate a sugar mill. After landing on the beach, this crack commando team is promptly captured. Rather than face death by a firing squad or sheer boredom, Coleman strangles their prison guard and the trio escape, swiping a light plane in the process and heading back to the US of A. After ditching their plane, the guys wonder into a roadside cafe and, for no reason at all, jump the owner and drop him down a mine shaft. Later, the guys hop a freight train and wind up at the house of a fallen comrade. Along with his wife, they go looking for a tungsten mine, but run afoul of the local police who shoot Francis and arrest his cohorts. The last voice you hear is John Carradine declaring, "They ran all the way to hell, with a penny and a broken cigarette." The End.
So, after sampling Coleman's cinematic oeuvre, what helpful hints can future filmmakers glean? Plenty. Consider the following:
  • A talking picture doesn't need sound or dialogue to be successful.
  • Relatives and friends can easily take the place of real actors. They're cheaper, too.
  • Don't be afraid of hiring a leading lady named Kevin.
  • Rambling, incoherent dialogue can really add to the movie going experience.
  • Location, location, location: only Coleman Francis would find love, lust and revenge lurking underneath the placid surface of a parachute jumping school.
  • Spice things up with wacky characters as extras. In "Skydivers", an elderly lady stands next to a young guy wearing dark glasses who smokes a joint while cradling a chicken. "Do you fly?", she asks. "All the time", he replies.
While Coleman Francis never achieved fame during his lifetime, dedicated junk cinema lovers (and fans of "Mystery Science Theater 3000") are determined that his legacy of cinematic incompetency will not be lost. Where ever Coleman is, I hope he feels vindicated at last.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Fire Your Agent: Junk Cinema's Nuttiest Miscasting Coups

All actors long to show off their versatility, but sometimes they go too far and accept roles they have no business playing. Here is a short list of Junk Cinema's most memorable miscasting mistakes.

John Wayne in "The Conqueror"(1956)--Duke Wayne as the fastest sword in the east? Say it ain't so! In this Howard Hughes-produced and Dick Powell-directed would-be epic, Wayne is gussied up with racist eye make-up and a droopy moustache to play the scourge of Asia, Genghis Khan. Even worse than how Wayne looks is the dialogue he's given to say."I am Temujin-barbarian-I fight! I love! I conquer-like a barbarian!" Wayne sputters at one point. Later, when he kidnaps the equally miscast Susan Hayward (as Tartar princess Bortai), Genghis explains, "There are moments for wisdom...and there are moments for action-then I listen to my blood. I feel this Tartar woman is for me, and my blood says, 'TAKE HER!'" According to Alan G. Barbour, author of The Films of John Wayne, the Duke "simply shudders when anyone mentioned this film."

Elvis Presley in "A Change of Habit"(1969)--From the Duke we move on to the King. In his fruitless quest to be taken seriously as an actor, Elvis takes a break from such roles as a water skiing instructor and pineapple heir to portray an MD who runs a free clinic "In the Ghetto". It's there he administers to the most wholesome collection of junkies, hookers and gang bangers you can shake a stick at. Then one fine day up pops Mary Tyler Moore with two friends in tow. Naturally, Elvis assumes they are "Park Avenue types" wanting abortions. Perish the thought! They are actually undercover nuns assigned to help Dr. Elvis at his clinic. Hilarious complications ensue when Elvis and MTM fall in love. Believe it or not, "A Change of Habit" was supposedly based on a true story!

Marlon Brando in "Tea House of the August Moon"(1956)--Slicking back his hair, darkening his skin, slanting his eyes and adopting a racist accent, Marlon Brando is a wonder to behold as "Sakini" in this alleged comedy about the US occupation of Japan. Embodying every stereotype ever associated with people of Asian descent, Brando hops around like a demented flea as he under cuts Uncle Sam's attempts to bring western modernity to Okinawa. So what idiot cast Brando in this role? Brando himself! He'd seen the original production on Broadway and became obsessed with the part. Once it was his, he applied all his Method Acting techniques to the job at hand--with eye popping, jaw dropping results. The moral of this story? When the gods want to punish you, they give you what you want.

Donna Reed in "The Far Horizons"(1955)--Wholesome beyond belief Donna Reed is best remembered these days for her iconic TV show, but even she got bored with the sweetness-and-light rut studios often stuck her in. In 1953, Reed won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar as a hooker in "From Here to Eternity"--albeit a hooker who did needle point in her spare time and wore peasant blouses. However, Donna's greatest gamble to break her nice girl image was also her nuttiest: playing Sacajawea in a glossy retelling of the Lewis and Clark saga, "The Far Horizons". Coming across like the ultimate Camp Fire Girl's Leader, Reed's Native American guides a nit picking L&C to "the big salt water" and even has a fling with Charlton Heston's Clark, who calls her "Jane". The duo even plan to marry, but when Reed learns about what is expected of a white wife ("She runs her husband's home. Entertains his friends. Tries to make him happy and successful and proud of being married to her"), she heads for the hills. After this fiasco, Donna quit the movies to concentrate on her TV show. She did, however, develop a lasting respect for her character: Reed called Sacajawea "quite a gal".