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.

No comments:

Post a Comment