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.