Thursday, June 4, 2015

Guest Review – A Day in the Life of Dennis O’Keefe: Raw Deal (1948), The Fake (1953) and The Diamond Wizard (1954)

By Philip Schweier

Over the Memorial Day weekend, I took the time to watch a trio of crime thrillers, all starring Dennis O’Keefe. O’Keefe was a minor leading man in Hollywood who started out as an extra in the early days of talkies. He climbed through the ranks, also appearing on radio, and transitioned into television in the 1950s and ‘60s.

First of the films that I watched was Raw Deal (1948), in which he co-starred with Claire Trevor. O’Keefe plays Joe Sullivan, serving a stretch in prison on behalf of crime boss Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr). Coyle arranges to bust Joe out, but only in the hope that Joe gets gunned down by the authorities. Joe’s girl, Pat Cameron (Trevor), is waiting with the getaway car ready. With the cops hot on their heels, Joe and Pat head to the apartment of Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt), who works for the law firm working on Joe’s release. It seems Ann has developed a bit of a crush, and Joe intends to use it as leverage for help in getting out of town.

Traveling with two women enables Joe to squeak past the law and head for Crescent City, where he expects to meet up with Coyle, receive $50,000 that he’s owed, and head to South America. But Pat quickly notices Anne’s growing attachment, and begins to wonder how loyal her criminal boyfriend really is.

The film features a number of narrow brushes with the law, as well as a young Whit Bissel as the subject of a separate manhunt. Realizing he’s been betrayed, Joe decides to settle his score with Coyle before leaving the country.

Raymond Burr plays the part of crime boss Coyle to perfection. His sadistic nature slowly gives way to growing paranoia, as he fears Joe come gunning for him. Between Coyle’s growing anxiety, and Pat’s increasing jealousy, the film is an emotional thriller leading the audience to wonder how matters will eventually resolve themselves.

In The Fake (1953), O’Keefe is on the right side of the law, playing insurance investigator Paul Mitchell, who has been assigned to protect a masterpiece of art by da Vinci while it is on loan to London’s Tate Gallery. There, he meets Mary Mason (Coleen Gray), the daughter of an impoverished painter.

The da Vinci is under scrutiny due to the thefts of two other paintings, both of which were replaced by forgeries. Mitchell follows one lead after another as attempts are made to steal the da Vinci, beginning at its arrival in England. Meanwhile, he also continues to pursue Mary Mason. This romantic endeavor that is complicated when it appears her father may be involved in the art thefts.

As capers go, it’s enjoyable without trying too hard to be more than it is. It hardly ranks high on anyone’s list of mysteries, especially when one stunningly obvious clue seems to escape the notice of Mitchell and his cohorts. But it benefits from having been filmed on location in London at the Tate Gallery. Also, segments of Mussorgsky's “Pictures At An Exhibition" are used for the musical score, providing not only irony but a cheap source for music cues.

O’Keefe is once again in jolly old England for The Diamond Wizard (1954), this time as U.S. Treasury Agent Joe Dennison. He’s trailed a gang of thieves who’ve stolen a million dollars from a U.S. Treasury vault. Upon arrival, he discovers his case intersects with that of Scotland Yard Inspector McClaren (Philip Friend), who is investigating the disappearance of Dr. Eric Miller (Paul Hardtmuth), an atomic scientist. They compare notes, and Dennison discovers Miller has secretly been creating bogus diamonds, either willingly or under coercion. Their combined investigation evolves into a police procedural, as Dennison adapts his American methods to British sensibilities, while he and McClaren compete for the affections of Dr. Miller’s daughter, Marline (Margaret Sheridan).

Both The Fake and The Diamond Wizard were produced by British studios (Pax Films and Gibraltar Films, respectively), though perhaps due to its American leads, they have a more American tone. According to the IMDB, O’Keefe is credited as co-director on the Diamond Wizard, and co-authored the script under the pen-name Jonathan Rix.

While none of O’Keefe’s films stand out as exceptional thrillers or film noir, they’re pleasant diversions for those that haven’t seen them before.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

GetTV Theatre: Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1960)

In 1949, Columbia Pictures brought Willard Motley’s 1947 novel Knock on Any Door to the big screen in a feature film directed by Nicholas Ray.  It’s the story of a young juvenile delinquent named Nick Romano (John Derek) who’s accused of killing a cop at point blank range and the attorney who agrees to take his case (against the advice of his law partners), Andrew Morton (Humphrey Bogart).  Door has its admirers and detractors; I’m fond of the movie as a Bogart fan, and it’s long been of interest to those cinephiles who consider themselves members-in-good-standing in the Nicholas Ray cult (it’s kind of a precursor to the director’s classic Rebel Without a Cause [1955]).  (Not the strongest film Ray ever directed…but I’d watch Door again over A Woman’s Secret [1949] any day of the week.)

Motley’s third novel (published in 1958) was a sequel to Knock on Any Door, and was released by the same studio eleven years later: Let No Man Write My Epitaph examines the troubled history of Nick’s progeny (also named Nick, and played by James Darren), a son born out of wedlock by one of Romano’s girlfriends, played by Shelley Winters.  Sadly, mom Nellie and Nick, Jr. reside in the same West Hamilton neighborhood in the Windy City, and the prognosis of the younger Nick making something out of his life does not look positive.  But the kid has a loving surrogate family, made up of former jurist Bruce Mallory Sullivan (Burl Ives); Flora (Ella Fitzgerald), a saloon chanteuse; cabbie Max (Rodolfo Acosta); ex-pugilist “Goodbye” George (Bernie Hamilton); prostitute Fran (Jeanne Cooper); and amputee-newshawk Wart (Walter Burke).

The audience gets a glimpse of Nick’s childhood at the beginning of Epitaph (young Nick is played by Michael Davis), and then the film fast-forwards to his high school years.  Like his father, Nick often has difficulty staying out of trouble…and hopes his occasional lapses into juvenile delinquency won’t deter him from his dream of becoming a musician (Nellie has worked in a number of clip joints in order to support her son and pay for piano lessons to boot).  Sullivan, a disgraced judge who’s descended into an alcoholic haze, uses his connections to secure a patron for Nick in the form of lawyer Grant Holloway (Philip Ober), whose daughter Barbara (Jean Seberg) takes a shine to Nick.  However, Nick’s career plans are threatened by his mother’s involvement with Louis Ramponi (Ricardo Montalban), a hood whose flower shop is merely a front for his real business: dope peddling.

The theme of how environment can dictate the direction of one’s path in life is explored in Epitaph as it was in Door; Door emphasized how Nick, Sr. was a good kid from the slums (lawyer Morton hails from a similar background, which is why he agrees to take Romano’s case) who just never got the breaks in life.  The ambiguity of the two films, however, is present in the suggestion that one’s genes may be the triumphant winner in the fifteen-round bout of Nature vs. Nurture.  In Door, Nick, Sr.’s father was previously on trial for a self-defense killing (Bogart’s Morton botched that trial—resulting in the man’s death while he was still behind bars—which is the second reason why he defends Derek’s Romano), and that seems to suggest that the males in the Family Romano are predisposed to run-ins with the gendarmes.

Epitaph (at least the movie version—it might be different in the novel, which I have not read) also commits a couple of glaring continuity errors in the course of its narrative.  Nellie Romano continues to believe that Nick, Sr. was innocent of the cop’s murder in Door, forgetting that Romano eventually confesses to the deed while on the stand.  (One could argue, of course, that Nellie continues to blindly believe in Nick’s innocence regardless of what the facts dictate.)  The character of Holloway is referenced as the public defender in Nick, Sr.’s trial, but I don’t remember the senior Romano having any other lawyer but Morton in Door (again, it’s possible they changed the name of the Holloway character from the novel).

Aside from these nitpicks—and the casting of twenty-four-year-old James Darren as a high school student (yes, I know he was under contract to Columbia, but really—“Moondoggie” as a teenage hood?)—Let No Man Write My Epitaph is a most worthwhile movie, a film whose unavailability on DVD is a crime in itself (I thought it had never been released on home video at all but this Amazon listing proves me wrong).  Its disappointing box office performance might be the reason Epitaph has slipped through the cracks, but my advice is to resist all that hooey; the supporting cast alone is worth the price of admission.  Several people around the Internets describe this feature film as a “film noir”…but apart from the crime angle, it’s stretching the definition a bit.  It’s more of a social drama, with an interesting theme of redemption and an admirable portrayal of how people from disparate elements of society can effectively band together to form a surrogate family.

The big casting “get” in Epitaph was Shelley Winters, fresh off her Oscar triumph for The Diary of Anne Frank (1959).  Winters gives a great performance, but she was also instrumental in convincing the filmmakers that James Darren, Burl Ives, Jean Seberg, Ella Fitzgerald and Bernie Hamilton be cast in their supporting roles.  (Shel also wanted George C. Scott to play the part of the sebaceous pusher ultimately essayed by Ricardo Montalban…but she came up short on that score.)  Singer Fitzgerald gives one of the truly impressive performances in Epitaph, as a heroin-addicted saloon singer (the scene where she begs Ives for the needed money to get a fix is quietly effective).  I also admired Hamilton’s turn as the ex-boxer, though I was sort of uncomfortable in that his efforts to save Darren’s Nick from a gang of street punks resulted in his return to the pokey (there was a law on the books at that time that being hit by a prizefighter constituted “assault with a deadly weapon”).

Burl Ives’ performance as the down-and-out Judge Sullivan is a marvel.  The winner of a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Big Country (1958), Ives was responsible for an impressive string of performances in its wake including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (though technically released before Country) and Day of the Outlaw.  His character possesses a nice sense of melancholy in that he’s pined for Winters’ character for many years; I didn’t even mind too much that his presence suggests if only single mom Shelley could land herself a man everything would be hunky-dory.  In addition, I enjoyed spotting TDOY fave Percy Helton (as the man who runs the flophouse where Ives resides) and Frank Sully, not to mention Dal McKennon (as a court clerk) and Francis De Sales.

Directed by Philip Leacock, a British filmmaker who had had recent U.S. success with Take a Giant Step (1959) and The Rabbit Trap (1959); he works wonders with Robert Presnell, Jr’s (Man in the Attic, A Life in the Balance) adapted screenplay.  Admittedly, I’m more familiar with Leacock’s work on the small screen; he helmed any number of classic episodes from the likes of Route 66 and Gunsmoke, as well as made-for-TV efforts such as When Michael Calls (1972) and The Daughters of Joshua Cabe (1972).  (Please don’t judge me.)  Epitaph is considered one of Leacock’s best films, and if you’ve not seen this movie—and your cable system carries the digital channel GetTV—I urge you to catch this one this afternoon at 4:30 EDT.  (There will be encore showings on June 14 [7:30am EDT], June 18 [1pm EDT], June 27 [9:35am EST] and June 29 [10:35am EDT].)  AT&T U-Verse unfortunately doesn’t carry GetTV (boo hiss), but I was lucky to be able to see Let No Man Write My Epitaph (it’s been on my must-see list for many years) thanks to Cindy Ronzoni at GetTV—many, many effusive thanks to her.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon 2015: The Abbott and Costello Show

This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon (May 25-28) hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association.  Click here to check out this blogathon's complete schedule.

The release in 1948 of what many fans consider to be their finest and funniest motion picture—Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein—signaled a return of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello to the yearly top ten tally of box office film stars.  The duo didn’t stay there for long, however; by 1952 they would be replaced by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis as the country’s most successful movie comedy team—and in hindsight, it was probably not too disappointing for the verbal slapstick duo.  For despite their incredible film success, which really began with their second film, 1941’s Buck Privates, the two men didn’t have a great deal of either affection or patience for the moviemaking process.  Stories are legend about their boredom at how time consuming working on a set could be, and they often passed the time with epic poker games and prank-pulling.  “’When do we come and what do we wear?’” reminisced the immortal Buster Keaton about the duo’s approach to movies during his days as an MGM gag writer (in a clip from the documentary Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow).  “Then the day they started shooting they find out what the script’s about.”

It would be the new medium of television that would bear responsibility for the comedy team’s renewed vitality in their performances, particularly when Abbott & Costello became part of the permanent rotating group of weekly hosts on The Colgate Comedy Hour.  Performing on live television reminded Bud & Lou of their glory days on the burlesque stage, and most comedians will no doubt agree that hearing the appreciative laughter of a live audience is far more stimulating than doing the same routines in front of a jaded movie crew who’ve probably stopped laughing after the third take.  Surviving kinescopes from that era show both men having the time of their lives (to use one of the titles from their classic film oeuvre), and their success on the small screen would lead to one of the most popular syndicated series in the history of the boob tube: The Abbott and Costello Show.

The premise of The Abbott and Costello Show was disarmingly simple: Bud and Lou played themselves, a pair of unemployed actors who lived in a rooming house run by the apoplectic Sidney Fields, also playing himself.  Fields was a crony of the duo from their radio days; he often performed on the program (in addition to supplying much of the writing, since his background was in burlesque as well) as various characters with the surname of “Melonhead,” which he continued occasionally on their TV show as well.  A hallmark of Fields’ radio interactions with Costello would be a routine in which Sid easily takes offense at Lou’s innocent suggestions, and no matter how much the comedian tries to be diplomatic his comments he’s unable to appease the angry Fields (below is a similar snippet from the TV episode “The Birthday Party”):

LOU: Mr. Fields…you are invited to my party…
FIELDS: You’re finally inviting me…you want me to bring a present, huh?
LOU: Look, Mr. Fields—a lot of people are bringing presents…you don’t have to bring me no present…
FIELDS: I see…everybody brings a present…you want me to come empty-handed…people should look at me and say, “Sidney Fields is a cheapskate”…huh?  “Sidney Fields is nothing but a broken-down, dirty tramp”—is that it?
LOU: Look, Mr. Fields—you don’t look like no tramp…you look nice…
FIELDS: I don’t, huh…my feet are coming through my shoes…my elbows are coming through my sleeves…
LOU: Yeah…and your head is coming through your hair

In the first season of the show, Fields not only played his landlord self but other relatives in the Fields family—who turned up from time to time whenever Abbott & Costello were in search of work.  (Fields made no attempt to disguise his dual roles, simply slapping on a moustache or cheap toupee to maintain the “deception.”)  Much of the show’s comedy revolved around Bud and Lou’s tenuous housing situation: the two men were constantly in arrears as far as their room rent was concerned, with Fields threatening to evict the duo at every turn.  Fields was also the series’ most prolific scripter; he’s credited with twenty-five of the total fifty-two episodes telecast, demonstrating his encyclopedic knowledge of burlesque comedy.

Also among the supporting cast was actress Hillary Brooke…playing Hillary Brooke.  (The Abbott and Costello Show did not set any records for casting originality.)  Hillary was essentially Lou’s love interest, and though her regal bearing and accent suggested that she was a Britisher by birth, Brooke actually hailed from Astoria, NY (she cultivated a British accent in her early show business years to set herself apart from her blonde competitors).  She first worked with Bud and Lou in their 1949 comedy Africa Screams, and would later reteam with them in Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952).  Because the first season of the TV show was filmed at the legendary “Lot of Fun” (the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, CA), it was no doubt a nice working arrangement for Hillary since she was also appearing semi-regularly on the Gale Storm sitcom My Little Margie, on which she played the high-class Roberta Townsend—frequent girlfriend of Vern Albright (Charles Farrell).  Brooke appeared on Bud and Lou’s program only in its first season, though she does have a cameo in a second-season episode, “In Society,” in which she helps Mike the Cop out of a pair of handcuffs.

“Mike the Cop” was Officer Mike Kelly, and played by one-time movie Green Hornet (and occasional Roy Rogers sidekick) Gordon Jones.  Jones had played a bad guy in Bud & Lou’s underrated The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap (1947), and on their TV show acted as the boys’ nemesis: a lunk-headed cop who was always threatening to run Costello in on some charge, though Mike may have been the only policeman on the force dumber than Lou.  Mike was easily excitable, which made him the perfect foil, and Jones was fortunate to continue on in Season Two after several of the series’ regulars got their pink slip.

Two of those regulars were Joe Besser and Joe Kirk (a couple of Joes).  Besser played “Stinky Davis,” a malevolent brat clad in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit (it was intimated that Stinky really was a child, though he didn’t fool much of the audience) who was the bane of Lou’s existence (“I’ll harm you!”).  Besser had also worked with the duo in Africa Screams, stealing that movie with a scene in which he runs back and forth with a glass of water as Bud and Lou are engaged in discussion; when asked why he keeps interrupting, Besser replies in that memorable whine of his: “Oooh, my tent is on fire!”  (They recreated this gag in one of the first season episodes, incidentally.)   The other Joe was actually Costello’s brother-in-law; Joe Kirk (who also had appeared on the team’s radio show) played Mr. Bacciagalupe, an Italian vendor whose line of business would change according to the demands of the episode—in some installments he was a greengrocer, in others a baker.  Kirk divorced Lou’s sister in 1953, which might explain why he didn’t stick around for the second and last season.

Also discharged from Season One was Bingo the Chimp, first introduced in “The Politician”…and whose subsequent surge in popularity resulted in more episodes being based around the Simian-American, who functioned as Costello’s pet (he even wore an outfit similar to Lou’s).  The scuttlebutt has it that Lou didn’t particularly care for Bingo, and the animal may have sensed the animosity because he up and bit his co-star on the set one day…oblivious to the fact that it may not have been in the best interest of an ambitious chimpanzee to antagonize the actor who owned a large piece of the show.  Like Hillary, Bingo also made a cameo appearance in a second-season episode once he had been dismissed: he does a brief roller-skating turn in “Cheapskates.”

Other performers who appeared on The Abbott and Costello Show’s first season included several of the duo’s close cronies: Milt Bronson, Joan Shawlee, Murray Leonard and Bobby Barber, to name a few.  (Barber was a longtime member of the A&C payroll; his official title was “court jester,” supplying the pies-to-be-thrown and other prankish items used on their film sets to keep the hi-jinks at a suitable level so that Bud and Lou could perform.)  The show’s first season also featured a number of thespians who had previously appeared on the team’s radio program: Elvia Allman and Iris Adrian, for starters. 

Fans of The Abbott and Costello Show generally consider the series’ first season to be the strongest.  It wasn’t much more than a peg to hang their classic burlesque routines on, to be honest: “Jail” features the “Slowly I Turn” bit (also known as “Pokomoko” or “Niagara Falls”); “The Army Story” cribs a lot of material from Buck Privates; the highlight of “The Charity Bazaar” is the “Lemon Bit,” which the team also performed on occasion on The Colgate Comedy Hour.  In “The Haunted House,” Bud, Lou and Hillary have to spend a night in the titular dwelling according to the details of a will…and wouldn’t you know, here’s the “Moving Candle” routine from Hold That Ghost (1941).  “Peace and Quiet” gives the boys all the room they need to perform “Crazy House” (though in this instance it’s more like “Crazy Hospital”).  And before you ask, they get around to their most famous piece of material—“Who’s on First?”—in “The Actors’ Home.”

But there was an endearingly loopy insanity about the program’s first season that attracts fans even today—Bud and Lou inhabited a world in which crooks and sharpies lie in wait around every corner, and women would walk right up to Lou for no reason and slap his face (“How dare you look like someone I hate!”).  The show made no attempt to ground itself in reality; the team would often emphasize the theatricality of the program by appearing in front of a theater curtain and commenting on the events that had transpired in “breaking-the-fourth-wall” fashion.  There was even a running gag involving an unidentified “card girl,” who would come out with a large card listing the other performers who would be appearing in the episode…and concealing Lou’s face in the process, much to his annoyance.

Since the first season had pretty much chewed up most of Bud and Lou’s repertoire, the second season (which abandoned the jaunty opening titles, featuring scenes from such A&C movies as Keep ‘Em Flying [1941] and In Society [1944]) reconditioned itself into a more traditional sitcom, and saw veteran scribe Clyde Bruckman hired to pen many of the episodes.  Bruckman is a most enigmatic figure in the world of comedy; he worked alongside such greats as Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and W.C. Fields…though the jury is out on how much Clyde actually contributed to their films, since those comedians already had clearly defined screen personas.  Bruckman was considered radioactive where employment was concerned; two of the studios who availed themselves of his services, Columbia and Universal, were on the receiving end of lawsuits from Lloyd because Clyde had a habit of reusing old material from Harold’s films…and many others as well.  (Let me just state that if recycling classic gags was a crime—our comedy prisons would be filled to capacity.)

So while not as popular as the inaugural season, Year Two of The Abbott and Costello Show is of interest to comedy fans because Bruckman’s contributions are so easily recognizable from previous laughter excursions.  An installment like “Killer’s Wife” is basically a refashioned Hugh Herbert two-reeler—any of them, to be honest.  The same can be said for “Private Eye,” which appropriates many elements of Columbia’s “scare” comedies.  “Car Trouble” reworks the Buster Keaton short Nothing But Pleasure (1940), while “South of Dixie” borrows heavily from The Three Stooges’ Uncivil War Birds (1946).  The premise of “Honeymoon House” is that Lou has put together a pre-fab cottage (with help from Bud and Mr. Fields) for his fiancée (Karen Sharpe), unaware that his rival (Danny Morton) has sabotaged the project by painting over the actual numbers.  (Any resemblance to the classic Keaton two-reeler One Week [1920] is purely coincidental.)  Veteran comedy writer Jack Townley also contributed to the second season output; he was responsible for one of my favorite episodes, “Amnesia,” in which Bud manages to convince Lou that he’s been married to a woman for three months to keep him from actually walking down the aisle with an unknown correspondent from the Lonely Hearts Club.  The actress who plays Lou’s “wife” is Adele Jergens, who “de-glams” from her usual attractive persona to play a rolling-pin-wielding harridan.  (Hey—I like Adele.  So sue me.)

All fifty-two episodes of The Abbott and Costello Show were directed by Jean Yarborough, a journeyman who worked with Bud and Lou at Universal in the 1940s (Here Come the Co-Eds, The Naughty Nineties) and the 1950s (Jack and the Beanstalk, Lost in Alaska)—so he was familiar with the team, and even had the foresight to insist that a camera be focused on Lou at all times in the event the comic came up with an inventive bit of business.  Yarborough also produced the series (taking over from Alex Gottlieb), though the title of “executive producer” went to Costello’s brother Pat in one of those Hollywood nepotism stories we’ve come to know and love.

Critics were not kind to The Abbott and Costello Show…but then again, Bud and Lou were never really held close to any critic’s bosom throughout their long show business career.  Sure, the series was crammed with lowbrow humor and jokes old enough to be collecting pensions…but as I have long pointed out here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, sometimes the jokes with the longest whiskers got the biggest laughs.  Costello bet director Charles Barton on the set of A&C Meet Frankenstein that one gag—“My date had so much bridgework every time I kissed her I had to pay a toll”—would get a boffo response from the theater audience, more so than some of the other scripted material…and a chagrined Barton was forced to pay up when it did just that.  (And yes, Bud and Lou recycle that old chestnut in one of the show’s episodes as well.)  The Abbott and Costello Show would spend years and years in The Old Syndication Home; the show was at one time a mainstay of WGN’s programming, who no doubt used the series as an appetizer before they’d unspool one of the team’s classic movies.  It’s currently a staple at MeTV, where it airs Sunday mornings at 7am EDT—an hour-long block of classic comedy.

And while The Abbott and Costello Show might not be everyone’s cup of Earl Grey, it’s an important television artifact because—along with Bud and Lou’s movies—it’s a virtual encyclopedia of burlesque routines: the popular variety show theatrical form is but a distant memory in the past, so it’s nice that someone took the time to make sure it was recorded for generations to follow.  Jerry Seinfeld even acknowledged the influence The Abbott and Costello Show had on his own self-titled sitcom, Seinfeld; the main antagonist in the episode “The Old Man” is named “Sidney Fields,” and the Chinese puzzle intricacies of many of Seinfeld’s episodes (miscommunication and emphasis on plot complications rather than character development) can be directly traced back to its source in Bud and Lou.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Movies I’ve stared at recently on TCM #72 (Biker film edition)

The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ demonstrated real prescience on May 11th when they showcased an evening of “biker” films, in keeping with the recent Waco skirmish between motorcycle gangs that occurred over the weekend.  Admittedly, I’m not all that familiar with the genre that really got into high gear (pardon the pun) with the release of The Wild Angels in 1966, a programmer that was so successful it pretty much had a knife fight with the existing “Beach Party” motion pictures that were in vogue at the time, and sent Frankie Avalon and Annette Funnicello back from whence they came.  I’ve seen The Wild One (1953) and Easy Rider (1969), but my motorcycle movie education stops with Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck) in the “Beach” movies I referenced in the preceding sentence.

Tee Cee Em originally had Wild Angels on the schedule before calling an audible (boo) and substituting it with another well-regarded biker pic, The Born Losers (1967).  I DVR’d it and three other cycle sagas and watched them over the weekend, leaving as much space between Doris Martin and myself as possible (though also in my defense, I did participate in a couple of blogathons).

The Born Losers (1967) – You’re probably familiar with auteur Tom McLaughlin’s motion picture Billy Jack (1971), a low-budget opus that did tremendous b.o. in ticket sales upon its release, and made the actor’s titular hero—a half-breed ex-Green Beret who practices peace and nonviolence by beating up anyone who dares come into conflict with him—a pop culture icon.  I had seen Billy Jack many, many moons back (though I have not been brave enough to sit through the follow-ups The Trial of Billy Jack [1974] and Billy Jack Goes to Washington [1977]) but was curious to check out the first film to feature the character, as I had heard it was one of the better biker movies.  (Born Losers was a phenomenal hit for American International Pictures, purportedly the studio’s biggest moneymaker until The Amityville Horror ambled along in 1979.)

It’s really not that bad a film; yes, it’s your basic biker plot that has a sickle gang terrorizing a small town, assaulting and raping several of the young lovelies—the gang effectively terrorizes the female survivors into not testifying until Billy, disgusted with the milquetoast sheriff (Stuart Lancaster) and ineffectual district attorney (Paul Bruce), opens up a forty gallon can of whup-ass and brings the riding reprobates to justice.  But there’s also an interesting underlying element of the evils of prejudice in the town’s interactions with Mr. Jack; at the beginning of the movie, when he steps in to help a man being beaten to a pulp by the gang, Billy receives a stiffer sentence than those responsible for the assault.  During the climactic scene where he brings the cyclists to heel, he’s shot in the back by the cops for his trouble.

Most motorcycle gang films are a little difficult to stomach at times because of their misogynist mistreatment of women, but I liked Born Losers’ theme of meting out justice, with McLaughlin a symbol of the individual offering a voice for the voiceless.  There’s also some nuance in the portrayal of the Born Losers’ leader, Danny (Jeremy Slate), who despite being a douchebag does look out for his little brother (Gordon Hoban) when he’s being knocked around by their father and has a loving relationship with his “old lady” (they’re even raising a son).  This sort of thing isn’t as emphasized in Losers as much as it is in Billy Jack (which really overdoes the preachiness), however; there’s still a lot of violence and exploitation.  The dialogue in Losers is also quite clunky at times; the script was written by Elizabeth James (as E. James Lloyd), who plays Vicky, the young girl helped by Billy.

Actor-stuntman Bob Tessier, whom I recognized from many Burt Reynolds movies (The Longest Yard, Hooper), plays a biker named “Cueball” in this one (which I thought amusing, since he still has his hair in this) and the son of William “Wild Bill” Wellman—William, Jr.—is also on hand as “Child.”  The “Special Guest Star” status is awarded to Jane Russell (apparently the Playtex checks hadn’t yet arrived), who portrays the mother of one of the girls (Janice Miller) called upon to testify.  When Jane goes out for the evening (it’s implied she’s one of the finest gals to ever work the streets), her daughter performs a striptease for one of her stuffed animals.  (I swear I am not making this up.)

The Glory Stompers (1967) – Star Dennis Hopper (as Chino the biker) got some valuable directorial experience on this low-budget feature two years before he would helm the mega-successful Easy Rider.  It was mostly his doing, though; his insistence on multiple retakes and micromanagement of what had originally been planned as a two-week shoot (budgeted at $100,000) gave first-time director Anthony M. Lanza a nervous breakdown, which necessitated Hopper’s stepping in and finishing the picture.  (They must not have been too angry with Hopper—this little grindhouse classic reaped a $3.5 million payday.)

Jody “Deadhead” McCrea rides with the titular biker gang, but he’s having problems with his girlfriend Chris (Chris Noel), who declares with a perfectly straight face: “I just want something better than being a Stompers girl.”  (Hey—don’t we all!)  McCrea (as Darryl) had a run-in with Hopper and his Black Souls gang earlier (Dennis was trying to put the moves on Chris), so he shouldn’t have been too surprised when they dry-gulch him and leave him in the woods for dead.  Because the gang can’t leave a witness (Chris), they wind up taking her with them as they make their way to Mexico…where they plan to sell the girl to some “high class Mexican friends.”

For a brief moment, I thought Jody might luck out and die in order to spare himself the indignity of having to appear any longer in this film…but he turns out to be merely unconscious (how can you tell?) and he goes after Hopper and his cretins with the tenacity of Ethan Edwards.  To be honest, I wondered why they called this movie “The Glory Stompers” because technically there’s only one Stomper involved in the plot…though perhaps they’re including ex-Stomper Jock “Tarzan” Mahoney, who as an aged biker named “Smiley” teams up with McCrea to find his girl.

Bob Tessier is in this one as well (as biker “Magoo”), but the real reason to sit down with Stompers is the appearance of these two jamokes:

The guy on the right is Casey Kasem (as “Mouth”), a few years before keeping his feet on the ground and reaching for the stars, and the dude on the left is Lindsay Crosby (“Monk”), one of Bing’s sons.  You could also get up a good drinking game by downing a shot every time Hopper says “man” but I would not recommend it unless you have some sort of bionic liver.

Hells Angels on Wheels (1967) – Universally-loathed TCM host Ben Mankiewicz observed in his introductory remarks to this one that it was conceived as AIP’s follow-up to The Wild Angels…which would be difficult to do, since Wheels was a U.S. Films release (the same company who brought us The Beach Girls and the Monster).  I’ll defend Mank’s easy mistake; Wheels was written by R. Wright Campbell (who scripted several AIP films, including Teenage Caveman and The Young Racers) and also features the director-and-actor team of Richard Rush and Jack Nicholson (as well as Adam Roarke), who would work together a year later in one of my AIP “guilty pleasures,” Psych-Out (1968).

Nicholson’s the best thing in this movie (as he was in Easy Rider); he plays “Poet,” a gas station attendant who’s let go from his lofty position and winds up with a chapter of the Hells Angels, headed up by the autocratic Buddy (Roarke).  Buddy’s loyalty to his new pal even stretches as far as the murder of a sailor who beat Poet up at an amusement park (the Angels are also responsible for the demise of a motorist who’s run off the highway by one of their number), but he’s not too cool with Poet’s macking on his “old lady” Shill (Sabrina Scharf).  (Sadly, Shill does not have the necessary self-esteem to rid herself of douchebag Buddy, though it might be because she is great with his child.)

Wheels ends violently and abruptly, and while it was not nearly as good as I hoped it would be it didn’t hurt Nicholson at all—he got some of the best notices of his career as the disillusioned Poet.  Jack also became good friends with real-life Hells Angels Sonny Barger (whose fellow cyclists were convinced Nicholson was the real deal, just a member from an out-of-town chapter), who appears in the movie and served as a technical advisor.  (I wonder if the two men kept exchanging Christmas cards once that little unpleasantness at Altamont transpired.)

Devil’s Angels (1967) – This is the movie Mankiewicz should have identified as The Wild Angels’ follow-up: Roger Corman didn’t direct this one (he allowed Daniel Haller to sit in the chair) but he did serve as a producer, with Corman crony Charles Griffith concocting a script laced with deadpan humor.  John Cassavetes—yes, that John Cassavetes—plays Cody, leader of the Skulls biker gang—an organization that has seen its ranks dwindle in number.  After rescuing one of their compadres from a small town jail (he’s there on a graffiti charge), Cody and his Skulls make their way to the tiny burg of Brookville, where a local carnival is on in full force.  The scruffy bikers do not mingle well with the locals, and Sheriff Leo Gordon bans the cyclists to a section of the town’s beach, with orders that they vacate in the morning.  The problem is, a girl named Marianne (Mimsy Farmer) is fed up with the stifling conformity that is Brookville (can’t say that I blame her) and she falls in with some of the Skulls members…who later treat her in a manner that suggests they’re feeling a bit rapey.  The mayor (Paul Myer) and one of the town fathers (Russ Bender) soon spread the word that the gang has taken liberties with Marianne’s virtue, and that’s when all heck breaks loose—including the recruitment of a solidarity gang to help the Skulls do to Brookville what they call “razzle dazzle.”

Devil’s was my favorite of the movie quartet I watched, mostly because the plot is warmed-over Wild One…but it’s John Cassavetes who sold this picture, playing a character not unlike Nicholson’s in Hells Angels on Wheels (there’s a Western theme that’s prevalent in Devil’s, with Cassavetes’ moniker—“Cody”—and his anxious search for a mythical “Hole-in-the-Wall” of Butch Cassidy fame).  You just know that John agreed to take the money and run with this one so he could finish post-production on Faces (1968) (he didn’t appear in a 1965 episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea because he was a Richard Basehart fan), but he has a lot of fun with the part, keeping his tongue firmly-in-cheek.  Gordon and Farmer (the ingénue in Hot Rods to Hell) are also pluses, and Beverly Adams—a.k.a. Mrs. Vidal Sassoon—plays Cassavetes’ main squeeze.  (Future Gunsmoke regular Buck Taylor also appears as a biker named “Gage.”)

Saturday, May 16, 2015

My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon: Casablanca (1942)

This post is part of the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16th). Click here to view the schedule listing all the great posts in this blogathon.

Today is National Classic Movie Day, an event that we are celebrating in style here at Rancho Yesteryear: a sumptuous dinner, cake and all the other trimmings.  Okay…I might be exaggerating about the food aspect.  My mother did prepare a cake, but not for the special occasion…she just had a hankering for cake.

This shouldn’t, however, diminish today’s event because as it is all too evident over the years at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, classic movies are one of my true passions.  I’ve examined the origins of why this is so both on the blog and other venues in the past, so I’m going to try and not be too long-winded in this introduction.  Suffice it to say, that day that I sat down to watch King Kong (1933) with 300 citizens in the small West Virginia town library of my formative childhood years, the fix was already in with regards to my classic movie addiction.

When Rick at the Classic Film and TV Café proposed this blogathon to talk about our favorite classic film, I knew without hesitation that my essay would have to be on Casablanca (1942).  I first saw Casablanca at Marshall University around 1981/1982; the college’s Activities Committee showed movies in a makeshift auditorium on weekends, and on one occasion they featured three Humphrey Bogart titles: The Maltese Falcon (1941), Key Largo (1948)…and of course, Casablanca.  I love all three movies but Casablanca had the most significant impact on me since I was seeing it with an audience.  The consensus has long been that movies need to be enjoyed most in that sort of venue, and Casablanca was no exception; the audience roared with approval at the point in the movie where Bogart’s Rick Blaine orders Claude Rains’ Louis Renault “Not so fast, Louie,” signaling that Blaine has finally decided to throw his support to the Allied cause.  The electric response to that scene in that makeshift auditorium (actually a converted biology lab) still stays with me today.

I’ve lost count how many times I’ve seen Casablanca, probably because I thought it kind of pedantic to keep score.  But I’ve seen it enough to know most of the dialogue by heart, which is why I always got a kick out of that old Diet Coke commercial where the couple starts mouthing the movie in the theater before they step out into the aisle for a romantic waltz and embrace:

Casablanca is my favorite movie because it’s a film that adopts so many movie genres.  It’s first and foremost a romantic love story, but it’s also a rousing WW2 adventure with elements of nail-biting suspense.  It’s also a musical, with the tuneful contributions of Dooley Wilson on Shine, Knock on Wood and the film’s iconic As Time Goes By.  It’s also quite comical at times; there are so many great moments in Casablanca for some odd reason the one that always makes me laugh out loud is when Rick glances at the dossier on him and asks “Are my eyes really brown?”  (A week or so ago, Our Lady of Great Caftan and I recreated the famous “I came here for the waters” scene on Facebook to thunderous applause.  Okay, maybe a few titters from the crowd—don’t ruin a beautiful moment here.)

Though this could be fodder for another blogathon, I would probably respond without hesitation “Humphrey Bogart” if asked who my all-time favorite actor was.  Bogart was recognized by his peers with an Oscar for The African Queen (1951) (though I would argue he gave better performances in both The Treasure of the Sierra Madre [1948] and In a Lonely Place [1950]) but I agree with Danny Peary (he makes the case in Alternate Oscars) that Bogie deserved it for Casablanca.  His Rick Blaine is the kind of guy we’d either like to be or envision ourselves as already: a suave tough guy whose wisecracking cynicism masks the heart of a true idealist.  The actor was able to wipe away multitudes of movie memories playing snarling gangsters and other villains with his heroic portrayal of Rick, simply by making the noble sacrifice of giving up the woman he loves in order that she help her husband carry on in the fight of stamping out the Nazis and all that they stood for.

Humphrey Bogart made four movies with his actress-wife Lauren Bacall: To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947) and Key Largo.  And yet, in none of those films does the man demonstrate the amazing chemistry that he shared with Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca.  The electricity between the two of them is positively astounding—even more when you realize that the two had never worked together before (and would never again) and Bogart had to wear platform shoes to compensate for the height difference between him and Ingrid.  I don’t want to suggest that Bogie did all the heavy lifting here (except to say that with the exception here of Ingrid and Gloria Grahame in Lonely Place, none of the actor’s onscreen romances come close to the passion generated by these two); Bergman was nothing short of luminous as Ilsa Lund.  When she explains to Rick that her attraction to Victor Laszlo (Paul Heinreid) was more intellectual than physical (“He opened up for her a whole beautiful world full of knowledge and thoughts and ideals”), we recognize that not only she is a bright, intelligent, independent woman but one who is capable of being nurturing and caring as well.  The glistening tears that collect in her eyes as she wrestles with the dilemma of loving two men equally is devastating to watch.

Casablanca benefited from being made at Warner Bros., where all their contract players worked whether or not the roles they had been assigned were appropriate.  This explains the eclectic cast of the movie: Claude Rains (as Renault), who was delighted to learn that his Louis would not turn out as a rotter but a hero; Sydney Greenstreet (as Ferrari), stealing scenes despite an inconsequential role with the mere swat of a fly swatter; Peter Lorre (as Ugarte), at his sniveling best (“You despise me, don’t you?”).  Paul Heinreid, Conrad Veidt, S.Z. Sakall, Leonid Kinskey and the others—there’s not a false note in anyone’s portrayal.  And of course, it goes without saying: nobody sings As Time Goes By like Dooley Wilson.

“They don’t make them like that anymore.”  We all know the familiar cliché, and we’re often tempted to apply it to Casablanca as the gold standard of “oldie but goodie.”  We also know that the making of the movie wasn’t as simple as all that; Casablanca had a troubled history, with stories of script pages being dashed off at the last minute…and the surprise that this unassuming picture, re-released in 1943 only to cash in on the publicity surrounding the headline-making Roosevelt-Churchill summit (it had actually played in New York the previous year to stifling yawns), would win the Academy Award for Best Picture.  Our love for Casablanca is such that it seems silly to think that any other film could have taken the top prize…but the Oscars don’t always function on that same logic.

During my years in exile in Morgantown, WV, I had a lady friend whose revulsion for Casablanca knew no bounds.  The reason for this could be found in a movie of which she was quite fond, the 1989 romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally...  In that picture, Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) have an intense conversation of the subject of Casablanca, and the reason why Ingrid Bergman gets on that plane at the end.  (“I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in Casablanca married to a man who runs a bar.  That probably sounds very snobbish to you, but I don’t.”)  For my friend, this is the reason why she would never see Casablanca: “She gets on the plane at the end of the movie!  Even when a mutual friend of ours painstakingly tried to explain why it was necessary for Bergman to do so (a dialogue exchange that I seriously could not keep from laughing throughout) the woman remained firm.  She later explained to me: “I don’t like movies with unhappy endings.  My life is an unhappy ending, and who wants to watch their life on the big screen?”  (I even thought that agreeing to sit down and watch her favorite movie—Gone with the Wind—she might relent.  No dice, Chicago.)

This may be the most magical element of them all with regards to Casablanca.  We’re upset that the torrid affair between Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund won’t ever progress as far as Paris (and one night in Casablanca), but we know that Rick makes the right call: “You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going.”  It’s an unhappy ending, but a satisfying one—one that produces both tears and smiles knowing that despite Rick’s observation that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” betting on humanity and people doing the right thing is a can’t-lose proposition.

Casablanca is one of the few classic movies that I’ve managed to see on what we call “the big screen”; I’ve been fortunate to watch titles like Rear Window, Some Like it Hot and Dr. Strangelove—favorites all—but Casablanca was a special experience because despite my many favorite classic films, it’s the one I’d want with me in that legendary desert island scenario.  The appreciative audience that watched the movie with me when I saw it in Savannah was a plus (though it didn’t come close to that memorable reaction at MU), but what I remembered most about the showing was the guy who announced at the beginning: “Since there were no cellphones around in World War II, we request that you turn yours off during the movie.”

Happy National Classic Movie Day, everyone!