Thursday, August 17, 2017

Please permit us to pause…

I really hate to put the brakes on the ol’ blog while I was going great guns (more or less), but it’s going to be silent for the rest of the week.  My sister Kat is in town, and she brought along with her my favorite nephew…who’ll be occupying much of my free time here at Rancho Yesteryear.  (Kat and Mom left him with Dad and I while Mom is at her doctor’s appointment….so the old man and I are gonna get Davis a tattoo.)  Normal blogging will resume Monday, so until then—make the most of your weekend, cartooners!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

"The appalling thing about fascism is that you've got to use fascist methods to get rid of it."

After the retreat of the British armed forces from Dunkirk, Britain was invaded by Germany in July of 1940…and though the Brits initially put up a stiff struggle, the Hun eventually stymied The Resistance and restored law and order to Old Blighty.  In 1944, World War II is still in progress but with German troops badly needed among the Ural Mountains front, control of Britain has been handed over to local volunteers who have thrown in with the German Army and the SS.

Pauline (Pauline Murray) is an Irish-born nurse who’s been evacuated from her rural village by the Germans and their collaborators and relocated to London; in the process, several of her friends are shot and killed in the crossfire resulting from a battle between the “relocators” and a group of British partisans.  Pauline is apolitical when it comes to choosing sides in the conflict, but she’s seething with anger at the needless death of her friends…and once arriving in London, learns that she’ll have to join the Immediate Action Organization (IAO) if she wants to continue nursing.  The effects of the IAO’s indoctrination quickly take hold of Pauline, and she begins to exhibit traces of fascism in her behavior despite the efforts of an old friend—Dr. Richard Fletcher (Sebastian Shaw)—to dispel her of such dangerous notions.

Thrilling Days of Yesteryear hero Kevin Brownlow
The “what if?” scenario of It Happened Here (1966)—the title is a nod to the classic Sinclair Lewis novel It Can’t Happen Here—was dreamed up by 18-year-old Kevin Brownlow in 1956, years before Brownlow achieved immortality as a film historian with such books as The Parade’s Gone By and documentaries on the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, D.W. Griffith, and Lon Chaney.  Kevin collaborated with 16-year-old Andrew Mollo, a history buff (who later plied that interest into becoming a historian himself) who provided immeasurable help in insuring that their film was pin-point accurate in its authenticity.  (Mollo had been collecting German uniforms and equipment from flea markets for years, and the two blokes eventually hooked up with another collector who owned an impressive cache of Nazi arms and vehicles—all stored at his country residence.)  The amateur production took many years to finish (Brownlow and Mollo would have to suspend filming whenever the money ran out) but with an assist from directors Stanley Kubrick (who loaned them film stock from Dr. Strangelove) and Tony Richardson (who ponied up funds to finish the production) the film was completed in time for a premiere at the Cork Film Festival in September 1964.

The fascinating history of the making of It Happened Here is detailed in a book written by Brownlow that was published in 1968 (How It Happened Here), so I’ll hold back on this aspect of the movie only to say that it’s truly a masterpiece of independent filmmaking.  Its black-and-white, cinema verité style is so starkly realistic (Brownlow didn’t use any actual newsreel footage for the movie…including the scene where the film’s heroine is watching a newsreel) I had to remind myself a couple of times that the movie is complete fiction.  But the message of the film—that fascism can kick off its shoes and make itself to home under any set of normal circumstances—is a powerful one…and one that prompted more than a few critics at the time of its release to condemn the film, believing that the filmmakers were espousing that philosophy.  When United Artists agreed to release the film for American audiences in 1966, they insisted on the excision of a six-minute sequence where IAO fascists discuss their support for euthanasia where Jews are concerned.

That sequence would later be restored to the finished product when Brownlow regained the rights to It Happened Here thirty years later, and the entirety of the film is available on DVD from Milestone Films—a familiar name here on the blog responsible for such DVD offerings as In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914) and The Connection (1961).  Milestone is currently having a “Dog Days of Summer” sale at their website, with select DVDs going for $10-15 and Blu-rays at $20.  Ordinarily, I’d snatch up every Milestone release that I don’t already own during such an event…but because the fundage situation at Rancho Yesteryear continues to be a bleak one I could only afford one selection, and It Happened Here made the cut.  (You’ll find several of their releases that have been reviewed here on the blog for sale, including Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room.)

The first reel of It Happened Here is a little rough in the audio/visual department, but once you’re past that I think you’ll be blown away by how splendid the production is despite its microbudget.  Because it was a shoestring operation, Brownlow and Rollo had to rely on a lot of amateur talent save for a few professionals like Sebastian Shaw, Reginald Marsh (“Sir” from The Good Life/Good Neighbors), and Fiona Leland.  Pauline Murray, who plays the nurse (also named “Pauline Murray”), was a bit intimidated (despite having appeared in an earlier movie in 1948) about performing alongside those accomplished performers as Brownlow related in The Independent:

Pauline Murray in a scene from the film
We realised we had that rarest of creatures, a natural actress...towards the end of the film, when she found herself playing opposite seasoned professionals like Sebastian Shaw and Fiona Leland, she wrote to me after seeing the rushes; "Sebastian and Fiona seemed alive, real people and I look like a vicious moron.  If we hadn't got so far, I'd say get someone else.  I honestly feel the lack of expression on my face is disastrous and could ruin the whole thing for you."  Fortunately, we could see what she couldn't—that in her restraint lay her strength.  For Pauline Murray was the film.

Pauline Murray, despite the naturalness that works so well in It Happened Here (she’s really a most appealing heroine), never appeared in another movie (though she did dabble in community theatre).  Brownlow and Mollo’s feature film is a true marvel and hey—at 10 bucks, it’s a bargain from Milestone.  Buy it.  I have spoken.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Book Review: Hollywood Obscura: Death, Murder, and the Paranormal Aftermath

Thrilling Days of Yesteryear goddess Thelma Todd had her motion picture career cut short by a mysterious death in 1935 that continues to mystify fans and provoke endless speculation even today.  Was the “Hot Toddy” murdered…or was her death merely a tragic accident?  There is no shortage of suspects for the murder theory (her ex-husband Pat DiCicco, business partner/lover Roland West…even mobster “Lucky” Luciano) but however you choose to explain Thel’s demise there’s certainly no argument that we lost a truly amazing talented actress-comedienne.

Thelma Todd with Charley Chase in
The Nickel Nurser (1932)
After Todd’s death, many witnesses have claimed to see her spirit floating around her old haunts (pardon the pun): the building that housed her restaurant, Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café, is the site of several sightings, in addition to the garage where her body was discovered, presumably after passing out from the deadly carbon monoxide resulting from her Lincoln Phaeton running inside.  (Not to mention a few bruises of unexplained origin.)  There are even reports that the yacht once owned by Roland West, the Joyita, has a rather cursed history—linked to Thelma’s demise (there are those that speculate that possible murderer West croaked Thelma on the boat before bringing her to the garage and setting it up to look like an accident).  If you have a strong interest in the supernatural, you’re going to enjoy reading Brian Clune’s Hollywood Obscura: Death, Murder, and the Paranormal Aftermath—a book due out this month that examines a handful of Tinsel Town deaths (George Reeves, Marilyn Monroe, Ramon Novarro, etc.) in page-turning detail and relates accounts of folks spotting these celebs still tooling around despite a change of address in The Great Beyond.

Author Brian Clune
Speaking for myself: I’m a tremendous skeptic when it comes to the paranormal.  To paraphrase Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion: “I don’t believe in spooks…I don’t believe in spooks…I don’t, I don’t, I don’t.”  So I was a little leery about the ghost aspect of the book…but even those who remained unconvinced about such phenomena will enjoy Hollywood Obscura, a refreshing read by an author whose other works include California’s Historic Haunts (co-written with Bob Davis) and who’s contributed to such TV shows as Dead Files and Ghost Hunters.  Brian Clune is also the co-founder and historian of Planet Paranormal Radio and Planet Paranormal Investigations, the website for which can be found here.  His book is well-documented, and I was particularly tickled by the fact that he drew on material from some of my fellow classic movie bloggers including fervent Shirley Temple disciple Page at My Love of Old Hollywood (where a lot of the Thelma Todd biography was borrowed—odd, in that I’d think Pagey would be a natural for Ramon Novarro) and the now-defunct The Silent Movie Blog, once owned and operated by Facebook compadre Christopher Snowden (now blogging at Television Diary).

The Los Feliz "Murder Mansion"
Hollywood Obscura isn’t all about celebrities.  It features chapters on would-be celebrities, like the legendary Black Dahlia, and some semi-celebs who achieved fifteen minutes of fame, as in the case of the notorious Manson family.  There’s even a section on the infamous Los Feliz “Murder Mansion,” a case whose particulars I was not familiar with, so it made for a pretty riveting read.  Rounding out the book are chapters on “Bugsy” Siegel, John Belushi, Tupac Shakur/Biggie Smalls, and recent TCM Star of the Month Natalie Wood.  (Since I’m one of those people convinced that Wood’s husband—Robert Wagner—introduced Nat to a deeper part of the ocean, I don’t mind telling you I was a little uncomfortable watching R.J. and daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner chat it up in between those Wood movies showcased on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™.  But I digress, even though this theory of Wagner's possible complicity is touched upon in the book.)

Hollywood Obscura is a most diverting tome, one you’ll navigate it very quickly (I took it with me when my fadduh had to have some tests done at Athens Regional and had it finished by the time they were done poking and prodding him) while being thoroughly entertained all the same.  Published by Schiffer Books, a family-owned independent based out of Atglen, PA, Hollywood Obscura is also available from fine bookstores (Barnes & Noble) and those not so fine (you know the behemoth I’m talking about).  Many thanks to Meghan Schaffer for sending the review copy my way.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Rage against the (Windstream) machine

The fields went fallow on the blog for nearly a week for one simple reason: our internet provider is terrible, and isn’t planning on improving their behavior anytime soon.  I’m not shy about naming these poltroons; we get our crappy service from Windstream, and in a just world the company would be brought up before a tribunal to answer for their crimes…and once found guilty by a not-at-all-impartial judge of my own choosing, sentenced to one of those islands where they used to quarantine lepers, plague victims, and other unfortunates of society.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Windstream—at least in my neck of the woods—has been wedded to DISH, since they both deserve one another.

The trouble started around 4:30pm last Wednesday, when I noticed the little yellow triangle symbol superimposed over the internet connectivity icon on my laptop.  This meant that the system was down, and though I was mildly annoyed (I was working on a post for the Radio Spirits blog) I decided to be cool and wait to see if the problem would be quickly worked out.  Two-and-a-half hours later, and still no internet, I phoned Windstream with that sinking feeling in my stomach pit that they were going to make me run what I call “the Internet Obstacle Course.”  (This is where I’m required to unplug and re-plug cables, the modem, etc.—which I wouldn’t have a problem with except my mother insists that they be relegated to a space behind the TV (an area where a person of my girth has difficulty accessing) because she doesn’t like the sight of wires.

Before I called Windstream, I ran the Course ahead of time to make sure the problem wasn’t on my end.  It wasn’t, and I had suspected as such.  So, once I’d made it past their infuriating phone tree, I explain to the customer service representative that the system is out.  She’s convinced the problem is on my end, since no one else has complained, and lets me know she’s writing up a ticket so a technician can fix the problem.  He’ll be there Saturday.

I’m ticked off at this, because that means we’ll be offline for two entire days…and I won’t be able to get this post done.  I phoned my editor at Radio Spirits, and she lets me know that if I can get the piece to her Monday morning (assuming the tech fixes the problem on Saturday) she’ll give it a quick read, make the necessary changes, and have it back at me so I can schedule the post.

I should have known the technician wasn’t going to be at Rancho Yesteryear Saturday.  Oh, we got a phone call from Windstream at 11:15am informing us he’d be there between 11:15 and 3pm, but I end up calling them back at 3:05 to find out that the problem is worse than they originally estimated and that we may not be back up until Monday morning.  Monday afternoon, I’m having to call them back to find out where the hell the guy is, and they’re telling me it’s not going to happen until the next day.  I gave the person a bit of pranging about this, and they finally acquiesce to my demands, promising the work will be done by five that day.  When I wound up having to call back at 5:05pm to ask why they insist on lying to me every time I phone, we got a call on our other cell phone line…telling us the technician will be at the house between 8am and 12 noon.

Substitute "Windstream" for "AT&T" and you'll get the idea.
Since confession is good for the soul, I’ll come clean here.  I have a bit of a temper.  But I’m even-keeled for the most part—the only time I start approaching Hulk status is when someone can’t be straight with me.  They couldn’t be forthright and tell me that the problem with our internet connectivity was that some idiot installed some switches wrong, and it apparently took them all that time to find out just exactly what that individual screwed up.  My mother ran into the technician as she headed out the door Tuesday morning as he was just pulling up.  I had discovered by that time that our internet was back, but he wanted to check on our status.  He told her the story of what happened (I believe I was asked by both my parents not to come into contact with him for fear that something terrible might happen) and she replied matter-of-factly, “That person needs to be fired.”  The technician, looking out for his own, tried to explain that “it’s not his fault” and Mom just dismissed him with a wave of her hand.

That’s the sordid story of why there’s been nothing new to read on the blog for over a week, and because I had to get caught up with some other assignments there may not be any new material until next Monday (I wanted to at least get a new Crime Does Not Pay up—I’ll try my best, but my eye appointment tomorrow may interfere with that).  If your situation is like mine in that Windstream is your only option for internet access…I feel your pain, brother.  If you’re looking for a provider and are considering Windstream…don’t.  Run fast, run far.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Guilty Pleasures: Sssssss (1973)

You might remember Phil Hall as the author of an excellent book that I reviewed back on the blog in August of 2016 entitled In Search of Lost Films; Hall, a film critic/journalist who has contributed to the likes of Film Threat and American Movie Classics Magazine, also wrote The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time, published in 2013 through BearManor Media—the book company owned and operated by my Facebook compadre Ben Ohmart.  (Phil is also a Facebook chum, in the interest of full disclosure.)  A couple months after I wrote the review for In Search of Lost Films for the blog, Phil posted a link to a article (in the Psychotronic Film Society group on Facebook) entitled “FilmSnobbery’s 25 Worst Films Ever Made” (he’s a contributor to that website as well).

Most of what I know about the subject of cinematic stinkers has been gleaned from the masterminds at World O’Crap, Scott and S.Z. and their splendid cinematic fromage compendium Better Living Through Bad Movies.  I’m no expert; I would define a bad movie as filtered through the sensibility of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (“I know it when I see it.”)  But I always get a kick out of perusing these lists; the FilmSnobbery rankings feature bad movies I’ve seen (Manos: The Hands of Fate, Plan 9 from Outer Space) and a good many I’ve managed to avoid (The Room, Gigli).  There are a few on the list that I might quibble over: for example, I hate Titanic (1997) with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns but I’m not sure it would qualify as one of the worst I’ve ever watched (I just wish I could get those three hours and 14 minutes of my life back).  Likewise, Seven Years in Tibet (1997—or as I called it after leaving the theatre, “Seven Years in My Seat”); again, not a movie I would watch even if a gun were placed to my temple but I’ve invested precious man-hours in more terrible movies.

There was one movie on the FilmSnobbery list that made me say “Aw, hell no!”  (Okay, there were actually two—I’ll admit 1988’s Club Paradise isn’t a good movie but any movie with Jimmy Cliff should not be on a “worst film” list…that’s just plain wrong.)  And that is Sssssss (1973), an unabashedly goofy flick that I fondly remember from my childhood…and when Kismet gave me an opportunity to revisit it when I saw it in the On Demand listings during a recent Starz Encore freeview, I found to my delight it still holds up well provided you’re not expecting something along the lines of Grand Illusion (1937).

Sssssss (don’t say it—hiss it) illustrates that if there is one thing guaranteed to bring about complete disaster in the world of science…it’s casting Strother Martin as a mad scientist.  He’s ophidiologist Carl Stoner (ophidiologist is a fancy word for a guy what studies snakes), and he’s convinced that humanity is on a runaway bobsled to H-E-double-hockey-sticks what with the pollution and other ecological disasters looming on the horizon.  Stoner is conducting unorthodox experiments on human guinea pigs—his former assistant has even been sold as a “snake man” to a carnival freak show operated by a man named Kogen (Tim O’Connor)—and his latest victim is a college student, David Blake (Dirk Benedict), who doesn’t suspect a thing when Stoner starts giving him mysterious injections (the doc explains that they’re anti-venom inoculations, in case David’s bitten by any of the severely poisonous snakes Stoner’s lab).

Carl has a daughter in Kristina (Heather Menzies), who becomes quite attracted to David and one night as Carl is running an errand (Stoner is exacting revenge on a boorish college football jock [Reb Brown] who killed his best friend, a snake answering to “Harry”) allows herself to be deflowered by him.  Carl doesn’t take this news too well…but let’s be honest—if you were slowly turning your prospective son-in-law into a king cobra you might be a bit skittish about the possibility of impregnating your daughter and unleashing a race of snake children into the world.  (Then again…why would this bother you if you’ve pretty much given up on the human race?)

Sssssss fails because it emulates the films that inspired it all too closely: the story moves forward at a laboriously slow pace, and its threadbare plot makes it all too easy for the viewer to pick apart its plot holes and implausible elements,” notes Donald Guarisco at  “To make matters worse, the characterizations and dialogue never rise above the level of a subpar comic book and the anticlimactic finale is likely to frustrate even the most patient viewer.”  Picky, picky, picky.  I knew going into the damn thing what its main “implausible element” was—you got some maniacal mastermind wanting to transform someone into a snake, ferchrissake!  For what it’s worth, I’m a patient viewer and I had no problem with the finale—I even enjoyed how it’s not tied up in a pretty pink bow.  I love Sssssss because it’s a delightful throwback to those great Universal science-run-amuck films of the 1950s (notably Tarantula); yes, I know the plot is ludicrous but I don’t care.  It’s a horror movie—not a documentary.

But the main reason why I’m such a fan of this film can be summed up in two words: Strother Martin.  Strother Martin—a character great whom I always associate as the sweaty weasel running the cantina in a sparsely-populated Western town—is a scientist.  A mad scientist.  Granted, any character Strother plays in a movie is bound to be a bit…eccentric, shall we say.  But you know pretty much within a minute or two after the opening credits that the cheese slid off Stoner’s cracker long ago, and to compound the perception that Doc Carl isn’t all there his rival is played by Richard B. Shull.  (I would want to see either man’s doctorate before attending any of their classes.)  As Andrew “Grover” Leal noted on Facebook, “Let’s face it—you’d think twice before buying roadside produce from Strother Martin.”

Sssssss has quite a few familiar TV faces (folks under contract to Universal, I’m guessing) in its cast; Dirk “The A-Team” Benedict (in his second feature film) plays the doomed David (Benedict can also be seen in Battlestar Galactica reruns, now showing on a MeTV near you) and Menzies (who would later appear with Bradford Dillman in the TDOY fave Piranha [1978]), as the fetching Kristina, co-starred with Gregory Harrison in a small screen series based on Logan’s Run (1976).  You know Tim O’Connor from a gazillion turns in movies and TV series (O’Connor turned 90 about a month ago—happy belated birthday, Tim!) as well as Jack Ging (also on The A-Team as “General Fulbright”), Charles Seel (The Road West), and Reb Brown (Yor!), last seen here on the blog in Fast Break (1979).

The special make-up effects—the creation of John Chambers (Planet of the Apes) and Nick Marcellino—give the silly proceedings a hella boost, and when Sssssss was originally released in 1973 it was released on a double bill with The Boy Who Cried Werewolf (1973).  As someone who’s an admitted ophidiophobic (a fancy word for fear of snakes), there’s really no reason why I should be a fan of this movie…but I am.  (Shull’s demise in this movie is particularly memorable!)