Are These Our Children?
By Ed Garea
Are These Our Children? (RKO, 1931) – Director: Wesley Ruggles, Howard Estabrook (uncredited). Writers: Wesley Ruggles (story), Howard Estabrook (adaptation). Stars: Eric Linden, Rochelle Hudson, Beryl Mercer, Arline Judge, Ben Alexander, William Orlamond, Billy Butts, Roberta Gale, Mary Kornman, & Robert Quirk. B&W, 84 minutes.
Why is a bad movie bad? That’s a question I always ask myself after I’ve seen a stinker. Sometimes it’s a group effort – bad writing, bad directing, bad acting, and bad production values. But this is usually the case with Poverty Row productions. In the case of major studios, it often comes down to bad writing, bad direction, and bad casting of leads.
In the case of Are These Our Children? it comes down to a combination of bad writing and bad direction. The production values are excellent and the acting is quite good. This is a case of a missed opportunity, as it is an early JD film and takes as its subject a hot topic in the headlines. But Wild Boys of the Road it isn’t, instead coming across as preposterous and maudlin, especially later in the film. It boggles the mind as to how a major studio such as RKO could release this without much revision. Released only five days after his Oscar-nominated Cimmaron, it is intended as a display for the talent of auteur director Wesley Ruggles. Yet, he’s replaced during filming by Howard Estabrook. This wasn’t the first time this happened to Ruggles. He was also replaced during the filming of MGM’s The Sea Bat by Lionel Barrymore.
Having seen a number of Ruggles' efforts, he comes across to me as either superbly competent or wildly incompetent. This film is a case of the latter. Using corny animated special effects throughout the movie, from the halo of romantic idealism he paints around screen couple Eddie and Mary to even cornier imagery between scenes to symbolize Eddie’s fall from grace, Ruggles only succeeds in making himself, and the movie, ridiculous. The images come off as if they were straight out of a Poverty Row admonitory film warning what happens when youth are exposed to drugs or sex.
As the film opens, we are introduced to our protagonist, Eddie Brand (Linden), a high school student of promise, though as it turns out, not as much promise as he would have everyone believe. His faithful girlfriend Mary (Hudson) at his side, it seems as if the world is his oyster. He lives with his grandmother (Mercer) and little brother Bobby (Butts). A frequent visitor to their Manhattan apartment is his grandmother’s good friend, Heinrich “Heinie” Krantz (Orlamond), who we learn has just opened a delicatessen in Jamaica, Queens.
Eddie is preparing for an important oratory contest on the Constitution at his high school. Although everyone from Mary to Heinie advises him to go slowly, Eddie is already counting his chickens before they hatch, convinced that his victory is only a matter of showing up. So guess what happens? Yes, in the next scene, Eddie is walking away from school dejected for he bombed big time in the contest. But it was the fault of the judges, not him. (Amazingly, for someone with a big ego, the slightest setback is devastating – indicative of bad writing.) As he walks despondently, he’s called over by Flo Carnes (Judge) and her cronies. It seems that Flo wants to get back at her boyfriend Nick Crosby (Alexander) by flouting another man at him. Though she doesn’t know Eddie, the mere fact that he’s passing by dejected makes him prime for the picking. She invites him to join her and the gang at the Orient Club for a little socializing. It takes Eddie almost no time to accept; he doesn’t even pause to think it over for any amount of time – he’s game.
At the Orient Club – a BYOB joint run by an amazingly unstereotyped Chinese family (Will wonders ever cease?) – Eddie gets to know Flo and her friends Maybelle (Gale), Agnes (Kornman), Nick, and Bennie Gray (Quirk). At first, Eddie agrees to hang out but refuses to partake in drink. Until he has his first, that is. (We don’t know when this happens as it’s never made clear in the film.) Soon Old John Barleycorn has Eddie by the short hairs. He ignores Grandma’s pleas that he slow down, hanging out until all hours with the gang, boozing it up at jazz joints and dance halls, and robbing strangers at gunpoint to pay for the fun. His personality grows more and more cocky as he becomes more and more dependent on alcohol. He drops out of school and drifts from one job to another.
One night the gang is riding around in a cab after leaving a club when the girls decry the lack of liquor. Eddie asks the cab driver where they are, and when the driver tells him, Eddie gets a brainstorm. He has the driver pull over and wait with the girls while he, Nick and Bennie get the booze. They knock on the door of a closed deli, it’s none other than Heinie’s – as if that’s a surprise. Heinie lets them in reluctantly, as they are noticeably under the influence. Eddie tells Heine straight out what he’s there for, the hidden bottle of liquor Heinie keeps for his best customers. Heinie denies such a thing exists and tries to stop Eddie when he begins rummaging through the deli’s back room. When Heinie tries to stop him, Eddie pulls a gun and shoots poor Heinie dead. Though his buddies are shocked, for Eddie it’s all in a day’s work; he’s found the bottle.
At first, it looks as if Eddie and the boys have gotten away scot free, but when the cab driver reads about the killing in the paper and sees them cavorting drunk outside a club a few days later, he puts two and two together and goes to the police, who arrest Eddie and the gang as they are partying at Flo’s place.
It looks bad for Eddie at the trial. His lawyer advises him to take a plea deal to a lesser charge. But Eddie, all stoked up over the publicity he’s getting, tells his lawyer that he’ll handle his own case from now on. The lawyer remains as a legal counsel. He starts off brilliantly, making mincemeat out of the cab driver by focusing on the fact that the driver can’t even remember which prosecution lawyer had questioned him only the day before, so how could he be so sure that Eddie, Nick and Bennie committed the crime? He also tears down the owner of the Orient Club by taking advantage of the proprietor’s reluctance about his hours of operation, taking the Fifth Amendment.
However, everything comes tumbling down when Nick is called to the stand. Eddie has told him beforehand to stick to the alibi they originally gave to the police. But apparently Nick’s conscience, possibly combined with the sentiment he’s been voicing to Eddie throughout the film of taking away his girlfriend Flo, gets the better of him. One moment he’s moving along, perjuring himself with ease. Suddenly he breaks down and confesses all to the astonishment and hysterical dismay of Eddie. It’s all over. The judge sentences Bennie and Nick to life imprisonment while reserving the death penalty for Eddie.
As he sits awaiting execution, Eddie discusses his situation with Grandma, little brother, and the faithful Mary about where it all went wrong – the folly of his life and the path he chose to walk. The final scene has Eddie reciting the Lord’s Prayer before going off to be fried. Watch your step there kids, this could be you.
As discussed above the script is pretty bad. One of the little goofs, practically unnoticed today, but sure to have been spotted when the movie was in its original run, was the fact that Eddie was able to go with ease from job to job. This is 1931 Depression America. Jobs were extremely difficult, if not downright impossible to get. Yet Eddie moves about in the employment world as if there’s not enough people to fit all the vacancies.
The most preposterous moment in the film occurs during the courtroom scene. Enamored of himself because he’s become fodder for the tabloids, Eddie gives a series of interviews to reporters pontificating on current events in an obvious "you don’t have a clue about me because you're so stupid” manner, which may help to explain just why he bombed in the oratory contest. He then – incredibly – tells his lawyer mid-trial that he’ll take over the case himself. And he’s good at it, demolishing both the cab driver and the owner of the Orient Club on the stand. Remember, this is a kid who’s a high school dropout. Suddenly he’s more proficient than Perry Mason. Johnnie Cochran has nothing on this kid. If he were that smart he would have won the oratory contest in a breeze. It only serves as evidence of more bad writing.
The scene with Eddie and the family in the clink while he awaits execution is handled in such a maudlin manner that, if Ruggles is trying to evoke any sympathy for Eddie, he fails miserably, given what has been going on throughout the picture. Some writers see Eddie as a sort of American Raskolnikov, but this overlooks his megalomania and the fact that he only repents at the end of the picture, when the outcome is a forgone conclusion. And it wasn’t even Eddie’s conscience that got the better of him during the trial, but Nick’s. I find myself in agreement with blogger Samuel Wilson, who opines that the movie “works better as an individual character study than as a snapshot of American youth.”
What the movie does have going for itself are the fine performances from the cast. This was star Eric Linden’s screen debut, and he’s compelling as Eddie Brand. This was also his best performance as well – it was all downhill from here. Working his way down the credits at RKO, he also acted in films for Warner Bros. and Universal, where he landed choice roles such as James Cagney’s brother in Howard Hawks’ The Crowd Roars (1932), Lionel Barrymore’s callow son in Sweepings (1933), and as the domineered son of Laura Hope Crews in The Silver Cord (1933). His roles and work diminished to the point where he was working supporting parts in Poverty Row productions such as Ladies Crave Excitement (Mascot, 1935) and Born to Gamble (Liberty, 1935).
He then signed with MGM and landed the plum role of Richard in Ah, Wilderness! (1935), starring alongside Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, and Aline MacMahon. But it was Mickey Rooney, who played his younger brother Tommy, who garnered the notices. He stayed at MGM for a few years, appearing in supporting parts. When he did headline a film. it was for a Poverty Row studio such as Grand National or Monogram. His last role for MGM came in Gone With the Wind, where he had a very small role as a Civil War amputee. His last film was Criminals Within (with Children co-star Ben Alexander) for PRC in 1941, after which he retired from movie and worked on the stage. After he married in 1955, he worked for Orange County, California. He died on July 14, 1994, from cardiorespiratory arrest.
Arline Judge began her career as a dancer in Jimmy Durante’s nightclub act. She met director Wesley Ruggles on a train. He gave her the juicy part of Flo in Are These Our Children?, and that same year became the first of her eight husbands (he was 32, she was 19). Most of her career was spent making low-budget B’s, with her last appearance in 1964 as a guest star on TV in Perry Mason.
Overall, Are These Our Children? promises much, but delivers little, and what it does deliver is handled in a such heavy-handed, pretentious manner that it becomes ludicrous. As stated earlier, the only difference between this and films like Reefer Madness, She Shoulda Said No, Sex Madness, and The Cocaine Fiends are the superior production values that come from a major studio.
In 1937, RKO applied for a certificate from the Association of Motion Picture Producers so they could reissue the film, but the application was denied on the grounds that the "picture caused a great deal of unfavorable reaction when first released, by reason of its detailed portrayal of the wild life among high school students.”
The Secret Six
By Ed Garea
The Secret Six (MGM, 1931) – Director: George W. Hill. Writer: Frances Marion. Stars: Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, Johnny Mack Brown, Jean Harlow, Marjorie Rambeau, Paul Hurst, Clark Gable, Ralph Bellamy, John Miljan, DeWitt Jennings, Murray Kinnell, Fletcher Norton, Louis Natheaux, Frank McGlynn Sr., & Theodore von Eltz. B&W, 83 minutes.
The Secret Six is an obscure film that is obscure for a very good reason: it stinks. It provides an excellent example of what happens when a studio attempts to copy the style of another, in this case, Warner Brothers.
Warner Brothers films from the era feature snappy dialogue, good direction, great acting, and wonderful scenarios. On the other hand, The Secret Six, coming from a studio that epitomizes glamour, features terrible dialogue, unfocused direction, and wooden acting, along with an uninspired mise-en-scene.
It was Jean Harlow’s first pairing with Clark Gable, and though the two manage to acquit themselves nicely throughout, the same can’t be said of their co-stars. Lewis Stone, as a dipso lawyer, seems as if he’s sleepwalking through the film, and Ralph Bellamy as a ruthless gangster makes Lew Ayres’ performance in Doorway to Hell seem realistic.
The film is centered around the rise of a gangster named Louis Scorpio (Beery) from slaughterhouse worker to the ruler of a criminal empire. Recruited by the suave Johnny Franks (Bellamy) as a strong-arm for a bootlegging gang led by the refined attorney, Richard Newton (Stone), his job is to help Johnny and his aide Nick “the Gouger” Mizoski (Hurst) expand Newton’s empire by horning into the neighboring territory of Joe Colimo (Miljan).
When Colimo’s brother, Ivan (Rudolph), who Colimo wants to keep out of the business, is killed in a showdown with Newton’s boys, Franks tries to make amends by framing Scorpio and arranges to have the unknowing hitman wait at a site where Colimo’s boys can take their revenge.
When Colimo’s brother, Ivan (Rudolph), who Colimo wants to keep out of the business, is killed in a showdown with Newton’s boys, Franks tries to make amends by framing Scorpio and arranges to have the unknowing hitman wait at a site where Colimo’s boys can take their revenge.
However, Colimo’s men miss their target, merely wounding Scorpio. Making his way back to gang headquarters, he easily figures out who’s behind his attempted rubout and shoot Franks in the back. As the film progresses, Scorpio moves up in the gang, becoming Newton’s partner, and the rackets, becoming the city’s top hood. He runs Nick for mayor, and when placed on trial, has Newton bribe the jury.
Following the trial, the police close in on Scorpio, and a shootout at Frank’s steak house, the gang’s headquarters, ensues. Newton cleans out the safe and attempts to flee, but Scorpio shots him and grabs the money. He tries to hide out at the apartment of Peaches, a gang moll who was in love with Johnny, and is bitter that Scorpio killed her paramour. She turns him over to the police and Scorpio is condemned to death row.
If Hill and Marion had kept the story to the rise and fall of Scorpio alone and added extra touches to the plot, the film might have turned out somewhat decently. But the film loses its way by adding a subplot concerning reporters Hank Rogers (Brown) and Carl Luckner (Gable) and their competition for the affections of gang employee Anne Cortland (Harlow), who Scorpio hires to distract them and keep them off his trail. The credit for this subplot is a bit confused. Some attribute it to Irving Thalberg, who saw the potential of Harlow and Gable while reviewing the rushes. Others attribute it to Marion, who expanded their characters with each new draft of the script.
Beery is his usual slob character; in this case, a slaughterhouse worker recruited by Johnny Franks with the promise of easy profits from bootlegging. To give him something that will distinguish him, Marion has him as a teetotaler who drinks only milk. The milk bottle comes into play after Beery narrowly escapes the hit after Johnny framed him. When he returns, wounded, to the gang’s headquarters, he spots the milk bottle in the trash can and deduces it was Johnny who framed him. Bellamy seems to be the victim of the added subplot, as if there was no longer any room for his character given the introduction of three new faces. It might have proved interesting if his character were allowed to linger on. Johnny’s death leaves Newton and Scorpio in a rather uneasy partnership, with Newton’s patrician manner – trying to guide Scorpio into following a plan – clashing with Scorpio’s application of the laws of the jungle: strike quickly and leave no witnesses. But again the film leaves so many plot points unattended; the relationship between Newton and Scorpio could have produced a much better movie if it, too, didn’t fall victim to the subplot.
Just as we’re getting a handle on Scorpio and looking forward to see what happens, the plot spins off into the Gable-Harlow-Brown triangle and Scorpio’s trial. Too bad, for Beery is the dynamo that makes the film go. Unfortunately, his character seems to be pulled along by events rather than being the one behind the events.
As Scorpio gains power, he orchestrates Nick’s election as mayor. Nick’s first act is to fire the honest police chief, who had promised to get those that had killed his son. Again, we only get to gaze at the surface. Power also attracts reporters to Scorpio, in this case it's Rogers (Brown) and Luckner (Gable). Scorpio attempts to crudely buy them off by presenting them with gold cigarette cases containing a number of $1,000 bills. Neither reporter takes the bait. Using his employee, Anne, Scorpio keeps tabs on Brown and Luckner, but he doesn’t know that Brown and Anne have fallen in love. Luckner also loves Anne, but realizes Brown got there first.
When Brown discovers that Anne has been setting him up all along, he’s dismayed. Scorpio learns that Brown plans an expose of his rackets and sends out of couple of the boys to whack him. Anne gets wind of it and tries to reach Hank, but in true melodramatic fashion, just as she’s about to tell him of the plot, the gangsters gun him down. She swears to avenge his death.
Carl is also upset by Hank’s killing and we soon learn he is working with the deposed chief of police and a vigilante group of powerful bureaucrats called “The Secret Six” who have banded together to bring Scorpio down. Their plan? Nail him for income tax evasion, of course. This is the first – and last time – we see the Secret Six. They are wearing the sort of masks that the Lone Ranger wears, as if they were dressed for a cheesy masquerade party. It’s clear that are simply a plot device to hasten the downfall of Scorpio. They commission Carl to gather evidence against Scorpio and his mob, but also instruct him to wait until all the gangsters are in town before making any arrests.
Supposedly, the Secret Six are based on a real-life group of vigilantes that helped bring down Al Capone. However, as subsequent history of the Mob in Chicago shows, the “Outfit” (as it was called) managed not only to survive the vigilantes, but thrive as well, branching off into Las Vegas and Cuba.
The main problem with the film, in addition to the time expended on the subplot, is the casting of Beery as Scorpio. He comes off more folksy than threatening, and the opening scenes of his recruitment establish him as slow-witted muscle, the sort who couldn’t count the fingers of one hands and come up with the same number twice. Yet, we’re led to believe that within the space of 20 minutes he changes into a wily character able to take over the gang and the city as well. It just doesn’t play. Gable could have played that character with a lot more panache.
The most compelling reason to watch The Secret Six is to see the development of Gable and Harlow from supporting players to their later starring roles. It's interesting to watch them in Red Dust (made a year later) right after The Secret Six ends to marvel at their progress.
Can't Stop the Music
By David Skolnick
Can't Stop the Music (EMI Films, 1980) – Director: Nancy Walker. Writers: Allan Carr and Bronte Woodard. Stars: The Village People, Valerie Perrine, Steve Guttenberg, Bruce Jenner, Paul Sand, Tammy Grimes, & Marilyn Sokol. Color, 124 minutes.
While there are many contenders, for me Can't Stop the Music is the best worst film ever made. It features a bad storyline, bad directing, bad music, bad editing, and awful lead actors. Also, the film's timing couldn't have been worse. Yet many years after it was released and bombed at the box office, there is something endearing about the movie.
Supposedly it’s loosely based on how the Village People were formed. But it's about as historically accurate as 1979's The Muppet Movie is about the origins of Kermit the Frog and friends.
Filming on Can't Stop the Music (originally to be called Discoland – Where the Music Never Ends!) began in May 1979 as disco music was on the verge of taking a historic nosedive. In July of that year, the infamous “Disco Demolition Night” occurred. The event featured a large box of disco records blown up between games of a White Sox double-header at Comiskey Park in Chicago, leading to a riot.
Can't Stop the Music was released June 20, 1980. A day later, “Funkytown” by Lipps, Inc. would spend its last day as the nation's Number 1 single. It would be the last disco song to ever reach the top of the charts. Disco had a great run, dominating pop music from mid-1975 to the genre's dying days in mid-1980. Its fall was unpleasant for all involved. For example, the Bee Gees, one of music's greatest bands, rode the disco bandwagon mightier than any other established group. When disco died, the Bee Gees went from being the biggest band in the world to writing and producing for other musicians because no one wanted to hear them. They became music outcasts for about a decade despite their impressive catalog of songs before the disco craze. It was a classic case of those who live by the boogie, die by the boogie.
As this film wrapped up, Allan Carr, who produced and co-wrote Can't Stop the Music, saw the potential for a huge flop. He changed the name of the film and supposedly ordered that about $10 million be spent on promoting the movie that cost about $10 million to make. But it was a waste of money. Film critics hated it and disco fans – or anyone who went to the movies – stayed away. The movie – called “Can't Stand the Music” by some of its detractors – made $2 million at the box office. Along with Xanadu, it was the inspiration for the Golden Raspberry Awards, and was the deserving “winner” of the Raspberry's first Worst Picture award.
Work on the movie got off to a horrible start when Victor Willis, the cop, quit the Village People during pre-production. Willis was the band's lead singer and co-wrote most of their best-known songs. While he rarely complained about the band's gay image, Willis, who was married at the time to Phylicia Ayres-Allen – later Phylicia Rashad and best known as Bill Cosby's TV wife on The Cosby Show – wanted to make it clear he was straight. He pushed for his then wife to play his girlfriend in the movie. The rest of the band, except leatherman Glenn Hughes, was gay. When Willis quit the band and the film, his wife left the movie too. Ray Simpson, who was a backup singer for years for the Village People, was pushed to the forefront as the group's lead, and took Willis spot in the film. On his best day, Simpson couldn't match Willis' vocals and charisma, and couldn't write songs like the band's former frontman.
The movie opens with Jack Morell (Guttenberg) working as a record store clerk while on roller skates. His boss wants Jack to stay late for inventory, but he can't as his big break await him as the DJ of a discotheque that night. Jack has recorded a song. He wants to play it at the club and get discovered. His name is similar to Jacques Morali, who created the Village People and co-wrote most of their big songs with Willis.
Jack quits and roller-boogies his way out of the store and down the middle of the streets of Manhattan to the opening titles. He does a couple of spin moves and repeatedly raises his hands above his head for no apparent reason. Motorists honk their horns for this idiot to get out of the street, but none are kind enough to the viewing audience to run him over. Amazingly, this isn't even close to being the movie's worst scene. It's impossible to write everything wrong with this film, as I can't even do justice to everything wrong with the opening credits. Besides the silly dancing on skates and hand-raising, much of the opening credits are done using a cheap triple-screen camera trick.
For some unknown reason, Nancy Walker, Rhoda Morgenstern's mother on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the Rhoda spinoff, was chosen to direct this movie. Walker had a few TV directing credits, largely for the two shows previously mentioned, before this. This would be the first and last movie she'd ever direct. The script was awful, but her inexperience with filmmaking and bad actors is on full display in this movie. Can you imagine going from working with Ed Asner, Ted Knight and Mary Tyler Moore to Guttenberg, a group of disco musicians and an Olympic gold medalist making his acting debut? Walker was definitely in over her head – though as she wasn't even five-feet tall that's not saying much. Supposedly she and Perrine had huge personality clashes and after a while, Walker stopped directing any scenes with the actress. With Perrine in nearly every scene, I wonder how much of this movie Walker actually directed.
After the credits are done, Jack goes back to his rather nice Manhattan apartment. He lives with Sam Simpson (Perrine), a recently retired supermodel. The two are friends, and she is very supportive of his music career, but is also concerned about his future. Jack's song, “Samantha,” goes over big at the club, called the Saddle Tramps. Felipe Rose (the Indian) lives near Sam and works at the club. We also get to see Randy Jones (the cowboy) and David Hodo (the construction worker) dance at the club. While they're gay, the three are portrayed as totally straight. There are several subtle and not-so-subtle gay moments in the film, but they don't involve any of the members of the group.
Sam loves Jack's song and has him make a demo tape so she can shop it around to her friends in the music business. While Jack is making the tape, and dancing like someone is squeezing his testicles with a pair of pliers, Sam gets a call from her close friend Lulu (Sokol), who works as the assistant to Sydney (Grimes), Sam's former agent.
Lulu is the spitting image of Tim Curry's Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Sydney wants Sam to come out of retirement to do a milk commercial. Sam says no because “the 70s are dead and gone. The 80s are going to be something wonderfully new and different, and so am I.” She's somewhat correct as the 80s saw the death of disco and her acting career.
Upon hearing Jack's demo, Sam likes the songs, but hates his voice. She works to recruit singers, quickly getting the Indian, the cowboy and the construction worker to agree to come to her house that night for dinner and to sing. One of the most bizarre scenes has the construction worker, who sings on TV commercials, daydreaming of being chased by sex-hungry women as he performs “I Love You to Death.”
Our first glimpse of Jenner happens almost 30 minutes into the movie. Had he never shown up, we'd have no objection. He plays Ron White, an uptight tax lawyer who moved to New York City from St. Louis. He's mugged by an armed elderly lady who takes his watch, class ring, wallet and Phi Beta Kappa key, but let's him keep a cake he has with him. The movie moves to Sam's house. The three singing recruits are there with Jack teaching them the words to “Magic Night,” with Lulu getting overheated by the Indian. He returns the flirtation probably thinking Lulu is a transvestite. Ron, angry about getting mugged, shows up at Sam's with the cake. See if this makes any sense: Ron personally delivers the cake to Sam as a present from her sister, his former neighbor in St. Louis. That means the cake traveled for hours if we assume Ron just got off a plane and headed to Sam's home. Talk about a desperate plot reach to get Sam and Ron together.
Accompanied by a friend of Sam is Simpson, the cop, who was found while he was giving singing parking tickets. Adding to the mayhem/mess is Jack's mother (played by June Havoc, whose older sister was Gypsy Rose Lee). After eating, the four singers somehow do a near-perfect first take of the song they learned a few minutes ago. They also do an awful lip synching job. It's typical of the poor editing throughout the film, particularly during the music numbers. Ron leaves in a huff, upset about the company Sam keeps. Is Ron a homophobe? That's impossible as no one is supposed to be gay.
The next day, Sam has no success selling the demo and decides she'll go to see Steve Waits (Sand), an ex-boyfriend and head of Marrakech Records. This is a play on Casablanca Records, the Village People's label and the leading record company of the disco era as well as the label for KISS. Sam wears a low-cut dress and while Steve is very pleased to see her, he can't get off the phone, which was the reason they broke up. Steve agrees to give Sam's band studio time, primarily because he wants to get busy with her. Sand isn't bad as the frenzied music executive, and is one of the very few bright spots among the actors in the movie.
Sam meets Ron again as he's one of Steve's tax attorneys. She's still bothered by Ron leaving the night before, but agrees to take him home as he has a nice body even though he's a total yutz. Ron fails to hail a cab, and you can see it coming a mile away – Sam shows some leg like Claudette Colbert did in It Happened One Night and a couple of taxis stop. Don't worry, we get to see a lot more than her leg later. While at Sam's place, Ron spills lasagna on his pants so off they go. After agreeing to let her use his law office the next day to find a couple of other singers to fill out the group, Ron and Sam end up in bed.
At the audition, Alex Briley (the soldier) is added with Hughes (leatherman) taking the final spot beating out a hatchet juggler, a guy on stilts and a flaming baton twirler. Hughes' story is one of the few true parts of the film. Like his character, Hughes was a tollbooth worker when he answered an ad seeking singers to join the Village People. He gets the job in the movie by singing “Danny Boy” on top of a piano. (See it here.) To see him with that mustache, the hairiest chest known to mankind and all that leather is such a funny sight.
Kicked out of the law office for disrupting work, Ron quits his job to become the Village People's lawyer. The group's got so many hangers-on and they haven't worked together even once. With nowhere to rehearse, Ron, who is in a cut-off shirt and short-shorts, takes Sam, Jack and the group to the YMCA. This is one of the movie's strangest scenes, which is saying a lot. Viewers get a lot out of this segment: a very bad rendition of “YMCA,” the only known Village People song they perform in the movie; some brief male full-frontal nudity; some not-so-brief male full-rear nudity; plenty of ridiculous near-naked homoerotic choreography of men diving, boxing, wrestling, and playing volleyball; a couple of brief topless moments of Perrine in a hot tub; Jenner doing athletic stuff in slow motion such as jumping hurdles and slam-dunking a basketball; and silly camera tricks including showing 24 mini-screens. A male friend of mine has a great story about this movie and specifically this scene. A teenager at the time, he saw the film on HBO. Before it began, he was pleased to see it featured nudity. While you see Perrine's boobs for a few seconds, the longer nudity parts are of guys during the “YMCA” number, much to his disappointment.
The group is next in the studio for the demo with Steve watching. Jack tells him, “This is the sound of the 80s.” Uhh, not even close. When Steve sees the band's outfits he delivers probably the best line in the film: “I hate Halloween.” The band underwhelms as the choreography is awful and the song, “Liberation,” is terrible. Steve says the band isn't good, but offers a contract for a small amount of money as he still has the hots for Sam, who doesn't feel the same and rejects the offer.
Jack and Ron decide the best way to get discovered is to hold a “pay party.” They want to rent a vacant building, charge people $20 each, and have a DJ and live music with the Village People as the main act. Not wanting to use her savings to fund the party, Sam agrees to do the milk commercial as long as the Village People are in it with her. And with that we get the funniest – I don't know if it's intentional or not – scene in the entire film. Dressed in white and silver, the Village People sing “Milkshake,” with Perrine and a bunch of others dancing in a 3½-minute commercial that pays tribute to, well, milkshakes. I can't properly do justice to this segment so watch it here.
The milk industry isn't too keen on the ad as it may be “too controversial for their American family image.” The money from the commercial is going to take a while to collect. No money means the pay-party idea is dead. While not addressed, how can anyone afford to have a 3½-minute commercial air on TV?
Ron's mother (Barbara Rush) saves the day. The rich socialite is putting on a charity event in San Francisco and offers to have the group perform. But there is trouble in paradise. Sam invites Steve to San Francisco under the guise of a romantic weekend, which upsets Ron, who breaks it off with her. Instead of Sam, Jack and his mom get on Steve's plane. Jack's mom signs a deal with Steve while plying him with kreplach. Not that this movie makes much sense, but Steve already saw the group bomb at the demo so why would he sign them to what ends up being a lucrative contract including merchandising rights in Japan?
Back in San Francisco, the band is waiting to make their big debut. The members are on edge with Hughes banging his head against the wall, repeatedly saying, “Leathermen don't get nervous.” They hit the stage and sing “Can't Stop the Music” to an appreciative audience. The credits begin to roll as we assume they become rich and famous. In reality, the film is a train wreck and a colossal failure, and the group's time in the spotlight is over.
The fallout from this film was epic.
Disco died around the time of this movie's release, and this film did nothing to revive it. While there's been nostalgia for it, disco never made a comeback.
With the death of disco, the Village People are strictly small-time performers. Willis returned to the group a couple of times after his failed solo career. Hughes died of lung cancer (he was a smoker) in 2001 at the age of 50. He was buried in his leatherman outfit.
Perrine, who was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her role in 1974's Lenny as Lenny Bruce's wife, saw her film career fizzle after Can't Stop the Music. She worked consistently, but not as a star and in nothing memorable.
This was Walker's only film credit as a director. She returned to acting though didn't do much after this film bombed. She made more Bounty paper towel commercials – “the quicker picker upper” – as Rosie the waitress. She was nominated for an Emmy for her guest appearance as Sophia's sister on The Golden Girls. She died in 1992 at the age of 69 of lung cancer, just like Hughes.
Sand worked regularly as a guest star on numerous TV shows, but never made it big as an actor.
This was the only film in which Jenner didn't play himself. The 1976 Olympic decathlon gold-medal winner did some TV shows. He gained notoriety as the stepfather to the Kardashians and more recently for his transition to a woman, Caitlyn.
Carr next film was another disaster, Grease 2. He had success on Broadway, winning a Tony for Best Musical for The Birdcage. He tried to top the colossal failure of Can't Stop the Music in 1989 as producer of the Academy Awards show. He had an actress dress as Snow White team up with Rob Lowe to sing a parody to the tune of “Proud Mary.” For that, Disney sued him. Carr died in 1999 of liver cancer at the age of 62.
Guttenberg was the only actor from Can't Stop the Music to move on to bigger, but not really better, things. He had a successful career in a series of awful movies including four Police Academy movies, two Cocoons, Three Men and a Baby and a sequel to that. His curious longevity in film with little talent was part of a 1995 episode of The Simpsons. The song of the Stonecutters, a secret fraternal organization of which Homer joins, includes the line, “Who makes Steve Guttenberg a star? We do. We do.”
As for the film itself, while Can't Stop the Music completely bombed at the box office and was the inspiration for the Golden Raspberry Awards given to the worst films and actors, it has become a cult favorite. The film is considered high camp and unintentionally hysterical. I've seen it at least a dozen times and am still amazed that something this bad was not only created but efforts were made to share it with the world. If you've got Netflix, you can watch it right now – and “do the milkshake!”
Jazz Singer (Jerry Lewis Version)
Be a Clown
By David Skolnick
The Jazz Singer (Jerry Lewis Enterprises/Hubbell Robinson Productions, 1959) – Director: Ralph Nelson. Writers: Oliver Crawford, Ernest D. Glucksman, & Ralph Nelson. Adapted from the short story The Day of Atonement and play The Jazz Singer by Samson Raphaelson. Cast: Jerry Lewis, Anna Maria Alberghetti, Eduard Franz, Molly Picon, Alan Reed, Joey Faye, Barry Gordon, & Del Moore. Color, 52 minutes.
Jerry Lewis' artistic dream was to be taken seriously as an actor, and not just a comedian. He rarely, if ever, succeeded. Through its short-lived Lincoln-Mercury Startime series, laughingly introduced as “TV's finest hour,” NBC gave Lewis his first big opportunity at being a dramatic actor. The series, which lasted a single season, featured a well-known actor or director in each episode. The show's second episode, which aired October 13, 1959, has Lewis starring in The Jazz Singer. It was never shown on television again. But it was released three years ago as a DVD restored from a copy Lewis saved.
Hopefully the day will come when Lewis or his family will turn over a copy of the unreleased 1972 train-wreck movie The Day the Clown Cried, in which he is a washed-up clown who leads Jewish children to their death in Nazi Germany gas chambers. The world would be a stranger place if that occurs. (Read our article on that “lost” film here.)
The Jazz Singer is about a son estranged from his dying Jewish cantor father. The father is angry that his son got into show business rather than carry on the family tradition of being a cantor, who sings religious songs and leads prayers in synagogues. At the end, the son shuns a big opportunity at the last moment to sing “Kol Nidre” at the beginning of the Yom Kippur, the highest of holy days in the Jewish faith, service in his father's place. Pops is on his deathbed, hearing his son singing and is able to rest in peace.
I've never seen a good rendition of the story, primarily because it's corny, clichéd, and way too sentimental. Al Jolson made movie history in 1927 with what is considered cinema's first “talkie,” in the role Raphaelson wrote with Jolson in mind. Jolson's version has him sing a few songs, some in blackface, and about two minutes of synchronized talking, including his famous line: “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet.” While groundbreaking, the film is not good. But the novelty of sound made it a tremendous hit and changed the expectations of moviegoers who demanded and got sound – no matter how primitive – on the Silver Screen. (This was the precursor to video killing the radio star.)
In 1952, the first remake was released with Danny Thomas in the starring role. I've never seen it, and neither have a lot of people, though it can be seen on TCM from time to time. Reviews of the film are generally unfavorable, which makes sense as the story is the same and there's no “talkie” novelty. Also, Thomas was not a movie star.
While I'm a huge Neil Diamond fan, his 1980 film version with Lucie Arnaz (who was such a bad actress that she peaked in her debut film, the terrible Billy Jack Goes to Washington) and Laurence Olivier (during his “pay me and I'll do anything” period) is awful. Diamond isn't an actor, but he could sing. The film is a disaster, though it included three excellent songs, “America,” “Love on the Rocks,” and “Hello Again.”
Well before Diamond donned the yarmulke and seven years after Thomas' version, Lewis starred in his rendition of The Jazz Singer on TV. I have no idea why anyone thought this was a good idea. Lewis isn't a credible serious actor – though he would make numerous efforts throughout his career to be one. For example, The Nutty Professor (1963) is considered a comedy though there's barely a laugh in the film. To Lewis, his Professor Julius Kelp alter ego, Buddy Love, an obnoxious ladies' man, is a dramatic role. He does a halfway-decent Frank Sinatra impersonation, but the film is flat, and is neither funny nor dramatic. It's only in The King of Comedy, Martin Scorsese's 1983 black comedy with Lewis in the supporting role, which finally gives him success in a serious role – though the film is far from being a straight drama.
Lewis idolized Jolson, which probably explains how the TV show came about. Why he was allowed to do so is anyone's guess. Although Startime was taped, its use of cheap props, combined with bad acting, tiny sets, coughing sounds from those off camera, and flubbed lines, makes it seem as if it was done live. NBC obviously thought highly of the program, as they aired the show in color, which in 1959, is staggering. The Jazz Singer opens in a cheap-looking fake nightclub with about a dozen people in the audience watching Joey Robin's (Lewis) act, which combines attempts at comedy and singing. However, Robin's shtick is stale – he tells a joke about being in an airplane and uses his “nice-lady” voice every time he says the word turbulence, which is often. His singing, if it can be called such, is even worse.
In the audience is successful TV actress Ginny Gibson (Alberghetti), who's seen Robin's act three other times and loves it. She drags her show's producer, Harry Lee (Moore), to the show, and like the rest of us, Lee doesn't think much of Robin. Because the room is the size of a postage stamp, Robin hears Lee complaining, but thinks Gibson is also mocking him. In retaliation, he repeatedly insults Gibson until, embarrassed, she and Lee leave.
We then go to the home of the Rabinowitz's, Morris (Franz), a cantor – who played the same role in Thomas' 1952 film – and his wife, Sarah. The cantor is tutoring a boy who is singing a religious song in Hebrew. Morris and Sarah are Robin's parents and Mom can't stop talking about how much she misses her son, Joachim, who changed his name when he got into show biz. However, Joachim Rabinowitz aka Joey Robin is dead to his father. It's the same story as the other versions, but Robin, like the main character in the other film remakes, is not a jazz singer. We see a soft side to Morris, who has a picture of his son crudely hidden in a frame behind another picture. The home looks like it's made out of flimsy plywood, and likely is.
Back to Robin, whose behavior toward Gibson really ticks off his agent, Tony De Santos (Faye), who's likely working on a commission and isn't seeing much with his client playing tiny dive bars. Joey realizes he's made a big mistake and he and De Santos go to a classy hotel (this fake nightclub looks considerably better though the production budget wasn't wasted on props) to hear Gibson's act. She sort of sings an opera song, which is more a high-pitched yell with some melody. Robin gets Gibson to come over, and he apologizes for his behavior.
Gibson tells Joey and Tony she had a brother who fought in the Korean War. He was a huge fan of Joey, who performed for the troops in what was probably some sort of torture for prisoners of war. Gibson wants Robin to be on her next TV show, which, if he's good, will lead to instant fame and fortune. The show is based in Los Angeles, the Rabinowitz's hometown, and it just happens to be in time for Pop's birthday. Joey sends his mother a telegram that he's going to be in town and wants to surprise Dad, who he hasn't seen in five years, at his birthday party. The only person Sarah tells is her brother, Nate (Reed). For those not familiar with Alan Reed, I'll give you a three-word clue, “Yabba, Dabba, Doo!” Yup, Reed would go on to voice Fred Flintstone for about six years, starting less than a year after his performance in this.
Robin shows up to the party late, and he and his father embrace. But tension quickly returns as Robin tries to be funny. Dad says, “That it's a knife in my heart that my only son turns his back on tradition and becomes a clown.” He doesn't know the half of it. Lewis gives us one of his classic sad looks while garnering no sympathy from viewers. He's trying to be sincere in his acting, but just can't do it. Joey goes on to explain why he's a comedian and sings what his father calls “a jazzed-up version” of “one of our most sacred songs.” Morris proceeds to slap his son in the face. The overacting needle is off the charts, but at least we get a “jazz” reference in this version of The Jazz Singer. In case we missed it, Morris, in a fit of anger, says, “Better I should be dead then my song sing jazz holy songs in my house,” as he orders his son to leave. It kind of kills the party atmosphere.
We're next inside a synagogue and Morris isn't feeling too well. Morris tries to sing and collapses in dramatic fashion because of his failing health. The story then immediately jumps to Robin practicing a really high pratfall. Lewis gets some serious height on this pratfall, landing on a wooden floor, which has got to hurt. He does a little dancing, including tap, and after leaving the stage, he is praised by fellow performers and the crew working on Gibson's show.
Back in his dressing room, Robin imagines what a great success he'll be. The absolute worst part of this stinker is a dream sequence in which he marries Gibson with his parents right by his side. He's really dreaming if he thinks his cantor father and religious mother would approve of him marrying a shiksa. It's awful and seems more forced than the rest of the production. There doesn't appear to be any attraction to Joey on Gibson's part, and it's the only time the viewer gets the impression he's into her. Joey puts on heavy clown makeup, including a red nose, as he's going to perform “Be a Clown” on that evening's show.
Fred Flintstone, I mean Uncle Nate, appears in Robin's dressing room – apparently there's no security – to tell him of his father's health and even worse, there's no one to sing “Kol Nidre” on Yom Kippur, which just happens to be that night. Joey refuses to see his father, giving a speech to his uncle about how important his work is. His mother also easily slips into her son's dressing room, begging him to see his dying father. Lewis attempts to play this seriously, but comes off terrible. He tries to practice his song, but can't concentrate and runs off the stage. In full clown makeup, he goes to see his father at the family home. If his father is dying, why did the doctor just leave and why isn't he at the hospital?
Dad can't sing and asks Joey/Joachim to fill in for him. Moments later, Ginny and Harry arrive at the house with the latter demanding Joey's return to the TV studio as the show is going to air soon. Joey slips out of the house unnoticed. Harry tells Nate, “The show must go on.” In response, Nate said, “Where does it say, 'The show must go on?' What is this, an 11th Commandment or something? The show must go on?”
During a pause in the argument, Morris stands up and attempts to go to temple, but stops when he hears his son singing “Kol Nidre.” The synagogue must be 10 feet from the Rabinowitz house and the wind has to be blowing in the right direction because there's no other explanation for how Morris can hear his son singing so clearly from inside the temple.
The story ends with Lewis' character wearing a tallit (prayer shawl), a strange yarmulke that looks like an ice-cream-man hat and a red nose – though the clown makeup is almost completely gone – doing a terrible lip sync job to “Kol Nidre.” There's a large American flag prominently on display at the temple right behind him. I guess that's to show Jews are Americans. And that's it. It just ends.
At 52 minutes, it's easily the shortest of the four Jazz Singers. The original is 88 minutes, the Thomas version is 107, and Diamond's is a painfully long 115 minutes. The Lewis version is rushed and the story compressed. There shouldn't be too many complaints because with twice the time there's the risk of this being twice as bad, assuming that's possible. You can view it at your own risk at: http://vimeo.com/86241792
The Z Files: Night of the Lepus
By Ed Garea
Night of the Lepus (MGM, 1972) - Director: William F. Claxton. Writers: Don Holliday & Gene R. Kearney (s/p); Russell Braddon (novel, The Year of the Angry Rabbit). Cast: Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh, Rory Calhoun, DeForest Kelley, Paul Fix, Melanie Fullerton, Chris Morrell, Chuck Hayward, Henry Wills, Francesca Jarvis, William Elliott, Jerry Dunphy, Frank Kennedy, & Bob Hardy. Color, 88 minutes.
Be vewwwy, vewwy quiet, we’re hunting wabbits. Actually, in Night of the Lepus, the wabbits are hunting us. And they’re not your usual garden-variety rabbits, either. No, these are giants, created supposedly through a scientist’s mistake, but in actuality, created through a combination of miniature sets, bad editing, and weird and confusing camerawork.
To get the audience in the right mood (we have to figure they’re already rolling their eyes before the movie even starts), the movie opens with a faux television news report. An anchorman (Dunphy), with a bright “special report” graphic on the screen behind him, begins with a rambling narrative about the environment and how man can upset its delicate balance. He then shows footage shot in Australia circa 1954 concerning the plague of rabbits there, which are still a threat. The footage shows farmers trying to round up herds of the fuzzy little bastards using fences and nets and hacking at their little carcasses with machetes. He tries to explain the rabbit plague as being introduced to the country as a new food source. We know that wasn’t the reason, but wait, there’s more. Dunphy then goes on to note that a new plague of rabbits has broken out in the American Southwest, “as shown in these color films just received from our news team in Arizona!” We then cut to some of the bunnies coming out of hole as the credits begin to roll; too bad, for the introduction is easily the scariest part of this movie.
Rancher Cole Hillman (Calhoun) has some serious wabbit twouble on his hands. The reason why he’s up to his navel in the little pests is because their natural enemies, the coyotes, were all killed off (or out hunting road runners). Cole turns to his friend, college president Elgin Clark (Kelley - Bones McCoy to you - in a bad orange turtleneck and some really tight pants) of Wattsamatta U., for help. Clark, in turn, passes the buck to his top scientists, the husband and wife team of Roy and Gerry Bennett (Whitman and Leigh), who suggest altering the rabbits’ breeding cycle, grabbing some rabbits off the ranch for experimentation.
We don’t know what’s scarier: Bones’ mustache, his tight pants, or the fact he’s the president of the college.
Now here’s where it gets silly. First off, the Bennetts are referred to several times in the film as “the young scientist couple.” Whitman was 44 when Lepus was filmed, and Leigh 45, and what’s more, they looked it. Of course they’re saddled with a young bratty daughter. This one is named Amanda (Fullerton) and she is from a long tradition of incredibly annoying children in sci-fi and horror movies. Not only does she whine and pout throughout the movie, but, like all other children of her ilk in sci-fi situations, she turns out to be the cause of the problem.
Roy and Gerry find this rabbit thing is not as easy as it looked. After considering and dismissing an idea to introduce a rabbit-specific disease to the area, they next try a hormonal approach, hoping to disrupt the rabbits’ breeding cycle. They work while Amanda runs around the laboratory playing with the rabbits, sort of a “bring your daughter to work” type of thing, we guess. However, be it as it may, the process is taking too long. The Bennetts are racing against time, as the other ranchers plan a mass poisoning if a solution is not found soon. So Roy turns to something completely experimental in the hopes that it will work. He comes up with a secret formula he obtained from a Professor Dirkson (Hardy) in the Public Health Department. The serum is supposed create genetic mutations that will disrupt the rabbits’ breeding cycle. Only one problem - it hasn’t been tested. But that’s no worry to old Roy. As he injects the serum into a test rabbit, Amanda whines “Not that one, Daddy! That’s my favorite!” Daddy ignores this heartfelt plea and injects the rabbit anyway, adding, “Gee, I wish I knew what the effects of this serum would be.” Is this meant to make us feel better? Maybe he could give them rabbititus.
Okay, that’s a bad idea on his part. But wait, it gets worse. While Roy and Gerry are on a teleconference with Cole, bratty Amanda switches the rabbit with another in a group not yet injected. After the conference is over, Roy notes that Cole said the rabbits are getting meaner and hungrier. It never occurs to our scientists that this could be a sign that their food supply is dwindling, and if left alone, the overpopulation will correct itself. (Nah, too easy.) Roy and Gerry return to the injected rabbits only to discover that Professor Dirkson’s magical, mystery serum is causing the rabbits to become larger.
Amanda, for her part, is whining about letting them give her one from the safe group as a pet. They agree - anything to shut her up. So what rabbit does she choose? You guessed it - the one she just placed in the group. Now our only concern is how long it will take until that rabbit gets loose - and bigger. Would you believe it happens in the very next scene? While visiting the Hillman’s farm, Hillman’s son, Jackie (Morrell) knocks the pet out of her arms and it scampers into a nearby hole.
A short while later (it’s never made clear how much time has elapsed), Hillman and the Bennetts are inspecting the rabbit’s old burrowing areas, and find a giant footprint. While they're out, Amanda and Jackie go to visit a nutty old codger named Billy, who’s working an old gold mine. However, Billy doesn’t seem to be home. Jackie finds more giant prints in Billy’s shed while Amanda goes into the mine to look for him. Once in the mine, she comes face to face with a humongous rabbit that’s busy feasting on what’s left of Billy. What’s more, he has blood on his face (or red coloring)! Amanda freaks out, going mute (the best thing that’s happened yet in the film). Jackie runs into the mine, picks her up and carries her back to the ranch.
A doctor is called in and diagnoses Amanda’s condition as mild shock. Billy is questioned as to what happened, but he says that it all happened so fast that he didn’t see anything. Later that night, a truck is driving on the highway near the ranch when it pulls over. The driver gets out and opens the back door. Why? So we can see that the truck is loaded with boxes labeled “carrots,” that’s why. And, as Elmer Fudd has told us, “Wabbits wove cawwots, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.” Cut to a montage of rabbit faces. A low growling sound is heard. (Never mind the fact that rabbits have no vocal cords.) A rabbit (or the guy in the rabbit suit) leaps, the driver screams, we cut to the next morning, where the police find the truck, the empty boxes, and the dead driver. Enter Sheriff Cody (Fix). He has the trucker’s body removed for a postmortem to join the body of Billy, who was finally found in the mine.
The trucker’s body is sent to forensic scientist Dr. Leopold (Elliott), who finds that the damage was caused by something with a bite like a saber tooth tiger. Some help he is. Meanwhile, a radio call is received from a cop in a picnic ground. Seems a family of four has been killed and mutilated. Claxton pans slowly over the bodies, making sure we see the red paint on them.
Professor Dirkson reviews Leopold’s findings and concludes that one of the test rabbits must have escaped and spread himself among the general rabbit population. Clark (Kelley), worried about adverse publicity, suggests the rabbits be killed by any means necessary, so he, the Bennetts, and Cole, mosey on down to the mine, accompanied by Cole’s ranch hands, Jud and Frank. After checking for any other openings, they go into the mine to lay charges and to blow the mine’s entrance.
It’s then that Roy remembers something Dirkson said about getting one alive for study (another great idea), so he and Cole go down into the mine to see for themselves, and come upon the whole herd. We now see normal-sized rabbits jumping around on a miniature set. As Cole and Roy start to run, a guy in a bunny suit attacks Roy. Cole smacks the guy on the head with his rifle, and he and Roy just escape the mine before it blows.
But they’re not out of the woods, a short distance away, a giant rabbit burrows his way to the surface and looks around. (“I knew I should-a made that left turn at Albuquerque!”) He heads for the shack, where Jud is lunching on a sandwich. Gerry hears a scream and heads for the shack. It’s that guy in the bunny suit again, and he’s attacking Jud! Gerry starts shooting and the bunny-suited guy jumps out the window. Jud is bloodied, but alive.
A while later (we don’t know when as the filmmakers have a definite problem with time that occurs throughout the film), Roy, Gerry and Clark are examining the photos Roy took of the rabbits. (Why has no one asked how the infected rabbit got loose in the first place? Amanda isn’t talking.) They decide to tell the sheriff. (About time.) Roy has a brainstorm and tells Gerry to take the brat and get away to avoid the crowds, which will include hordes of the press. This leads to one of my favorite lines, as Gerry replies, “I suppose we’ll drive up to Wooddale and stay at the lodge.” I can almost hear her saying, “I know this little motel off the interstate run by some guy called Bates or something.”
Better move fast, because the rabbits have found their way out of the mine and are, as they say, hopping mad. Heading toward the Hillman ranch, they stop to attack a herd of horses on the way, smearing them with red food coloring. Jud takes a truck and makes tracks (can’t blame him), but drives right into the rabbits. He turns around and heads back with the rabbits in pursuit. Meanwhile, Hillman is getting everyone into the cellar, but as he tries to call out, Jud conveniently runs the truck into a telephone pole and knocks out the phone service. He runs out of the truck and the rabbits pounce on him - so much for Jud. Hillman fires his rifle at the rabbit mob, but it’s no good, as he’s firing at a process shot. He runs into the cellar as the bunnies break into his house and raid the fridge. As the kitchen is right above them, Hillman and Frank shoot through the ceiling at the rabbits, oblivious to the fact they may be weakening the ceiling enough so the rabbits will fall in on them.
The rabbits hit the road and head towards town, stopping at the general store on the way so they can kill Mildred (Jarvis), the owner. The guy in the bunny suit jumps on her and slathers her with red food coloring.
The next morning, Clark arrives to tell them that the sheriff is on his way back from the crime lab, where they finally determined that rabbits are doing the killing. Smart, all the way to the top. They meet the sheriff at the airport, where they have a confab. As both Kelley and Fix worked with William Shatner in Star Trek, they know all about creatures that chew huge amounts of scenery. They and Roy go up in a helicopter and head for the mine. Why? The rabbits have all left. When they arrive at the mine, they find - the rabbits have all left. Duh. The sheriff calls his office and asks for the National Guard. Hillman calls to tell the sheriff that the rabbits have killed Jud and Mildred, and are heading toward the sheriff, but only move at night.
Now they know there’s only one option left to them: kill the wabbits . . . kill the wabbits . . . kill the wabbits.
But how? Fighter-bombers? Call in Elmer Fudd? There’s not enough time for evacuation and they determine that the rabbits are moving in too wide a front for the Guardsmen to shoot them all. But Roy’s got an idea (uh-oh): they’ll moves the rabbits toward a stretch of railroad tracks connected to an electrical source, and when they get right in the middle, juice them. Why can’t they just shoot the beasts? Because it’s easier for the process shots to electrocute them, that’s why. But how do we get them there? Hmmm. A-ha! A solution. There’s a nearby drive-in crammed to the gills with cars. A cop pulls in and delivers not only the best line in this film, but one of the best lines in the history of bad movies: “Attention, attention. Ladies and gentlemen, attention. There is a herd of killer rabbits headed this way and we desperately need your help.”
That no one laughs and everyone cooperates is one of the great mysteries in this film. The cop tells everyone to turn their headlights on and follow him. That they willingly do so is another mystery. Meanwhile, as Roy and the boys are running a power line to the tracks, Roy learns that Gerry and the brat never arrived at their destination. Roy grabs the helicopter and is off to the rescue. The cars from the drive-in arrive and are instructed to park in a straight line and shine their headlights. We cut to the rabbits, hopping around the miniature set that passes for the town. This shot will be used over and over again to save money.
Roy flies over to see that Gerry and the brat are stuck in the dirt and the rabbits are swarming all over. Gerry’s holding them off with a flare. Roy rescues the girls just in the nick of time as the rabbits swarm their RV. Whew. Roy flies back to see his plan in action, as the Guard fires on the rabbits and drives them towards the tracks. As they cross, the juice is turned on, and . . . hasenpfeffer is served!
Sometime later, when I don’t know, Hillman drops by the college to find Roy, Clark and the rest playing football. He tells Roy that he heard some coyotes, but the rabbits - normal sized this time, are still there, and invites Roy and the family out. As we fade to black, the brat and Jackie are playing as some normal-sized rabbits sit by and watch.
The original title of this turkey was “Rabbits,” but MGM figured that would scare no one, so they used the Latin name for Rabbit to make audiences think it was about something scary. Unfortunately, the publicity kits issued to theaters feature rabbits, and MGM obviously didn’t count on word-of-mouth.
After seeing this atrocity, you’re probably wondering why it was made in the first place. Lepus was the brainchild of producer A.C. Lyles, who toiled for many years at the same position for Paramount. In the ‘60s, he formed his own company and began producing a series of what were referred to as “geezer Westerns,” cheaply-shot Westerns using well-known actors who were now long in the tooth as stars. Lyles followed the same casting strategy for Lepus, using such faded stars as Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh, Rory Calhoun, DeForrest Kelley, and Paul Fix, all of whom had seen better days - and movies.
A large part of the problem with the film is that the cast plays it straight; evidently laboring under the delusion they’re in a real movie. Whitman is the least charismatic sci-fi hero since Richard Travis in Missile to the Moon back in 1958. Leigh, who gave one of her reasons for appearing in this turkey being that it was shot close to home, is also wasted, playing a character that harkens back to the ‘50s, when women were looked upon as an unwanted novelty in sci-fi. In an interview with film historian Tom Weaver, she said, “How can you make a bunny rabbit menacing, what can you do? It just didn't work." She also admitted that, "No one twisted my arm and said I had to do it. It didn't dawn on anyone until - it took about four or five days before we realized we didn't have the ideal director. I've forgotten as much as I could about that picture." Kelley and Calhoun were also wasted in their roles, playing underwritten parts that allowed neither the opportunity to do or say something interesting. Last - and certainly least, Melanie Fullerton as Amanda is supposed to be 10-years old, but plays her part as if she were half that age and no one ever fixed it. What is interesting about the performances is that we can see the resentment of the stars as the picture goes on, as if they realize they’ve been played.
William Claxton, the director, besides working for Lyles, worked mainly in television, usually in Western television series, which is why Night of the Lepus plays like a made-for-television movie. Claxton is also a devotee of Replaying The Same Shot Over and Over Again technique, giving the film an eerie feeling of watching in slow motion, and doing absolutely nothing for the fright factor. However, the laugh factor is another story entirely.
In March 1972, AIP released Frogs, a nature-goes-wild-and-gets-revenge film. Made for a pittance, the film did quite well at the box office and inspired a series of “eco-horror” films, all made cheaply and none of which did as well at the box office. Looking for material for a similar vehicle, someone at Lyles’ office came across a novel titled The Year of the Angry Rabbit, written by Australian satirist Russell Braddon in 1964.
Like most good satires, Braddon based his work on historical fact. A British officer brought rabbits to Australia in the mid-19th century thinking they would make for good shooting. Because he didn’t get them all, the survivors bred, and within 10 years, the rabbit population numbered in the millions. As the rabbits didn’t have natural enemies in their new land, they ran amok, wiping out other mammalian species and devastating farmland.
To fight this natural apocalypse, the Australian government introduced a virus called myxomatosis, among other viral plagues, to combat the furry invaders. Though successful at first, those rabbits that didn’t succumb bred generations of rabbits immune to the virus. Braddon’s novel takes the government’s eradication process one step further. Scientists bio-engineer a new strain of myxomatosis, called Super-Myx, to combat the rabbit plague. However, the new virus fails to kill the pests, instead turning them into savage and carnivorous predators. What Super-Myx does kill is humans and the power-mad Australian prime minister uses this new weapon to conquer the world and establish a new totalitarian Australian empire. But as he builds his new state, the infected rabbits mutate into deadly monsters that not only bring down his empire, but wipes out human civilization as well. (The novel is great reading, but out-of-print and difficult to obtain. Try the local library; that’s where I obtained my copy years ago.)
Writers Holliday and Kearney took this inspired tale and converted it into one of the silliest films ever made because there was no way, given the time constraint and budget, Lyles could make the novel into a film. He took the easy way out, constructing it along the usual eco-horror route and hoping that a plague of killer bunnies would somehow make for a suspenseful thriller. And it might have had a small chance if he had been able to use wild rabbits and had more money in the kitty. But most of his estimated $900,000 budget went toward the stars, and his production staff brought in domesticated rabbits, the cute little buggers kids love to have for pets. Those couldn’t scare anyone. Another bad decision was to play it completely seriously. The rabbits destroyed any chance the film had to be taken seriously.
As the gang from Rifftrax noted, “That Cadbury commercial where the rabbit clucks like a chicken is infinitely scarier. So is the mustache that DeForest Kelley sports in this movie.” I couldn’t agree more.
As the gang from Rifftrax noted, “That Cadbury commercial where the rabbit clucks like a chicken is infinitely scarier. So is the mustache that DeForest Kelley sports in this movie.” I couldn’t agree more.
The good news about Night of the Lepus is that it’s only 88 minutes long. The bad news is that it’s 88 minutes you’ll never get back again.
- Edited by Steve Herte, rabbit lover (He says they’re delicious.)
By Ed Garea
Spitfire (RKO, 1934) - Director: John Cromwell. Writers: Jane Murfin (s/p), Lula Vollmer (s/p). Lula Vollmer (1927 play “Trigger”). Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Robert Young, Ralph Bellamy, Sara Haden, Martha Sleeper, Louis Mason, Virginia Howell, Will Geer, Sidney Toler, & Therese Wittier. B&W, 87 minutes.
1934 was not the best of years for Katharine Hepburn. Her marriage to Ludlow Ogden Smith ended that year. She appeared on Broadway in a play named “The Lake,” which is only remembered today because of Dorothy Parker’s review: “Last night Katharine Hepburn ran the gamut of emotion from A to B.” And then there was this atrocity, made for RKO in 1934 where Hepburn plays a hillbilly faith healer from the Ozarks.
“Wait a minute,” you say. “Could you run that by me again? Katharine Hepburn a hillbilly?” Yep, it’s true, and we can only wonder what was going through the minds of the executives at RKO when they assigned her to star in this dull mess.
Hepburn is Trigger Hicks, a young backwoods woman, and a young woman with apparently few inhibitions. She believes herself to be something of faith healer, based on a stolen pack of Sunday school cards she carries around with Biblical quotes, using them to speak to God and pray for others around her. But when riled, she’s apt to forget all about religion and hurl stones at the offender. She gets by doing laundry for the locals in her shack, which she shares with her father. (We never see him in the movie, so we have to take her word for it. He was evidentially smart enough to avoid appearing in this turkey.)
The only local figure to visit is Trigger’s friend, the dim-witted Etta Dawson (Haden). It’s Etta who brings Trigger her laundry, and most of Trigger’s interaction is with Etta. She tries to teach Etta the ways of the world and brings God in by reading her prayer cards. Etta, I think, plays along and humors Trigger (I hope, otherwise we’re really in trouble) as Trigger promises to pray for her to be made brighter, although after Etta leaves, Trigger asks God, “but not too bright.”
But there are now other people in the area in the form of two engineers involved with a dam project. John Stafford (Young) and his boss, George Fleetwood (Bellamy), occupy a nearby cabin. At first, they want the locals to warn Trigger to stay away from the dam, but as time passes and they get to know Trigger, their resolve softens. In fact, Trigger arouses the amorous affection of Stafford, proving that the engineers are so hard up for women, they are smitten by a flat-shaped woman with a downturned mouth and a lousy Ozark accent. Stafford goes on to make a full-fledged pass at Trigger, and she, too, is smitten. Boss George is unhappy with the behavior of his underling, but in a film such as this, when a strong emotion is expressed, we know the winds of change are in the air. And, wouldn’t you know it? Stafford’s wife (Sleeper) soon arrives and Trigger is disappointed and more distrustful of men than ever.
But she’s not disappointed for long, for she now kidnaps a sick baby from his parents, the Sawyers (Toler and Wittier), claiming they were doing nothing for him and only she could heal him through prayer. The locals, of course, are incensed and are out hunting for her. They already suspect her of being a witch. George finds Trigger is hiding the baby in his cabin and convinces her to give him back to his parents. When the child falls ill again, his parents bring him to Trigger in hope of a cure, but when the child dies, the locals are now convinced Trigger is a witch. Although George and John try to reason with the stone-throwing mob, the outcome is that Trigger is forced to leave town.
The next day, as she packs her few belongings, her faith in herself, God, and prayer shattered, George arrives to say goodbye. Touched by her simple devotion, he kisses Trigger and convinces her not to give up her faith and makes her promise to meet him at the shack in a year no matter what. And why not, she’s now in love with him. Fade out. What is it about Hepburn that so attracts men to her dour face and flat figure? Is it the lack of other women in the area, or perhaps just bad taste? At any rate, if Bellamy’s character is smart, he’ll miss that date a year from now.
By any standards this is a bad movie. Even Hepburn herself thought so. In her autobiography, Me, she writes only two sentences about the film and her character: "Was a Southern sort of mountain spirit. Shame on you, Kathy." She was also said to have kept a picture of herself as Trigger in her dressing room to remind her to be humble. But Hepburn had no one but herself to blame for this train wreck. This was not a case of the studio demanding she live up to her contract. The role was originally slated for Dorothy Jordan, but Hepburn pulled rank, as she wanted to try working against type. Be careful what you wish for . . .
She was awful in the part. Her “country” accent was laughable, more suited to a mountain woman from the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts than the Ozarks. That accent also remarkably shuts off during her love scene with Young. The New Yorker, noting this was is complete reversal from her last role as the highly literate Jo March in Little Women, declared that Spitfire would suggest that Hepburn is “doomed to elegance, doomed to be lady for the rest of her natural life, and that her artistry does not extend to the interpretation of the primitive or the uncouth.” That has to be one of the all-time understatements. Although Spitfire made a modest profit of $113,000 for RKO, it marked the beginning of a series of duds that led Hepburn to be labeled as ”box office poison” in the late ‘30s.
Of course, the film’s meandering plot doesn’t help matters, either. It wasted the efforts of a good supporting cast. This was Sara Haden’s first film and she was excellent in it. She also played the same part in the Broadway play. Ralph Bellamy, whose lack of charisma demoted him from leading man to supporting player, also acquitted himself well in the film, as did Robert Young, who was still being tested by MGM to see what parts he was “right” for in future films. He, too, ended as a supporting player in the movies, though he later became a star on television. Sidney Toler, in the minor part of Mr. Sawyer, has nothing to do but react. And young Will Geer, as West Fry, is hardly distinguishable from the scenery. At least he had the imagination to have himself billed as “High Ghere.”
Spitfire marked the first - and last - time Katharine Hepburn would depart from playing a lady. Even in films such as Dragon Seed, The African Queen, and Rooster Cogburn, she retains her ladylike dignity. So Spitfire served a double purpose: it taught Hepburn her limitations and gave the rest of us a good, hearty, unintentional laugh.
Girls on Probation
By Ed Garea
Girls on Probation (WB, 1938) - Director: William C. McGann. Writer: Crane Wilbur (s/p). Cast: Jane Bryan, Ronald Reagan, Anthony Averill, Sheila Bromley, Henry O’Neill, Elisabeth Risdon, Sig Ruman, Dorothy Peterson, Susan Hayward, & Esther Dale. B&W, 63 minutes.
What a title! It sounds like something out of an old SCTV sketch; but there it is in all its B-glory. Warner’s used their Bs to test and develop new talent, in this case Bryan and Reagan, whom the studio was grooming for hopefully bigger and better things. While it was hoped Reagan would stand out in the film, it was actually Bryan who carried it. But, though her performance is decent, and helps make this potboiler worth watching, it exposes her limited acting range.
Bryan is Connie Heath, an attractive, cheerful, and bright young woman who works in the office of a cleaning and dyeing firm. Her boss has maximum confidence in her abilities, often keeping her overtime to go over others’ mistakes with the books. Connie is staying late one night, going over the mistakes committed by her co-worker and good friend, Hilda Engstrom (Bromley). While Connie corrects the errors, Hilda wiles away the time on the phone speaking with her boyfriend, who we will later meet. Connie and Hilda make for quite an odd couple: Connie is buttoned-down while Hilda is easy and totally sleazy.
Hilda accompanies Connie home and both talk about Connie going with Hilda to a dance at the Hula House. Alas, Connie doesn’t have a decent dress. At Connie’s place, she, Hilda and Connie’s mother (Risdon) attempt to make do with an old party dress, but it’s just no use. Then Father, played by Ruman in his usual hammy style, comes home. He wants (a) dinner, and (b) to know who is upstairs with Connie. When Mother tells him it’s Hilda, Father blows a gasket as only a ham actor can. Hilda is no good, he bellows, and a bad influence on Connie. Hilda leaves, but not before enticing Connie to go to the club with a dress she “borrows” from work. As a character-establishing scene, it’s poor. Ruman is allowed to run amok and McGann clearly has no idea of how to proceed. But we also get a good look at Father’s character, that of an absolute autocrat, no room for negotiation. It’s his way or the highway. From his manner, one would think he was playing a Prussian general from the 19th century.
We now pick it up at the Hula House, supposedly a ritzy joint, and Connie and Hilda are enjoying themselves immensely. Far from swanky, the place is our typical Warner Brothers nightclub, swanked out with faux Hawaiian props to make it look different. It looks like the place - minus the props - where Bette Davis and Bryan entertained themselves in Marked Woman. Also hoofing it up at the club are Neil Dillon (Reagan) and his date, snobbish Gloria Adams (Hayward). Gloria gets one look at Connie’s dress and identifies it as hers, one she took to the cleaners. Are you sure, asks Neil? Yes, she’s sure, but Neil insists Gloria wait and see if the dress she sent to from cleaners is there when she calls to pick it up.
Unfortunately for Connie, she tears the dress exiting from the taxi. Hilda does a quickie repair when she gets it back to the shop the next day, but upon a cursory inspection, Gloria notices the repair work and makes waves, lots of them. Connie is fired and Neil, who works as an attorney for the insurance company covering the dress, tells Connie it was larceny and that he has to prosecute both Connie and Hilda. But Neil has a soft spot for Connie (the film was made back when Reagan was a liberal) and pays off the cost of the dress so the girls don’t have to end up in court. When Father finds out why his daughter no longer works at the cleaners, he shows his tenderness by slapping Connie in the face, calls her a liar, and throws her out of the house.
Connie moves to another town, where she finds work as a secretary, and, out of her first paycheck, mails Neil a payment. As she mails the letter, she runs into - naturally - her old pal Hilda. After the perfunctory how-do-you-dos, she and Hilda argue about Hilda writing a letter absolving Connie of guilt in the famous case of the stolen dress. Hilda wants no part of such a letter, but before she can argue further, her old boyfriend, Bad News Tony (Averill), comes bounding out of the nearby bank with a gun and the bank’s money. He forces Connie into the car as Hilda, quickly behind the wheel, peels out. A young boy selling movie magazines conveniently witnesses the entire scene, and we know it’s just a matter of time until he rides to Connie’s rescue.
The three of them lead the cops on a merry chase. Hilda breaks out the back window and begins firing at the cops until Connie wrests the gun from her and points it at Tony, forcing him to pull over so they can be arrested. Connie gives a false name to the authorities, lest her identity be discovered (especially by Father). As there exists no independent evidence to corroborate her story, and after a trial quite unlike any I have ever seen ensues, with lawyers ignoring the rules of the court by breaking into open debate. Connie, amid all manner of unlawyerly shenanigans, is sent to the big house, where she runs right into - you guessed it - Hilda. And get a load of that prison! A happier place I couldn’t imagine, stocked with every prison stereotype the producers could find. It seems as if the ladies were sent there for bad acting. Anyway, Hilda turns Connie into a virtual slave by threatening to write and tell Father what she’s been up to (I’d like to get Connie in a poker game, she bluffs so easily) until Connie can’t take any more and the two get into the obligatory catfight.
Here the film almost ceases being a drama and turns into one of those shorts usually seen before the main feature, and which exclaims the virtues of some government function or other. In this case, it’s the probation department. Connie is spared from serving time through the intervention of sympathetic (aren’t they all?) probation officer Jane Lennox (Peterson), who gives Connie a cheery summary of how probation works. Jane has even found the newsboy who witnessed the bank robbery and brings him to testify before the judge, who in turn grants Connie probation. Hilda, on the other hand, gets a 1-to-5 stretch while Tony gets 10-to-15.
Connie goes home and looks up the nice, young Neil. He’s now the Deputy District Attorney, and is still smitten with Connie, so much so that he hires her as his secretary. Of course, Neil has no idea about Connie’s past and she isn’t about to tell him. Time passes. Neil and Connie begin dating. This leads to a totally useless sidebar scene with Father. Now that Connie’s living back home, she must obey Father. When Neil comes around, Pops asks about his intentions toward his daughter with a suspicious tone. Neil’s answer that he hopes to marry Connie causes Pops to become overjoyed and he immediately blabs all to the family (Neil hasn’t even asked Connie yet!) and tells them that he has always liked this young man. We can readily ascertain that this scene is only being included to pad out the length of the film.
Cut to Connie in Neil’s office. Now . . . who should saunter in but - have you guessed? - Hilda! Hilda is like gum on Connie’s shoe. Try as she might, Connie can’t shed her. Hilda tells Connie about her parole and learns about Connie’s engagement. She asks her favorite victim if Neil’s been informed about her past. Finally tired of Hilda (about time), Connie confesses all to Neil, who, being the white knight he is, forgives all.
Meanwhile, we cut to Tony and his prison buddies about to make their escape. Armed to the teeth (I can see them having a pistol, but a shotgun?), their bust-out is pure hokum (worthy of a viewing on Mystery Science Theater 3000), intercut with stock footage from other Warner Brothers’ prison films. I loved it when Tony, on the wall after his compatriots have been killed, somehow escapes being shot from almost point blank range, and jumps from the top of the wall into the river. We know he’ll get away - the picture’s not over yet.
So, just when it looks as if Connie’s seen the last of Hilda, up she pops again. She’s been caring for Tony, who scrammed to her place after his escape. Now threatening to tell the District Attorney himself about Connie’s past, she wants dough to stay quiet and get out of town. Connie acquiesces, but, being as this is taking place after-hours in the ‘30s, the banks closed and there are no ATM machines. However, there is one place to get money that’s open all night, so Hilda tells Connie to pawn her engagement ring. Connie offers to give it to Hilda, but Hilda’s too smart for that one. She makes Connie come with her so she can’t drop a dime to the cops. While Hilda waits in the car, Connie negotiates the sale of her ring and also gives the pawnbroker a note, telling him to call Neil. He, in turn, calls the police and they arrive at Hilda’s place just before she can enter her apartment. Hearing the cops, Tony shoots wildly through the door, hitting no one but Hilda - of course. Tony is then dispatched by a hail of gunfire and Connie is at last free of Hilda, with the final scene one of Hilda receiving the last rites as she’s loaded into an ambulance.
By any standard, this is a lackluster effort. Bryan, then being groomed by the studio for bigger and better things, displays an amazing lack of range, one she would never shed until her retirement. It seems that Jane could only be effective playing sickly-sweet dames. We wonder just how far she would have gone at Warner’s if she hadn’t married Walgreens executive Justin Dart. Reagan, for his part, came across in this film as if he was heavily medicated. Why the studio hired Ruman for the part of Roger Heath, Connie's dad, is beyond me. Maybe they thought in a film this mediocre no one would notice or care. As Hilda, Bromley comes close to stealing the picture, and if that was all she did, she would get probation for petty theft. Averill never rose above the Bs. In fact, when he left acting, he was well on his way to features in Poverty Row. Probably the best performance came from young Hayward in her brief turn as Neil’s bitchy girlfriend at the nightclub and who sets in motion the entire plot.
Longtime Warner’s B-unit director William McGann directed the film at a hectic pace, reminiscent of an exploitation film. It has all the elements as her best friend leads the pure-as-snow heroine down the path to degradation. Note that in the bank robbery scene, the heroine is trapped by circumstance into the criminal world. All one needs is drugs or sex to complete the chain; we already have jail. But it didn’t matter to Jack Warner, for producer Bryan Foy made sure it contained all Warner’s favorite themes: social conditions that led to crime, criminal rehabilitation and confidence in the pros and cons of the justice system.
Crane Wilbur, who wrote Girls on Probation, was no stranger to the exploitation genre, having previously written Alcatraz Island (1937), Crime School (1938), Blackwell’s Island (1939), and Hell’s Kitchen (1939). He would later write screenplays for Roger Touhy, Gangster (1944), He Walked By Night (1948), Women’s Prison (1950), The Phenix City Story (1955), and House of Women (1962). He also directed 37 features, many of them in the exploitation genre.
All in all, Girls on Probation is a hoot to watch, due to the presence of Bryan, Bromley, and Reagan and its sheer overwrought screenplay. It rarely rambles and seems even shorter than its 63-minute running time. As with many of the Warner Brothers “social commentary” films, Girls on Probation begins with a weighty prologue informing us that for some women probation was the only thing standing between happiness and degradation. This is absolutely hilarious in light of the fact in the film that Connie is going to marry Ronnie Reagan. Which could be worse: stir or Reagan?
Hilda to the priest before she’s loaded into the ambulance after being shot: “Pretty soon I’ll be seeing your boss!”
At the end of the bank robbery scene, as the car pulls away, the cops fire wildly into the crowd as they try to hit the car.
Watch for the scene where the detective babbles half of his lines to the party on the other end on the phone after taking the receiver away from his mouth.
New York's Dumbest Street Gangs
By David Skolnick
The Warriors (Paramount, 1979) – Director: Walter Hill. Writers: David Shaber & Walter Hill (s/p); Sol Yurick (novel). Cast: Michael Beck, James Remar, Dorsey Wright, Brian Tyler, David Harris, Tom McKitterick, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, David Patrick Kelly & Roger Hill. Color, 92 minutes.
Hollywood has a laundry list of films made in the 1970s that truly capture the grime, grit, disgust and strange violent charm of New York City during that decade. We recognize them – particularly those of us who grew up there – right away: The French Connection, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver, The Seven-Ups, and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, to name a few.
Then there's The Warriors. I was 11 when this movie came out in early 1979, and after just a few days in the theaters, it had a reputation. I heard stories that people were killed at the movies watching it, there was widespread violence and you risked your health going to see it. Talk spread quickly and Paramount agreed to pay for extra security at movie theaters that screened the film. As it turned out, three people died going to or from this movie, but none in New York City or in a theater though there were some incidents of vandalism and isolated cases of violence while the film was shown. But that wasn't that uncommon. Three years later, I witnessed serious fighting at a theater in Staten Island that was screening Rocky III.
Of course, the urban legend of The Warriors intrigued me as a kid, but not enough for me to spend any effort during these last 34-plus years since its release for me to watch it. It showed up on Amazon Prime as a free film during my 30-day trial period so I watched it.
Alas, the film hardly lives up to its reputation. In reality, it's a terrible movie filled with awful acting, plot holes you could drive a subway train through, and some of the most ridiculous characters you can imagine.
Cyrus (Roger Hill), the leader of the Gramercy Riffs, the largest and most powerful street gang in New York City, calls a meeting in the Bronx of the top 100 gangs in the five boroughs to tell them to stop fighting each other and take control of the city away from the Mafia and the police. Each gang is asked to bring nine representatives, and no weapons. How the top 100 are picked and why they were asked to have nine members – perhaps they were going to play baseball later – are never addressed. For anyone to believe that no one would bring a weapon to a park in which enemies would be standing next to each other is absurd. But much of this film doesn't make sense so we'll move on.
Among the gangs at the big meeting are skinheads, a black group dressed in disco gear, Asians dressed in what looks like uniforms from a Chinese laundry, rednecks in overalls, a group of guys in Hawaiian shirts, and mimes wearing top hats and suspenders. Who's going to be afraid of a mime gang? Do they pretend to rob and beat up people while trapped in an imaginary box?
Also attending are the film's “heroes” – the Warriors, a racially mixed gang of blacks and whites who hail from Coney Island. Director Walter Hill wanted them all to be black, but Paramount nixed that idea. The book the movie is based on had the gang as a mix of blacks and Hispanics. Hollywood had a near heart attack with an all-black gang of supposed anti-heroes. Imagine if it was a black/Hispanic group.
At the meeting, Cyrus is killed, causing a lot of chaos. Apparently his vision of the gangs working together would have failed because nearly everyone runs for their lives in fear when the cops arrive. Cyrus' murderer is Luther (Kelly), leader of the Rogues, who shoots him because he “likes doing things like that,” which we learn later. Luther and the Rogues see a member of the Warriors witness the shooting. Despite all the mayhem and yelling, everyone hears the gang’s false accusation the Warriors killed Cyrus. Well, not everyone. The Warriors' clueless leader Cleon (Wright) rushes to Cyrus' aid after the shooting. The Riffs, seeing Cleon's Warriors' jacket, beat him up and likely kill him. We never see him again without a clear explanation. We'll leave it at he's dead.
That leaves Swan (Beck) in charge. His goal is to get the Warriors back to Coney Island from the Bronx as it's the gang's home turf and the members will be safe there. This is a stupid plan as plenty of other gangs know the Warriors are from Coney Island and if they want to get them, they can head over to the Wonder Wheel and wait for the Warriors to return. Even so, the Warriors get on a subway train heading for home. I'll cut the Warriors some slack because at this point they don't realize the other gangs are trying to kill them as they're being blamed for Cyrus' death. With about 25 minutes left in the film, they figure this out yet they still head for Coney Island.
The Warriors encounter a number of gangs along the way to Coney Island, and are able to kick the collective asses of each gang. The gangs that try to take out the Warriors seem to be pretty low in the pecking order. One of the first gangs they encounter is the Orphans. That they live only a few minutes from the park where the big meeting was held and weren't invited tells us they're pathetic. The Orphans are accommodating. They are the only other gang in New York that doesn't know the Warriors are wanted by the Riffs dead or alive, and are willing to let them pass through their turf.
That is until Mercy (Van Valkenburgh, who also played one of Ted Knight's daughters in the awful Too Close for Comfort TV sitcom), a mouthy girl who hangs with the Orphans, makes fun of them for not fighting the Warriors. The Warriors have no problem beating up the Orphans. After causing that problem, Mercy follows the Warriors and she eventually becomes Swan's girl. Yeah, don't ask me to explain that.
While all of this is going on, a black female DJ becomes the film's narrator telling the story of the Warriors, summarizing the action in somewhat of a street code and telling the other gangs what's happening. I never noticed anyone in the film actually listening to the radio, but she has a number of scenes.
The eight remaining Warriors keep splitting up as they run into other problems, such as a fire being set to the subway tracks. That forces them to walk to the next station to grab another train. Despite that, they still don't realize they're being hunted. In one scene, Fox (Thomas G. Waites in an uncredited role) fights with a cop and rolls onto the tracks and is killed when a train comes. Why is Waites not in the credits and killed early on in the film? I wondered and learned that Waites and the director didn't get along. Waites, who was originally cast as the lead in this movie, was fired a few weeks into the filming and rather than replace him with another actor, they kill his character.
At one point, four of the Warriors meet the Baseball Furies, one of the oddest gangs in a movie filled with odd gangs. They paint their faces, dress like baseball players and use bats (the wooden objects, not the animals) as their weapons of choice. They wear white baseball uniforms with black pinstripes a la the New York Yankees. The biggest difference between the Furies and the Yankees is the latter knows how to use bats. The Warriors have little trouble beating the Furies, easily taking away their bats and using the weapons against them. We get this classic line from Ajax (Remar), one of the Warriors: “I'll shove that bat up your ass and turn you into a popsicle.”
Even among gang members, Ajax is extraordinary stupid. After the fight, he decides he's going to have fun with a woman sitting by herself on a park bench in the middle of the night. Surprise, the woman (Mercedes Ruehl, who went on to a better films and won an Oscar) turns out to be an undercover cop. She cuffs Ajax's wrist to the park bench without him noticing. The cops arrest him and that's the last we see of him. I don't know about you, but I'd notice if I was being handcuffed.
That leaves us with six gang members and Mercy. Three of them – Vermin, Cochise and Rembrandt – run into a group of women at Union Square, and the Warriors are easily seduced. I could tell right away that they've got to be in a female gang looking to take out the Warriors, but this logical thinking is lost on guys named Vermin, Cochise and Rembrandt. The last guy is named for the artist, as he's the gang member who tags their name. The girls, who are members of the Lizzies, bring the trio back to their hangout, where things start to get hot and heavy – or do they? The Lizzies say they are exacting revenge for Cyrus' murder and pull out a variety of weapons, cutting one of the Warriors with a knife. Despite the close range, several shots fired at the Warriors miss. The three get out of there, but at least they learn that they're being hunted and the reason.
At the same time, Swan is on his own and goes to the 96th Street subway station, where he meets up with Mercy, who's wearing a jacket. Swan asks about the jacket. Why? Well, Mercy stole it because she heard the cops were looking for a girl in a pink shirt. All she did was put the jacket over the pink top. Yeah, that's going to fool a lot of people, particularly the cops and other gangs. Oh, and never in the movie does anyone say a girl is with the Warriors. Minor details. The two make out in a subway tunnel, have an argument, and end up at Union Square.
At that station, Swan is followed by a guy on roller skates and overalls, kind of a hillbilly extra from Roller Boogie. The rest of the Warriors meet up and ask about Ajax, but not Fox, who's dead. The roller skater is part of a gang, the Punks. The rest don't wear roller skates, but they do wear overalls. That there are any gangs in New York wearing overalls is bizarre. But the fight scene in a subway bathroom between the Punks and the Warriors is probably the best in the film despite the toilet doors looking like they're made of paper as heads go through them with great ease.
A number of things kept going through my head as this film progressed. First, how could the Warriors be this clueless? Second, if the other gangs wanted the Warriors dead, why were the Lizzies the only ones to use guns? If the nine Warriors who went to the Bronx for the big meeting were representatives of the gang, why didn't they find a pay phone and call the rest of the members for help? Why do they think they'll be safe in Coney Island? Why return there after finding out that every street gang in the city wants them for killing Cyrus?
As the remaining Warriors get on a subway train heading to Coney Island, we see some guy from another gang talking to the new leader of the Riffs saying he saw who killed Cyrus. Yeah, why believe this guy when a bunch of people screamed about the Warriors after the murder?
The Warriors get off at the Stillwell Avenue (in the heart of Coney Island) subway exit the next morning. “This is what we fought all night to get back to?” Swan tells the others. Because they were the representatives at the Bronx meeting, you'd think the rest of the Warriors would be waiting for them or at least be a little worried. You'd be wrong. We never see any other Warriors and no others are ever mentioned in the film.
But the Rogues with Luther are waiting for them. Luther says why he killed Cyrus and Swan challenges him to a one-on-one fight. Luther agrees and pulls out a gun, but Swan throws his switchblade as it goes off. The bullet hits nobody, but Luther has a switchblade stuck in his arm. A wide shot shows hundreds of Riffs standing to the side, a few feet away from the small group of surviving Warriors and the few dozen Rogues. The Riffs must be the strong, silent types. They hear everything with the new leader of the Riffs telling Swan, “You Warriors are good, real good,” to which Swan responds, “The best.” Wait a second. All they did was beat up some lower-level gangs and get away from the Lizzies without being shot. That's not exactly “good,” “real good,” or “the best.”
The Riffs take care of the Rogues and the female DJ dedicates Joe Walsh's “In the City” to the Warriors as the surviving gang members walk along the beach to who knows where. Thankfully, they didn't walk to a sequel.
Walsh, who was in the Eagles while having a solo career at the same time, cut a different version of this song with the band for its album, “The Long Run.”
For most of the actors, except Ruehl, this film was their cinematic highlight. (As none of the others were even decent actors that should come as no surprise.) Hill, the director, had a respectable career as writer and producer of the Alien film franchise as well as the director and writer of the Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte film 48 Hours, in which he cast a few of the actors from The Warriors in smaller roles.
The Most Preposterous Film We’ve Never Seen
By Ed Garea
It was shaping up to be another slow week, but then I receive a link from reader Chris Larsen to Gawker.com that had not only an article, but a snippet of behind-the-scenes footage from Jerry Lewis’ infamous and unreleased film, The Day the Clown Cried. It’s the incredible story of a German circus clown arrested by the Nazis, and, as punishment, ordered to entertain children as he led them into the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Finally he follows them into the chambers, giving his last performance. Though the footage is only about seven minutes long, is still absolutely incredible, and only makes me want to see the full movie even more.
What is even more amazing is the roster of co-stars who lined up to be in this strange attempt at pathos. Such luminaries as Bergman regular Harriet Andersson and German actor Anton Diffring (Remember him from Fahrenheit 451?) lend their talents to Lewis’s effort. Even Pierre Etaix, who is said to be influenced by Lewis’ comedies (that’s not saying much for him), has a small role.
The accepted story is that Lewis, seeing just how bad the movie came out, locked away the only copy and refuses to let it see the light of day. However, looking at the history of the movie, Lewis was approached in 1971 by producer Nathan Wachsberger. Wachsberger had optioned the move from screenwriters Charles Denton and Joan O’Brien, who had written the script back around 1962. Lewis was said to have been skeptical when he first read the script, though not about the story itself. But the more he thought about it, the more convinced be became. “I thought The Day the Clown Cried would be a way to show we don’t have to tremble and give up in the darkness,” he wrote in his 1982 autobiography, Jerry Lewis in Person, and quoted in the article. “[The clown] would teach us this lesson.” Oh, Brother.
Lewis plunged into the project with all the required zest of a true believer. He lost 35 pounds on a grapefruit diet. He toured both Dachau and Auschwitz, taking detailed notes. He rewrote the script, changing the clown’s name from Karl Schmidt to the more Lewis-movie-like Helmut Doork. Lewis, who stars and directs the movie, began filming in Paris, and then moved to Stockholm, where most of it would be shot. However, everything began to go horribly wrong. According to Lewis, Wachsberger took off for the south of France on the first day of filming, never to return. Following his departure, the funding dried up and Lewis had to finance the rest of the movie himself. Finally running out of money he shut down the production. He then publically denounced Wachsberger, who retaliated by filing a breach of contract suit.
But now comes the real kicker: When Denton and O’Brien got wind of what Wachsberger and Lewis were up to, they also noticed that Wachsberger’s option on the property had run out shortly before filming began. O’Brien was quoted in the article as saying that Lewis knew the option had expired, but decided to film it anyway.
That Lewis would be emboldened to even conceive of making such as film is itself an object in hero worship gone horribly wrong. French critics and filmmakers had lionized Lewis for years as a comedic genius. In a 1980 interview with Dick Cavett, Jean-Luc Godard even praised the idea of The Day the Clown Cried, and also praised Lewis for being funny “even when he’s not funny.” (Whatever that means.) Of course, Cavett just sits around adoringly and asks smarmy set-up questions. That the French still don’t get it is illustrated in the article by a quote from critic Jean-Pierre Coursodon: “Although the odds against it are staggering, it might turn out to be sublime.” And elephants might just learn to fly. Ah, such is hope.
Harry Shearer claims to be one of the very few who has actually seen the entire movie and spoke of that experience in the May 1992 issue of the defunct satire magazine Spy. (You can read it at Google Books!) Shearer was part of a group that included Andersson, screenwriters Denton and O’Brien, Swedish actor Sven Lindberg, who also appears in the film, journalist Lynn Hirschberg, who interviewed Lewis on the subject for Rolling Stone magazine, television director Joshua Wright, who saw the film with Shearer, and producer Jim Wright, who originally brought the script for the film to Lewis’ attention.
When asked about what it was like to see the movie, Shearer answered as follows: “With most of these kinds of things, you find that the anticipation, or the concept, is better than the thing itself. But seeing this film was really awe-inspiring, in that you are rarely in the presence of a perfect object. This was a perfect object. This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is. Oh my God! – that’s all you can say.”
Yes, but what of the performances themselves? How about Lewis? According to Wright in the article, Lewis was doing “bad silent routines and they’re intercut with these shots of blond, blue-eyed, obviously Scandinavian kids sitting in bleachers.” And the Nazis, how were they portrayed? According to Shearer, they were “evil incarnate.” White, however, pointed out the performance of Anton Diffring as one of the head Nazis: “ . . . this hammy German actor, plays the main Nazi. You can tell he was embarrassed. The performance was right out of Hogan’s Heroes.”
And so here we are. Barring some sort of miracle, it looks as if The Day the Clown Cried will never see the light of day. The farthest Lewis has gotten is a rough cut. The question of the rights is tangled beyond belief. The studio in Stockholm where the film was shot claims it is owed $600,000, and until that money is forthcoming, the studio will not release the only negative of the film. The screenwriters still hold the copyright. Over the years, groups of investors from Europe (where else?) have attempted to negotiate for the film, but the screenwriters are firm in their holdout. Lewis himself has a rough cut of the movie on videotape that he keeps locked away, screening it from time to time for selected people. Until such time as everyone gets together and agrees, this film will never make it out of Stockholm.
Stranger things have happened, however, and who knows? There’s a slim possibility it will see the light of day. I can see it now: a two-disc set with the Criterion Collection label attached. Disc One will be the movie itself while Disc Two will be a collection of critical reaction, mainly from the French. That’s not good enough for me. Unfortunately, its time has passed, but the only way to give this movie the respect and admiration it deserves is to release it as a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode. Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo are the only critics qualified to give this film the analysis it truly deserves. Until then we can only watch, and wait.
Mona Lisa Smile
By Ed Garea
(Revolution/Sony, 2003) – Director: Mike Newell. Cast: Julia Roberts, Marcia Gay Harden, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin, Dominic West, Juliet Stevenson, Marian Seldes, & John Slattery. Color, 117 minutes.
After sitting through this almost two-hour romp I was a little dumbfounded by what I saw. It was billed as a drama, but it stars the toothsome Julia Roberts as an instructor of art history at Wellesley – a woman of intelligence who in turn is an intellectual leader of young women. This would seem, then, to qualify it as either fantasy or science fiction rather than drama; or at the very least an exercise in dark comedy.
Julia is Katherine Watson, a feminist from California (which explains a lot) who has just been appointed as an instructor of art history at Wellesley, that bastion of upper class New England scholarship. In a voiceover at the beginning, we are given a road map of where this film is going:
All her life, she had wanted to teach at Wellesley College. So, when a position opened in the art history department, she pursued it single-mindedly until she was hired. It was whispered that Katherine Watson, a first-year teacher from Oakland State, made up in brains what she lacked in pedigree. Which was why this bohemian from California was on her way to the most conservative college in the nation.
Let’s see, she’s a bohemian, has brains, and is pursuing a lifelong ambition. Isn’t she wonderful? We know from that fulsome introduction that trouble is just around the corner. Is it ever, but it’s really us in the audience who are heading for trouble. We’re about to spend two hours we’ll never get back.
Ten minutes into the film, during her first lecture, she tosses the syllabus away and introduces a photo of modern art with the question “Is it art?” It’s a rhetorical question, actually, to make the little bozos think outside the box, and we discover that Ms. Watson is not there merely to teach art, but rather to teach Life. Now does this sound familiar? Of course: free-thinking teacher comes to conservative school, discovers the students don’t know anything outside their textbooks, and proceeds to teach them how to think for themselves, all the while becoming an idol to the students and a threat to the administration and parents. It comes off to me as a chick-flick version of the sophomoric Dead Poets Society, in which prep school teacher Robin Williams does exactly the same thing.
There are the obligatory scenes where she must win over her students, and we can see this is no easy task. In her opening class, they talk back to her and appear disinterested. But in time we learn that the little bimbos suffer not only the pressures of their strata in society, reinforced by the college administration, but also the peer pressure of fellow student and arch-traditionalist snob Betty Warren (Dunst), who assures them the road they’re on is the correct one, and constantly attacks Ms. Watson for her progressive beliefs. Betty also has a bully pulpit as she writes poison-pen columns for the college newspaper, attacking anyone who should disagree with her perception of life. Why she is this way we never learn, aside that she is strongly under her mother’s thumb. In the end it doesn’t really matter, because all the young ladies are but mere cardboard cutouts of the real things and we don’t give a hoot in hell how their lives work out, for their function is not to be sympathetic but rather to be enlightened by Ms. Watson.
And what does Ms. Watson seek to enlighten them about, besides art? Well, marriage for one thing. Our Professor believes that women should break free from the traditional ties that bind them and go out and have careers. She sees her students as clay, intelligent clay, but nevertheless clay that must be remolded from simply wasting their time at college waiting for marriage instead of putting that time to good use in preparing for a career. Towards this end she is focused on changing the viewpoint of Joan Brandwyn (Stiles), a woman with the potential to get into Yale Law School, but who prefers becoming Martha Stewart instead. It seems to get under Ms. Watson’s skin that little Joanie would rather do other things, such as marry and raise a family than become a lawyer on Wall Street, and she practically writes Joan’s application to Yale for her.
When a character behaves in such a radical manner, there is usually a strong reason. But in this case, we really don’t know the “whys” behind the “whats.” We find out that she came to Wellesley from California to get away from her boyfriend, Paul Moore (Slattery). Why she wants to escape we really never find out. He does pursue her to Wellesley and proposes, but her reaction is as if he pulled a gun on her. While everyone assumes they’re engaged, she goes about of her way to reassure them this isn’t the case at all, and then, in a flash of inspiration, she begins dating Bill Dunbar (West), a teacher of Italian known on campus for heating up the sheets with his students. Yet, at the same time she wants Dunbar to stop his affairs with the students while he’s dating her. It seems that the only reason they get together in the first place is because the directors and writers think it’s cool to have to prettiest folks on campus pair up. Katherine is so possessive that she barges into Bill’s class and interrupts his lecture with an accusation, later offering an apology so soft and lame as to be easily overlooked.
The image we are left with in this movie is that the only thing more repressive than Wellesley is the institution of marriage. Betty’s shrewish mother stage-manages every step of her wedding, and Ms. Warren’s punishment for marrying seems to be that her husband is cheating on her in no time flat. We learn this in a scene so obvious and overacted that our inclination is to laugh out loud. When Ms. Watson first arrives on campus, she moves in with roommates Nancy (Harden), an elocution and etiquette spinsterish teacher who’s concealing something romantic from her past, and Amanda (Stevenson), the stock lesbian character school nurse who is later fired for distributing diaphragms to the girls.
In any “school film” there is the one scene where the teacher is dejected after his or her efforts seem to go nowhere and has the inevitable confrontation with the class. As there is absolutely nothing original in this film, it stands to reason there would be such a scene. What I didn’t expect was that it would so embarrassingly funny to watch.
Our poison-pen columnist, Betty, has scribbled an editorial attacking the good Ms. Watson for her declaration of “war on the holy institution of marriage.” She’s not yet done, however: “Her subversive and political teachings encourage our Wellesley girls to reject the roles they were born to fill.” Talk about embarrassingly obvious; it sounds more like something out of The Nazi’s League of German Girls than an actual editorial for a college newspaper. Katherine’s not going to let this slip by. As she is showing slides at her lecture she begins to lecture her students in a most strident way:
Quiet. Today you just listen. What will future scholars see when they study us, a portrait of women today? There you are ladies: the perfect likeness of a Wellesley graduate, Magna Cum Laude, doing exactly what she was trained to do. Slide - a Rhodes Scholar, I wonder if she recites Chaucer while she presses her husband's shirts. Slide – ha-ha, now you physics majors can calculate the mass and volume of every meatloaf you make. Slide - A girdle to set you free. What does that mean? What does that mean? What does it mean? I give up, you win. The smartest women in the country, I didn't realize that by demanding excellence I would be challenging... what did it say? . . . What did it say? Um . . . the roles you were born to fill. Is that right? . . . The roles you were born to fill? It's, uh, it's my mistake . . . Class dismissed.
The students, having been properly chastised, realize that Ms. Watson was right all along, especially after Betty’s marriage hits the toilet. Joan later remarks to Katherine that, looking back, she would be much more likely to miss having raised a family than miss being a lawyer. Katherine looks at her like a deer caught in the headlights – she cannot seem to grasp the fact that Joan is making her choice from her own free will. While both views are presented, we have been conditioned to see the film through Katherine’s eyes and Joan is painted as a boob for her choice.
In the end, Katherine is given a second year, but she has to conform to the institution’s rules: she cannot date another faculty member (they don’t seem to mind him sleeping with his students); she cannot go off the syllabus, and the dean must approve her lectures in advance. Ever so dedicated to her students, Katherine declines the offer because she can no longer make a difference and runs off to Europe. (If she were really dedicated to those students, she would have stayed, for her very presence on campus alone made a difference.) Her students see her off by trailing her car on their bicycles; the last leaving her side is Betty, who was against her in the beginning (of course).
There are two delicious ironies in this movie. First, for all its Out-There-And-In-Your-Face-Feminism, the director and writers are men. That fact needs no further comment. The other irony is when Katherine, the art history teacher, receives a paint-by-the-numbers art kit. If there is anything that symbolizes this movie, it is the concept of painting by the numbers, for that’s what this film is – an exercise in painting by the numbers.
If it were only totally predictable, I might be able to tolerate it. But it is also totally pretentious to boot, and that is pushing the envelope too far.
The Ghost of Spoon River
By Jon Gallagher
(Malibu Pictures International, 2000) – Director: Scott A. Meehan. Starring Lauren Sinclair, Brian McNamara, Michael Monks, and Richard Portnow.
I recently found out that a movie had been shot almost in my back yard. I was searching for something else and came across a movie which was either titled The Mystery of Spoon River or The Ghost of Spoon River, depending on to whom you’re talking. The DVD that I picked up calls it The Ghost, so that’s what I’m calling it.
First, a short history lesson: Fulton County, Illinois, takes in a good-sized geographic area and its county seat, Lewistown, is where Edgar Lee Masters called home. Masters wrote the classic Spoon River Anthology, a series of what amounts to character sketches of 200 people who are buried in a cemetery in the fictional town of Spoon River.
Spoon River itself is a small river, about 150 miles long that meanders through three counties in West Central Illinois: Stark, Knox, and Fulton. If it went straight from the point of origin to where it joins up with the Illinois River at Havana, it might cover 50 miles. At some points, the river is little more than a creek, narrow and shallow enough to wade across. I once took a boat down the river with two friends and twice we had to get out of the boat and walk it along the banks because the river wasn’t deep enough or debris was clogging the way.
In the spring, however, the river can swell well beyond its banks, engulfing small towns like London Mills and Bernadotte, and sometimes sweeping away unsuspecting motorists on rural country roads, turning deadly in the process. Just two years ago, two motorists were killed after being trapped in their vehicles by floodwaters.
In 2000, Scott Meehan wrote, directed, and produced a movie called either The Ghost of Spoon River or The Mystery of Spoon River. It was shot in Fulton County, Illinois, using many of the county’s residents as extras.
The plot is pretty straightforward. Emma Masters (Sinclair) is a lawyer in Chicago, but she’s called back home to Spoon River to defend her old boyfriend (McNamara), who’s been charged with the murder of the local game warden (who is black). A local news reporter, trying to get noticed by the networks, tries to turn the murder into a racial event. The Ku Klux Klan gets involved, as does a hardnosed FBI agent (Portnow).
As the story unfolds, anyone who’s done any studying of Masters’ Spoon River Anthology will recognize a couple of the characters immediately. Without giving too much away here, the movie turns from being a murder mystery into a gothic/supernatural thriller that doesn’t exactly thrill.
This is an independent film, and it soon becomes painfully obvious that Meehan didn’t waste a lot of money on actors. While there are few exchanges between minor characters, it couldn’t have been worse if they’d been filmed reading their lines from a script.
Sinclair, Portnow and McNamara are stiff in their roles. Sock puppets would have saved more money, but then we’d still have the problem of delivering believable lines. None of the principal actors did that.
Monks turned in the one halfway decent performance playing one of the redneck townspeople who doesn’t want to get involved. He looked like he was at least having fun.
It was fun to see fire trucks from the Astoria Fire Department and to see the high school marching band play a part as well. I have to apologize; I can’t remember whether it was Astoria High School or VIT (Vermont/Industry/Table Grove) High School’s band. They, however, did not look like they were having fun. Maybe they were told to play off-key.
I think I might have liked the movie better had they done more with the plot. A bigger budget, better acting, and some tweaks here and there to the script might have made this a super movie. I guess when you’re doing everything yourself (Meehan had many family members in the cast and working behind the scenes as well), it’s hard to step back from the product to give it a fair evaluation.
Meehan hasn’t gone on to write, direct or produce any more movies since his initial foray into the film industry.
If you’re from the central Illinois area, you might be interested in seeing this movie, if for no other reason than you can say that you saw it. If you’re into bad movies with terrible acting, you may want to add this to your list to see how it stacks up against your all-time list of bad movies. If you have absolutely nothing to do for an hour and a half and there’s no paint to watch dry, then you might want to check out The Ghost of Spoon River.
By David Skolnick
(Taylor-Laughlin, 1977) – Director: Tom Laughlin. Starring Tom Laughlin, Delores Taylor, E.G. Marshall, Teresa Laughlin, and Pat O’Brien.
The back of this film’s DVD case, from 2000, calls it: “The Most Dangerous Billy Jack of All!!”
It goes on to contend: “Even though it was made during our nation’s bicentennial, it’s as if the story was ripped from today’s headlines. Corruption, scandal, intrigue, murder…they’re all in this explosive expose Washington found so dangerous it didn’t want the movie released. And it never has been…until now!”
It also states: “Like Billy Jack, this film has survived the powers fighting to destroy it and is finally being released to expose the truth and win America back!”
OK, let’s pause a moment. This film, the fourth and definitely the worst of the Billy Jack movies, finished production in 1976, and played in very few theaters in 1977. But I doubt the limited release had much to do with Washington finding it “so dangerous.” The likely reason is it is unbelievably bad.
The mid-1970s gave us many excellent government corruption/conspiracy films such as The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, The Day of the Jackal and All the President’s Men. The key difference between those films and Billy Jack Goes to Washington is the latter is awful.
As he did with Billy Jack (1971) and The Trial of Billy Jack (1974), Laughlin had to work out distribution deals for this movie with studios and theater owners, and he never endeared himself to the Hollywood establishment.
When he peddled this terrible film, which originally ran for 2 hours and 35 minutes, no one in their right mind wanted to show a dialogue-heavy Billy Jack movie without the franchise’s main redeeming value – the fight scenes. This film has one, and it is ridiculous. (I’ll make fun of it later.)
Laughlin also had to borrow money to finish the film, and when he tried to distribute it, his creditors, business associates and others filed lawsuits, making it a greater challenge to have it shown, according to "The Golden Turkey Awards" book. The book selected this movie as "The Worst Film You Never Saw."
Billy Jack Goes to Washington is largely a remake of the 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart and Jean Arthur. Both are about a little guy somehow getting appointed to a vacant seat in the U.S. Senate for a short period of time, with political bosses not expecting them to make any waves. Of course both end up exposing government corruption.
One difference between the two films is Laughlin and his wife, Taylor, aren’t Stewart and Arthur. Frank Capra Jr., a producer of Billy Jack Goes to Washington, had the film rights to his father’s classic and for some reason thought Laughlin would do it justice. Junior certainly didn’t have the same eye for talent as his dad.
The DVD version eliminates about 40 minutes from the original, cut by Laughlin, who owns the film’s rights. Even he can’t stand the full-length original version.
None of the Billy Jack films – the first was The Born Losers (1967) – will ever be mistaken for cinematic classics. But the first two and The Trial to a much lesser extent (primarily because the latter is 2-hours-and-50-minutes long) are enjoyable to watch for the action and fight scenes.
In the first three Billy Jack films, the “half-breed” Indian/former Green Beret/martial-art master who wears an awesome-looking black hat (he didn't wear "The Hat" in The Born Losers) stands up for the little guy while kicking the butts of motorcycle gang members, bigots, racists and generally bad people by himself. He usually does this after he takes off his cowboy boots so he can beat them up barefoot style. This is all done in the names of peace and justice.
In the fourth Billy Jack movie, we’re told a U.S. senator from an unnamed state with top-secret information and apparently more power than federal agencies in charge of such things has given the “green light” to the increased development and production of nuclear weapons and power. He then drops dead. The junior senator (played by Marshall) from the same unnamed state is just as evil as the dead guy and is finalizing a big deal to build a nuclear power plant in said unnamed state.
The governor of the unnamed state has to quickly replace the dead U.S. senator. He needs to find someone naïve about government and this evil nuclear scheme who can easily be controlled. Sen. John Paine (Marshall) and a nuclear power plant lobbyist recommend a candidate. But the governor decides it should be Billy Jack much to chagrin of the senator and the lobbyist. Yeah, it’s not a logical choice. Jack has spent three movies fighting The Man, including spending time in prison for murder. But the gov gives Jack a pardon and says what harm can he do in the U.S. Senate for a couple of months as a temporary replacement?
After talking it over with his Indian grandfather, Jack accepts the position. He has no idea what to do in the Senate. With the help of girlfriend Jean Roberts (played by Taylor), a D.C. secretary (Lucie Arnaz in her first film) and some hippie/left-wing Freedom School students, they decide to introduce a bill to create a National Children’s Camp on the exact site as the secret nuclear power plant.
(There’s a subplot with a greedy Washington staffer who has information on the top-secret nuclear power plant getting murdered when trying to shakedown various political big-wigs. He is Arnaz’s boyfriend, and after he’s killed, she wants to get out of town - fast. Don’t worry, she returns to help Billy.)
With Billy unwilling to play ball on the nuclear bill, it’s time to take care of him. We get the one fight scene in the movie. Carol, a girl from the Freedom School (played by Teresa Laughlin, the real-life daughter of Laughlin and Taylor), is followed by a black guy with bad intentions. Roberts finds out and so does Jack. Roberts, a pacifist in two other Billy Jack films, suddenly turns ninja and she and Jack beat up a group of black guys carrying switchblades. Even though they’re black, Billy lets us know they must be working for The Man and he’s sorry he has to beat them up. He actually says, “Kunta Kinte would turn over in his grave if he saw you hired out to The Man like this.”
After the beat-down, we later get Laughlin doing his Mr. Smith filibuster scene with Pat O’Brien in one of his last film roles as the Senate president. Jack collapses and Paine, who earlier in the film calls for Billy’s expulsion from the Senate, finally confesses to his evil deeds.
Cue the happy ending and Teresa Laughlin does her version of “One Tin Soldier” over the credits.
Laughlin, who also wrote the film, gets to play hero again and show how one man can change the system. Despite the fight scene, Jack is praised by Roberts for beating the corrupt politicians with his words and not his fists and feet. “You did it. No matter what anybody says about you now, you did it. And you didn’t have to even once take off your boots,” she proudly tells Jack.
If you’re a Billy Jack fan and have only heard of this film, you should see it just to say, “Wow, I can’t believe that’s an actual film.” If you’ve never heard of Billy Jack, see the 1971 film and if you're feeling adventurous, watch all of them. You can get the four films on one DVD.
By Ed Garea
(RKO, 1941) Starring: John Barrymore, Kay Kyser, Patsy Kelly, Lupe Velez, May Robson, and the Kay Kyser Band (featuring Harry Babbitt, Ish Kibbible, Sully Mason).
The synopsis on my Direct TV guide couldn’t have described it any better – “A has-been actor coaches a corny bandleader for a Shakespeare festival on Long Island.”
Playmates is Barrymore’s final film – and what a way to go out. We can only be happy for his sake that it was the 1940s and not a decade later, or else there was good chance he might have starred in an Ed Wood atrocity.
Barrymore plays himself in this attempted comedy that also stars the likes of bandleader Kay Kyser and his band, Patsy Kelly, and the incomprehensively cast Lupe Velez. At any rate, here’s the plot: Barrymore is broke and in trouble with the IRS (mirroring real life). Kelly, his publicist, is trying to land him a contract with a sponsor for a radio program starring John. To land the sponsor, she and Kyser’s agent (Peter Lynd Hayes) plant a story that Barrymore has agreed to instruct bandleader Kay Kyser in the art of playing Shakespeare. (This is something that only makes sense in movies.) Barrymore and Kyser know nothing about this until it hits the papers. Barrymore is aghast at teaching Southern Boy Kyser (“It’s like trying to teach a rabbit to be a crooner,” he says.), but Kelly convinces him that his future in radio, and a regular paycheck, depends on it.
Booked in a charity performance for the would-be sponsor, Barrymore tries to sabotage Kyser so he can’t go on, but Kay gets wind of the scheme and turns the tables on Barrymore, causing him to miss the performance. Kyser and the band instead give a performance of “Romeo Smith and Juliet Jones” in swingtime. (Yes, it is every bit as bad as it sounds.) The show is a hit and Kyser gives Barrymore the credit, which gets him the sponsorship and the radio show.
So far, not so good. Kelly gives a good performance and could be said to steal the film. However, were she arrested, the most they could hold her on is petty theft. Velez is Barrymore’s former girlfriend, Spanish Bullfighter Carmen Del Toro (how’s that for subtlety) whom he is trying to avoid like the plague. Why Velez is in this film is in itself a mystery. It’s as if the studio executives decided that if they had her under contract, she might as well be in this film until the next “Mexican Spitfire” script is ready.
Naturally, Lupe gives her typical over-the-top performance, which, hammy as it is, incredibly pales to Barrymore’s own over-the-top-performance. When Barrymore convinces her to turn on the charm and render Kyser incapable of performing, it leads to one of the weakest scenes ever in a comedy. Kyser is nowhere near Velez’s level of comic acting and it obviously shows. It’s so bad that a dream sequence with Kyser fighting a bull that looks just like Barrymore is inserted. And, yes, it is every bit as painful with the only saving grace being that no one is inserting needles in your eyes as you watch it.
As for Barrymore, what can I say? It’s truly pathetic watching him play the buffoon. He makes remarks about his financial straits and his drinking, all the more pathetic because this is his real life he’s talking about in the movie. As for his persistent mugging throughout the movie, let’s just say that Barrymore makes more faces than Cheetah ever did in a Tarzan flick. At least Cheetah never did a spit take, as Barrymore does when sipping his coffee and discovering that his visitor is from the IRS.
Not only is Barrymore's drinking referred to throughout the film, but in several scenes it seems as if he's playing his scenes swacked. Admittedly it’s hard to tell because he’s so bloated, but upon careful viewing it becomes evident. It is also evident that he’s reading his lines from cue cards held offstage. Once this is realized it becomes almost impossible to turn this disaster off.
But when we’re sure that we can sit there smugly and laugh ourselves silly, Barrymore reaches out to us with a bit that brings out the true pathos of his condition. While explaining Shakespeare to Kyser, Barrymore launches into Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, bring to it for those few moments all his passion and offering us a window into what he once was as an actor. It’s touching in the extreme and will not leave the serious film fan with a dry eye.
In the moments when Barrymore is not on screen we have to suffer with the antics of Kyser and his band, in particular, the oddly named Ish Kabbible (Merwyn Bogue). It’s said that his act is corny. That it may be, but most corny has a bit of funny in it. Ish’s proclamations do not. That and his Moe Howard haircut make for a true horror show whenever he appears on screen. He described the origins of his stage name in his autobiography as a play on the Yiddish expression “Ische ga bibble?” This means “I should worry?” or “What, me worry?” It’s the phrase that Mad’s poster boy Alfred E. Newman would later become famous.
Sad to say, our last look at the great Barrymore on screen is the sight of watching him chased by Velez, with the two of them running like something out of a Benny Hill sketch. Poor Barrymore. Out of respect we should turn it off, but we shouldn’t stare at a traffic accident, either.
It must be my malicious streak, but I would love to see this film unspooled on a coming edition of TCM’s The Essentials, especially with Drew Barrymore joining Robert Osborne this season. Just to get her reaction itself would be priceless. By the way, is it me, or does Drew appear to be sporting more make-up than Boris Karloff did playing Frankenstein’s monster?
Grandma Kyser to Barrymore after he has hurt his back: Have you tried rubbing alcohol? Barrymore: Not since Prohibition.
Big Boy & Born to Sing
By Ed Garea
Editors' note: This is a column that will run from time to time, dedicated to movies that are so bad we feel compelled to watch them. They are not a new phenomena; indeed they reach back to the beginnings of the movies. When they come on, we first say to ourselves, "What the heck is this thing?" and later we look at our watches, surprised to see that time has flown by and we're still glued to the set.
Big Boy (WB, 1930): The premise for this Al Jolson movie (adapted from his play on Broadway) is simple – a black jockey overcomes obstacles galore to ride his boss’s horse to victory in the Kentucky Derby. But that’s only half the story: Jolson’s the jockey and he plays the entire movie in blackface, as a black man. No, I’m not making this up. It really has to be seen to be believed, and even then you’ll be rubbing your eyes to make sure you’re seeing it right.
Of course, Jolie plays it in a lighthearted manner, sort of a tongue-in-cheek happy “darkie,” even throwing in a song or two. (Without the songs there is nothing to break up what is quickly developing into monotony.) Okay, okay, I know it was made in 1930 and times have changed, but it’s not in the least funny; the jokes simply fall flat.
There’s even a scene where Jolson’s character is threatened KKK style. At the end, as was the case with this production on Broadway, Jolson removes his blackface and sings us a song. A few years ago, TCM covered African-American in their annual compilation of Hollywood films called “Race and Hollywood,” and which is concerned with how other races were seen portrayed in movies. How this film ever missed that year’s compilation amazes me, but I’m extremely glad they finally got around to showing it, even if it was at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m. – after all, that’s what TiVos are for. When I was a little kid, I always thought Jolson was black. When I watch films such as this, I can see where I got my mistaken belief.
Born to Sing (MGM, 1942): This movie is a train wreck of a different sort. When I originally saw the synopsis and noticed that Leo Gorcey was billed third in the line-up of a musical, I assumed that Monogram produced it. But no! MGM, of all studios, is to blame for foisting this upon unsuspecting moviegoers – and giving bad movie buffs another reason to rejoice.
Why? Because – now get this – Gorcey actually sings! You gotta hear it to believe it, but yes, that’s him warbling out a forgotten tune in a style that could only be called his because no one else would want to take credit for it. Jimmy Stewart sang unaided in Born to Dance, and that was bad enough, but Gorcey makes Stewart seem like Sinatra in comparison. It’s straight out of the “Hey Kids, Let’s Get Together And Put On A Show” school of film.
The plot revolves around Patsy Eastman (Virginia Weidler) and her father, a songwriter who wrote a show while in prison. Dad’s only problem, besides being in jail, is that a greedy promoter steals the material. But, luckily for Patsy, her best friend is “Snap” Gordon (Gorcey). Snap and his friends try to pressure the promoter but are charged with extortion for their effort. They realize the only way for them to succeed is to put on a show themselves. Unfortunately, they have no money or prospects.
Fortunately, though, they meet a sympathetic gangster named Pete Detroit (Sheldon Leonard). Pete helps them open their show before the promoter can premiere his; even going so far as to use his fleet of taxicabs to ferry unsuspecting drama critics from the promoter's show to the kid's show.The musical highlight is a number entitled “Ballad For Americans”, which originally premiered in the 1939 WPA Theater project, “Sing For Your Supper.” Luckily for Gorcey, he didn’t have to sing for his supper. Otherwise he would have starved.