Sunday, October 28, 2007

Corrupting the minds of America’s youth

During my hiatus, my younger sister Debbie made a pilgrimage to Savannah, along with her husband and young daughter, for the expressed purpose of attending her twenty-year high school reunion.  Mom made arrangements for Deb and my brother-in-law to stay at a Hampton Inn (we’re kind of starved for space here at Rancho Yesteryear—plus sister Kat and her roommate came down for the weekend as well) while making sure my niece stayed at the house in order to spoil her rotten spend quality time with her only granddaughter.

I don’t get the opportunity to see niece Rachel too often.  I did see her in June, when we made our yearly trek to West Virginia for the annual Shreve reunion (a.k.a. “The Driest Weekend of the Year”), so I was really pumped about her visiting.  The first night she’s here, she tells my mom she can’t sleep—and with the day she had, with the travel and planes and all, it’s no wonder—so “Nana” gets the idea to let her hang out in my room and watch DVDs on my portable player.

I had the Bozo collection I told you about on top of a waste-high shelf, and upon seeing that she wanted to watch some of the shows.  I couldn’t figure out how she knew who Bozo was until she reminded me that I had got her a Bozo doll a few Christmases back—which I did; I bought one at a Cracker Barrel at which the ‘rents and I breakfasted on some long forgotten trip.  (Normally, I do not make it a habit to eat at the Barrel because I strenuously disagree with their policy of refusing to allow homosexuals serve me my food, but since I wasn’t paying I made an exception.)  She watched about a show and a half of the World’s Famous Clown, and then announced she was going to bed.  But then she stops, and looks at some other DVDs on the shelf.

“What’s that one with the moose?” she asks.

Lo and behold, she had found my Rocky and Bullwinkle stash.  And like the proud uncle I am, we watched a few of those before she definitely decided that it was time to hit the hay.

Rachel is pretty bright for her age, but many of the jokes from the residents of Frostbite Falls went over her head—this, however, didn’t matter.  One of the great things about kids is that they don’t discriminate when it comes to cartoons.  We watched a couple of the Bozo shorts—and let me tell you, the animation is lousy—but she didn’t care at all…nor did she go off on a rant (the way I did when I got older) about the limited animation that is Moose and Squirrel.  If it’s a moving drawing, they’ll sit and watch with rapt attention.  The other thing that I marveled about my niece was that after we tucked a few Bozos under our belt, she knew the theme song by heart.  (I’m lucky if I can remember the chorus.)

Rachel had a pretty good stay here in Savannah—she got to go to the beach, swim in my step-Gran’s pool, played some games on the computer (Bombast would pick that weekend to go down, by the way) and watch Rocky and Bullwinkle, Bozo and Fun and Fancy Free (1947) with ol’ Uncle Ivan (again, she couldn’t figure out why I was cackling during the Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy exchanges…but she did recognize Charlie when he first appeared onscreen).  The only downer came when my Mom talked with her on the phone Sunday evening after they returned to Iowa: she was in total tears because she had to go home after having so much fun.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

“The apes have taken over…while we were busy watching television and filling our freezers, they’ve come out of the jungle and moved in!” – Professor Sam Bastion (Frank Lovejoy), Shack Out on 101 (1955/Allied Artists)

Leonard Maltin describes the cult classic Shack Out on 101 (1955) in his Classic Movie Guide thusly: “Lee Marvin is Slob in this trash classic about the efforts of hash slinger [Terry] Moore to combat Communism while juggling the lecherous advances of nearly all her co-stars.”  And that’s as accurate a description of this film as you’re ever going to get. (The film’s original title was supposed to be Shack Up on 101—but star Moore objected to its suggestiveness.) As a Lee Marvin devotee, watching this movie was pretty much a done deal—and I enjoyed the hell out of it, despite its existential bizarreness.  Marvin is wonderful; it’s as if his character from The Wild One (1954) decided to abandon the open road and make a desperately futile bid for working class respectability.

OTR veteran Frank Lovejoy is in Shack, playing a character who’s referred to throughout the eighty-minute proceedings as “The Professor.”  I think Lovejoy was one hell of a radio actor, but most of his silver screen forays showcase a thespian who can be embarrassingly stiff at times.  This movie features one of his better performances, though his romance with Moore isn’t at all convincing.  (Lovejoy's love scene with Moore, as they passionately make out while discussing the U.S. Constitution, has to be seen to be believed.)  His character is supposed to be in cahoots with Marvin’s (Slob’s not really a fry cook—he’s a Commie spy!) but anyone who’s seen I Was a Communist For the FBI (1951) will know that Lovejoy’s “traitor” persona is all just an act.

Keenan Wynn (who owns the beanery where about 95% of the film takes place), Whit Bissell, Frank DeKova and Len Lesser (Seinfeld’s “Uncle Leo”) also make appearances in Shack, a truly one-of-a-kind film written and directed by Edward Dein.  Other than The Leech Woman (1960), a wacky horror flick starring former noir siren Coleen Gray, I’ve not been exposed to much of Dein’s oeuvre, though according to the IMDb he was a rather prolific screenwriter (The Falcon Strikes Back, Calling Dr. Death, Boston Blackie’s Rendezvous). 

Shack Out on 101 was part of a double feature I ran last night (something I’ve decided to call “Cold War Paranoia Theater”); the second entry being Ladybug Ladybug (1963), Frank and Eleanor Perry’s follow-up to their critically-acclaimed debut film David and Lisa (1962),  Since Perry’s The Swimmer (1968) and Last Summer (1969) are two of my favorite 60s flicks, I’ve been wanting to see Ladybug for some time now—and got the opportunity via Five Minutes to Live (where I also purchased Shack).  Ladybug tells a fascinating story of a rural elementary school and its reaction to what may or may not be an eminent nuclear attack.  As it turns out, the sounding of the “attack” alarm is due to nothing more than a short circuit, but by the time this is discovered, events have been set in motion that result in tragedy for one of the students sent home.

There are quite a few familiar TV faces in this movie: William (St. Elsewhere) Daniels plays the school principal, and Nancy (Lou Grant) Marchand is one of the teachers assigned to lead a “patrol” of students home.  Other well-known character actors include Judith Lowery (Mother Dexter from Phyllis), Richard Hamilton and Estelle Parsons—the latter two playing the stern parents of one child who’s so freaked out by the experience that she hides under her bed when she’s refused permission to take shelter in the basement.  Miles Chapin, an actor who you may have seen in movies like Hair (1979) and The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), plays one of the kids in Ladybug, as does Alice Playten—an actress known for both her voice work and participation in various National Lampoon productions…but for some odd reason, will always be associated (to me, anyway) as the babysitter in the Sid & Marty Krofft Saturday morning classic The Lost Saucer.

Ladybug Ladybug is reportedly based on an actual event, but of the two films I think Shack holds up better—after all, it’s essentially an espionage melodrama…and they never go out of style no matter who the bad guys are.  But if you grew up in a time when adolescents were scared shitless of the bomb (and, as the film notes, the adults are just as nervous) and were drilled endlessly to “duck and cover” at their school desks, I’m sure it will resonate; it’s definitely worth seeking out.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Eat my dust

He passed away on September 28, 2007 of this year, but my Bombast home page is just now getting the news that Charles B. Griffith, a writer-director-producer…and even sometime actor, has gone on to his rich reward.  He was 77.

Griffith will remain best-known for his authorship on the screenplay for Roger Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), a.k.a. The Film Shot in Two Days (though this isn’t technically true); a cult favorite about a nebbish (Jonathan Haze) who makes good in the floral business after finding a plant that begins to demonstrate none-too-attractive cannibalistic qualities.  (Horrors was later brought to the stage in musical form, and that in turn saw a cinematic version directed by Frank Oz in 1986.)  In addition to the screenplay, Griffith served as second unit director (uncredited) and actor (he plays three roles—one of which is the voice of Audrey, Jr.) on the project.

Personally, I’m not a fan of either version of Horrors—the 1960 version doesn’t have the budget it needs to get the picture’s admittedly novel concept across, and the 1986 film has a sugary-sweet happy ending tacked on.  I prefer Griffith’s treatment for A Bucket of Blood (1959), a mordant black comedy about a nebbish (Dick Miller) who becomes the toast of the art world by murdering people and encasing them in clay.  Among the other memorable Corman films he wrote are It Conquered the World (1956), Not of This Earth (1957), Rock All Night (1957), The Undead (1957) and The Wild Angels (1966).

Naturally, when working for Roger Corman, you’re going to wind up directing at one time or another—just ask Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, etc., etc., etc.  Griffith got the opportunity to sit in the director’s chair on a few occasions, notably the Ron Howard car crash delight Eat My Dust (1976) and Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype (1980), an interesting (if unsuccessful) take on the Dr. Jekyll tale starring Oliver Reed.

Regular readers know that I’m quite enamored of Mr. Corman—the King of the B’s—so when I hear of the passing of one of his loyal minions, I can’t help but be more than a little depressed.  R.I.P., Charles—you will be missed.

Webb of suspicion

In Appointment with Danger (1951), diminutive movie tough guy Alan Ladd plays Al Goddard, a postal detective who’s investigating the murder of a colleague named Gruber—and in the course of his examination finds that the only witness to the crime is a saintly nun in the form of Sister Augustine, played by Phyllis Calvert.  Sister Augustine singles out a suspect from a mug book, but his “friends” manage to croak him before Goddard can get to him—necessitating that the postal cop pretend to be “on the take” and infiltrate the gang undercover to find out what their game is…namely a big payroll heist on a postal truck.

I know, it sounds pretty routine—and truth be told, it pretty much is.  But the soon-to-be-pushing-up-daisies hood is played by Harry Morgan (billed as Henry here, he later changed it so as not to be confused with the acerbic radio-TV comedian) and his buddy, who beats him to death with a pair of bronzed baby shoes, is none other than Jack Webb.  Watching the two of them before their celebrated stint on Dragnet in the 1960s is all the fun—in fact, this movie, directed by Lewis Allen (The Uninvited, Suddenly), has the stink of Dragnet all over it.  The screenplay was co-scripted by longtime Webb crony Richard L. Breen, and two of Dragnet’s “road company” players appear in it—Stacy Harris as the “inside” man at the post office and Herb Vigran as the cop in the scene when Sister Augustine peruses the mug books.

Before creating what would become his radio and television legacy, Jack Webb appeared in a number of feature films and to be honest, he wasn’t too bad an actor.  From small, unbilled roles in films like Hollow Triumph (a.k.a. The Scar) (1948) and Sword in the Desert (1949) he went on to do first-rate work as one of Marlon Brando’s fellow paraplegics in Elia Kazan’s The Men (1950) and as William Holden’s jovial buddy in Sunset Blvd. (1950).  Dragnet, unfortunately, completely changed his personality—transforming him into the stick-up-his-ass, crime-fighting automaton that we’ve all come to know and love.  (That’s why I was disappointed to learn that Webb turned down John Landis when he was offered the role of Dean Wormer in National Lampoon’s Animal House—he would have been sensational.)  In Danger, he plays vicious low-rent thug Joe Regas, whose job skills offer little outside of beating people up…but it’s interesting to note that he doesn’t trust Ladd’s character through the course of the movie, and he turns out to be right.  (The scene where he and Ladd play handball is worth the price of admission.)

Danger features character great Paul Stewart as the gang’s leader; an Orson Welles crony, Stewart had many memorable moments in silver-screen villainy—he’s the guy who menaces annoying little Bobby Driscoll in The Window (1949), and the sebaceous Carl Evello in Kiss Me Deadly (1955).  (Even when he was playing a half-way decent guy, like in Champion [1949], there was still something a bit seedy about him.)  TDOY fave Jan “Smoochie” Sterling plays Stewart’s main squeeze, and if you look fast, Kathleen Freeman has a bit part as a nun—long before she was rapping the knuckles of Jake and Elwood Blues with a ruler in The Blues Brothers (1980).

Danger was filmed in 1949, but wasn’t released until 1951—which allowed Morgan to appear on a couple of Webb’s Dragnet programs long before he filled in for Ben Alexander as Joe Friday’s new partner in the 1967-70 TV version of the seminal cop show.  (You can definitely hear Morgan’s distinctive tones on one September 17, 1949 broadcast, where he doubles up as both a hotel manager and bank teller.)   Someone at Paramount must have liked the teaming of the two men, because they ended up on the wrong side of the law again in Dark City (1950), a seldom-shown noir that served as Charlton Heston’s introduction to the big screen.  Still, they remain the best thing in Appointment with Danger—a well-worth-your-time film noir that I purchased from the good people at Five Minutes to Live.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

“If you make a movie that a lot of people want to see—no rating will hurt you. If you make a movie that few people want to see—no rating will help you. Ratings have nothing to do with box office.” – Jack “Boom Boom” Valenti, former head of the Motion Picture Association of America (1966-2004)

He doesn’t wear a silk hat nor twirl a moustache, but for all intents and purposes Jack Valenti is the villain in This Film is Not Yet Rated (2006), a funny, incisive documentary by Kirby Dick that I had the distinct pleasure of watching last evening as my latest rental from Netflix.  (Netflix’s Red Envelope Entertainment produced this doc in tandem with the Independent Film Channel and the BBC, which leads me to think there might be a conflict of interest going on here.)  In archival interviews spaced throughout the film, Valenti makes a self-serving statement only to have it knocked down by evidence painstakingly put together by Dick and writers Eddie Schmitt and Matt Patterson that the “ratings system” implemented by Valenti in 1966 is completely gamed and biased, often coming down on films with strong sexual content while looking the other way where violence is concerned.

Let me just say upfront that while I’m not a prude about this sort of thing, I prefer the movies made at a time when much of said sexual content onscreen was a no-no—only because it inspired creativity among filmmakers to make mention of “Topic A” in a sly, subtler fashion (Ernst Lubitsch, call your office).  But to me, the only form of censorship individuals regularly practice is turning a TV knob to the “off” position or not bother coughing up the nine bucks to see a movie in the first place—so I do sympathize with the filmmakers interviewed (Kevin Smith, John Waters, Kimberly Peirce, Allison Anders) when their work is judged by a “star chamber” (as Dick memorably terms it) who purportedly have their finger on the pulse of America’s moviegoers and who rate films in keeping with the interests of “impressionable young minds.”  (For God’s sake, won’t somebody think of the children!)

A documentary that features renowned filmmakers bitching endless about receiving NC-17 ratings and the unfairness of the system would get old pretty quick, so it’s a good thing that a large portion of This Film is made up of Michael Moore-type muckraking with Dick and a pair of lesbian private investigators (who look like convenience store clerks) successfully identifying the unknown individuals who make up the MPAA ratings board.   They learn that many of these individuals (whose identities remain secret because of the fear they might be “pressured”) have children, all right—but most of them have left the “impressionable mind” stage years ago.  I also chuckled at the irony of Dick himself receiving an NC-17 upon submitting his film for review; his attempt to appeal the rating results in a hearing that reeks of Franz Kafka and Lewis Carroll.

I have to say, this new Netflix arrangement is working out pretty well—I’ve been able to squeeze in a rental at least once a week and I’ve stacked a number of both documentaries, silent films and recent movies in my queue to offset my usual classic movie habit.  Last week, I watched Kevin Keating’s Giuliani Time (2005), a thought-provoking look at the former NYC mayor who may very well (and this is the part that scares me) become the next President of the United States.  I liked Keating’s film, and would definitely recommend it to rent; though I think Keating pulls his punches on several occasions when he gets a little too close to revealing just what kind of fascist Giuliani really is.  Next in the queue is Jesus Camp (2006), Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s harrowing look at how culture warriors spend their spare time during summer vacation.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Tell them Boris sent you

So the ‘rents and I are dining on some fried chicken purchased from Publix for lunch this afternoon, and my Mother makes mention of the fact that she and Dad went to the National Guard Armory today to get flu shots.

“They have a drive-thru, you know,” she informs me.

Slight pause from me.  “You mean…you drive up, stick your arm out and…”

“That’s how they do it now,” she reaffirms.

“Good thing you weren’t there for a tetanus shot,” I responded, getting back to my chicken.  A three-minute pause, then the two of them begin to cackle like hens, having just got the joke.  (Just more evidence to add to the already voluminous pile of verification that I was adopted.)

Anyway, some eBay-related business (okay, I had packages to mail) kept me getting anything accomplished today (like watching something for the blog), so I thought I’d direct you to a nifty little feature at Laughing Gravy’s In the Balcony entitled “31 Days of Boris Karloff”.  Every day this month, the Gravymeister is watching some of Mr. Karloff’s finest (and…well, not-so-finest) films and reviewing them in his own inimitable style.

I mention this partly because I have nothing prepared, and partly because I loaned him my copy of The Walking Dead (1936), which I dubbed to DVD from a VHS recording (in the good old DirecTV days) two years ago.  Someone asked Gravy if he needed any more Karloff films and he mentioned that there were one or two that he had not yet seen, including West of Shanghai (1937).

Now…don’t tell him this…but I had this on VHS—except that I chucked it out two weeks ago.  I couldn’t remember why I recorded it (I got it confused with Lon Chaney’s West of Zanzibar—which I already had) and tossed it in the bin…then realized my error only after reading a short list of the Karloffs he had not yet seen.

D’oh!  Stupid getting-older-memory…

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

“When you live outside the law you have to eliminate dishonesty…” – Julian (Robert Keith), The Lineup (1958/Columbia)

One of my earliest posts here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear was an essay on The Lineup, a CBS radio series that premiered on July 6, 1950 as an imitator of the then-popular police procedural Dragnet and lasted on the air until February 20, 1953.  Scripted by future film director Blake Edwards (who also created Richard Diamond, Private Detective for actor-crooner Dick Powell), the series starred OTR stalwart Bill Johnstone as Lt. Ben Guthrie and Wally Maher as Sgt. Matt Grebb (previously played by Joseph Kearns).  Lineup differed from Dragnet only in that its dramatized cases were mostly fictional, compared to Jack Webb’s “liberation” of actual police files from the L.A.P.D.

The Lineup was one of a handful of CBS radio series that made the successful transition to television, premiering October 1, 1954 with Warner Anderson taking over for Johnstone as Guthrie and Tom Tully pinch-hitting for Maher as Grebb (who had since been promoted to Inspector).  A third character, Inspector Fred Asher (Marshall Reed), was also added to “the lineup,” and the series had a home at 10:00pm on CBS’ Friday night schedule for five seasons before being expanded to an hour in the fall of 1959 on Wednesdays.  Tully and Reed got their pink slips, and a new cast joined Anderson: William Leslie as Insp. Dan Delaney, Tod Barton as Insp. Charlie Summers (that name sounds familiar), Skip Ward as Officer Pete Larkin and Rachel Ames as Policewoman Sandy McAllister.  Whether it was the brand-new cast or brand-new time slot—or simply that the series had worn out its welcome—the changes did little to keep the program on the air, and The Lineup left CBS-TV on January 20, 1960.  It was syndicated soon afterward; its name changed to San Francisco Beat.

During its stint on CBS, someone got the idea to produce a theatrical version of the series, a B-picture that has acquired a sizeable cult following due to its crisp, no-nonsense direction by the legendary Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry) and suspenseful Naked City-type script by Sterling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night).  Indeed, The Lineup starts off with a bang: the audience is taken to a pier where boat passengers are disembarking when a porter swipes a grip from art dealer Philip Dressler (Raymond Bailey, sans his Milton Drysdale toupee), throws it into the back of a waiting cab, and the cab heads off for points unknown.  The cabbie fails to see a large truck backing out in his path and he rams into it, causing the truck’s driver to exit his vehicle to start the usual “Why don’t you look where you’re going” brouhaha.  The cabbie drives around the truck, and plows right into a beat cop who’s motioning for him to stop—and as the cop’s body hits the ground he manages to get off a shot that hits the cab driver and causes him to ram into the back car of a stationary train.

Lt. Guthrie (Anderson) and Insp. Al Quine (Emile Meyer—apparently Tom Tully wasn’t available to reprise his TV role as Grebb) are curious as to why the fuss over a simple suitcase has resulted in two deaths—and soon learn that a statue inside Dressler’s case is the hiding place for a nice little stash of heroin.  A narcotics smuggling ring is operating in Frisco, whereupon innocent tourists have smack planted on them and then are relieved of their cargo once they’ve left the boat.  That confiscation job falls to a pair of hoods played by Robert Keith and Eli Wallach; Wallach is the gunman described by his mentor (Keith) as “a wonderful, pure pathological study…a psychopath with no inhibitions.”  (Maybe so, but Keith comes across as a pretty creepy customer, too—particularly his habit of writing down the last words of dying individuals in a little notebook.)  Keith and Wallach (and wheelman Richard Jaeckel) have to obtain three parcels of heroin from three separate passengers and have it ready at a checkpoint before 2:00pm.

I had seen The Lineup one time before, and to give you an idea of how long it’s been it was on a television station that interrupted the movie with commercials.  I’ve come to appreciate it a little more with a second viewing, though I’m still not certain why it’s held in such high regard by cultists—there are an awful lot of slow spots in the film (primarily the scenes in which the cops appear…when your villains are more interesting than the law you’re bound to have trouble) and many of its memorable moments and ideas have been cribbed from earlier noir movies (T-Men, Kiss of Death, The Lady from Shanghai, etc.).  It does have a wild climactic chase that kicks in around the seventy-six minute mark, and the performances (particularly Wallach and Keith) are first-rate; my biggest delight while watching the film was recognizing right off the actor who plays Wallach’s contact as Bob Bailey, a.k.a. Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (his voice was a dead giveaway).  (Jack “Rocky Jordan” Moyles has a bit part in this one, too, as a steam room attendant.)  My copy of The Lineup came courtesy of Five Minutes to Live, which is a nice site to locate hard-to-find noirs. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Farewell, George

From my Bombast webpage comes some truly devastating news.  Actor George Grizzard has gone on to his rich reward at the age of 79.

His obituary covers in nice detail his incredible acting range, particularly in the area of live theater.  I wasn’t at all aware of Grizzard’s stage accomplishments—he won a Tony Award for his performance in 1996’s Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, and nominations for his work in The Disenchanged (1959) and Big Fish, Little Fish (1961).  His stage debut was opposite Paul Newman, playing his brother in 1955’s The Desperate Hours, which was later brought to the silver screen with Humphrey Bogart in the starring role.  Other highlights include Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (the original 1962 production), California Suite (1976) and Judgment at Nuremberg (2001).

Grizzard also did a goodly amount of television work, including the prestigious dramatic anthology Playhouse 90.  Among the series he appeared on: Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, Rawhide, Ben Casey, Medical Center, Hawaii Five-O and Law & Order, on which he had a recurring role as Arthur Gold.  He also copped a Best Supporting Actor Emmy in 1980 playing opposite Henry Fonda in the TV-movie The Oldest Living Graduate.

But I’ll personally remember Grizzard best for performances in films like Advise & Consent (1962, as Senator Ackerman), Warning Shot (1967, as the flaky pilot-playboy who befriends David Janssen’s cop) and Bachelor Party (1984) because—and I mean absolutely no malice in this—no one could play a better asshole than George.  Any individual who has the cojones to play truly unlikable people time and time again is aces in my book.

R.I.P., Mr. Grizzard.  You will be missed. 

Everybody loves Raymond

Having watched The Further Perils of Laurel & Hardy, Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy and the DVD set Weiss-O-Rama of late, I cannot escape the fact that the silent film bug has bit me again.  It’s a recurring phenomena (though certainly nothing to get all plastic-sheeting-and-duct-tape about) whereupon I find myself buying goodly-sized portions of DVDs showcasing silent cinema, and again, while the consequences are slight (and most enjoyable), it does have a tiny tendency to put a dent in my wallet.  I’ve procured within the past two weeks alone some silent comedies and dramas from the likes of Grapevine Video, Sunrise Silents and Kino—which I hope to find time to watch and review in this space this month.

I’ve been a fan of silent films since I was a little gaffer—particularly the works of the great comedians.  I’m not entirely sure when and how this came about, though I’ve long suspected that my exposure to Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon and Charley Chase in their Columbia two-reelers would go a long way toward explaining it.  I’m also old enough to remember the hoopla surrounding the return of Charlie Chaplin to the United States (not knowing at the time, of course, that the U.S. was responsible for kicking him out in the first place) to participate in the 1972 Academy Awards.  A few years later, I made a point to borrow from the town library Walter Kerr’s seminal reference tome The Silent Clowns—not long after its publication, the author/critic appeared occasionally on a program that I watched on our local PBS affiliate entitled The Silent Comedy Film Festival.

But enough about my truly odd childhood.  This October 15th and 17th, the Museum of Modern Art has scheduled showings of Hands Up! (1926), Raymond Griffith’s Civil War comedic masterpiece.  I’d certainly love to be there (although Pam says the popcorn really sucks) but since I cannot, I spend last night (through the courtesy of Grapevine) watching it in the confines of my own home, where the popcorn is assuredly better.  Hands Up! is acknowledged by many silent comedy fans to be Raymond Griffith’s best feature, even earning a spot on the National Film Registry in 2005.  Author Kerr enthusiastically championed Griffith in Clowns, writing:  “Raymond Griffith seems to me to occupy a handsome fifth place—after Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon—in the silent comedy pantheon, a place that is his by right of his refusal to ape his contemporaries and his insistence on following the devious curve of an entirely idiosyncratic eye.”

It would be difficult for someone like myself to argue with Mr. Kerr’s assessment (though I do take issue with his assigning Langdon to fourth place—I think a strong case can be made for Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle) since I’ve only seen the one Griffith vehicle—and in fact, more knowledgeable fans than I demur based on the reality that many of Griffth’s films have been lost to the ravages of time.  In a February 2005 article in Classic Images, Bruce Calvert informs readers that only two of Griffith’s best comedies—Hands and Paths to Paradise (1925)—are available on video; some of his supporting performances also exist in that medium, but the rest of his starring films still extant remain locked away in private archives.  (In the case of Paradise, nearly every available print is missing the film’s final reel.)

But rather than lament what’s unavailable, allow me to praise what is: Hands Up! is a first-rate feature comedy, featuring Griffith as a Confederate spy assigned to keep a Nevada gold mine out of the hands of the Union Army (represented by Captain Montagu Love).  During the course of his mission, he faces a firing squad (one of the film’s most memorable sequences, as he cavalierly tosses plates in the air to distract his would-be executioners) and Indians on the warpath, and manages to fall in love with both daughters (Marian Nixon, Virginia Lee Corbin) of the mine owner (Mack Swain)—a sticky wicket resolved at the end with a gag that I’m certain raised more than a few eyebrows at the time.  Griffith’s unflappable character (adorned in silk hat and tuxedo) makes the comedic entanglements work, displaying a breezy insouciance that is positively engaging.  I also find Hands Up! intriguing in that like Keaton’s The General, both of its protagonists are backing the Confederate cause…even though we all know (with the possible exception of a few people hanging out in my neck of the woods) how that turned out.

In The Silent Clowns, Kerr states that “…’Hands Up!’ contains some work that is daring—for its period, certainly—and some that is masterfully delicate; the work of an inventive, unaggressive, amiably iconoclastic intelligence.”  To me, the test of a really good silent film is whether or not it encourages me to seek other entries by the same artists (actors, directors, writers, etc.) and in the case of Hands Up! it’s passed the exam with flying colors.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Requiem for a heavyweight producer

My Bombast home page reports the passing of television producer Martin Manulis, who has shuffled off this mortal coil at the age of 92.

This will demonstrate how much of a lowbrow I am, by the way.  I saw Manulis’ name and immediately recognized him as the executive producer of TDOY sitcom fave The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis—not stopping to realize, of course, that he was also the creator of television’s Playhouse 90, one of the most prestigious dramatic anthology series in the history of the TV airwaves, with productions like Requiem for a Heavyweight and Days of Wine and Roses to his credit.

Manulis was also the producer of the movie adaptation of Wine and Roses, which starred Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick., and he dabbled in film production through the 1960s with films like Dear Heart (1964) and Luv (1967) among his credits.  But it was on the small screen that he achieved his greatest fame, producing various programs from the likes of Suspense to Studio One to Adventures in Paradise to James at 15.

R.I.P., Mr. Manulis—you will be missed.

Monday, October 1, 2007

I think we’re all Bozos on this bus

If you’ve ever seen Poltergeist (1982), I’m guessing you haven’t forgotten one of the most terrifying scenes in that horror flick, where the little kid’s clown doll turns evil and goes medieval on his ass.  I certainly won’t forget it, because I had a dream like that once when I was little—that my talking Bozo had me trapped in my room and wouldn’t let me out, and I couldn’t contact my parents.

I’ve known some people who claim to be freaked out by clowns.  I can’t honestly say that I share that phobia, because I dealt with the Bozo dream in a perfectly calm and rational manner: I threw that goddamned doll into the back of my closet.  (Mom: “Why don’t you ever play with Bozo anymore?”  Six-year-old me: “I don’t feel like it.”)  Mom says I was a pretty big Bozo fan as a kid—I even had this little tchotchke in the basement—but outside of the toys and maybe an occasional Bozo cartoon, it’s faded out of my childhood memory for good.

The entity billed as “The World’s Greatest Clown” was created by Alan W. Livingston in 1946 as a character for Capitol Records, offering children what was then the innovative idea of allowing them to read stories while listening along on 78 r.p.m. records (dubbed “Record Readers”).  Vocal actor Pinto Colvig (the voice of Goofy and so many others) was the man behind the clown’s voice, and he also became the first television Bozo when a TV program based on the character appeared in 1949 in the Los Angeles area.

The cathode ray tube began to cut into Bozo’s record sales, and an associate of Livingston’s, a gynecologist-turned-actor-comedian named Larry Harmon, had the foresight to see what a money-making machine the Boz could turn out to be on TV by buying the rights to various Bozo products and knock-offs.  (The jewel of the clown…er, crown, the rights to the character, were finally purchased by Harmon from Capitol in 1957.)  Harmon then started his own cartoon studio (in association with Jaywark) not long after, and eventually cranked out 156 cartoons that were so dismal in their animation they made the King Features Trilogy material look like it came out of Disney.  Armed with this “wealth” of cartoon riches, Harmon began to actively promote sales of the new cartoon series, and decided to copy the success of TV’s Romper Room by franchising his animated output: the cartoons would be sold to local stations, who in turn would produce their own kiddie-show series featuring their own Bozos—after having purchased the costume and “training” from Mr. Harmon, who became a staggeringly rich tycoon in the process.  One of the more famous individuals to don the Bozo duds was a young man named Willard Scott (on Washington’s WRC-TV from 1959-62), who a meaner person might say pretty much stayed a Bozo the rest of his life, even while doing the weather for The Today Show.  (I’m glad I didn’t disappoint you.)  WJCL-TV in Savannah even had a Bozo show, though I don’t know too much of the backstory behind that…Sam Johnson probably does, when he’s not out being the Six Million Dollar Man.

I mention Bozo’s background only because I entertained myself over the weekend watching the DVD box set Larry Harmon’s Bozo, the World’s Most Famous Clown: Volume 1, a collection of thirty shows originally broadcast over WHDH-TV in Boston between 1965-67 (the program, Bozo’s Big Top, actually ran on WHDH from 1959-70; Harmon took one hundred-and-thirty episodes from 1965-67 and syndicated them to stations who couldn’t afford their own local Bozo).  Maybe I’m just a strange person, but I’ve really been enjoying this jaw-droppingly awful collection of live shows that feature Frank Avruch as the Boz himself and future Sesame Street performer Carroll Spinney as various characters under the circus’ big top.

I say “jaw-droppingly awful” only because Bozo’s Big Top (produced and written by Harmon) can’t hold a candle to the Cadillac of Bozo shows, Bozo’s Circus, which ran on WGN-TV in Chicago from 1960 to 2001.  Having been blessed with getting WGN on our cable service in Ravenswood while I was still toiling away in high school, I got to enjoy the antics of Bob “Bozo” Bell, Frazier Thomas, Roy Brown (as Cooky), Marshall Brodien (“Wizzo the Wizard”) and the rest in an incredibly well-produced show that may have been targeted at kids but had equal appeal for adults as well.  (Actor Dan Castellaneta once revealed in an interview that he modeled the voice of The Simpsons’ Krusty the Clown character after Bell’s Bozo.)

Big Top is like a traffic accident from which you can’t quite turn away.  The ninth show on the DVD set will give you an example of its so-awful-it’s-great appeal: two of the regular performers, Carl Carlsson (who played Professor Tweetiefoofer) and Ruth Carlsson (who played most of the female characters), are doing a juggling act that they apparently rehearsed maybe twenty seconds before the show started.  They keep dropping their pins, and helpful kids from the audience get up from their seats to pick them up and hand them to the jugglers…while they’re still juggling.  When this not-at-all-impressive display is finished, the Carlssons then light torches and start to juggle these—prompting me to cry out: “Wait a minute!  You haven’t mastered the pins yet!”  Even though they turn out the lights in the studio to emphasize that the materials they’re juggling are on fire, they miraculously manage not to drop any of the torches and barbecue any of the tiny tots in the process.

On Bozo’s Big Top, Avruch would choose at random a child who was to be—and I can hear you all getting ready to guffaw—his “Butch for a Day”; Butch being the little kid in the Bozo cartoons that resembled Richie Rich except that he wore a ringmaster’s uniform.  In Show #9, he chooses a defiant little girl who most definitely is not going to wear either the jacket or cap—I sort of halfway expected her to glare at him and say “Aw, cram it, Clownie!”  The main duty of the “Butch of the Day” is to draw a number from a hat to pick a child who spins a Bozo wheel to win a big honkin’ load of toys in “Bozo’s Treasure Chest,” sort of a very-poor relation to WGN’s “Grand Prize Game.”  The “Butch” kid, who’s apparently having a bad day, ignores the clown and several kids start running out of the peanut gallery to volunteer to take over her Butch duties before Avruch manages convince Miss Pissy Moppet to pull a out a number.  The kid who has the winning number eventually wins the chest with a lucky spin; by this time, there were so many freakin’ toys in that chest (I watched eight shows before anyone won) that the winner could have opened a Toys R Us franchise there on the spot.

Once you have children breaching the soundstage perimeter, chaos eventually follows.  Bozo and his circus pals are attempting to convulse the kids with some hoary old vaudeville sketch when you can see one brave little moppet decide to join the festivities, staring at the camera as if she were ready for her close-up, Mr. DeMille.  The sketch involves the demolition of a hi-fi set, which produces a ton of paper on the floor that, of course, the tidier-minded kids feel its their job to clean up…but this time they take the paper back to their seats.

If you want to know why a perfectly sane individual like me would find this sort of kitsch fascinating…well, I can’t really tell you.  But Infinity Entertainment, who released the first set, has a second collection following in November.  Somebody besides me has to be watching this stuff.  So remember what your ol’ pal Bozo always says…keep laughin’!