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.

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