Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Adult Film Auteur - An Overview

Andrew Sarris' 1962 essay "Notes on Auteur Theory" introduced a new form of film analysis and appreciation to American film criticism. Borrowing ideas and the very term "auteur" from the French film critics of the 1960s, Sarris outlined the concept of auteur theory as one with three premises, or “circles”, helping to define a given director as an auteur. The first is technical competence (which most directors, he claims, pass rather easily), the second is the personality, or the style, of the director as seen in his films, and the third is “interior meaning”, or the connection between the director and his material. In all cases, the director is viewed as the sole author, or "auteur" of his films, the signatory on an artistic work. Directors are split into three categories defined by their placement in one of these circles: technicians, stylists, and auteurs, all worthy of note, some more than others.

Applying this theory to adult films may not seem like a natural approach to discussion of the genre, but pornographic filmmakers were not exactly a dime a dozen in the 1970s and 1980s, the era of porno chic. Much like the stars of the era, the directors working in the industries of the east and west coasts often made features identified and sometimes even advertised as the work of an auteur. "A Gerard Damiano Film", "Alex de Renzy's...", "A Film by Cecil Howard", "Carter Stevens'...". Taking a hint from the New Hollywood of the 1970s, when the director's authorship was used as a marketing tool for a more hip and informed audience, films began being branded not only by their female stars, but by their directors. Accordingly, each director's films are distinctive from another's, visually, stylistically, thematically, and artistically.

This is the driving thrust behind "Skin Deep: The Adult Film Auteur". Much has been written of the adult industry at large, the drugs, the crime, the tragedies and controversies, and of the people in front of the camera, the men and women who bravely revolutionized sexual cinema. But precious little attention has been given to the men behind the cameras, working to create something special, signature films defining their aesthetic and thematic views while also striving to be commercial enough to turn a profit. The comparison between adult film auteurs and those working within the box office-driven studio system of classic Hollywood is not to be curtly dismissed.

The man responsible for the two key films of east coast porno chic, Gerard Damiano, is perhaps the most important director in the genre. While Deep Throat (1972) has become a pop culture phenomenon, The Devil in Miss Jones (1973) is more indicative of the work this artist produced throughout the 1970s and 1980s. More than any other filmmaker, Damiano personified the auteur theory of director as author. He wrote, produced, edited, and directed all of his key films, involved with every aspect of production to bring to the screen works close to his creative heart. Much has been made of his Catholicism informing his films, and while there are elements of guilt threaded throughout his work, there is more of a sense of old-fashioned conservative values clashing with the new social mores in the wake of the sexual revolution. Directing his documentary Changes (1970), Damiano examines the various facets of the new sexuality, not merely for exploitation purposes, but out of a seeming genuine curiosity and interest in expanding his horizons. Damiano was also not afraid to experiment within the confines of the genre: a male-on-male blowjob in The Story of Joanna (1975), an all-puppet sex film with Let My Puppets Come (1977), a one-woman show in Portrait (1974). His most complex film, and my personal favorite, is Odyssey (1977), a examination in three parts of people's lives saved or destroyed by sexual desire, and he would return to this three-story structure for his last great film, Night Hunger (1983), with similar thematic juxtapositions of three members of a family suffering from satyriasis, an abnormal sexual craving of torturous extremes.


As gifted as he was a storyteller, Damiano was also a brilliant actor's director. Few of his contemporaries could provoke the kind of performances given in his films by performers not known for their thespian talents. Suzanne McBain in Odyssey, Loni Sanders and Mike Ranger in Never So Deep (1981), Lysa Thatcher in The Satisfiers of Alpha Blue (1980), these performers challenged themselves to give what are surely their career performances. There are few, if any, poorly acted Damiano films, and his ensemble casts were among the finest in the genre. Even elegant talents such as Georgina Spelvin (the original "Miss Jones"), Jody Maxwell (Portrait), Terri Hall (Joanna), and Sharon Kane (Night Hunger) give arguably the best performances of their careers under Damiano's careful direction. The man also cast himself in some of the most memorable non-explicit roles of the genre: the nut in the padded cell in Miss Jones, Samantha Fox's father in People (1978), the producer in Skin Flicks (1978). There truly is no one more deserving of the adult film auteur title than Damiano, the Orson Welles of the adult word.

On the west coast, Anthony Spinelli was producing equally provocative and compelling films as Damiano was on the east. In fact, the two directors complement each other thematically and visually, tackling the subjects of human sexuality and relationships in similar ways. Like Damiano, Spinelli's best films were dramas dealing with anguished characters (the title character in 1974's The Seduction of Lynn Carter, the tortured obscene phone caller in 1975's Night Caller) and social hypocrisies surrounding sexuality and repression (a small town of sexual deviants in 1981's Vista Valley PTA). Spinelli also injected a welcome sense of romanticism into his narratives, making perhaps the most sensitive adult film, Nothing to Hide (1981), the official sequel to his marvelous Talk Dirty to Me (1980) that brings the original's adolescent obsession with promiscuous sexuality to its natural conclusion in the form of a sweet adult romance leading to marriage. It is the best two-film series of the genre. Spinelli's fascination with the sexual mind reached its apex when he made Reel People (1983), a documentary-porno hybrid featuring real people recruited to live out their greatest fantasies in front of the camera.

With his background in Hollywood production, Spinelli's films were always professionally made, with heavy emphasis on cinematography, lighting, and performance. The latter element is what sets Spinelli's films apart from other films produced in California during the first decades of the genre. His well-drawn characters are brought to life by winning performers aware of who their characters are and what Spinelli is doing with them. Richard Pacheco and John Leslie became Spinelli's leading men par excellence, and he also found a winning leading actress in Jessie St. James, an athletic blonde with an intoxicating sexual allure and tremendous acting talent used to great advantage in a series of brilliant starring roles. He gave future disco singer Andrea True her finest role as the title character in Lynn Carter, and did the same for Sharon Thorpe in Sex World (1977). To continually compare Spinelli with Damiano would considerably diminish the individual talents of each director, but the two surely share the title of the best adult film auteurs of the classic era.

The most prolific female adult filmmaker was Roberta Findlay, who was also unique in that she not only directed, edited, lighted, and photographed her own work, but was also a regularly employed cinematographer for many of her New York contemporaries. A self-taught technician and artist, Findlay's career unofficially began after her forced wedding to director Michael Findlay, working on (and sometimes starring in) his exploitation films in the 1960s and early 1970s. Following their separation, while he clumsily stumbled through the adult film world, Findlay found her footing collaborating with producers like Allan Shackleton, David Darby, and her eventual long-time business partner Walter Sear. Her love for lighting and inventive camera work would establish the Findlay look, one seen even in her R-rated ventures of the 1980s. It's too easy to approach Findlay's films expecting a feminist approach to porno conventions, and one would be sorely disappointed if that's all they were looking for in films like Angel on Fire (1974), Mystique (1979), and The Tiffany Minx (1981). More than anything, her work reveals a deep love for classic Hollywood films, seen most vividly in her scripts and characters, as well as her bold lighting schemes.

Of the San Francisco filmmakers, Alex de Renzy was a name synonymous with the permissiveness so widely embraced in the Bay area. From his earliest films (1972's Little Sisters features the drag troupe the Cockettes among the cast members), de Renzy was a bold and fearless director who would try anything once, and often frequently if he liked it. A brief attempt at respectability with the well-researched documentary Weed (1972) did not stop de Renzy from changing the face of San Francisco pornography. His films had a voyeuristic thrill to them, especially when they included sexual fancies (autofellatio, interracial pairings, slings, enemas, shaving) that felt intrusive when photographed so crisply, up close and personal. They were also fiercely funny: a statutory rapist runs for his life from the girl's mother and ends up as the star stud in a brothel (Baby Face, 1977); a busty dim bulb develops amnesia after a car crash and goes on a wild journey to regain her identity (Pretty Peaches, 1978). De Renzy even produced a murder mystery, the unjustly neglected Cheryl Hansson: Cover Girl (1981). Before he made the slow transition to video, de Renzy continued shooting on film even when it was wildly unpopular to do so, resulting in a lengthier collection of celluloid classics than most of his peers. In true auteur fashion, he began branding his films with* "Alex de Renzy's...", establishing himself as San Francisco's resident master erotic filmmaker.

Smoothly transitioning from softcore to hard with Score and The Image (1973), sophisticated sexploiteer Radley Metzger's X-rated oeuvre is a small one, but without doubt the most influential and long-lasting on the industry. Where Damiano broke open the gates for pornography with intelligence and purpose, Metzger's films, credited to the legendary "Harry Paris", are the best adult film comedies ever made. As a filmmaker who seemed to go into hardcore out of necessity rather than interest, Metzger transforms sex into a source of mirth and merriment. Unfortunately, he is also the most promising auteur who basically threw in the towel far too early. Having seemingly shot his creative wad with his signature feature, The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1976), he followed the super hit with two films, the half-successful Barbara Broadcast (1977) and the slapped-together Maraschino Cherry (1978), before doing uncredited assistant director duties on The Tale of Tiffany Lust (1981) and leaving the X-rated world behind. Perhaps the most cultured director of the genre, with plentiful literary and artistic references sprinkled throughout his work, Metzger is to many the epitome of pornography with class. It's difficult not to agree.

Italian-born Lasse Braun is the one true success story of a European pornographer making his way across the Atlantic to bring a continental sensibility to American adult films. Others tried (including Gerard Kikoine and gay porn auteur Wallace Potts), but none had the lasting impression on the genre, with such distinctively kinky panache, as Braun. His first major hit, Sensations (1975), was technically an American-produced film, financed by porn mogul Ruben Steurman, and his first film on U.S. soil, American Desire (1981), was his last shot on celluloid; subsequent projects shot in America were shot on video. Braun's roots were in lavish, deliciously sordid loops, contributing to a segmented vignette feel to his features. His trademark was adventurous exoticism, with the titillating prospect of European corruption of American ideals, as Braun did to American leading lady of choice Brigitte Maier.

The most successful gay director working in the straight adult film world, Chuck Vincent wore the fact that he wanted to make "real movies" on his sleeve. True to form, all of his work is character- and story-driven, to the extent that many consider his films overly glossy and un-erotic. To dismiss Vincent as a pornographer in denial, however, is to ignore one of the genre's greatest artists at work. His comedies are raucous affairs, and his dramas emotional powerhouses, but flowing throughout them all is an uncertain distrust of love and relationships. Most noteworthy about Vincent's work is his casting of a series of actresses who would become his muses: Samantha Fox, Veronica Hart, Kelly Nichols, Merle Michaels, Gloria Leonard, Candida Royalle, Leslie Bovee. Frequent director-star partnerships were not uncommon in the adult film world, but with Vincent, these women informed his work to such a strong degree that he could very well be the George Cukor of adult films.


Despite auteur theorists attributing a film's authorship solely to the director, it would be ignorant to dismiss the important collaborations of these directors with writers, cinematographers, producers, and even actors. In the realm of photography, Damiano worked with Joao Fernandes, Spinelli with Jack Remy, and Vincent with Larry Revene. Revene worked with every major New York City adult filmmaker, but his union with Vincent produced the director's finest films, with a visual polish his earlier work is missing, and Revene would eventually strike out on his own as a director, making films that some viewers confuse for Vincent films primarily because of their stylist similarities. This is the work of Revene, as important a factor in Vincent's auteurism as his muses and frequent screenwriters (Bill Slobodian, Rick Marx).

The films of Armand Weston appear to be split into two types: the dark sinister psychodramas and the considerably lighter Hollywood homages. He is also one of the genre's auteurs with the smallest output, culminating in a single R-rated horror film before his untimely death in 1988. Weston's background in illustration and design brings an artist's sensibility to the composition and structure of his work. It is difficult to discuss Weston's oeuvre as a whole, as at face value all of his films seem so very different from one another, with only Defiance (1974) and The Taking of Christina (1976) seeming like sister films due to their being produced by performer-turned-filmmaker Jason Russell. A deeper probing into the brief filmography of Weston reveals a recurring theme of peeking behind a public facade to find the less than savory underbelly of society.

Another adult filmmaker with a brief career was Joanna Williams, another woman who began her career in softcore sexploitation (in front of the camera) before graduating behind the camera. Her output is small, but goes further to challenging the feminist critique that a woman director's work automatically qualifies as championing women. Female objectification in the Little Girls Blue films (1977, 1983) and graphic rape in Expensive Tastes (1978) provoke questions about the woman behind the camera and her artistic drive to create potentially troubling films for the image of women in adult films.

The genre's tortured artist, Roger Watkins, chose pornography because there was little else in the film business for him, and his films betray the angry nihilism that plagued this genius until his untimely death in 2002. The bleak existences of the protagonists in Her Name was Lisa (1979), Midnight Heat (1982), and Corruption (1983) are certainly autobiographical, and his final 35mm feature, American Babylon (1985), is perhaps his finest and most personal work. Working closely with cinematographer Revene, each film feels like his closing artistic statement, until he discovers more to say about human cruelty and misery through his characters. Even his comedy The Pink Ladies (1980), dismissed by Watkins as "fluff", is a knowing smack in the face of American suburbia, a theme more fully fleshed out and explored in Babylon. Watkins' films, more than any other filmmaker's, are not simply viewed, they are felt and endured.

Working under the delightful moniker of "Henri Pachard", Ron Sullivan first made his mark with Babylon Pink (1979) and proceeded to build on the popularity of his debut film with successively smart and funny films throughout the 1980s, with a few marvelous dramatic works scattered in-between his more uproarious projects. Known industry-wide for his bathroom scenes, there is more depth to a Sullivan film that can be found in simply noting the location of a sex scene. His best films are "day in the life" stories, following a group of people within the course of a single day: Outlaw Ladies (1981), Nasty Girls (1983), G-Strings (1984), She's So Fine (1985). By focusing on a multitude of characters connected through simple means, Sullivan briefly stands as the Robert Altman of adult film, a champion of superficially simple storytelling made complex by his love of characters. Most vivid in his films is Sullivan's love for women, giving women all of the strength in his stories and empowering them throughout his narratives. Witness Mascara (1982), an oft-neglected Sullivan film starring Lisa de Leeuw and Lee Carroll as two women from different walks of life who learn from each other through the course of exploring and solving de Leeuw's sexual repression. The men in the film are mere vehicles for the women as they grow in strength and maturity, and this is a recurring theme in Sullivan's work. More than any female filmmaker's work, Sullivan's films provide more interesting arguments for a feminist approach to pornography in the 1980s.

Darker than Watkins was Phil Prince, regarded today as the most perverse and twisted of New York's directors, taking depravity to levels even de Renzy would consider morally questionable. But what lies behind this drive to deliver the most horrific and disturbing views of sexuality that the adult genre of this era had to offer? While scholars like Bill Landis make the argument that Prince had a sadistic streak, it becomes obvious in interviews with Prince that he was fulfilling a market demand for more violent and edgy content, taking pornography to the heaviest extremes before the Meese Commission reared its head in the mid-1980s. A commercial drive to create is often dismissed as not conducive to producing genuine art, but looking at Prince's films, there is an undeniable artistry at work in capturing the unnerving scenarios of de Sade reincarnated in Kneel Before Me (1983), or the criminal assault and rape of a house of women in The Story of Prunella (1982), or the darkly comic faux psychiatric evaluations of a succession of degenerates in Dr. Bizarro (1983). A Phil Prince film is unmistakable, even when his name isn't attached, as with Angel in Distress (1982) and The Stimulators (1983), and this is the sign of a true auteur.

There were many other filmmakers of distinction:

-Shaun Costello, whose films ranged from weekend wonders to considerably more extravagant projects, all of them benefiting from a fevered sexuality; his frequent cinematographer Art Ben is also an auteur of note when he struck out on his own
 -Jon Fontana, the co-director and cinematographer of the films of the Mitchell Brothers, and perhaps the true auteur of the brothers' oeuvre
-Joseph Sarno, regarded as one of the best actor's directors of the era
-Carter Stevens, actor-director whose films revealed a filmmaker who had more fun in the New York industry than perhaps any other
-Howard Ziehm, whose historically valuable early L.A. films preceded a series of "loop carrier" films establishing him as the first bi-coastal director
-Cecil Howard, the consummate producer/distributor whose work as a director is typified by sexual hunger connecting characters in desperate need of fulfillment 
 -Edwin and Summer Brown and Svetlana and David J. Frazer, two California couples producing both emotional couples-oriented films and tongue-wagging eye candy features for raincoaters
-Peter Balakoff, who co-starred in almost all of his California films with redhead exclusive Gena Lee, and sensitive New Yorker Kemal Horulu, both of whom focused on delivering turgid soap operas that are, despite their flaws, indicative of auteur mentalities
-Fred Lincoln, an early actor-turned director with a whimsical approach to sexuality that gave the impression his sets were one great big party
-John & Lem Amero, who were far more prolific in the gay industry but who brought their queer sensibilities to a handful of films that abandoned eroticism in favor of campy charms aimed clear over the heads of the general adult film audience; yet another gay director, John Christopher, betrayed none of his personal sexual preferences in films that brazenly showcased an emotionally stunted heterosexuality
-Stephen Sayadian and Gregory Dark, the New Wave mind magicians of the 1980s adult industry, producing wildly different projects with similar forward-thinking visual styles
-Early San Francisco pioneers Curt McDowell and Lowell Pickett; McDowell's films are in a class by themselves, both intensely personal and freely sexual, and while they're difficult to evaluate because so many are currently missing, the surviving Pickett features are among the earliest west coast attempts to produce professional pornography and succeed
-Zebedy Colt, known more today for his on-screen performances, directed a collection of bizarre and unclassifiable films that pushed the boundaries of good taste while also embracing the art of performance, made all the more interesting by his bisexuality
-Early pioneer Richard Robinson, a swinger whose free-love philosophy bled into his work, and his photographer Sven Conrad, producer of some of the most professional-looking adult films of the era
-Michael Zen, another bisexual auteur, whose stellar work in the gay industry tends to overshadow his worthwhile contributions to straight films; both deserve close examination
-Kirdy Stevens, who together with his wife Helene Terrie, graduated from softcore films to hardcore, taking their fascination with controversial subject matter (swinging, incest, underage fantasies) with them
-West coast auteurs Alan B. Colberg and Jeffrey Fairbanks, whose stars briefly shined bright in the adult film world, but long enough to create signature films with lasting impression
-Godfrey Daniels, whose gritty early work gives no indication of the drastic turn into professionally polished star vehicles he is known for today

And let's not forget Bob Chinn or Gary Graver, two of the most prolific filmmakers on the west coast, responsible for intriguing dramas and raucous comedies with visual style and care for dialogue and character, tackling every subgenre imaginable with consistently interesting results. Like Billy Wilder and Robert Wise before them, it may be easy to dismiss these directors when discussing adult film auteurs, as they floated through different genres over the course of two decades. Make no mistake, however, their generous bodies of work reveal auteurs at work.


These men and women, and more, warrant in-depth discussion in examination of the adult film auteur of the "golden age", and I can only hope that I do all of them justice. They are all worth your attention, for what they brought to the cinematic landscape, the ways they challenged their chosen genre, and for creating art within a crudely commercial industry.

(C) Casey Scott, 2012

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Meet the A/V Geeks Part 1


Skip Elsheimer's A/V Geeks is where classroom, industrial, and ephemeral films go for a second life in the digital age. Perhaps the most vast genre of orphan films in film history, it's also one that keeps on giving. Caches of 16mm films keep turning in public and private collections, approximately 100 miles worth of film that is still in need of proper restoration. Elsheimer's Indiegogo fundraising campaign has raised almost $20,000, but still needs the help of viewers like you. As a contributor to the campaign, I received my choice of 10 DVD's from the A/V Geeks website, which arrived in a package with an A/V Geeks sticker and my new favorite T-shirt, as well as the opportunity to vote for which films on a list I felt should be given digitizing priority. It seemed like a good time to review this impressive sampling of the Geeks' plentiful offerings, which I will do over the course of several blogs. This is only a taste of the amazing stuff in need of digitization and preservation. Click the banners to check out the A/V Geeks website and the 100 Miles of Film Fundraising Campaign.


Best of the Digitizing Campaign

A special disc included with the package of 10 discs was this generous helping of short films considered the cream of the crop of the recently digitized 16mm films, including a good number I personally voted for. With no focus on genre or film type, this gives a good idea of the wide variety of films being preserved by the A/V Geeks. All of them can be seen at www.archive.org, the best depository of public domain films, television, and radio in the world.

All Girl Melody Makers (c. 1941), part of Castle Films' Music Album series, stars Dave Schooler and his 21 Swinghearts performing three songs, "Tchaikowskiana", "Pavanne", and "In an Eighteenth Century Drawing Room", and true to the title, all of the band members are women, decked out in garish dresses as they play seemingly every instrument known to man. Schooler and his ladies appeared in a number of soundies (musical shorts in the 40s and 50s), the novelty naturally being that this bandleader was surrounded by dames who could play swing music as good as any man. Well...almost. They're at least as talented as any upper-tier high school band.

Narrated by Beaumont Newhall, the former curator of George Eastman House, Ansel Adams, Photographer (1957) is kind of meta in that it's a short preserved through crowd sourcing...produced by a man who was part of one of the greatest preservation houses in the country. His wife wrote the film, and it was photographed and directed by renowned documentary cinematographer David Myers (Woodstock, Marjoe), who also shot George Lucas' THX-1138. Clearly this film has quite a few pedigrees behind it, and it's a rare glimpse into the world of Adams, one of the most unique artists of the modern era. We see him playing the piano in his San Francisco home before packing up his car with multiple cameras and their equipment, heading to the beach to capture oceanic vistas, then returning home to process the film in his lab. An incredible sampling of his work is also included and savored by Myers' camera, in glorious black and white.

We shift to color with Facts About Projection (Second Edition) (1959), a film digitized by the A/V Geeks for A/V geeks! Learn through animation and demonstration the proper use of a film projector, a skill clearly needed in the digital age. In all seriousness, there is something quaint and admirable about seeing someone cleaning, preparing, and running a projector with hands-on precision. Norma A. Barts, the director of the A/V department of Niles Township High School in Skokie, IL is credited as the educational consultant, and it's probable the classroom scenes in the film were shot there. Producer Robert Longini, based out of Chicago, had an interesting career as an Army photographer and documentary filmmaker during WWII before becoming an instructor at Chicago's Institute of Design. He died three years after this film was produced at age 47.

Even with the Encyclopedia Britannica logo attached, Mother Cat and Her Baby Skunks (1958) has barely any educational value, so it must have been an especially fun treat for bored kids in a classroom tired of learning. I think a bit more credit should be given to the ephemeral film crews who had to work with animals, as they do here, creating an entire narrative out of disembodied close-ups of the title "protagonist" and other random snippets of nature photography. Mother Cat and her two kittens Blackie and Sandy (guess what colors they are) live on a farm with German shepherd Rex, but out in the wilds of the woods, when a hawk eyes three baby skunks whose mother has disappeared as his next meal, she whisks them back to her family box and suckles them to her teet, the animal kingdom's version of adoption.

A bizarre 1967 commercial for the Opel Kadett station wagon from Buick stars Alan Hale, Jr., the trusty ol' Skipper on "Gilligan's Island", dressed in character as he drives through a jungle with animals as passengers. Yeah, it's weird...the GM brand car is even branded "the mini-brute". A second Opel Kadett commercial follows, showing a female drive in the 1969 model trying to beat an elephant to a parking spot. I guess this is the mini-brute angle? A third and final commercial, again for the 1969 model, sells the car in a bizarre auto show featuring garishly outfitted elephants and women with bee heads. Does anyone remember this car?

One of the most valuable pieces of film in this digitization project is 11 minutes of silent footage of the Perry St. School, an unidentified elementary school. We see crossing guards, kids pledging allegiance to a flag on a desk, teachers using flash cards, kids reading books and coloring at their desks, collecting their milk and snack, painting a wall mural, playing instruments in music class, and other daily activities of a classroom, all in vibrant color, circa the early 1960s. One little girl who visits the school nurse looks identical to Sally Draper on "Mad Men". It's possible this footage was shot to project for prospective pupils and their parents, though there may have been other purposes for filming these scenes. All the kids are dressed to the nines and behave perfectly, though rarely acknowledging the camera, and it must have been shot in the fall or winter, as gloves and hats are worn to go outside and play.

Produced by prolific Coronet Films, Propaganda Techniques (1949) offers some interesting looks into how candidates for political office work towards getting elected, using a local town's mayoral election as an example. A reporter questions the campaign manager of the winning candidate about whether his re-election was a win for good government or for good propaganda. The manager argues that it is a win for both, but goes into greater detail about the tactics used to persuade voters into voting for his candidate, including "glittering generalities", "card-stacking", "name-calling", "plain folks", and "band wagon", explaining these industry jargon terms for us Joe Public's who buy this hucksterism hook, line and sinker. This 10-minute short is missing the credits and jumps in a few spots.

Not only your standard school classrooms were home to 16mm projectors. Sunday school classrooms would take in a movie once in a while, perhaps one like The Protestant Radio Commission's The Parable of the Prodigal Son, one told in the cheapest way possible: marionettes. And not just any marionettes, but the Mabel Beaton Marionettes, familiar to many children of this era as the puppets used in a popular TV movie, The Spirit of Christmas, containing puppet-cast versions of "The Nativity" and "The Night Before Christmas". Something Weird offers this unusual television special, produced by Bell Telephone Company. But before Mabel and her husband Les achieved Christmas puppet immortality, she published the book Marionettes: A Hobby for Everyone, leading to the couple producing a series of nine films for the National Council of Churches in a New Rochelle, NY studio, aided by their puppeteer friends and using marionettes to bring Bible stories to life for young children. This is one of those. I would love to see the rest! They made two more classroom films, Santa's Rocketship and Mayflower Mouse, the latter distributed under the title The Story of the Pilgrims before hanging up their puppet strings. It's magical discoveries like this film that vividly illustrate the important work of A/V Geeks.

With a title like Vidtronics Demo (c. 1968), this film could be anything. Thankfully for me, it turned out to be a groovy 5-minute 60s demonstration of cinema technology! A swinging chick dances against the background, awash in psychedelic colors, also seen in white silhouette. Arte Johnson shows up in his "Laugh-In" military helmet, a fat comedian who I should recognize is smashed with a pie, and our dancing girl goes from dancing to skating in a big warehouse. Finally, to clarify just what this short promo reel is actually selling, credits for "chroma-key mix", "multiple split images", "compound mix with HS-200", "single frame animation", "reverse motion", "freeze-frame", and "programmed repeat motion HS-200" are splashed before our eyes. The music, by popular jingles composer Hugh Heller, is amazing, and is available on the very rare Hellers LP "Singers, Talkers, Players, Swingers, and Doers" under the title "Take 46". I want it on my iPod! This is probably my favorite digitized film on the disc. I could play it on a loop all day and never get tired of it. And what is Vidtronics? Today it's considered the pioneer in video editing, graphics, and transfers, founded in 1966 by Technicolor and going out of business exactly 20 years later, but try as I might, very little info can be gleaned of this company's history and impact on the industry.

The disc is closed out with McGraw-Hill Text-Films' Who's Right (1954), one of a series of films based on the book "Marriage for Moderns" by Henry A. Bowman, the chairman of Division of Home and Family and Department of Marriage Education at Stephens College in Columbia, MO. New York-based writer/director Irving Jacoby was, like Chicago-based Robert Longini, an Army documentary filmmaker during WWII before forming the company Affiliated Film Producers with three other ex-Army cameramen (including Willard Van Dyke). He is best-known for his mental health documentaries, produced for Manhattan's Mental Health Board, and taught film at City College before the war. Affiliated Film Producers was enlisted to produce all of the "Marriage for Moderns" films for McGraw-Hill, including "Choosing for Happiness" and "This Charming Couple", both directed by Van Dyke, as well as "Marriage Today", "Jealousy", "It Takes All Kinds", and "Who's Boss". This film's cinematographer/editor, Richard Leacock, would go on to shoot Monterey Pop (1968), work with Norman Mailer on his notorious Maidstone (1970), and team with D.A. Pennebaker to salvage what was left of Godard's abandoned 1 P.M. (1972). The whole AFP gang also made educational films about juvenile delinquency and family life. Almost all of them are on Archive.org.

"Spoiled! Selfish! Self-centered! This woman believes the sun should rise and set according to her needs!" Some of the most vicious dialogue ever uttered by a narrator in an educational film is heard in the first few minutes of Who's Right! And he doesn't just attack the wife of the house, the man of the house is branded a "tyrant of medieval mold." It turns out that the narrator is just relating how this husband and wife see each other after a particularly heated argument over money, 11 months into their marriage. Through inner monologues, we hear what they continue to think about each other as they pace their respective rooms. Wife Honey's concerns are purely superficial, focused on clothes and jewelry, while husband Frank misses his friends and kvetches about his job. We see the squabble that led to their explosive disagreement. Who's right? Who cares? This is what booze and swinging is for. But just wait till you find out who the narrator is!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Remember "Phyllis"?

"PHYLLIS! It sure isn't yooooooooooou!"

"The Mary Tyler Moore Show" was a trailblazer and is still highly regarded as one of the best television shows of all time. It spun off three series based on beloved "MTM" characters. "Rhoda" starred Valerie Harper as the wisecracking gal who returned to New York in search of romantic opportunity and a life she couldn't find living in the same building as Mary. "Lou Grant" cast Ed Asner in an hour-long newspaper drama, providing a different atmosphere from the whimsical newsroom he previously inhabited.

Mary: "OK, girls, you can stop standing behind me and get your own shows!"

And then there was "Phyllis". Oscar-winner and Emmy-winner Cloris Leachman, already a 20-year veteran of show business, was consistently hilarious as Mary's nosy neighbor, whose attempts to be liberal and forward-thinking, wise beyond her years, and a helpful pal backfired with hilarious results. She was a comic natural for a series of her own, despite Phyllis Lindstrom being a somewhat polarizing character, not the break-out character that Rhoda became. "MTM" lasted 7 seasons, "Rhoda" and "Lou Grant" 5 seasons each. "Phyllis" ended in shame after 2. Rarely re-run (it never reached enough episodes for syndication), one VHS release in the 90s paired the pilot and second episode in a promisingly titled "Volume 1", never to be followed with further installments in the projected series. The show was re-run, though never prominently scheduled, on Nick-at-Nite and TV Land before virtually disappearing for good in the late 90s. While "MTM" and "Rhoda" have appeared in near entirety on DVD, there are no plans for "Phyllis" to emerge on the digital format. What happened? Where did "Phyllis" go? And does it deserve this media shut-out?





Through TV Vault, a television torrent site I would be lost without, I was able to acquire the entire first and second seasons of the ill-fated spin-off. While the first three episodes and season finale of season 1 are the original broadcast length, all other episodes of both seasons were recorded from the American Life Network during its recent (and again brief) re-running in 2010, abbreviated from 24 minutes to 22 minutes, often with clumsy cuts shifting one scene abruptly into the next. Even in this less than ideal presentation, it was a revelation to finally see the whole series in one big gulp.

As "Phyllis" begins, our heroine is a widow, her never-seen husband Lars having died in Minneapolis and leaving her no assets. She whisks teenage daughter Bess (Lisa Gerritsen, underused throughout the series) to San Francisco to live with Lars' mother Audrey (Jane Rose), a dim-witted widow who has only recently remarried, to fatherly Judge Dexter (Henry Gibson). At Lars' wake, Phyllis meets Julie Erskine (Barbara Colby), the wisecracking owner of a photography studio who offers Phyllis a job. The catch: Julie used to date Lars, who even proposed to her before Phyllis. The two overcame this obstacle and she found herself right at home in the studio, where she also worked with wannabe debonaire photographer Leo Heatherton (Richard Schaal, previously seen on "MTM" and Valerie Harper's real-life husband). The pilot, in my opinion, remains the best episode of the entire series run. The writing is sharp, Leachman and company at the top of their game, and the laughs almost non-stop. It's funnier than both the "Rhoda" and "MTM" pilots, promising a brilliant series rife with comic gems. Episodes two and three continued down the path of excellence, developing a great workplace relationship between Phyllis, Julie, and Leo, and capitalizing on the unusual interplay between Phyllis and her in-laws.

Julie #1 - Barbara Colby

Then the unimaginable happened. Co-star Barbara Colby, so funny and charming as Julie, and her boyfriend were shot by two gang members one night as they walked to their car after teaching an acting class. The culprits were never identified or caught. 37 years later, the double homicide remains a col case. This shocking tragedy resulted in quick re-casting and an almost complete re-imagining of the character of Julie, re-introduced in an unusual flashback episode that had Phyllis recounting her first day at work through a letter to old friend Mary Richards (MTM appeared in what must have been a well-publicized guest bit). Newly cast Liz Torres, while bearing a similar gruff exterior and deep voice like Colby, did not bring the late actress' unique sense of humor to the character. Her Julie was more gruff and no-nonsense, making her more of a nemesis at times than a confidante to Phyllis. Luckily the show recovered from its devastating loss, but did so by focusing on other characters, giving 'Julie' short shrift as the first season progressed. Torres tries, and eventually develops Julie as a character all her own. It's just not the Julie we would have loved to see from the first handful of episodes.

Julie #2 - Liz Torres

 
The best of  Barbara Colby as Julie on Phyllis (1975)

The break-out character, if there was one, would have to be Mother Dexter, the sharp-tongued elderly mother of Judge Dexter who made such a great impression in a one-off appearance that she became a regular on the show. 85-year-old actress Judith Lowry had the biggest role of her career, and provided some of the biggest laughs in the series' history. Though Lowry died during production of the second season, her character survived to get married to an elderly suitor (familiar character actor Burt Mustin) and appeared in several subsequent episodes before the series also expired.

Mother Dexter, superstar

Of course half the fun in watching TV shows of the 1970s (at least for me) is spotting faces from genre films in guest bits. The second episode features Leigh McCloskey (Argento's Inferno) as a potential love interest for Bess, while one episode amusingly titled "Crazy Mama" (the same year as Leachman's film of the same name from Roger Corman's New World) features Vincent van Patten (Hell Night) and Vince Martorano (The Candy Snatchers) in the same scene. Famed dwarf actor Billy Barty plays the father of one of Bess' boyfriends in "Phyllis and the Little People", Clu Gulager (Return of the Living Dead) is a married lover of Phyllis' in "Phyllis in Love", Susan Lanier (The Hills Have Eyes) plays the ditzy younger wife of one of Phyllis' old flames, and vintage TV watchers will enjoy seeing Charlotte Rae pre-"Facts of Life" as a prospective friend of Phyllis' in "So Lonely I Could Cry", Loni Anderson pre-"WKRP" as a model in "The First Date", and a post-"Gilligan's Island" Natalie Schafer as a Dexter family friend in "Leo's Suicide".

The key to the mystery of "Phyllis"s plummet into relative obscurity lays in that period between season 1 and season 2. The first season was, by all accounts, a success. The show had a plum time slot between "Rhoda" and "All in the Family" (gosh what a great night of TV comedy!), and as the 6th-highest-rated TV show of the series, was even more successful than its fellow MTM programs. Leachman won a Golden Globe for Best TV Actress in a Musical/Comedy Series and was nominated for an Emmy in the same category (losing to former co-star Mary Tyler Moore). The old adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," was unfortunately ignored by CBS and the show's producers. Aiming at even higher ratings, Julie, Leo, and the photographer's studio were dropped from the show, thrusting Phyllis into a new job working with new characters. Phyllis found a job working in the office of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, first under corrupt city supervisor Paul Jameson (guest star John Ritter) for one day, then his replacement Dan Valenti (Carmine Caridi, who had oddly already appeared in season 1 helping Phyllis with a garage sale). Also working with Phyllis were supervisor Leonard Marsh (John Lawlow), a goody two shoes politician who knew all the right moves to play with the voters, and his assistant Harriet Hastings (Garn Stephens), established as a frienemy who eventually came around to liking our heroine.

Phyllis got a new hairdo in season 2...not flattering...
w/ MTM in episode 2 of season 2, which can be seen here

Frankly speaking, the second season of "Phyllis" is not as good as the first, in both laughs and overall quality, but season 2 is still a lot of fun. Still, it's not at all surprising that ratings took a nosedive, leading to the eventual cancellation of Phyllis' adventures in San Francisco. She made her final TV appearance on "MTM" during that show's final season. While Mary and Rhoda had their comeback special, Phyllis has never returned to television, not even in a cameo.

"Rhoda" may have been more consistently funny, "Lou Grant" more novel, and "MTM" more revolutionary. But there's definitely room for consideration of "Phyllis" by today's sitcom audiences. With Cloris Leachman's renewed popularity as a horny grandmother-type on "Dancing with the Stars" and "Raising Hope", it's high time the complete series hits DVD. Up to the challenge, Shout! Factory?

Last Night on TCM...: Loretta Young Before the Code


Making her film debut as a child actress in the early teens before graduating to more adult fare at the ripe age of 15 in Lon Chaney's Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928), Loretta Young is best remembered today for her Emmy-winning 1950s TV show "The Loretta Young Show", a classy drama anthology series featuring her in lavish gowns and family friendly fare, and winning the Best Actress Oscar in 1947 for The Farmer's Daughter. Young was a lifelong Catholic, her religion informing most of her career decisions, resulting in a beautiful squeaky clean image throughout most of her years in front of the camera. Of course years later, taking into consideration her divorces and her illegitimate daughter with Clark Gable, we know about Loretta's wild side, one she worked hard to keep from the public eye. Adding to the delicious tarnishing of an impossibly flawless image are her works in pre-Code films, putting her in, as Robert Osborne puts it, "salacious situations", ones that years later, after paying her dues and becoming a bigger star, she would never deign to appear in. As TCM's Star of the Month, every Wednesday packs the schedule with some of Young's most interesting and noteworthy films, and tonight is all about the pre-Code naughtiness that I find so irresistible. Almost all are from her first contract studio, First-National, the little company absorbed by Warner Brothers, and one of the best producers of lurid melodramas in the early 1930s.

 Roy del Ruth's Employees' Entrance (1933) has developed a cult following over the years, especially after it appeared as part of MGM/UA's Forbidden Hollywood VHS series, and for good reason. Warren William, a favorite smarmy mustachioed heel in pre-Code films whose career floundered after Hollywood started cleaning up its act, stars as Kurt Anderson, a tyrannical employee at Franklin Monroe & Co., a giant department store he helps profit in the millions. Almost immediately after he threatens his way into a higher executive position, the store begins feeling the effects of the Depression and Anderson begins feeling the fire under his tush as he must continue proving his worth. He fires an elderly employee, and when he jumps out a window summarizes, "When a man outlives his usefulness, he should jump out a window." Young co-stars as Madeline Walters, a beautiful model who Anderson hires for the ladies' department and sleeps with as a reward, an action that comes back to haunt her when she secretly marries Anderson's new assistant (Wallace Ford), giving the vicious bastard ammunition to ruin their lives. Vibrant bleached blonde Alice White, the same year as her two-timing sex scandal virtually destroyed her career, is Polly, a flirtatious employee Anderson uses to seduce an executive to keep him distracted from the hostile takeover of the store.

Where other studios and films tried to avoid even using the word "Depression", First-National and Warner Brothers' socially-conscious films had no qualms working the poverty and fear of the era into their story lines. A Franklin Monroe board meeting desperate for ideas to save the store is reflective of many real-life meetings that must have taken place in large businesses nationwide. Kurt Anderson is one of the most evil "heroes" the silver screen has ever seen, an early example of an anti-hero that the audience could never root for. Scholars like Thomas Doherty have argued that Anderson is an unusual kind of sympathetic, a man without love in his life and licked by the Depression, which is a rather bold analysis of such a hateful and venomous protagonist. But he might have a point. Del Ruth doesn't punish Anderson by the end of the film, letting the humorless blackmailer off the hook, and reunites the young lovers, infidelity and all, after a suicide attempt. For some reason, this has remained MIA as part of the Warner Archives Collection, but it's one to look out for when it airs on TCM again. Further proof that First-National/WB made the best pre-Code films, Employees' Entrance is one of the most obscure and rewarding gems of the era.

 
Original theatrical trailer for Employees' Entrance (1933)
 

William Wellman's Heroes for Sale (1933) is a film I saw at Film Forum early last year, double featured with his equally potent drama Wild Boys on the Road (1933), and both are in the top tier of pre-Code films. Revisiting it on TCM, I still maintain that it's one of the best films of the 1930s, politically explosive and socially relevant, even today. Fading silent star Richard Barthelmess, before he left the screen for good, stars as Tom Holmes, a WWI vet who performs a heroic act, is left for dead on the battlefield, and is nursed back to health to return to the US, only to discover that an old friend has taken credit for his heroism. To make matters worse, his medical treatment has resulted in a morphine addiction, which leads to him losing his job and struggling to make a living. The film follows the ups and downs of Tom's life, as he marries beautiful Ruth (our Miss Young), only to lose her in a senseless labor riot tragedy, which also lands him in jail and on the FBI's watch list as he gets out and walks the roads of America with his fellow vets searching for work.


If someone asked me to name a handful of films to introduce newcomers to the wonders of pre-Code films, Heroes for Sale would be on that short list. Not only does the film feature controversial subjects forbidden in films post-1934 (drug addiction, violence, questioning authority), it contains some of the most poignant scenes capturing life in the Depression that any film, before or since, has ever shown. To say anymore would sound like mere rambling hyperbole, so just take it from me: see this film. It's available on DVD with several other marvelous Wellman pre-Code features, including Wild Boys, and is an essential addition to any classic film fan's library.

 
Original theatrical trailer for Heroes for Sale (1933)


Young was loaned out to Darryl Zanuck and 20th Century-Fox for one of her last pre-Code wonders, Born to Be Bad (1934). With a title like that, it has to deliver the tantalizing goods, right before the Production Code cracked down on films like this, featuring unwed mothers, immoral behavior, and rebellious attitudes. We first see our heroine, Letty Strong, in a stunning gown, drinking champagne and surrounded by male admirers at a swanky club in the opening sequence. The next shot: Letty in revealing lingerie in her bedroom. Yep, this is pre-Code all right. And just look at that poster above! When she isn't living the high life of a party girl, Letty is a single mother dealing with an unruly young son named Mickey (Jackie Kelk) who is constantly skipping school and causing trouble. She has a confidante named Fuzzy (Henry Travers), who helped the poor unwed mother when she was down on her luck (Mickey was born in the backroom of his bookstore), and a procurer named Steve who books her "appointments". Wild boy Mickey is run over by a milk truck driven by president of the dairy company, Malcolm Trevor (pre-stardom Cary Grant), giving Letty the wise idea to get Mickey to lie about his injuries to fleece Trevor of more money. The plan backfires, resulting in Mickey being taken from Letty and placed in a boys' home. Re-enter Malcolm, who adopts Mickey in order for Letty to be able to see her son on a regular basis. But this girl still has some bad left in her, as she tries to use her body and blackmail to get Mickey back on a permanent basis. As Malcolm says, "You're bad, bad all the way through. You're just a beautiful bad girl." Indeed!

Born to Be Bad is especially surprising considering it doesn't seem to even try hiding the fact that Letty is a prostitute. She refers to her clients by their hometowns (Detroit, St. Louis) and has phone conversations with Steve setting up her next tricks. But apparently, even with such controversial and obvious scenes, the film was plagued with censorship problems from the get-go, reportedly re-written and re-shot to please the Hays Office. All said and done, it doesn't seem to have made much difference; the film is still full of alarming sexiness and innuendo, as well as a cliched Jewish lawyer sure to raise eyebrows. Young is quite amazing in a role that must have been a challenge to her delicate sensibilities, speechifying about her rough past and her right to raise a child to face the world with strength and decency, and it's interesting to see her work with Cary Grant a full decade before they re-teamed for their enduring classic The Bishop's Wife (1947). Running a brief 62 minutes, the film just flies by and is a pleasant last gap of pre-Code badness.


Young worked again with director Wellman in Midnight Mary (1933), another film included in the pre-Code set with Heroes for Sale. While Wellman is remembered today mostly for his work on testosterone-driven films like Wings (1927), Blood Alley (1955), and The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), his films with women in the 1930s are exceptional and, for my money, the best of his career. Wellman's women are tough, no-nonsense, and frequently atypical of their contemporaries. Both Wellman and Young were borrowed from First-National/WB by MGM to make this one, and it pales in comparison to their work at their home studio, but it's still a good time to be had by those seeking Depression-era melodrama.

Introduced reading Cosmo while waiting for a jury to decide whether she's guilty of murder, Mary Martin (Young) sits with the court clerk (Charley Grapewin), remembering her past as it plays out before our eyes. Her mother dies when she is 9, she is caught for stealing and thrown into reform school, and gets out only to become a teenage prostitute walking the streets. But deep down, Mary is a good girl. She accidentally plays lookout for a hoodlum boyfriend of hers and guiltily donates her $50 pay-off to the Salvation Army. Anxious to get a decent job and pull herself out of poverty, she finds herself drawn back into the world of gangsters and crime by her girlfriend Bunny (Una Merkel), becoming the bitter kept moll of Leo Darcy (Ricardo Cortez). Seductive lawyer Tom Mannering (Franchot Tone, around the time he started dating Joan Crawford) offers her a way out, paying for secretarial school and helping her move towards her dream of becoming a businesswoman, and of course the pair fall in love. But there's no escaping your past, as Mary is tossed in jail for not squealing on the whereabouts of wanted man Leo and hooks back up with the louse upon her release.

In a role written by Anita Loos for MGM contract player Jean Harlow (who passed on it), Young does well with a multi-layered character, but at times self-consciously acts as if she knows she's replacing someone with more star power. Wellman, used to flying by the seat of his pants with quick shooting schedules and B-movie budgets, doesn't seem to be having much of a good time, either. Because this is MGM, the Depression presented here has a glossy look to it, robbing it of the sense of realism that First-National/WB brought to similar stories of girls gone bad around the same time. Amusing character actor Warren Hymer is fun as a comic relief hood, Andy Devine gives his trademark whine as Tom's buddy Sammy, and the marvelous Louise Beavers is (of course) wasted as Anna, Mary's maid. With plentiful innuendo and some fine characterizations, Midnight Mary isn't a complete waste, but it's not indicative of the kind of fun to be had with films of its type.


And we're back where pre-Code belongs, First National/WB, with They Call It Sin (1932). What a title, and what a delicious little morsel! Stranded in Merton, Kansas on a stopover during a business trip, Jimmy Decker (David Manners, the year after Dracula) becomes taken with lovely church organist and aspiring songwriter Marion Cullen (Young), a vibrant young girl whose parents feel that her spirited ways are downright sinful. Yeah, smiling a lot and walking down the street with a boy would really piss God off. Upon learning that the Cullens aren't really her parents, and her true mother was a trashy singer who made a pit stop in town while touring with her band, Marion decides to go for it and escape to New York City, where Jimmy will surely be happy to see her. She arrives to find Jimmy engaged to perky Enid Hollister (Helen Vinson), despite his continued feelings for her, and hits the pavement looking for work in the music business, pursued by Jimmy's best friend, Dr. Tony Travers (romantic lead favorite George Brent). A third man enters her life in the form of sleazy theatrical producer Ford Humphries (go-to villain Louis Calhern), providing Marion with a multitude of choices in her search for happiness and success.

Women in the Depression would kill for the opportunities given Marion in this film! At every turn, she finds herself presented with some new exciting possibility in work or romance, and this is what makes pre-Code films such interesting vehicles for their female protagonists. Even when they succumb to sinful temptation, it is often for good reason: the American dream. Young feels right at home as small-town goodie two-shoes Marion, and she is surrounded by great company. The male cast is like a Mt. Rushmore of handsome in the 1930s: George Brent, David Manners, and Louis Calhern. Triple swoon! Una Merkel, misused in Midnight Mary, is simply marvelous as Dixie Dare, the Southern belle dancer who adopts Marion in their mutual search for work in Manhattan. Hollywood never gave her the leading roles she deserved, but as a comic character actress, she proved memorable in almost everything. She appears here in a sultry scene prancing around in her underwear. Add always-great character actor Roscoe Karns (Shapely in It Happened One Night) to the mix and you've got a doozy of a cast in a delightfully compact little winner!

 
Three-minute preview clip of They Call It Sin (1932)


You'll need to prepare yourself for The Hatchet Man (1932). A film focused on Tong wars among Chinese immigrants in 1930s San Francisco, every key role is played by a white actor. Warner Brothers apparently could not (or would not) enlist the talents of Anna May Wong or anyone else of legitimate Chinese descent for a film without white characters. An opening credits crawl gives historical background to the Tong wars in San Francisco, described as having the largest Chinese population outside of the homeland. The "hatchet man" is defined as being the dispenser of justice, essentially a hired killer assigned targets by the leaders of a Tong. As hatchet man Wong Low Get, Edward G. Robinson is ordered to kill his childhood friend Sun Yat Ming (J. Carroll Naish), who forgives him before the deed but asks that Wong raise his daughter Toya (Young). Things get complicated and weird when Toya comes of age and Wong proposes to her...er, okay...but when he becomes distracted by a new Tong war, she begins a relationship with younger Tong gangster Harry (Leslie Fenton). Wong is expelled from the Tong for allowing the pair to elope and to regain his honor, he treks to China to right the wrong done to him.

Wellman, who had previously tackled Tong wars in the unusual silent-talkie hybrid Chinatown Nights (1929), develops beautiful atmosphere in the San Francisco streets and slums, as he did in that earlier film. The beheading execution scene of Yat Ming is nicely cross-cut with infant Toya's doll's head falling off, and there are some grotesque moments of uneasy violence throughout the film (including perhaps the best pre-Code ending of all). The political incorrectness of Hatchet Man makes it relatively difficult to watch in many scenes, especially with the ludicrous makeup used on Robinson, Young, and Fenton. One wonders why, if the unproduced play it was based on was purchased by WB, they didn't just translate the general storyline into an American gangster story, where it would have worked just as well. No one involved with this one looks back on it without embarrassment, and while it's not that much of a mess, it's pretty compellingly bad.

 
Watch the whole movie The Hatchet Man (1932), if you dare...

 
Young is back in the department store in Play-Girl (1932), a lovely salesgirl working with her best friend, wisecracking blonde Georgine (top-billed songstress Winnie Lightner, in one of only a handful of films before marrying director Roy del Ruth). Georgine and Buster are two young women eking out a living working behind the store counter, Buster in infant wear and Georgine in (gulp) plumbing supplies. They live in a tiny apartment in New York City while trying to land the perfect man. While Georgine sidles up to fellow employee Finky (brilliant character actor Guy Kibbee) in an effort to get out of plumbing, Buster is wooed by humorous charmer Wally (Norman Foster), and the quartet goes on a camping vacation together. Buster and Wally marry, but she discovers on their honeymoon that he's a career gambler, causing her to cast him out when she becomes pregnant and she doesn't trust him to support her and the baby. Of course this being the Depression, she falls on hard times and has to start gambling herself to pay her bills.

The best thing about pre-Code films is that, for the most part, they clock in between 60 and 75 minutes, so the pacing is quick, the dialogue snappy, and the stories engaging. This one runs an hour and is great fun the whole way through. It runs the emotional gamut from gut-busting comedy to heart-breaking tragedy, which says a lot for its brief running time. "I don't want a good time. I just want to be safe." is a statement that perfectly describes the women in pre-Code films, and the working woman heroine of Play-Girl is one of Young's finest. She might be the pretty center of the film, but it's Lightner who's the star of the show. Her loud New Yawk voice is perfect for delivering one zinger after another, reminding me of Ethel Merman but tolerable. Georgine's tete-a-tete's with fellow shopgirl Edna (Dorothy Burgess) are classic. Asking to see Buster's new apartment's bedroom, Edna cracks, "You usually do." Georgine turns it right around: "You should know. I run into you coming out." Zing! On the flipside, Buster's final childbirth scene is made all the more moving by the character's reveal that her mother died giving birth to her, so her tears and terror are very potent and beautifully acted by Young. On a final note, it's fun to see that the department store boss is played by Dr. Van Helsing (Edward van Sloan).


The earliest film of the evening, The Ruling Voice (1931), is barely a Loretta Young film, but is an interesting entry in First National's gangster cycle..though it isn't really about the rat-a-tat-tat gangsters familiar from Little Caesar (1930) and The Public Enemy (1931). A series of Depression-era newspaper headlines remind us that costs are going up at the same rate as unemployment, and we are clued in as to what informs the rising prices of, well, everything. Jack Bannister (Walter Huston), working behind the front of a contracting business, runs the biggest protection racket in the country, using force to extort money from grocers, dairies, newspapers, etc. These businesses have to raise prices in order to survive as well as pay off Bannister's goons. Throwing a snag into Bannister's business as usual is the return of his estranged daughter Gloria (Young), who returns from going to school in Europe with a rich fiancee in tow, Dick Cheney (yes, that's his name, and he's played by David Manners, who would appear with Young again in They Call It Sin). When Gloria learns of her father's secret syndicate, she turns her back on him, causing trouble in her engagement in the process and speaking to Bannister's guilty conscience.

Going into The Ruling Voice expecting 1) a Loretta Young film or 2) a gangster movie will result in sure disappointment. Young looks lovely and is quite moving in a few scenes, but that's to be expected, and her subplot really drags down what could have been a compelling crime drama. Huston is quite good as a sophisticated alternative to the usual film gangsters, but he's no sneering Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, or Paul Muni, meaning he lacks a certain magnetism that goes hand in hand with the best criminals of pre-Code cinema. The mix of family melodrama and Depression-era institutional crime is ultimately kind of a letdown. Silent star Doris Kenyon is excellent as a wealthy customer of Bannister's, and another of the most reliable and talented character actors of the era, Willard Robertson, has a great bit as a traitor to Bannister's business. Dudley Digges (who was positively frightful in Oriental get-up in The Hatchet Man) recalls the best Charles Laughton as Bannister's personal assistant, and figures into some of the film's humorous moments. Despite the pacing problems, there is some great photography here, as well as a handful of memorable tense moments, and the performances make it worth seeing for the curious.


The final Loretta Young vehicle of the night, She Had to Say Yes (1933), pairs Young again with the marvelous Winnie Lightner as well as another popular pre-Code leading man, Lyle Talbot, who like Warren William ended up in films of much lesser quality after 1934's Code enforcement. Talbot is best-known today for appearing in the films of Ed Wood, but he was a dashing figure in films like Three on a Match (1932), 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932), and Ladies They Talk About (1933). He also helped found SAG, though that piece of important history is often forgotten when examining his career. And believe it or not, this was Busby Berkeley's directorial debut!

It's back to the workplace, a favorite locale for First National/WB women , in this case the boutique Sol Glass & Co. Sex is on the brain from the opening sequence as a pair of shapely legs put on some nylons in close-up and women parade in front of double mirrors in revealing lingerie and dresses (designed by Orry-Kelly, responsible for almost all of Young's outfits in tonight's films). Executive Tommy Nelson (Regis Toomey) is introduced with lipstick on his cheek from a phone booth rendezvous with his secretary, Flo Denny (Young, in perhaps her most sexual screen entrance). It seems the company is suffering from dwindling sales, but in a board meeting, Tommy picks up on the fact that their biggest clients are taking advantage of the female clothing models without following through with purchases. Rather than pair clients up with flighty dress girls, the company proposes that, in exchange for a bonus and commission, the girls in the stenography pool be paired up with clients in the hopes of them following through and landing sales. Essentially the ladies become playgirls with the company as a very powerful pimp; officially they are called "customer girls". Initially Tommy refuses to let Flo participate, but when he slyly convinces her to go out with Danny Drew (Talbot) so he can two-time her with catty blonde Birdie (Suzanne Kilborn), little does he expect the sparks that will fly between the duo. After Danny attempts to date rape Flo (!), he sees that she really isn't in on the customer girl scam, and begins to develop genuine feelings for her.

Filled with sexism, but also surprising commentary on women in the Depression-era working world, She Had to Say Yes is bold and shocking in its title alone. The fact is that, actually, she didn't have to say yes. All the women in the film are asked, not told, if they would be interested in the customer girl system, and not all of them participate. When offered the quite lucrative deal of being paid commission on any sales gained through their dating clients, it ends up being a pretty impressive way for the women to exert their sexuality and establish financial security solely due to their gender. They essentially save the company! The idea of Flo warming to the guy who was ready to take advantage of her may seem outrageous, but...it's Lyle Talbot. He's irresistible, folks, and he wouldn't ditch her for a bleached blonde floozy like Birdie. Young is also almost raped by a drunken Tommy, making this maybe the most victimized character she ever played. As in Play-Girl, Winnie Lightner is an absolute scream! Called up by Flo as she frets about what to do when Drew brings her back to his hotel room, she exclaims, "What do I think you should do? Hey do you want 'em to take out my telephone?" She should have been a star, and it's sad that not only did she retire and never look back (no interviews with her exist, that I've found), but her husband, pre-Code director par excellence Roy del Ruth, didn't make films as great as when he did pre-1934. Some may say the same about Loretta Young, whose bright smile and impressive range were perhaps at their best before the Code allowed her to melt into the soft and safe persona she embraced to her death.

Brief clip of Loretta Young, Winnie Lightner, and sexual innuendo in She Had to Say Yes (1933)

 
The incredible Winnie Lightner throwing out one-liners like a pro in She Had to Say Yes (1933)

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Last Night on TCM...: Casino Crime

 The TCM Spotlight this month is on great caper films. You know, films with taut suspenseful robberies or crimes pulled off in the nick of time, or unsuccessfully when the law intervenes. A genre that saw revitalization with the 2001 remake of one of tonight's films (Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven, as well as its subsequent sequels), there's a certain something about the good old days of elaborately staged heists that keeps us coming back to the classics: The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Killing (1956), Rififi (1955). It must be because these crimes were pulled off with frequent cinematic grace by some of the most skilled directors Hollywood has ever seen. Of course not every film in this TCM Spotlight is a star of the genre, as seen in tonight's spotlight on Casino Crime.


Ocean's Eleven (1960) is the code name for the 82nd Airborne, a group of men who, 15 years after the end of WWII, decide to have a most unusual kind of army buddy reunion. The old gang, led by Danny Ocean (Frank Sinatra, exuding martini glass class) and his right hand man Sam Harmon (Dean Martin before his pickled years), are recruited for a big casino heist in Las Vegas. Not just one casino, but five in one night, New Year's Eve to be precise. Flown in from all corners of the nation are Jimmy Foster (dashing Peter Lawford), one-eyed soul brother Josh Howard (Sammy Davis, Jr.), stone-faced Roger Corneal (Henry Silva, at the start of a long career of low-budget film heavies), goofy 'Curly' Steffans (B-movie character actor Richard Benedict), 'Mugsy' O'Connors (a petrified Joey Bishop), wisecracking Peter Rheimer (a pre-Mr. Roper Norman Fell), cowboy Louis Jackson (westerns regular Clem Harvey), and Vince Massler (stand-up comic Buddy Lester). The final man, Tony Bergdorf (Richard Conte), is sprung early from a 1-5 stint in prison, and takes on the mission for melodramatic reasons; he is suffering from a terminal heart disease and wants to put his son through college after his death. The mastermind behind the heist is Greek tycoon Spyros Acebos (hammy Akim Tamiroff), who also funds the operation.

Lewis Milestone, active since the silent era and best known for his action flicks, is an odd choice to direct this ultimate Rat Pack film that is better known for its cast than its cinematic quality. Who needs a good movie when you have Sinatra, Lawford, Martin, Bishop, and Davis, Jr.? At the risk of sounding like a heretic, Soderbergh's re-imagining of this comic adventure is far more satisfying than the original, even with Julia Roberts as a poor stand-in for Angie Dickinson (not really a fair trade, though they're mildly similar). What stops Ocean's Eleven from being a great caper film is the fact that it's not really a caper film. It's a personality film, built on the star persona of its ensemble cast. Thankfully this doesn't mean the movie is a complete waste. The chemistry between the eleven is incredibly suave and sophisticated, and a hell of a lot of fun to watch. Even though the plan isn't fully fleshed out or even plausible, the charisma of the cast sells it...only barely. To be sure, this is not an unjustly maligned caper feature. There are more than enough reasons to dislike it. The movie stops cold for songs from Davis, Jr. in his introductory scene, Martin serenading a bunch of maids in his hotel and acting as distracting entertainment during the heist singing "Ain't That a Kick in the Head", but somehow refrains from allowing Sinatra to croon. The romantic subplot attempting to reunite Danny and his estranged wife Beatrice (Angie Dickinson, in her youth resembling and sounding like Robin Wright Penn) tends to be hokey and awash with silly lines ("I just woke up one morning and realized there was nothing underneath us but thin air"). I will give Beatrice credit for some choice barbs when Danny's mistress phones her at home. Even with Mrs. Ocean providing some bite to the proceedings, no offense to womankind but unless you're involved with the crime itself, make yourself scarce in heist films, ladies. Your roles will be thankless and the audience views you as a distraction from the real thrust of the film. Take into further consideration Ilka Chase as Foster's mother, whose sole purpose in the narrative is to be engaged to Duke Santos, a retired gangster (delightfully smarmy Cesar Romero) who catches wind of the heist and demands a percentage of the stolen money to keep him from exposing their crime.

Overlong at 127 minutes, Milestone could have easily tightened this to a much better 100-minute feature. Still, if you've been avoiding this film for whatever reason, you don't need to put off seeing it any longer. Fun cameos by Red Skelton as himself (trying to exceed his limit at one of the casinos), former gangster film regular George Raft as a casino owner who calls Duke in for advising on the robbery, and Shirley Maclaine, the sole female member of the Rat Pack, as a drunk party girl cement the generally good time to be had with Ocean and his eleven. It really is cool, cats.

 
Original theatrical trailer for Ocean's Eleven (1960)
 


The same year as Milestone's light-hearted all-star color hit from Warner Brothers, 20th Century-Fox's veteran contract director, Henry Hathaway, provided a more serious black-and-white alternative, Seven Thieves (1960). Replacing Vegas with Monte Carlo, and downplaying the star power while also escalating the talent level (sorry, Rat Pack), Hathaway's film is a marvelous surprise that has remained practically ignored in discussion of caper films over the years.

Fresh out of the clink and anxious to return to America, Paul Mason (Rod Steiger, superb as always) meets up with old friend Theo Wilkins (Edward G. Robinson, also predictably wonderful), a disgraced scientist and professor who has retreated to Monte Carlo to lick his wounds. His vacation time has led to him hatching an interesting business opportunity for Paul, or as he puts it, "a dramatically unique venture in piracy." A heist of $4 million in francs from Monte Carlo's most prestigious casino, using a team of seven, is Wilkins' plan to "make the world gasp one more time." He has already enlisted the aid of Poncho (post-Baby Doll, pre-Ugly Eli Wallach), a club saxophone player, and Melanie (a very young Joan Collins), the club's dancer, who performs the worst routine I've ever seen (and I watch Something Weird striptease movies). Insider Raymond Le May (Alexander Scourby), executive secretary to the casino's director (magnificently bearded Sebastian Cabot), is smitten with Melanie, and goes along with the plan to prove his love for her. Handsome gigolo Louis Antonizzi (Michael Dante, the town pervert in The Naked Kiss), an expert in blowing safes, and sinister muscle Hugo Baumer (popular villain Berry Kroeger) complete the septet with Paul's acceptance of the offer. The scheme is to pose as famous aristocrats for an annual ball held at the casino, providing them inside access to the safe. Naturally, the mission doesn't go off without a few hitches or two...

Based on a novel by Max Cotto and written by the film's producer, Sydney Boehm, Seven Thieves excels most impressively in the dialogue department. Asked to have faith in the original plan, Paul retorts, "Cemeteries are full of people who had faith." He is full of delicious bons mot like these, which keep the pre-heist half of the film consistently entertaining. When the heist is underway, Hathaway's taut direction (including choice removals of musical score from suspenseful moments) provides edge of your seat suspense as Paul and Louis scale the casino's wall, dangling above a mile-high cliff, and narrowly avoid activating an alarm sensor, Melanie's identity fraud is threatened, and an important cyanide capsule jeopardizes the success of the heist. Performances are all around excellent, with special notice necessarily paid to Collins, who some forget was an admirable ingenue and actress before she became the campy queen of mean in the 1970s and 1980s. Superb pacing, beautiful CinemaScope photography, a sharp script and interesting characters, and a nail-biting heist make this one of the best caper films you've never seen, even with an anti-climactic ending.


Better than both 1960 films is Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob le Flambeur (1955), a classic deserving of its acclaim. A financial failure upon its release, the film was praised by critics Truffaut and Godard and developed a cult following over the years, counting among its members Stanley Kubrick, who reportedly vowed to give up making crime films after seeing Bob because he believed Melville had perfected the genre. Melville, one of the masters of French cinema, whether you've heard of him or not, borrows from American crime films of the 1940s and early 1950s, but with a distinctive Gallic twist that makes this a uniquely thrilling yarn.

Living in the rundown Montmarte district of 1950s Paris is Bob, a has-been hood respected and admired by everyone in the neighborhood, even as he swirls deeper and deeper into dire financial straits due to a gambling problem. Out of a cunning sense of desperation to make one last grasp at success, he hatches a scheme to rob a Deauville casino on the night of the Grand Prix, recruiting his old friend Roger, inside man Jean, and young Paolo, the impressionable son of a former partner-in-crime,as well as a pair of gunmen. Funding the operation is the sinister McKimmie (played by future Jess Franco regular Howard Vernon). Thrown into the mix is Anne, a beautiful young prostitute rescued from the streets by Bob and pushed into Paolo's bed as a potential companion. The heat is on when Anne accidentally reveals the heist plan to Marc, a slimy pimp anxious to give the cops a hot tip to save his own ski, and Jean's scheming wife (shades of marvelous Marie Windsor in Kubrick's The Killing) catches wind of the plan and demands her husband get a larger cut of the score.

The genius of Melville's film is that its suspense is not in the heist itself, but the interaction between the characters discussing and leading up to the crime. These are desperate men, anxious to prove themselves to their friends, their women, the world, and this one 800 million franc robbery will leave them made in the shade for life. This desperation is what drives the film, as Melville places his characters in shabby apartments, fleapit bars, and scummy streets, recalling American pre-Code crime films of the 1930s. Even Bob's detective pal feeds into this aura of desperation as he frantically searches for his friend to stop him from sure self-destruction. It's quite a film that has the audience anxious for the heist to be pulled off one minute, then rooting for it to be stopped the next. Melville would prove most successful as a director of crime films, including such wonderful offerings as Le Samourai (1967), Le Doulos (1962), and Le Cercle Rouge (1970), and with its inventive editing, absorbing cinematography, and convincing and caring characterizations, Bob le Flambeur is a perfect introduction to his oeuvre.


And then there was Kaleidoscope (1966)... Sigh...how do you follow up three good, sometimes great, caper films with a psychedelic 60s genre entry? It's a definite change of pace, part smarmy playboy travelogue, part Bond-inspired crime thriller, and not an entirely successful melange of genres. The film co-stars Warren Beatty and Susannah York, so at least delivers on the suave and slinky visual appeal. But with sluggish pacing in the first half, TV director Jack Smight's eye-popping color caper

Worldly playboy Barney Lincoln (Beatty) takes cheating at cards to a whole 'nother level when he breaks into a playing card company and marks the original printing plates, following the cards as they make their way through the top casinos in Europe and making a killing at the tables. He begins romancing swinging Carnaby Street boutique owner Angel McGinnis (York), whose father, Scotland Yard inspector "Manny" McGinnis (The Legend of Hell House's Clive Revill), recognizes his scam and aims to blackmail him into using it to his advantage. Arch villain, drug kingpin Harry Dominion (Hands of the Ripper's Eric Porter), is at the top of Manny's hit list, so a plan is hatched to bankrupt Dominion's crime empire through a simple game of poker with Lincoln's marked cards. Sound familiar?


Much has been made by contemporary Bond fans of the similarities between this film and Ian Fleming's original "Casino Royale" novel, which makes for interesting trivia but only really applies to the film's much more successful second half. Before the true purpose of the film's narrative is revealed, we're subjected to obnoxious sequences of Beatty winning big and wooing York, who starts as an intriguing character before becoming a rather lame romantic interest. It is the second half that saves Kaleidoscope from utter mediocrity, with its campy super villain (who eliminates a traitor with a flamethrower), Scotland Yard heroism (McGinnis is a charming, nervy authority figure), and a finally likable hero. In an attempt to appeal to the hip youthful generation of the late 1960s, kaleidoscopic transitions, bright flashy color gels, and a sitar score are added to what is otherwise a fairly conventional comic thriller. Jane Birkin (in Blow-Up the same year) appears as an excitable boutique customer, and dig those craaaazy zooms, man! The last film Beatty made before Bonnie and Clyde (1967) transformed him into an entirely different kind of Hollywood personality, this is maybe best viewed as a transition piece between the challenging character pieces he frequented in the earlier half of the decade and the decade in which he would work with many American auteurs, influencing his eventual move behind the camera. Not an essential film to seek out, but if you'd like to see what many claim is "the original Casino Royale", by all means grab the Warner Archive Collection release.


The final film of the night, airing in the wee hours of the morning, was 5 Against the House (1955), an obscure Columbia thriller released on DVD as part of the Columbia Film Noir Classics Collection. Whatta cast! A pre-Vertigo Kim Novak is the sexual centerpiece, but the other four "against the house" are handsome piece of 50s cinema furniture Guy Madison, Brian Keith before "Family Affair" neutered him, gay actor Kerwin Matthews shortly before he went on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and Alvy Moore (who later teamed up with L.Q. Jones to produce independent horror films like The Witchmaker and The Brotherhood of Satan).

Al, Brick, Roy, and Ronnie, four former G.I. buddies, take a break from college for a night at a casino, where they witness the arrest of a hold-up man who underestimates the house security. For kicks, the group decides to head back and rob the casino, except they won't keep the money (huh?), labeling it as a psychological experiment. Uh...ok.... The plan takes a turn when Brick decides to keep the money and uses a gun to get his point across. The fifth person against the house is Al's fiancee Kay, dragged into the plan solely to involve a woman in the plot. Along for the ride is TV favorite William Conrad, a great noir face in 1946's The Killlers before tracking down criminals as "Cannon" and "Nero Wolfe", forced to aid the group in the heist.

Yeah...this is a turd of a movie. Columbia, an indie studio that produced more than its fair share of underrated features in the golden age of Hollywood, churned out a sorely disappointing film that is neither noir nor caper. Stirling Silliphant's first screenplay might have played out nicely slimmed down as a 50s TV anthology play, but there is no logic behind the characters or their motivations, except for Brick. Perhaps the whole film should have simply been about Brick falling on the wrong side of the law. His unresolved issues of Korean War combat shock result in violent outbursts, scenes that elevate the film's general light tone into something of interest. As Brick, Brian Keith is the star of the show. No one else makes any real impression, which is further disappointing considering the cast's pedigree. Hell there are two musical numbers for no reason, both dubbed by Jo Ann Greer because Novak is no singer. And the ending is beyond ridiculous. 5 Against the House is nothing special, but the DVD collection it's a part of is essential.