Thursday, March 26, 2015

Tonight In Hollywood: Opening Night, TCM Classic Film Festival 2015

March 2015 is a time for retro big screen fun on an epic scale. Yours truly just provided hard work, lots of rewinding, a keen eye for the ridiculous plus the essential "and now for something completely different" sensibility - not to mention plenty of 16mm tape splices - to last weekend's KFJC Psychotronix Film Festival at Foothill College.

Sadly, this month saw the last of the annual Syracuse Cinefest marathons, run for 35 years with great love of movies by Gerry Orlando, plus numerous stalwart historians and silent film accompanists.

Today, the TCM Classic Film Festival, by far the most lavishly funded among this roster of events, kicks off its 2015 incarnation. The theme is History According to Hollywood, so a number of epic motion pictures along these lines - Inherit The Wind, Judgement At Nuremberg, Lawrence Of Arabia, Madame Curie, Malcolm X, A Man For All Seasons, Patton, Reign Of Terror, They Were Expendable and Young Mr. Lincoln - are among the offerings.

Fortunately for those who cannot attend, the Film Noir Foundation's 2014 Nancy Mysel Legacy Project Recipient and writer of the Sinematic Salve-ation blog, Los Angeles archivist Ariel Schudsen, will be covering the festival in detail - no doubt with her customary enthusiasm and insight. Am especially awaiting her review of the French Revolution "guillotine noir" directed by the incendiary and mindbogglingly creative Anthony Mann.

While having my difficulties reconciling the phrase "reign of terror" with star Robert Cummings - incongruous pop culture associations to light comedies, the 1950's TV sitcom Love That Bob (a.k.a. The Bob Cummings Show) and that not-too-great Twilight Zone episode he starred in are plentiful - this opus, after all was helmed by one of the greatest and most versatile directors who ever rocked a 35mm movie camera.

The authors of The Dawn Of Technicolor will be there to give a presentation not to be missed by those who love movies and film preservation.

The Dawn Of Technicolor by James Layton and David Pierce is a stunning piece of scholarship and a must-read. It includes an annotated filmography of all two-color Technicolor titles produced between 1915 and 1935.

Since the impressive lineup includes quite a few titles which have somehow escaped this correspondent through decades of crazed moviegoing, today's posting shall note just a scant few highlights, including a number of Blogmeister Favorites.

Many moons ago, this movie buff was completely and entirely blown away at a college screening of Orson Welles' Chimes At Midnight a.k.a Falstaff - a 16mm print. Your Correspondent has not seen it since but recalls being absolutely stunned and sitting quietly for at least 10 minutes before arising and exiting the college theatre.

Yes, the gang at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog would love to catch a 35mm print of this Orson Welles masterpiece, Falstaff a.k.a. Chimes At Midnight on the big screen sometime.

Many more moons ago - a LOT longer ago - this writer took a Castle Films 8mm reel of a certain comedian juggling cigar boxes and watched it over and over and over. Said comic is represented in the festival by one of the funniest and most outrageous pieces from his long career in show business, the 1940 Universal feature, The Bank Dick.

And speaking of comedians, there's also The Loved One, a wonderful black comedy directed by Tony Richardson and written by the formidable Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood.

The Loved One features the John Coltrane of extemporaneous comedy, Jonathan Winters, the incomparable King Of Improv (with his friend, the late Robin Williams, seated by his side as The Dark Prince), along with an all-star ensemble including Anjanette Comer, Robert Morse, Rod Steiger, Liberace, "Uncle Miltie" Berle and many more!

It's preaching to the classic movie converted to gush about one of the funniest screwball comedies ever made, My Man Godfrey, viewed as many times by this writer as fanboys have seen Star Wars AND The Empire Strikes Back combined, but it will receive a return to big screen glory as part of this festival.

There is Gregory LaCava's direction, the hilarious Carole Lombard, a wonderfully snotty performance by Gail Patrick (future producer of TV's Perry Mason), comic character actors galore and a simple but solid storyline tracing how a scion of the Boston well-to-do, beaten badly by the bottle, makes his way back to the world of the living as a (strictly incognito) butler.

And, speaking of a director known for screwball comedies, Preston Sturges is represented by one of his quieter and more evocative Paramount films, and a personal favorite - Christmas In July.

The devastating noir thriller Nightmare Alley, a tale of sleazy sideshow skullduggery starring heartthrob Tyrone Power as a scumbag, will do what it normally does - surprise the living daylights out of an audience.

On a lighter note, there's The Smiling Lieutenant, a signature "Lubitsch Touch" sophisticated comedy starring ever-randy Maurice Chevalier. Of course, this movie being seriously Pre-code, we KNOW why the lieutenant is smiling. . . he's making whoopee with Claudette Colbert AND Miriam Hopkins, although, as far as we know, not at the same time.

Also notable: one of the few silver screen appearances of internationally famous magician and ingenious escape artist Harry Houdini, in his first feature film, The Grim Game.

A highlight of the festival will be an epic film starring Buster Keaton, who knew the legendary Houdini as a key friend and cohort going all the way back to days as the acrobatic child performer in The Three Keatons, billed as "the human mop". In Steamboat Bill Jr., the Great Stone Face will thrill a theatrical audience yet again with his filmmaking genius, indefatigable derring-do and impossible stunts, accompanied by the world premiere of an original score composed and conducted by Maestro Carl Davis.

So, dear readers, if you happen to be in Hollywood, run, don't walk to this fest. Further details are available here.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

This Saturday: The KFJC Psychotronix Film Festival Returns!

Poster by Scott Moon. Lobby card by Sci Fi Bob Ekman.

Well, it's darn near springtime, so that means it's time for the customary March-April KFJC Psychotronix Film Festival, of course.

The customary March-April WHAT? Psychotronix WHAT??

That would be, rinse and repeat, the KFJC Psychotronix Film Festival, a hallucinatory "three hour tour" through the far, unsung and very, very odd frontiers of popular culture.

That means Scopitones, Soundies and other even more obscure musical shorts.

Also means trailers from drive-in movies starring non-union actors in cheap robot, gorilla and "thunder lizard" suits, theatre snack bar ads, well-meaning but inept 1950's educational films, vintage TV commercials, silent comedy clips and cartoon rarities.

The festival is to some degree a reaction against all standard rules of film programming/curating.

Instead of devoting a screening to one director, genre or one series, we throw a wide variety of films from different places, genres, techniques and time periods together in the pop culture Osterizer - and hit that "frappe" button.

Your tour guides, archivist-producers Bob Ekman, Scott Moon and yours truly, create the program on the fly, responding to audience reaction and choosing films accordingly.

One can hear the perpetrators of the festival, Paul F. Etcheverry (a.k.a. Monsieur Blogmeister), Sci Fi Bob Ekman and Scott Moon of Planet X Magazine, plug the all-16mm celluloid extravaganza tomorrow evening, March 16, from 6:00 - 7:00 p.m. PST with host Robert Emmett on the KFJC 89.7 FM Thoughtline show.

As fate would have it, the next KFJC Psychotronix Film Festival will occur this Saturday - think it's the #54th or 55th one (we started doing this in December 1992).

Poster by Judy Zillen.

The KFJC Psychotronix Film Festival
When: Saturday, March 21, 2015, 7:00 to 11:30 PM
Where: Room 5015, Foothill College campus
12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills (El Monte exit off 280)
Why: We like cheesy movies.

$5 Donation Benefits KFJC. Bring $3 for Parking.
Parking: Lot #5.

Public Transit: Cal Train and VTA
Info: Foothill College Transportation & Parking. Arrive early, as the shows often sell out. Doors open at 6:00 p.m. Be there or be oblong!

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Family Values Go To The Movies by Paul F. Etcheverry

A good friend of this blog coined the phrase "you are not your family" - and truer words were never spoken.

As fate would have it, the favorite cable TV channel of Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, oddly, both during the 31 Days Of Oscar retrospective and also since it ended, has been running an inordinate number of films spotlighting unusual and not-so-unusual dysfunctional family dynamics.

Turner Classic Movies has recently run Sir Alfred Hitchcock's mega-diabolical Strangers On A Train and Psycho, John Frankenheimer's 1957 father-son drama The Young Stranger, the documentary Grey Gardens (possibly due to the recent passing of Albert Maysles), as well as Quentin Tarantino favorite Jack Hill's very grim fairy tale Spider Baby, all within a few days.

The Young Stranger, the filmmaking debut of talented director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds) is a bit of a sleeper. The versatile character actor James MacArthur (1937-2010), subsequently the co-star of the long-running TV series Hawaii Five-O, brought acting chops and big time showbiz pedigree as the son of Charles McArthur and stage legend Helen Hayes, to the mix.

It deals with the complete breakdown in communication between a son and father in a wealthy family. In a process that occurs only with work, difficulty, intelligence, persistence and keen awareness in real life but can happen within two hours of reel life, The Young Stranger resolves the polarization in a way that actually is credible.

As expected, there is no resolution and no hope for the dysfunctional family in the Hitchcock films. In addition, the characters are much more cartoonish in the two thrillers than those in The Young Stranger. The mother of the psycho-killer in Strangers is utterly clueless and played by Marion Lorne, later to portray batty Aunt Clara on TV's Bewitched.

The film by Albert and David Maysles, on the one hand, is an extremely skillfully crafted and brilliant documentary but, on the other hand, at least for this viewer, at times lands squarely in the TMI (Too Much Information) department and can be considered a forerunner of godawful "reality television" which - along with reverse mortgages, cable TV "news" and credit default swaps - tops the "Scourges Of Western Civilization" lists.

Grey Gardens, about the frighteningly isolated existence of Jackie Kennedy Onassis cousins "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale in a dilapidated East Hampton mansion is, however, increasingly timely, as untold thousands of individuals struggle to care for elderly parents. The Maysles' savvy, unsparing cameras record many painful and sad moments, especially those in which Big Edie is really, really nasty to Little Edie; no doubt, most of us would, in a heartbeat, send the filmmakers on a Slow Boat To China (which, incidentally, is NOT one of the songs the Bouvier Beales sing with spirit and complete tone deafness during the film).

Little Edie had her problems in life, but was not without charm. We also have a hunch that the writers of The Simpsons opted to have the maiden name of intrepid, long suffering matriarch Marge (and, yes, her chain-smoking sisters) be Bouvier because of Grey Gardens.

And then there's not Maude, but Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told, Cannibal Orgy or The Liver Eaters, a tale of "family values" gone spectacularly, unthinkably awry, directed and written by grindhouse auteur Jack Hill (Coffy, Foxy Brown, The Big Bird Cage, Switchblade Sisters). It's based on H. P. Lovecraft's terrifying story The Lurking Fear and cinematically somewhat along the lines of What Ever Happened To Baby Jane meets Psycho, with just a dash of Tennessee Williams style Southern fried decadence. Premise: three orphans, the products of many generations of in-breeding, are afflicted with a horrific disease that rapidly transforms one into a pre-human, primitive and insanely violent life form.

Hill's vivid and gallows humor-drenched piece of American Gothic stars prolific television actress Jill Banner, Carol Ohmart from William Castle's House On Haunted Hill and ultra-menacing movie heavy (and accomplished drummer) Sid Haig.

Is Spider Baby exploitative and cheap? Yes! Are there totally gratuitous sequences of women in lingerie? Uh huh. Could there be egregious mistakes (booms in the shot, etc.) throughout? Indeed. Implications of things too horrific and disgusting to contemplate? Yes. Packed with political incorrectness (appalling even for a Z-movie made more than 50 years ago)? All of the above.

We know what we're in for when the horror flick opens with an unfortunate postman played by veteran character actor and legendary "blue" standup comic Mantan Moreland getting treated like a Swift's Butterball holiday turkey (ouch - that's gotta hurt). Given the circumstances, we can forgive Mr. Chaney's character's difficulties with his deranged and psychotic charges, especially in imparting such lessons as "don't yell kill kill kill" and "don't eat the visitors".

Why does any ghastly movie appeal to a blogger who considers current ultra-violent films totally unwatchable and associates the phrase "horror movie" with 1930's Universal Pictures directed by James Whale? Because, due to Hill's imaginative cinematography and demented vision, Spider Baby succeeds as a piece of genuine gothic horror. The twisted tale is very skillfully shot, lit, framed and edited. Disagree strongly with those who consider this (and, for that matter, Martin Scorsese's unrelentingly gruesome mafia flick Good Fellas) a "comedy", but there is dark humor, especially the soundtrack that uses "The Itsy Bitsy Spider", throughout.

What also elevates this from the usual B-horror movie schlock fare is a performance by Lon Chaney, Jr. that is surprisingly poignant, heartfelt and affecting. His character loves those three kids, in spite of the fact that they are, due to no fault of their own, criminally insane. Jack Hill's direction successfully brings out the warmth and empathy Chaney hinted at in his Universal films (Man Made Monster in particular) and also demonstrated in such 1960's B-horror chestnuts as Witchcraft. Mr. Chaney, who couldn't have had an easy go in life as the son of arguably the silent cinema's single greatest actor, also sings the title song - and no, it's not (please forgive the author) "people. . . people who eat people. . . are the LUCKIEST people" - with conviction.

Mostly thanks to Hill's creative use of black-and-white cinematography, editing, pacing and music, Spider Baby is as frightening and horribly humorous as an EC The Haunt Of Fear, Tales Of The Crypt or The Vault Of Horror comic. Unquestionably, if the unspeakable actions of the Merrye family had been presented in graphic detail, Your Correspondent would be the first who could not watch the film. . . at all. . . not one second, not one frame.

Shot in 1964 and shelved for several years after the film's real estate agent backers went belly up, Spider Baby is also to some degree a prototype for the "sick sick sick" black comedy The Undertaker & His Pals and such later grisly (but popular) horror flicks as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. Most of us would rather try our luck with Stormin' Norman Bates AND "That Crazy Bruno" Anthony rather than the merry and mucho murderous Merrye clan.

Also a feather in the Jack Hill film's demented cap: the invoking of Moe Howard Theory - Moe behaves like an obnoxious jerk, then IMMEDIATELY gets brained by a Jules White trademark very large metal object - in the part of the storyline when greedy slimebag relatives and their sleazy lawyer arrive to brazenly steal the Merrye estate. The miscreants, of course, get theirs - and how. Funny, whenever Moe Howard Theory was used, even in the absolute worst 1950's Three Stooges short, it meant an automatic laugh.

What prompted this blog post - casting about movie genres from 1950's Hollywood drama to Hitchcock thriller to mid-1970's documentary to B-horror - in the first place? The realization that Chaney's character, the chauffeur/caretaker responsible for three stark raving mad, homicidally violent children in Spider Baby, and the evil psycho-killer played by Robert Walker in Strangers On A Train were both named Bruno.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Tomorrow Afternoon At Niles: Comedy Matinee

Every month, archivist and classic comedy expert Paul Mular curates a "Sons Of The Desert" matinee for the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum. While all the shows are great, this correspondent particularly likes tomorrow's program.

The lineup includes The Boys in the devastatingly funny County Hospital, the very first "talking picture" incarnation of Our Gang from 1929 and The Nickel Nurser, starring two of our all-time favorites at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, director-writer-comic Charley Parrott Chase and Thelma Todd.

In our estimation, Ms. Todd, sadly known for her untimely death in 1935, was a top flight comedienne when given the opportunity to do something besides just be eye candy.

Ms. Todd and Mr. Chase were frequently the equivalent of a comedy team in the Hal Roach Studio productions of 1929-1931, before Thelma was spun off into her own series (first teamed with Zasu Pitts, then with Patsy Kelly).

Sunday, February 22, 2015

And This Blog Loves George "Jetson" O' Hanlon And Richard L. Bare

George O'Hanlon

Comedy is our beat - we will be watching the Oscar Levants and the Oscar Madisons, as well as a woman yelling "Oscar!" from Helzapoppin tonight - and the list of all-time favorite film humor creators remains a (well, relatively) short one. Two who are tops, both in the worlds of theatrical short subjects and television, would be comedian and cartoon voice artist George O'Hanlon and producer-director-writer Richard L. Bare.

This writer considers a good many of the WB Joe McDoakes 1-reelers, starring George O' Hanlon, pretty high on the list of funniest short comedies in which the names Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy and Charley Chase do not appear. Fortunately, they do get shown periodically between feature films on Turner Classic Movies.

Although this scribe does not recall ever seeing Joe McDoakes on TV in his neck of the woods during the 1960's or early 1970'a (but did read about the series in Leonard Maltin's 1972 book The Great Movie Shorts), much later, in the latter 1980's, the long gone Comedy Channel showed ran the series. Some of us were watching - and laughing!

If Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog has a McDoakes favorite (among many), that would be So You Want To Be A Detective, the whodunit sendup that features our hero as gumshoe Philip Snarlow and has a plum role for intrepid series narrator Art Gilmore.

The McDoakes comedies may not be quite in the same league with the Chaplin Mutuals, Keaton's 2-reelers or the Chase-Leo McCarey-L&H masterpieces, but the overall batting average for the series (first one released in 1942, last in 1956), is very good.

The operative word describing the Joe McDoakes adventures is zany, but not monolithically so; Bare and O'Hanlon feature a trademark blend of alternating subtle and outrageously over-the-top comedy. Some entries, such as the following, So You Want To Hold Your Husband, toy with the central characterization - in this one, Joe, rather than a likable everyman, is an obnoxious, selfish husband (pre-dating Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin by decades), with the jokes revolving around the extent to which he's a complete jerk - and save the ultra-wacky "topper" for the very end.

The Joe McDoakes series originated with So You Want To Give Up Smoking, which was the third USC student film made by Richard L. Bare. The script for the USC film was was originally pitched to Pete Smith at MGM as a potential Pete Smith Specialty on kicking the smoking habit.

The first three entries, to some degree, emulate the humor + information template of the Pete Smith short subjects. Luckily for Warner Brothers and not so luckily for MGM (which already had a go-to physical comic, Dave O'Brien, in the Pete Smith 1-reelers), the answer was no - and Bare and O'Hanlon went on to produce quite a few more Joe McDoakes comedies. . . 62 more.

Only The Three Stooges and Andy Clyde at Columbia ran longer as a series of comedy shorts produced for theatrical distribution.

Once the McDoakes series ended, George O' Hanlon went on to some showbiz lean times and hard knocks, a few good roles in movies before landing that wonderful and enduring gig as the voice of George Jetson. Very likely best known among his features is his role in the massively entertaining 1957 sci-fi classic Kronos.

George is the scientist in the "aliens gone wild" story and, while (unlike Joe McDoakes) understated, sneaks a certain subtle element of sly fun into the proceedings.

Even though this writer is a science fiction fan and will drop whatever he is doing to watch Kronos again, he finds it impossible NOT to watch the film without saying, "look - that scientist. . . it's FREAKIN' GEORGE JETSON!"

And then George ended up, along with the formidable likes of Mel Blanc, June Foray, Bill Scott, Daws Butler, Don Messick and others, as an ace voice artist for animated cartoons. Unlike all of the above, George had one characterization instead of 1000. . . however, that voice, for intergalactic family man George Jetson, suited the character to a fission-powered T. O'Hanlon was surrounded by high-powered talents, including the wonderful Penny Singleton and Janet Waldo.

Meanwhile, as O'Hanlon was bringing personality plus to George Jetson, Richard L. Bare ended up directing dozens of TV shows, at a time when the likes of Ida Lupino, Mitchell Leisen, Samuel Fuller, Joseph H. Lewis and Robert Altman were working in the medium. Part of this was his arrival at WB television, along with ace writer Roy Huggins, at the beginning of the studio's TV westerns boom (Cheyenne, Sugarfoot, Maverick, etc.) Later, he directed excellent episodes of The Twilight Zone (Nick Of Time, Third From The Sun, To Serve Man), among many other shows, and also, for Filmways Productions, the small-town sitcom Petticoat Junction.

Eventually, Richard L. Bare would enter the world of TV sitcoms in a big way on Green Acres, directing the entire series run for producer Jay Sommers. The temptation is to present Mr. Bare as an "auteur" of the series, because Acres and Joe McDoakes do share a zany sense of humor, more akin to animated cartoons than TV sitcoms. In interviews, Bare insisted that he only directed the shows and that the gags strictly came from the duo who wrote ALL the episodes.

Now if one mentioned the word "surreal" to Richard Bare regarding Green Acres, he thought it was nonsense. While the show was substantially, cosmically wackier than its mates at Filmways - Mr. Ed, Beverly Hillbillies, and Petticoat Junction - that is due to the vivid imaginations of the writers. One certainly wonders if Mr. Bare, in his "hey - I was strictly a hired gun and director" insistence is simply being modest. There are frequent leaps into utter bizarreness on Green Acres - and this trait is definitely NOT shared by the other Filmways TV shows.

Richard L. Bare, rather amazingly, is still living among us - and very likely still damn funny - at 101 years of age. We shall close today's post with this clip of Richard and frequent "Joe McDoakes" co-star Phyllis Coates at the Labor Day weekend Cinecon in Hollywood. There are also the Richard Bare Visual History Interview conducted by Gene Reynolds, and an interview by the Archive Of American Television

Acknowledgements go to the aforementioned interviews, Leonard Maltin's review of The Joe McDoakes Collection, Don M. Wowp's outstanding Tralfaz blog, which beat us to the punch with TWO tributes Meet George O'Hanlon and more recently How To Be A Star (both easily among the very best pieces this correspondent has read about this very, very funny comedian's career) - and Madame Blogmeister, for thoughtfully choosing the McDoakes DVD set as a gift!