Going Dark for the Holidays

Today is the last day of the Thanksgiving Holiday, the second weekend in a row I’ve had off. I have done nothing except cook. eat, sleep and play stupid puzzle games. It has been remarkably renewing. The opposite of profitable, but renewing. Which brings me to this entry.

December begins tomorrow. That is usually a busy month for me; hopefully the last two weeks are not an indicator of how busy I’ll be this year. I need to wrap up phase one of a writing project by the end of the month, and there is a personal writing project I’ve been putting off far too long.

So what I’m saying is, I’m going to stop pretending and simply announce that, likely, this space is going dark for the rest of the year. This downtime has been nice, but I need more. I haven’t watched a movie in more than a week, because – and I find this hilarious – if I watched any more, I’d have to write about them, and this entry was getting ungainly long already. That’s the epitome of putting the cart before the horse. So, before I close this tab on my browser, here’s a shorter version of that ever-growing blog post:

ghost-catchers-1Ghost Catchers (1944) is Olsen and Johnson’s third movie for Universal, the first being Hellzapoppin’, which I raved about last time. Fortunately, it’s up on Vimeo in its entirety, as is their second movie, Crazy House.

Studio execs had ground them way down by this time (it is probably telling that their last picture is titled See My Lawyer, and reportedly has very little Olsen and Johnson in it), to the point that once more we have two movies occupying the same space, but there isn’t even the uneasy truce between them that made Hellzapoppin’ great. Olsen and Johnson find themselves in an Abbott & Costello knockoff (typically, they make a meta joke about it), and the best sequence involves a jitterbug exorcism to cast out the one actual ghost in the whole thing. Mel Torme is supposedly in that, and so is Morton Downey Sr., providing far more entertainment value in five minutes than his son did in an entire career. Chic Johnson seems to be on nitrous, so constant is his giggling. I should have watched Hellzapoppin’ again.

downloadI went over to Rick’s to watch more movies; now, normally, Rick and I, during these outings, watch a better quality of film. During the last sojourn at Dave’s, however, when I showed Wheeler and Woolsey’s Diplomaniacs, Rick became a hardcore convert to the cause of W&W. We had been interested in So This Is Africa, their sole movie for Columbia (during a contract dispute with RKO), and reportedly one of their most heavily censored. Alas, my suspicions were correct, as not only does this movie suffer from the lack of Joe Mankiewicz’s lunatic scripting, but the print is pretty heavily and obviously cut, so much so that Rick and I took to marking each instant with scissor motions in the hour while hissing, “Filth!”

The best bit is an out-of-left-field riff on Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, which would have been brilliant had the Marx Brothers not done it three years before in Animal Crackers.

CTA1113_originalWe next watched what is the best thing I’ve seen all week, which is the recent Criterion blu-ray of A Hard Day’s Night. The image is a crisp, clean black-and-white and the sound features a lovely 5.1 remix that serves the songs well. The movie stands as a milestone for any number of reasons, but mainly as a testament to letting creative types have their head, and how important is good timing. The Beatles occupied one of those rare intersections where talent and desire were in the right place at the right time, and it was amazing that Richard Lester and writer Alun Owen could break the precedent of other rock musicals to actually allow their stars to show their differing personalities, to be themselves by playing larger versions of themselves.

I hadn’t seen this movie since 1975, when a local theater ran a midnight movie marathon of this, Help!, Yellow Submarine, and Let It Be. Some of the ladies in the college crowd were game enough to scream during the appropriate parts. But what I had forgotten was how claustrophobic this picture was, that it showed how trapped the Beatles were inside their own success. There’s always a smile or a joke, sure, but their faces do not truly light up until they’re playing their music.

Hard2For some reason I truly appreciate that in the final concert segment of the movie, you are able to see that the Beatles are sweating under the stage lights. People tend to forget how much actual work is involved in performing, and it is good to see that paid tribute.

It took me two more nights to get through all the supplements. That’s a great disc, is what I’m saying.

I1Ww9Rick is a recent convert to the cult of Oliver Reed; he arrived there by watching Terry Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen, followed by my insistence that he watch Richard Lester’s (there he is again) Three Musketeers, where Reed rather steals the show as Athos. So I brought my old disc of The Assassination Bureau (1969) (Warner Archive recently re-issued it).

This movie is what we used to call a “romp”. In pre-World War I England, a young suffragette journalist (played by Diana Rigg) discovers the existence of the title organization, run by the son of its founder, Ivan Dragamiloff (Oliver Reed). She contracts the Bureau to kill Dragamiloff himself, which the young idealist accepts – he feels the organization has grown too complacent and greedy, accepting hits for their monetary value, not the moral killing of deserving targets his father had insisted upon. Thus begins a cat-and-mouse chase throughout Europe, with Rigg unknowingly reporting to the Vice Chairman of the Bureau (Telly Savalas), who wants that World War, because all his money is tied up in munitions factories.

Oliver Reed & Diana RiggThis is light (despite the subject matter), frequently silly comedy-adventure, with a final fight scene aboard a zeppelin loaded down with a prototype blockbuster bomb bearing down on a castle housing a peace conference between all the crowned heads of Europe and Russia. I wanted Rick to see it because I think it proves that Reed could have been a credible James Bond… were it not for, you know, all the drinking and punching people.

For our follow-up, we’ll be watching The Devils, as soon as I figure how to play my Region 2 DVD on his system (really, Warner Brothers, what the hell).

I should close by mentioning that Rick, in retribution for my constant bad-mouthing of and cock-blocking a re-showing of Evilspeak at Crapfest, had re-named his wi-fi router so this was showing on my phone and iPad:

ClintBut this scheme, twisted genius that it is, has backfired upon him, as my phone now displays this comforting message:

No Clint

Nyeah, nyeah.

If I don’t have a chance to see you before then, have a Merry Christmas, or whatever your inclination is this time of year. Be safe, and watch good movies. It won’t kill ya.

 

Arabian Hellzamaniacs

So I went to Dave’s. So did Rick. We watched some movies.

Hellzapoppin’ (1941)

From the Broadway Revue, not the movie. Do you care?

From the Broadway Revue, not the movie. Do you care?

Now this is what you call your basic bucket list movie. It actually got mentioned in Famous Monsters, once upon a time, and I’ve wanted to see it ever since. The fact that it’s known as a milestone in anarchic filmmaking is also a definite plus. So when Dave managed to conjure up a copy, I was, as they say, there.

The movie opens with an incredible production number in Hell (the reason the movie ever cropped up in Famous Monsters), but the director charged with making the movie version of Olsen & Johnson’s successful New York stage show (in 1941, the longest-running show on Broadway!) wants to make an entirely different sort of movie altogether. Aided by a pre-Gunsel Elisha Cook, Jr. reading and re-working the script, Olsen & Johnson watch the dailies of this new movie, supplying voices for the characters, until one of them asks, “Doesn’t this movie have any sound?” “Sure, listen!” the other replies, and BAM, we are into that movie.

hellzapoppin1These bits leading up to our more normal picture are fast-paced and brilliant, and there was no way Olsen & Johnson could have kept that up – not without their stock-in-trade, interacting with a live audience. Still, you give out a heavy sigh when we slip into the usual screwball romantic comedy that forms the core of Hellzapoppinthe Movie. The romantic lead is staging a charity show at the mansion of his lady love, but he doesn’t want to butt in on his pal, who is at least as wealthy as the girl; he doesn’t want to look like he’s a gold digger. The boys are running tech for the show, and brought along their kid sister to help lug props: an incredibly young Martha Raye (only 25 at the time), playing a man-hungry wench who sets her sights on a fake European Count. There are mistaken identities, crosses and double-crosses, and thank God Olsen & Johnson not only tear down the fourth wall repeatedly, they dance on the rubble of the wall and then sell it for scrap.

HellzapoppinWe had some conversation about what the original stage show must have been like, because Olsen & Johnson use the medium of film for all its worth, having shouted conversations with the projectionist (Shemp Howard, no less), and doing any number of things that would be impossible on stage. One thing that could be done on stage, and is so amazing that we played it twice (and if I’m not mistaken, was excerpted in one of the That’s Entertainments): during a check of the instruments, every black servant on the estate wanders onto the stage conveniently built in the backyard, and they have an impromptu, amazing Lindy Hop number that is physically exhausting just to watch:

“Man, I wish they were in the show!” says one of the boys afterwards. You ain’t the only one, Jackson. The dancers, known as The Harlem Congaroos, are the only personnel from the Broadway show to make the leap to the movie version.

The effort to superimpose a plotline over what was apparently a vaudeville show writ large should have damaged it, but instead Olsen & Johnson grabbed the opportunity and made a movie so profoundly postmodern that every hipster should carry a copy of it in their pocket; yet, for some reason, home video currently eludes it, or vice versa. The best known of Olsen & Johnson’s movies, that’s a shame: it should stand as an example of how studio meddling can’t quite bring the creative spirit down.

Diplomaniacs (1933)

10091Yeah, it was me who wanted to glory in the Old Stuff that night, and that desire was sparked by this movie. The comedy team of Wheeler and Woolsey have, much like Olsen & Johnson, descended into obscurity, but thanks to Warner Archive, have had a bit of a renaissance. Diplomaniacs was an impulse buy – I needed one more disc for one of their “5 for $50” sales – but oboy, what a stroke of luck.

Wheeler and Woolsey have opened a barber shop on an Indian reservation, figuring there would be no competition – but there’s no custom, either. But hearing Woolsey making barbershop talk about international debts, the oil-rich tribe decides the barbers are their best bet for signing a peace treaty with the rest of the world. So our doofuses – the musically named Willy Nilly and Hercules Glub – are given a million dollars each and sent to Geneva.

maxresdefaultThis opening bit is little more than your typical Three Stooges opening gambit, though the Stooges didn’t have production numbers with scantily-clad pre-Code Indian maidens. But once they get on the ocean liner to Geneva, the movie really takes off, and what I mean by that is writer Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ opium shipment arrived. The remainder of the movie is so fast-paced and anarchic, so downright silly, that it is hard to imagine some manner of narcotic not being involved. Hugh Herbert (who was in Hellzapoppin’ as the detective with a bewildering array of bad disguises) is the villainous Chinaman Chow Chow, who begins every line with “It is written…” He’s the henchman of Louis Calhern, whom Dave immediately recognized as Trentino in Duck Soup. Calhern is, himself. working for a war munitions manufacturing combine run by Schmerzenpuppen, Puppenschmerzen, Schmerzenschmerzen and Puppenpuppen.

As I said, it’s a very silly movie, and I loved it. Sure, the casual racism of Chow Chow can be off-putting, but then Wheeler and Woolsey double down on the racism – hell, triple, quadruple down – with a final production number at the Peace Talks. Tex Avery cartoons had a long tradition of what Dave terms “blackface dynamite”, where characters getting a faceful of TNT were instantly transformed into minstrel show performers. Here is the precursor to that, a surprisingly effective bomb labeled “BOMB – For medicinal purposes only” (I kind of hate that the image is so soft here you can’t read that):

Oh, Holy Mother of God

Oh, Holy Mother of God

Is this offensive? Well, duh. But I also think that extending the bomb’s effect to the observation gallery, and reversing Woolsey’s black glasses frames to white, points to a certain amount of piss-taking going on. It is a silly part of a very silly movie, and I look forward to seeing more of these madmen at work. Pity Mankiewicz isn’t credited as writer on any other Wheeler and Woolsey movies. Hopefully there was more opium floating around Hollywood.

Diplomaniacs on Amazon

Arabian Adventure (1979)

arabianadventureosI had brought the 1937 Sh! The Octopus, which would have provided us with a Hugh Herbert Film Festival, but this was deemed too Mantlerian so we watched Arabian Adventure, which I had never seen. It was a fairly obvious attempt to produce a Star Wars rip-off without being obvious about it, and its success pretty much depends on how you feel about Kevin Connor movies. Connor had previously directed fare like At the Earth’s Core, The Land That Time Forgot and Warlords of Atlantis. Genre adventures made with special effects that were dated, even for their time, also known to me as The Movies You Take A Nap During At B-Fest.

Arabian Adventure isn’t too bad, especially if you approach it as a children’s movie. It has all the standard Arabian Nights claptrap: an evil, wizardly Caliph (Christopher Lee!), a sniveling toadie (Milo O’Shea), a prince in disguise (Oliver Tobias) and a princess to rescue (Emma Samms). Also a plucky young orphan and his trained monkey, and an imprisoned good Vizier (Peter Cushing, who graces the movie far too little).

Can't touch this!

Can’t touch this!

The big scene here for the Star Wars crowd is a climactic dogfight on magical flying carpets, which manages to squeeze out a bit of excitement, but overall could have been much more impressive. Our big moments of groaning horror had to do with the appearance of Mickey Rooney as a clumsy, trollish blacksmith in charge of the giant fire-belching Kevin Connor puppets, and John Ratzenberger as the head of a group of thieves. Many were the Cliff Clavin imitations that punctuated our Arabian Adventure.

Like I said, entertaining enough, but curiously of a piece with how we began our evening: an episode of Space: 1999 that Rick credits with totally destroying his cherished memories of childhood. I’m in no rush to revisit either.

Arabian Adventure on Amazon