Friday, September 30, 2011

STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, Exchanging Captions!

Hot creepers! Where's this week's TotED blog post?

Hey, everybody, instead of a new blog post this week, I did a sort of re-mix of my earlier post of Strangers on a Train for my new readers who haven't read it. More fun, more pictures, more quippy captions, and Fisticam action - Click here to give it a look! Hope you enjoy it! Feel free to leave a comment or two! :-)

Friday, September 23, 2011

TO CATCH A THIEF: Cary On Stealing

Admit it, you need a vacation like nobody’s business;  don’t we all? Wouldn’t you love to spoil yourself with a fab vacation in France, on the beach in Cannes with baubles and beauties (of both genders)? Well, Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (TCaT) is the next best thing! Just look at those lovely travel posters in the opening credits…listen to Lyn Murray’s score, the music sparkling like the clear blue ocean, automatically putting you in the mood for a swanky weekend on the Riviera…hear that bloodcurdling cry shattering the air as another wealthy woman finds out the hard way that she’s been robbed of her precious jewels. It’s enough to make a gal wail, “Ohhh! We can’t have nice things!”
If Art Buchwald says so, it must be so! No?
The jewel robbery epidemic in the South of France has all the earmarks of the notorious jewel thief John Robie (Cary Grant), better known as “The Cat,” being a cat burglar and all. This is news to John, as he’d long since given up thieving after becoming a hero of the French Resistance Army during World War 2. This whole copycat-burglar thing is cramping John’s style, not to mention his retirement and freedom: everyone and his Aunt Lillian is sure that The Cat’s come back, and the gendarmes would be only too happy to see him caught red-handed. There’s even an item in renowned columnist Art Buchwald’s column spreading rumors about the notorious John Robie’s return! (Can John sue Buchwald for libel, I wonder?)

A narrow escape, with just one Hitch! (And hints of a future film on the left!)

Are the French Riviera’s jewelry and their wearers safe—or do they need safes? On top of that, John’s old Resistance comrades all resent him for living on the proceeds of his past capers while they have to work at Bertani’s Restaurant (Bertani is played by Charles Vanel from Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear and Diabolique, among others). Only young Danielle Foussard (the piquant Brigitte Auber), isn’t angry at him—because she’s trying to blackmail, er, persuade John to run off with her and get married despite her youth. It’s always something! Anyway, John’s not taking these accusations lying down, even on those lovely Riviera beaches. As he points out, “For what it’s worth, I never stole from anybody who would go hungry.”

The yolk's on our heroes if they don't catch the real Cat!
Solving a Hitchcock mystery isn't always black and white.
John enlists the help of H.H. Hughson (Hitchcock veteran John Williams) from Lloyd’s of London to clear himself. As the title indicates, it takes a thief to catch a thief! The richest potential robbery victims on Hughson’s list are the mother-and-daughter team of Jessie Stevens (the delightful Jessie Royce Landis, playing a more lovable, down-to-earth mama than she did in North by Northwest) and her lovely blonde daughter Frances (Grace Kelly at her most radiant and elegant; she truly resembles a Grecian goddess, especially in her Edith Head gowns). Francie, as Miss Stevens is called, is definitely a classic Hitchcock Blonde with a cool demeanor and passionate fires beneath it all. She’s also part gifted amateur detective and part thrill-seeker, always up for, as our hero says, “weird excitement.” Not only has Francie seen through John’s alias, lumberman Conrad Burns (“Remind me to yell ‘Timber!’ once in a while,” John wryly ripostes), but this adventurous beauty has a surprising proposition for him: teaming up to rip off the rich. From what Jessie says to Francie, I’d say Miss Stevens takes after her dear old dad: “Why do you think we moved so often? Your father was a swindler, dear, but a lovable one. If you ask me, (John’s) a bigger operator on every level.”  

Attempts to catch a thief get the wrong man killed.
TCaT is a delightful champagne cocktail of a movie, sparkling as playfully as the jewels the mischievous Francie keeps trying to tempt Robie with. Still, this being a Hitchcock movie, you’ll see a dark side to the people and plot twists of this elegant adventure, too. For example, I had to smile at the perversity of two bewitching women like Francie and Danielle essentially trying to blackmail Robie into having relationships with them! I also enjoyed the constant—and apt—comparison of insurance to gambling. That’s part of the fun of To Catch a Thief; nobody in it is completely clean.
After the amazing artistic and financial success of Rear Window (1954), some considered TCaT to be “Hitchcock Lite.” Well, *nyah!* to them! Alfred Hitchcock and returning screenwriter John Michael Hayes (working from David Dodge’s novel) just wanted to have fun. If any movie snobs have a problem with that, maybe they really are overworked and need to relax on the nearest beach! Actually, 1955 was a departure year for Hitchcock and Hayes, considering their cheeky black comedy The Trouble with Harry also came out that year (granted, at the time, European audiences appreciated …Harry more than us Yanks, who rediscovered it in later years). Hitchcock and Company brought their usual wit, panache, and exquisite craftsmanship to the caper film, specifically the Gentleman Thief subgenre. Raffles and his brethren had been sorely missed in recent years, with too many caper films too often concentrating on smash-and-grab graphic violence and gleeful sadism. Steven Soderbergh brought back the witty, playful caper film in 2001 with his dazzling remake of Ocean’s Eleven; along with its two sequels, Soderbergh and Company brought fun and smarts back to the heist movie. If you ask me, all three of Soderbergh’s Ocean movies were way more fun than the 1960 original with The Rat Pack, but that’s simply one movie buff’s opinion.
Nice in Nice? Not when police chase you!
Even Yogi Bear can't touch Francie and John's picnic basket!
If you love chase scenes, TCaT won’t disappoint you, whether it’s John and Hughson moving progressively faster through the Nice Flower Market until they’re running from the police, or leadfoot Francie speeding along winding roads as John wipes the sweat off his hands. The French Riviera locations are as lovely to look at as the elegant team of Grant and Kelly in one of her last three films; the TCaT set was where Kelly met future husband Prince Rainier of Monaco. It’s a shame Grant only got to team up onscreen with Kelly once before her retirement, since they made a marvelous pair (as was also the case with Grant and his Charade leading lady Audrey Hepburn). Fellow Hitchcock fans may recall that Jessie Royce Landis went on to play Grant’s mom in North by Northwest (1959), even though she was Grant’s age in real life! (It’s so unfair when women age faster than men; there ought to be a law! <smile>) TCaT was nominated for three Oscars, including Best Art Direction/Set Decorations and Best Costume Design for the great Edith Head, but it was Director of Photography Robert Burks who brought home the gold at last, having just missed the brass ring previously for Rear Window and Strangers on a Train. I loved Brian Cady’s story on the TCM Web site of how Cary Grant, who’d been hell-bent on retiring from movies at that point in his long career, “agreed to read the script although he warned Hitchcock not to get his hopes up. Hitch kept the bombshell until the end of the meeting. ‘It might help you as you’re reading, Grace Kelly has agreed to play the girl and a good part of the picture will be shot on the Riviera.’ Cary Grant may have been set on retirement, but he was only human. Who could turn down a job offer like that?” Not us!

Francie has a great cure for John's sticky fingers!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Team Bartilucci's CMBA Guilty Pleasures Blogathon Double-Feature: CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC and THE APPLE

This review is part of the CMBA Guilty Pleasures Blogathon. The Blogathon runs from September 18th through 20th, 2011. By all means, please leave comments for one and all! :-) 

 Dorian’s Pick: Can’t Stop the Music (1980)

I was first introduced to The Village People’s first and last musical Can’t Stop the Music (CStM) by my delightful Fordham University chum Barbara Prisco in the mid-1980s. At first I was just plain gobsmacked by its garish ineptitude, but somehow upon subsequent viewings, it became more compelling and — dare I say it? — endearing, especially when our pals and fellow movie mavens/writers Michael Gingold and Matthew Kiernan scored us a mint copy of the DVD. This time, the glittery opening titles sequence dazzled me like a magpie faced with a shiny object, and I won’t deny that its engaging anthem, David London's “Sound of the City,” had me smiling and nostalgic for the way Manhattan was when our family lived there. Life has never been quite the same for us (or NYC, for that matter) since. CStM is a textbook example of two different breeds of Bad Movies:

  1. The “So Bad It’s Good” Movie.
  2. The “Cash in On a Fad While It’s Hot” Movie.
Baskin-Robbins Can't Stop the Nuts ice cream
To slightly paraphrase the title of the Quantic song, time was the enemy of The Village People (The VPs) and CStM. By the time show biz producer/glitzmeister Allan Carr got this Nancy Walker-directed musical extravaganza and its aggressive marketing campaign into movie theaters (Baskin-Robbins even had an ice cream flavor called “Can’t Stop the Nuts”), the hot band’s movie was more like a hot mess. It was already 1980, and both The VPs and their 1970s musical stylings were considered to be on their way out, despite having released their album Live and Sleazy with a single optimistically titled “Ready for the ’80s.” To paraphrase Walter Pidgeon as Dr. Morbius in Forbidden Planet, after three years of shining success, the poor VPs could hardly have understood what power was destroying them. How could they have known that AIDS and other unpleasantness would soon rear their ugly heads? How could they have anticipated that the music of the 1980s wouldn’t be disco, but New Wave and power ballads? Moreover, not only does CStM essentially turn The VPs into extras in their own movie, but its attempts to make the Pre-Fab Six look like hetero heartthrobs by throwing attractive women at them at every opportunity often comes off as patronizing. Nevertheless, I liked CStM’s Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney-style “Let’s put on a show!” format. The movie is studded with guest stars, mostly The VPs’ fellow Casablanca Records artists, including sexy girl singers The Ritchie Family, and an interesting motley crew of celebrities including June Havoc (the original Baby June, as fans of Gypsy well know!), Barbara Rush, Tammy Grimes (love her gorgeous violet outfits!), Paul Sand, Jack Weston, and Altovise Davis, wife of Sammy Davis Jr., as the lucky gal who discovers both Ray Simpson, The Cop (he had replaced original lead singer Victor Willis) and the shy, affable Alex Briley, who becomes The VPs’ G.I. The band is complete when Leatherman (and my fellow Bronxite) Glenn Hughes shows up at auditions. Actually, Glenn’s there to get an extension on his income tax, but ends up wowing everyone with his genuinely moving rendition of “Danny Boy” (still dressed in his leather gear, bless him)! Another CStM guest star: Leigh Taylor-Young, beloved from TV series ranging from the long-running TV version of Peyton Place to Picket Fences, as well as movies, including Soylent Green (1973) and the 1969 movie version of Elmore Leonard’s The Big Bounce, and so much more. Taylor-Young’s cast credit is arguably the wordiest:  “Cameo Guest Appearance by Leigh Taylor-Young.” Not to nit-pick, but shouldn’t the whole point of a movie cameo be that they don’t announce the star in question before she appears onscreen? Just sayin’….

Supermodel Sam’s having a dry(ing) spell.
Oscar-nominee (but not for CStM) Valerie Perrine has starred in prestigious yet offbeat films like Slaughterhouse Five (1972) and Lenny (1974) over the course of her long career, so I’m not surprised that she was game to co-star with The VPs. Perrine plays recently-retired supermodel Samantha Simpson, In fact, since the retirement was Sam’s idea and she’s still in demand despite turning down offers left and right, she’s become renowned as “the Garbo of models,” no less! To borrow a lyric from Bette Midler, you gotta have friends, and our Sam is apparently the straight best friend to all of her handsome gay Greenwich Village neighbors — not that any of the characters (or screenwriters) admit that out loud. The word “gay” never actually slips from anyone’s lips. It’s so cute how they keep pairing up The VPs with pretty young women. Ready for the ’80s? Not so much, back in the day. The closest we get to acknowledging and accepting homosexuals in CStM is this heated dialogue Samantha has with Bruce Jenner as priggish tax lawyer and St. Louis transplant Ron White (even his name sounds bland and uptight) just before he leaves Sam’s lovely apartment in a huff, which appears to be Ron’s favorite mode of transportation:
Ron: “Let’s put it this way: your friends are a little far-out for me.”
“What do you mean?”
Ron: “I don’t understand why a good-looking girl like you is down here in the Village with a bunch of…I don’t know what!”
Sam: “Do you know something? I don’t judge people, I accept them. There isn’t a person who breathes who doesn’t have certain peculiarities, and as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody, it’s all right with me.”
Ron: “Yeah, but where do you draw the line?”
“With uptight squares like you! (She slams the door on him.) Really!”
Panic at the Disco? Nah, just Neon Maniacs!
Our Sam is not only loyal, she’s downright peripatetic, perhaps a tad too much so at times. Her voice occasionally sounds like she’s been mixing uppers and helium. One of her best pals is VP Felipe Rose, a.k.a.The Indian of the about-to-be-formed VPs. Felipe goes around the Village in an elaborate American Indian headpiece and little else, and comes into Sam’s place through her window (good thing she lives in a garden apartment!) to watch Lone Ranger reruns. Free-spirited Sam doesn’t mind: “Why not? This is neighborly New York.” Another one of Sam’s pals is young aspiring songwriter Jack Morell, played by Steve Guttenberg (and modeled after The VPs’ creator Jacques Morali) , best known from Diner, the Police Academy flicks, and Curtis Hanson’s Hitchcock manque The Bedroom Window (1987). For all I know, Guttenberg may be the nicest guy in the world, but in every film I’ve ever seen him in, somehow he’s always managed to grate on my nerves while being about as winsome and exciting as pabulum. How is that possible? Anyway, Jack gets a guest DJ stint at the hot Manhattan disco Saddletramps, run by sleazy owner Benny Murray, played by beloved character actor Weston. Sexy Sam dirty-dances with several attractive gents, including two more VPs: The Construction Worker, David Hodo; and The Cowboy, Randy Jones. The club patrons dance the night away to Jack’s tunes, especially the song he wrote for Sam, appropriately titled “Samantha.” (Click here for the music video.) Sam is sold and eager to help Jack get his music out to the loving public. She plans to call on music producers she’s “danced and romanced” with in her lively past: “Mama has connections!” Of course, it’s not that easy, what with Sam’s record company mogul ex, Steve Waits (Sand stands out as a sleazy, funny foil), willing to work with Sam if she’ll get back together with him and pay The VPs peanuts, the cheap so-and-so!
This is the sexiest scene in CStMtoo bad it's not even in the film!

Hot girl, hot lasagna, 1st-degree burns; that’s comedy!
Pabulum Boy Guttenberg is Brad Pitt compared to Olympic Decathlete-turned-actor Bruce Jenner as the easily-offended Ron. In a movie like this, you just know that sooner or later Sam and Ron will fall for each other, if only because it’s in the script. To borrow a line from Mad Magazine’s Caine Mutiny parody, there’s gotta be a romance, by George! Jenner’s big seduction scene with Perrine must be one of the most inept love scenes ever committed to celluloid. Granted, Ron is supposed to be a klutz, perhaps to show that he has range (an Olympic athlete playing a klutz! My sides — they’ve split!), but Ron isn’t even a funny, endearing klutz like the kind that, say, Chevy Chase used to play at that point in his career. That Prince Valiant haircut didn’t do Jenner any favors, either. In any case, I was longing for someone to smack hot-and-cold-running Ron upside the head! To be fair, Jenner also isn’t helped by the fact that screenwriters Allan Carr and Bronte Woodard apparently thought household accidents and their accompanying injuries were the height of hilarity. Hey, nobody loves knockabout screwball comedy more than I do! But I’m afraid CStM’s slapstick accidents are ineptly staged, and look more painful than funny, e.g. searingly hot lasagna spilled in someone’s lap, hair getting painfully caught on things, etc. On the positive side, it’s the next best thing to having someone smack Ron upside the head! Then there’s Marilyn Sokol as Sam’s man-hungry BFF Lulu Brecht. Our family adored Sokol in Foul Play (1978) and other comedies, but for some reason Walker directed Sokol to act like Lena Hyena and look like Tim Curry in drag, and without even the luxury of a Rocky Horror-style feather boa and teddy! Poor Lulu isn’t even allowed to be smart; at the very least, she needs to brush up on her American History as she ogles Felipe wearing his American Indian garb, purring, “I’ll make up for all the indignities they suffered in Roots!”

Will Tammy Grimes’ purple reign make Marilyn Sokol turn yellow?
Seems like every few minutes, someone in CStM burbles about how the 1980s will be “wonderfully new and different,” and yet everything else about the flick screams “1970s,” from the disco scenes to Samantha’s Lycra slutwear. And why hasn’t Sam gone blind from storing her hard contact lenses in mustard and relish jars in her fridge? That said, CStM does have its strengths: the movie certainly has plenty of verve; cute in-jokes (like “Marrakesh Records,” clearly spoofing the VPs’ Casablanca Records); deliciously gaudy-bordering-on-garish production numbers with eye-popping fashions by the great Theoni V. Aldredge; and when The VPs do get to speak, they’re as affable as they are cute. Most people remember “Y.M.C.A.,” performed in a beefcake-populated gym, but my favorite is “Do the Shake,” which is way more fun than any of the milk-slurping, leotard-wearing, or jeans-clad Yuppies in that era’s tasteful, health-conscious American Dairy Association ads. As Sam’s agent Sydne Channing, Tammy Grimes vows to “make milk more glamorous than champagne…I’m going to insist they cork it!”

Watch for the remake: Dario Argento's Can't Stop the Music!
The club-footed direction of Bounty-hawker Walker evokes Vincente Minnelli possessed by the spirit of Ed Wood after going on a bender. This proves that men and women are truly equal, at least when it comes to film direction: female directors are just as capable of making bad movies as male directors! Still, I don’t know about you guys, but I can’t resist movies shot on location in New York City that show unemployed people living in huge, gorgeous apartments worthy of Architectural Digest, with homeless people and muggers who also happen to be cute, clean, and peppy. It must have been a scorching day when they filmed the scene between Jenner and Perrine across the street from the U.N. (a hop, skip, and jump from the Manhattan apartment building where our family lived at the time!), because you can see the poor woman’s long, lustrous hair drooping from the heat with each step. Another attraction for me is that CStM was filmed in the NYC of my youth; I’m always reminded of the places I went to when I lived in Manhattan, and how different it was in good and bad ways (for instance, I’m one of those kooks who actually applauds the de-sleazing of Times Square!). Love it or hate it, CStM keeps your eyes glued to it with the fascination of a horrific traffic accident — and you can hum along with it, by George!

Eat your heart out, Busby Berkeley!

When you got it, milk it, baby, milk it!
Get your toes tapping and have a disco ball with these links to CStM musical numbers: 
David Hodo, CStM: “I Love You to Death”

Vinnie's Pick: The Apple (1980)
What was it about the year 1980? Was it the glee of watching the numbers flip? The promise of a brand spanking new decade? We'll never know, but somehow this one year brought us not only the masterpiece The Wife has presented you, but also the musical burr in your boot that is The Apple.

First off , it was created and produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, masterminds behind Cannon Productions, a film company that may be more representative of the '80s than we may care to admit. It's written by Golan, and can't seem to decide which end of the Bible it wanted to be an allegory, and so it steals liberally from both Genesis and Revelations. The films starts at the Eurovision song contest and ends with The Rapture.
The film takes place in the "distant future" of 1994, a miraculous world where everyone is wearing...basically what they wear in the most embarrassingly popular disco, only more so. Shoulder pads are bigger, fabric is vinylier, and apparently it's now legally required too look like either a whore, a pimp, or just a damn fool. The outfits are a distinct visual shorthand - the bad guys wear the flashy duds, and the good guys dress like people. Cars all resemble late-model station wagons with crazy fins and spoilers welded on. Apparently they only manufacture about six models of automobile now, because no matter how many places you look, that's all you see on the road. It's hilarious to watch the wealthy and powerful baddies of the film pile into the SAME car, over and over.
Boogalow (Vladek Sheybal) faces down Bob Pitman (George S. Clinton)
It stars Catherine Mary Stewart, later of Night of the Comet and The Last Starfighter. She and One-Film Wonder George Gilmour play, respectively, Bibi and Alphie, a singing duo from Moosejaw, Saskatchewan who catch the eye and raise the ire of Mr. Boogalow, the world's most powerful music producer, and, apparently, the Devil. Boogalow (Vladek Sheybal; From Russia With Love's Alexei Kronsteen himself) rigs the (thinly disguised) Eurovision Song Contest when Alphie and Bibi's heartwarming love song almost defeats his heavily produced and marketed number, "BIM" and immediately starts marketing BIM-merchandise, including an adhesive mark that he insists everyone starts wearing. Less than ten minutes in and the apocalypse-allegory is starting!

Boogalow wants to sign the pair; Bibi is all for it, but Alphie smells a rat. Not to mention when they visit Boogalow's office, he starts having visions - he imagines an earthquake rocks the building, and envisions a massive production number in Hell, featuring the titular prop. Alphie runs from the deal like he was prodded with a pitchfork, but Bibi's head is turned, she signs, and is world-famous before he can bottom out in his cheap tenement. At the behest of his landlady (the delightful character actress Miriam Margolyes, playing a Jewish stereotype worthy of Judd Hirsch in Independence Day), he keeps trying to sell songs, but naturally, his work "isn't what they're looking for".

Another example of the stark realism that permeates this film
Bibi's star is on the rise, and so is Boogalow's. The BIM-Mark is now legally mandatory, and Boogalow's power seems almost supernatural in its breadth and speed. Alphie tries to contact Bibi repeatedly, and though she seems keen on talking to him, they are kept apart by a wall of spandex-clad flunkies and bodyguards. Alphie crashes one of Boogalow's traditionally lavish parties to save Bibi, but with the help of Something In His Drink and some crazy camera lenses, he hallucinates Bibi in bed with one of the BIM singers, and he gets shagged rotten by another. He awakes in the park surrounded by hippies, under the benevolence of Joss Ackland, the baddie from Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey. They take him into their commune, and he stays with them while Bibi finally works up the onions to leave Boogalow's control. Her escape is rather underwhelming - the singer who shagged Alphie at the party suddenly comes off all penitent and helps Bibi leave the corporate apartment. Not escape, leave; Boogalow's head flunkie just chooses to let her leave, as if freedom will somehow teach her a lesson, and she'll come back beggin' for more fame and sequined spandex.

Bibi finds Alphie via the sage advice of his Very Jewish Ex-Landlady, and their reunion in the commune is brief and melodic. Suddenly it's a year later; the pair have had a baby and everything, and Boogalow have only JUST tracked them down, never mind that their secret hiding place is a public park walking distance from his offices. They arrive with a small militia and battery of attorneys, claiming that Bibi owes Boogalow International Music the sum of ten million dollars - it's not made clear if that represents lost wages or the security deposit on her corporate apartment.

The BIM-army lead the hippies away, and it's only at THIS point that the film gets weird. While Bibi wonders what will happen to them, Alphie begins talking about a mysterious "Mister Topps" who he is sure will arrive. And arrive he does, via a golden Lincoln Continental in the sky. Mister Topps is, apparently, God, and is ALSO played by Joss Ackland, with no explanation whatsoever. He and Boogalow know each other, and in spite of the the producer's protests, he guides Alphie, Bibi, their child, and the rest of the commune away, and off into the sky. He plans to take them to another world, one "free of the pollution" of Boogalow.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Chuck DeNomolos saves the world by Rapturing the hippies. Never before has there been a filmic world I so seriously want to live in.

Judging from the trailer, a great deal more time was apparently intended to be spent with the hippies, but was left on the proverbial cutting room floor. So for all we know there's some vital expository dialogue sitting in a can (film, or trash...if indeed there's a difference) somewhere that explains the mysterious connection between the Two Josses, a line that would reduce the mad left turn the film takes. But we don't see it, and so a film that was only blatantly allegorical becomes outrageously so in the final minutes.

It's the first film score of George S., not the man behind Funkadelic, but the composer and music producer of things like Red Shoe Diaries and Sharpay's Fabulous Adventure. His music is technically impressive, but it's all utterly soulless. He goes for obvious rhymes and scansion, as if he read the best books available about how to write music, and followed the rules to the letter. He hits a bunch of genres: power ballad, wall of sound, disco and even rudimentary heavy metal. They're all perfectly good songs, and the cast perform them very well - Catherine Mary Stewart's got some serious pipes. But it's all like so much dietary fiber, it goes right through you. One song, "I'm Coming", is the single most blatantly sexual disco songs I've ever heard, and if it had even a NOTE or satire or irony in it, could be the single best parody of a disco song ever. But there isn't - it's played utterly straight. He also has no idea how to stop a song. Too many of them end with incessant repetition of the tune's hook, well past its welcome has run out.
“They Call me Mister Topps” – Not a funny caption – ACTUAL line from movie
The dancing, however, is absolutely stellar. It's some of the last choreographic work of Nigel Lythgoe, who's gone on to much greater fame as among other things, judge and executive producer of So You Think You Can Dance. The dance moves are precise and imaginative. The dancers actually can dance, and Nigel comes up with some modern moves that still hold up. Like so many films that take place in The Future, the movie seems to have been filmed in a series of modern hotels and shopping malls, but it feels like it was conceived and written in a really crowded disco. It's loud and pounding and there's an underlying scent of sweat and desperation in the air. And somehow, I can't stop watching it.

Friday, September 9, 2011

It’s Not Just a Job, It’s an Adventure: My Low-Budget Film Gig

Back in late 1988, about six months before Vinnie and I got married, I got the chance to do more than just watch movies; I got to help make them, too! It all began after Vinnie and I returned from our first trip overseas, the “Conspiracy” Worldcon in Great Britain. I was all set to take NYU’s Intensive Filmmaking Workshop for eleven weeks. Then Fate stepped in, thanks to a phone call from Bob Zimmerman (not to be confused with the singing Bob Zimmerman, a.k.a. Bob Dylan). This Bob Zimmerman was a friend and fellow member of CAPrA,short for Cinematic Amateur Press Association. For any young’uns reading this, an APA is a homemade newsletter in which each member of the APA contributes their own fanzines (‘zine for short) and collates them all together while enjoying food and fun. This all happened before the Internet came along and begat blogs!

At the time, our Bob Zimmerman had been hired by producer Steve Mackler for Sony Pictures to be the line producer (click here for more info on what the job entails) for three theatrical films they were financing. Since movies were a new area for Sony at the time, they played it safe by starting out with low-budget genre films which would be sure to make a profit one way or another, whether in theatrical release or on home video. Bob needed a Production Office Coordinator on these films, starting with Rejuvenatrix (not to be confused with The Re-Animator), and he offered me the job. How could I pass up a chance like that? The pay wouldn’t render me fabulously wealthy, but I was more interested in getting hands-on movie set experience, and even my dear mom finally agreed it was worth going for, despite her worries about the crazy hours required. Besides, movie job opportunities with someone I could trust, like Bob, are harder to come by than film school classes!

When I reported to work on Rejuvenatrix, my job was pretty much to be Bob’s second-in-command, running the production office. I was in charge of keeping track of the budget (on the computer, of course), and during the early days of pre-production, I was running errands and scouting around for the props and locations, getting prices and directions and the like. For example, my first two weeks on the job had me calling all over New York and New Jersey for white rats, rabbits, and a Mercedes-Benz. (No, smarty, the Mercedes wasn’t for me, fun though I’m sure that would have been!) I also helped draw up the contracts and the crew/cast lists for everyone involved. My duties included hiring Production Assistants for the set. Many of them came from film schools, while others were filmmakers who Bob had worked with before. I even had my own assistant, Caroline Sinclair. We wound up helping each other because Caroline had done more movie work than I had. I was really grateful to her for filling in the cracks of my film production knowledge, and in return, I taught her how to use the computer; not that I was ever a computer genius by any means (that’s Vinnie’s bailiwick), but as my dear old dad used to say, “In the valley of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”

Finding good P.A.s wasn’t hard; even the ones with little experience were fine as long as they were enthusiastic and willing to learn, though I won’t deny that the $150/week salary put off some candidates. Granted, back in the late 1980s, $150 went farther than it does today, plus at the time, I was only 22 and still lived in NYC with Mom. But hey, from what my co-workers told me, many Production Assistants on low-budget movies don’t get paid at all, except in experience. More often than not, the camaraderie and the filmmaking experience convinced most newcomers to stay (sometimes even when we hoped they wouldn’t!).

 Synthesizing sinister serum with scientists Stella Stone (Katell Pleven) and Gregory Ashton (John MacKay)

Frankly, being part of it all was pretty exciting, and it was much more responsibility (and more intriguing) than I’d been used to. I’ll admit it was a little intimidating at first, but I quickly got used to my authority, made contacts, and enjoyed the experience while still being kind and having a good rapport with everyone. It helped that many of the folks working on these films weren’t much older than I was at the time. The oldest person on the film was the producer, and he was a mere lad of 40! I even sat in on production meetings; it’s fun to listen to people talking about creating mutant rats as if they were exchanging cookie recipes. I enjoyed listening to the terrific cast reading the entire script out loud, too, with humor and gravitas in all the right places. I particularly enjoyed John MacKay’s performance as Dr. Ashton, the young scientist who gets into an unholy, lust-laced alliance with aging movie queen Elizabeth Warren (Vivian Lanko); his voice has always reminded me of Martin Sheen. He was a nice guy with a great dry wit, too. Since then, our man MacKay has been on such TV series as Third Watch and Law and Order, and his films include Regarding Henry and Niagara, Niagara, as well as a hilarious recent Sprint commercial about “sticking it to the man.” (Click here for the commercial!)

Rejuvenatrix (whose working title was Brains for Beauty, by the way) was a wonderfully nutty, campy, stylish script. It was B-movie-ish in a good way, a nifty hybrid of Sunset Boulevard, The Bride of Frankenstein, and Altered States, with pretty darn good horror F/X, considering our tight budget. It’s about an aging movie star, Elizabeth Warren, initially played by Jessica Dublin. She and John MacKay as Dr. Gregory Ashton join forces, with Elizabeth using her big bucks to finance experiments to create a youth serum. It works, with Elizabeth’s renewed gorgeous self now played by the lovely and talented Vivian Lanko. Of course, this being a horror film, the serum turns out to have some wild side effects: now and then she turns into a bloodthirsty mutant! Don’t you hate when that happens? Dig the cool monster transformation scene!
Like Hitchcock with Psycho, we worked wonders on a low budget! :-)

There are some great lines, like when Elizabeth starts mutating in a nightclub rest room in front of two trendy types, one of whom sniffs, “You know, as soon as a club gets hot, they let in the bridge-and-tunnel crowd.”  Then there’s the scene with hungry mutant Elizabeth killing Dr. Ashton’s sweet young assistant, Stella (Katell Pleven). The doc kneels at her side, moaning, “Stella! Stella!” Mutant Elizabeth, now turning back into Gorgeous Elizabeth, says, “Your Marlon Brando needs a little work, darling.” And then there was Team Bartilucci’s favorite: MacKay’s intense delivery of this sibilant line: “I’ve got to synthesize the serum!” Personally, I enjoyed working on Rejuvenatrix the most. Sure, the hours were long; at first, I got in the office by 9 a.m. and rarely left before 8:30 p.m. But once filming began, most of the action was on the set, so my hours and duties lightened up a bit.

Much as I enjoyed working in the production office, I also wanted an opportunity to work on the set, just for the experience. I got my chance with our second film, Bloodscape, a.k.a. Escape from Safehaven (EfS).  (Check out DVD Update's review on YouTube.) This was a more grim-and-gritty thriller, set in a post-nuclear holocaust world about a family desperate to live in Safehaven to avoid the horrors of the ravaged outside world. Need I say things turn out to be a whole lot worse on the inside? Hero Rick Gierasi went on to Troma's Sgt. Kabukiman, TV's Caroline in the City, and Star Trek: Voyager.

This time, I was a Production Assistant — specifically, I was the P.A. in charge of Craft Services, a professional-sounding way of saying I got food for our cast and crew. It was like feeding an army every day. Imagine grocery-shopping every day for forty to fifty ravenous people. Now imagine having to keep two large Craft Service tables—one on the first floor of the school where we were filming, and the other located anywhere from the fifth floor (did I mention the school had no elevator?) to two or three blocks away (for outdoor scenes). I did most of the shopping, though Vinnie helped me out with the shopping on weekends. That’s a lot of heavy lifting, lugging, and schlepping! I soon began to appreciate the soothing powers of a nice warm bath before bed, especially since I usually came home dusty and/or grimy from head to toe, to my dear mom’s dismay. My mission was to provide breakfast, usually bagels, muffins, and the occasional order of hot egg sandwiches, cold cereal, fruit, yogurt. The afternoon brought our stalwart cast and crew cold cuts and veggies—or as our otherwise tolerant sound man Pavel Wdowczak would snort in his thick Polish accent, “Weggies!” Anything edible was washed down by gallons of coffee, coffee, COFFEE — hold the decaf! Oh, and don’t forget the wrap beer! An hour before our projected wrap time each night, I had to place three cases of beer (Budweiser was the favorite) and a bag of ice into the beverage cooler, all the better for the crew to unwind after a tough day. Ironically, I’ve never enjoyed alcoholic beverages or coffee myself; I just never developed a taste for them. As a result, I had no idea whether or not the stuff was any good, taste-wise. “You ought to try them and see what all the excitement’s about,” our Unit Manager Phil Dolin wryly suggested. But I daresay our tired, thirsty crew wasn’t all the choosy about their beer by the time we wrapped things up in the middle of the night!

Would Louise Brooks think our films were lulus? :

And of course, what would a Craft Services table be without snacks? Even with EfS’s tight budget, variety was the by-word; every so often I’d come up with something special, like strawberries and cream, kiwi fruit, or my mostly-homemade spinach dip (I seasoned it with Knorr’s leek soup mix). Although most of the cast and crew were appreciative, there was always some self-styled epicure who wasn’t quite satisfied. I could have five varieties of bagels (since we were in New York City, they were truly awesome bagels), and three types of rolls on the table, with all kinds of different spreads, and there would still be some wise guy who’d say, “Ya got any Wonder Bread for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?” (To be fair, the p.b. & j. fan was thrilled and thankful when I brought him the necessary ingredients the next day, and so were several other members of the cast and crew.) I took great pains to include fresh in-season produce along with the munchies, but of course, the sweets were always the first food items to be snapped up. “We’ve gotta eat more healthy food,” people would wail as they stuffed their rosy little cheeks with M&Ms (the favorite snack of our director, Brian Thomas Jones), Double-Stuf Oreos (everybody’s favorite), or Entenmann’s cakes, the only cake with frosting guaranteed to survive a nuclear attack. All kidding aside, I can’t deny that I loved them all, too! Lucky for me this job required lots of walking and stair-climbing; believe me, I burned off an awful lot of those calories, empty and otherwise. (If Entenmann’s ever makes gluten-free goodies as melt-in-your-mouth delicious as their traditional goodies, I for one will be a very happy girl! But I digress….)
Lunch break! Come and get it!
Fortunately for my sanity and the filmmakers’ petty cash supply, a caterer brought a hot lunch for us every day. For late shoots, we’d order out for pizza or Chinese food. Heck, thanks to Pavel, we even splurged for Polish food—one of the advantages of filming in the East Village was the variety of exotic yet affordable take-out cuisine. Still, Craft Services is a pretty relentless job. In addition to all the running around between tables and supermarkets, you’ve got to make absolutely sure you’re not running out of anything — especially coffee, soda, and utensils — so you quickly learn to anticipate your future food needs.

On a movie set, it’s not just hunger that makes people place such importance on Craft Services. People don’t just eat because they’re hungry, they eat because:
  • It gives them something to do during the long set-ups and such between takes.
  • Like Mount Everest, the food is there.
  • Eating is fun, especially in New York City!
The folks most often guilty of recreational eating are the actors and extras. They often have no choice but to sit around in “The Green Room” or in the location’s production office for hours on end while waiting to do their scenes. I provided recent magazines from home to occupy the gang, but the siren call of the Craft Services table inevitably lured them. There was plenty of hard work involved, but there were many bright spots, too. If you do Craft Services well (and I think I did, if I do say so myself), you’ve got a certain amount of power. Faces lit up when I entered the room with beverages and comestibles; the reactions are almost Pavlovian! People courted my favors in hopes that I’d save them the last bottle of Orangina (and I did just that whenever I could; I’m not heartless, you know!). You get to schmooze with the actors and, if it’s an action flick like EfS, the special effects folks. More than once, someone would leave a bottle of fake blood on the Craft Services table. Good thing the main ingredient in the fake blood was corn syrup and red food coloring!
I even got a chance to be an extra one day! Lauri, the makeup artist, grimed me up good. I had to laugh; I’d spent about ten minutes artfully dabbing concealer on the circles I already had from long days on the set, and Lauri undid it all within seconds with some brown goop, bless her. I wore some dystopian-style clothing, and voila! I, a sworn teetotaler, had been transformed by movie magic into a seedy patron at a sleazy dive bar.  As Pierce, a young Clint Eastwood type, Gierasi passes right by my table when he enters the bar. If you happen to come across EfS sometime, you just might spot me in the scene for a nanosecond near the top of the screen. I even got my sister Cara into the act, however briefly. She came to help out one day when we had fifty more extras (extra extras!), and Cara became the 51st; she’s one of the shocked Safehaven citizens witnessing a public execution in the Arena. Barrymores, Carradines, Baldwins, eat your hearts out!

I wasn’t in on the third Sony film because by then, I really needed a steady paycheck, especially since Vinnie and I eventually wanted to get married and start a family. Still, I have fond memories, and I’ll always be glad I got to be in pictures! (Speaking of pictures, the movie illustrations sprinkled throughout this post came from Ready-Made Rubber's line of movie stamps by Rick Geary.)

Lord, won't you rent me a Mercedes-Benz?

Friday, September 2, 2011

ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT: The Continuing Adventures of Annabelle's Husband

Here’s a high concept for you: “Damon Runyon Kicks Nazi Heinie in NYC.” That’s the clever premise of first-time “A” picture director Vincent Sherman’s 1941 Warner Bros. wartime comedy-thriller All Through the Night (ATtN). Don’t you love it already? And what a cast — it’s Character Actor Central, and all in their prime! The good guys’ corner includes a dazzling array of funny, colorful sidekicks and associates in addition to Humphrey Bogart himself: William Demarest; Jackie Gleason (then billed as Jackie C. Gleason); Phil Silvers as a nearsighted but patriotic waiter; the lovely Kaaren Verne (Kings Row, The Seventh Cross); Barton MacLane (whose many films with Bogart included The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, though TV fans may remember him best as General Peterson on I Dream of Jeannie); Edward Brophy (who Team Bartilucci knows best as Joe Morelli in The Thin Man, and who the young Disney fans in our lives know best as the voice of Timothy Mouse in Dumbo); Wallace Ford (billed as “Wally” here) and Charles Cane from Dead Reckoning; Frank McHugh, in the role that endeared him to Team Bartilucci and earned him the affectionate nickname “Annabelle’s Husband” (more on that shortly); and of all people, The Grapes of Wrath Oscar-winner Jane Darwell as Bogart’s mom (doesn’t sound like it should work, but it does, trust me!). The bad guys they’re up against are no slouches, either: Conrad Veidt; Dame Judith Anderson, Martin Kosleck, and Peter Lorre (who ended up married to co-star Verne for several years, ironically enough). There’s gonna be a rumble in Manhattan tonight!

Sunshine explains how to catch
the Nazis with their Panzers down
This fast, funny, suspenseful adventure gives Bogart one of his most entertaining roles as Alfred “Gloves” Donahue, a dapper New York City “sports promoter.” Translation: gambler and bookie. I should know; that was what my dear old dad did when he wasn’t managing his Italian restaurant in the Bronx when I was a little tyke. My favorite euphemism for Gloves’ line of work comes from a radio bulletin when he’s wrongly accused of murder, describing him as a “man about town and well-known figure in the sporting world.” But I’m getting ahead of myself! The film opens with Gloves’ “boys,” Sunshine (Demarest), Starchy (Gleason), and waiter Louie (Silvers) using toy soldiers and such to map out a campaign against the Nazis. Our guy Gloves joins Sunshine and their cohort Barney (McHugh) at the restaurant. Gloves is a rough-and-tumble but essentially decent guy who’s good to his lovable mother (Darwell). He’s more interested in the sports page than the war news on the front page, until Mom seeks out Gloves for help. Mr. Miller (Ludwig Stossel) is missing. This is a crisis, as Mrs. Miller (Irene Seidner) is Mom Donahue’s BFF, plus Mr. M. is Gloves’ favorite cheesecake maker! We viewers had just seen Pepi (Lorre), a pianist (no, not Adrien Brody) and generally slimy so-and-so, slinking around Miller’s store, eating candy he hasn’t paid for and making veiled threats — not a good sign! Well, Mom Donahue has even sharper “women’s intuition” than Grace Kelly did in Rear Window, and her never-wrong “funny feeling” is once again on the money, alas; Mr. Miller is found murdered in his basement.
Gloves picked a fine time to
accidentally leave his calling card!
Speaking of cheesecake, the lovely German-accented singer Leda Hamilton (Verne) drops by wearing a picture hat and a worried look. Turns out Pepi is Leda’s accompanist. Now Gloves is the one with the funny feeling, first with his attraction to the mysterious yet endearing Leda, then the growing realization that Pepi and Leda are involved with a bunch of mugs even tougher than Gloves and his cronies. When Mom tries to get info out of Leda at The Duchess Club, the nightspot run by Gloves’ rival Marty Callahan (MacLane), Gloves steps in, and before he knows it, shots are fired and he’s framed for the murder of the obnoxious Joe Denning (Brophy). Joe only gives Gloves one clue before dying: he lifts his hand. The chase is on, and soon Gloves and Company realize they’re dealing with “Fivers”— Fifth Columnists, headed by smooth antiques dealer Franz Ebbing (Veidt)! Leda seems to run hot and cold, first knocking Gloves out, then helping him and Sunshine escape. Turns out there’s a terrible hold over her: her father’s in the Dachau concentration camp, and Ebbing and company have been keeping Papa’s death from “natural causes” from her so she’d keep working with them. (I wonder what those Nazi creeps defined as “natural causes”?) Now that Gloves and Leda are joining forces, they’ve got to find out what those Nazi scum are up to over at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Will Gloves get himself and Leda out of this mess? Will Barney and his brand-new bride Annabelle (Jean Ames) get to enjoy any action on their wedding night that doesn’t involve chases and clobbering? You bet — with a little help from their cronies, of course! Native New Yorkers rule!
Congrats & good luck to Barney & Annabelle,
married to the mob!
George Raft, notorious for turning down roles that wound up turning his replacements into stars, was offered the role of Gloves Donahue first. Thank goodness Humphrey Bogart landed the role instead, because Bogie was a tough guy with a knack for comedy! As wonderful as the whole cast is, McHugh is our favorite among the supporting cast. Indeed, we affectionately call him “Annabelle’s Husband.” He gets lots of the best lines, too, like these:
Drake on the move! Perry Mason’s
William Hopper in his first film role
Barney: “Annabelle’s waiting for me…after all, I’m a married man. I got obligations.”
Gloves: “All right, send her flowers.”
Barney: “Well…that wasn’t my idea.

Talking to Madame (Anderson) at the auction house after Gloves and Sunshine are knocked out and tied up:

Barney: “Lookit, lady, when we started out tonight, there were three of us. Twenty minutes later, there was only two. Now there’s only one. One of us isn’t enough to leave here alone!”

A portrait's worth 1000 words: fiendish Fivers afoot!
The screenplay by Leonard Spigelgass and Edwin Gilbert (story by Spigelgass), and Leo Rosten writing as Leonard Q. Ross is fast and funny, blending comedy, action, and suspense effortlessly. I especially got a kick out of the breezy, sometimes punny dialogue (like Gleason’s “The first one of those (Nazi) guys I tag, I’m gonna kick him right in the swastika!” and Bogart’s “Hey, there’s more here than meets the FBI!”). I was also tickled when I spotted Hedda Hopper’s son DeWolfe Hopper in an uncredited role as a reporter in the background of the film’s last scene; of course, we Perry Mason fans know him better as William Hopper, who played Perry’s private investigator Paul Drake, as well as starring in the films 20 Million Miles to Earth, The Deadly Mantis, and The Bad Seed, among others!

Considering ATtN ends with Gloves’ Mom rushing to him in the middle of a press conference to tell him that now the milkman is MIA, it would have been so cool if Warners had made a sequel, and/or maybe even a new movie series! But alas, at that time, the attack on Pearl Harbor was still too fresh in 1941 audiences’ minds for them to embrace a quasi-realistic World War 2 spy thriller with broadly humorous overtones. Happily, ATtN is available on DVD and TCM (as it was during Conrad Veidt Day recently on TCM’s Summer Under the Stars) so we modern movie lovers can enjoy this entertaining genre blend guilt-free!

Hmm, wonder which cheesecake Peter Lorre liked best? Miller's cheesecake?

Or then-wife Kaaren Verne? ;-)

It’s double jeopardy for Gloves and Leda as
they unravel the evil Fifth Columnists' plot.

 Poor little pooch! It’s not the dog’s fault his owner is Nazi scum!