Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Sharks vs The Rats - Team Bartilucci's Summer Movies post!

This post is for The Beach Party Blogathon, Hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings, from June 8th - 12th, 2015!

Dori's pick

Jaws (1975): “We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Post!”

In case you haven't heard, Fathom Events is bringing
JAWS back to theaters for two days only!
More info at
JAWS was the blockbuster hit of 1975 – indeed, the FIRST of what we call a blockbuster, being the first film to break 100 million dollars.  Seems a paltry sum today – now a film is practically considered a dismal failure if it DOESN’T break a hundred million! Of all the people that became household names as a result of the film, the biggest have to be sharks themselves.  It made shark attacks guaranteed ratings for the nightly news, and put the Discovery Channel on the map when some clever dick decided to give them a week of programming every year, a week some look forward to the way a kid looks forward to Christmas.

I remember the first time our family went to see Steven Spielberg’s thriller.  At the time, I was the youngest kid in our family, as well as the shyest  (though nobody ever believes me; I guess I talk a good game! :-D) . I was at Orchard Beach in the Bronx, where we lived at the time. I was nervous as all get out, but my Mom said. “Don’t worry, little one, we’ll help you!”  Even my older brother Peter was smiling and, saying, “You’ll be fine!”  He was a lifeguard that summer – what a year to pick, huh? So, Mom and our parents and friends were both scared silly, yet nursed guilty hopes that hoped we kids might find a Great White Shark in the Long Island Sound.

JAWS also gave me my first crush on rumpled and vulnerable Richard Dreyfuss as oceanographer Matt Hooper.  He’d go on to win an Oscar for The Goodbye Girl and entertain in plenty of films, including house favorite, What About Bob? Roy Scheider came a close second in the crush race, with an equally stellar career in thrillers like Last Embrace, and Still of the Night as well as wacko outings like Naked Lunch.

If this shark doesn't leave me alone I'm gonna give
"poop deck" a whole new meaning!
Murray Hamilton, a character actor known for “having ROTC” in No Time for Sergeants and the moody Frankenheimer classic Seconds played the Mayor of Amity island, and if he didn’t take that anchor-emblazoned blazer home with him, I’ll lose all respect for him.  Actress Lorraine Gary may have had a sweet deal as being the bosses’ at wife of Universal, but I found her to be endearing as Ellen Brody.

Fun Fin Fact – In Peter Benchley’s (grandson of better-than-us humorist Robert Benchley) original novel on which the film is based, Hooper and Ellen Brody were secret lovers, and ended up dead.  Just as well that they dropped that – would have made it hard to like him!

The film starts off with a bang (and many whimpers from the audience) with poor swimmer Chrissie (Susan Backlinie) doing out for a quick dip, and becoming the first…boating accident victim.  At least that’s what Mayor Vaughn insists it was; what with only a few days before the July 4th holiday, he doesn’t want to scare the island’s main source of income away with news of a shark attack.

The poster for JAWS may be the single most parodied
image in the history of film. 
Fun Fin Fact – Backlinie would return four years later, not for Jaws 2 (thank God) but for Spielberg’s foray into comedy, 1941, to play a similar young lady who decides to go for a swim, but with decidedly different results!

Sheriff Brody (Scheider) a former city cop who hates the water, suspects that may not be the case (what with all the bite marks and all) but goes with the Mayor, because hey, what are the odds that it’ll…oh, yeah, so it happens again. A kid gets et, and when his mom puts a bounty on the shark, there’s a feeding frenzy for it, which is what we writers call “irony”.

Brody calls in oceanographer Matt Hooper (Dreyfuss) to give a second opinion on Chrissie’s autopsy.  He does, vociferously, and it is summarily ignored by the Mayor, who happily invites the tourists to the beach, because what are the odds that THREE…oh yeah.

They hire grizzled shark fisherman Captain Quint (Robert Shaw) to bring in the monster, and it’s here that the film spends most of its time.  Indeed, when he was offered the job, director Steven Spielberg said the shark hunt was his favorite part of the story, and planned to make it the dramatic center of the film. With the help of editor Verna Fields, the balance between humor and shock was perfected.  Case in point – the famous (and allegedly ad-libbed) line “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” was originally lost under the screams of the audience after the preceding shot of Ol’ Brucie popping up to dine on chum – they added space to Brody’s reaction and increased the volume so it wouldn’t be missed.

Spielberg had moments of doubt during the filming, but
I doubt he ever really thought of doing this!
The shoot of the film is legendary – it went twice again over the budgeted shooting schedule of 50 days, and the mechanical shark almost never worked, spawning the title of two separate documentaries about the film.  But as happens at great moments in history, things going wrong often bring great inspiration.  With the shark barely functioning, the plan changed to barely showing the shark.  Save for a tactfully photographed fin and that iconic theme by John Williams, the source of all our fear barely made an appearance until we board Quint’s ship the Orca.

It’s been said that Star Wars changed film and the film industry forever, changing the mindset to the goal of the “summer movie” and the slow replacement of character-driven films with action and thrillers.  But I maintain that move started here with JAWS. While still very much a character film, which Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, it got the ball rolling for wide releases and bigger budgets.  The film was originally to open in as many as 900 theaters, a staggering number for the day.  But after a screening, Universal honcho Lew Wasserman ordered the number of screen be reduced. Not because he doubted the film, just the opposite – he saw the film running all summer, and wanted to make it a destination event. Reducing the number of theaters meant people would have to drive a bit to see it – quite the change in tactics from what we see today, where they’d run the film on the side of a bark if they thought they could sell a few more tickets.

Vinnie's pick

“He is Our Ideel” – the undeniable charm of Eric Von Zipper

You can tell the quality of a hero by the caliber of the foes he attracts.  And loveable teenagers (a highly elastic term in Holywood) Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon had the perfect foil in their classic run of beach movies – the ultimate tough guy, the lord of all he surveys, the great Eric Von Zipper, undisputed leader of the Rats, the roughest motorcycle gang on the beach.

Played with comic virtuosity by Harvey Lembeck, Zipper was a note-perfect parody of Marlon Brando’s character from The Wild One. Indeed, in Beach Blanket Bingo, Zipper says his favorite actor is “Marlo Brandon”. Harvey and his gang so permeated the national zeitgeist that to this day there’s no major city that isn’t rumored to have a street gang called the Rats, responsible for most of the havoc and chaos the police are tasked to combat.

The Rats and their fearless leader were largely ineffectual, befitting the fun harmless nature of the films.  Harvey was a master of slapstick and physical comedy, peppering his performance with odd gestures and moves to order the Rats around, punctuated by well-placed sound effects.

Eric and the Rats almost outlived the beach party films themselves.  They last appeared in The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, with almost a completely different cast– the Rats served as the connecting tissue to the rest of the series. Eric and Annette Funicello has unnamed cameos in the Frankie Avalon vehicle Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, which was a very interesting production.  Lembeck appeared on a Very Special Episode of popular dance series Shindig! titled The Wild Weird World of Dr. Goldfoot, designed as publicity for the film. Harvey played the role of Hugo, played by Jack Mullaney in the film.  According to star Vincent Price, Goldfoot was to have been a “horror musical”, in the style of Rocky Horror which would come along decades later.  The Shindig special featured many of those songs that never got used for the film, performed by Lembeck and Price.

Harvey Lembeck was an established and successful character actor, including a long run on Sgt. Bilko, the Phil Silvers show. He took the role of Harry Shapiro he created in Stalag 17 on Broadway and carried it to the Billy Wilder classic movie, playing against William Frawley Robert Strauss as Animal.

Why me? Why me alla time?
Harvey was an early proponent of improvisational comedy – when he was asked by Jack Kosslyn of the Mercury Theater to take over their actors’ workshop, he agreed, but used it to teach comedy instead of drama.  Starting with scripted pieces, he used improv as a tool to sharpen the wit of the students as he realized there weren’t nearly enough scripts to practice with.  The comedy workshop that bears his name is still going strong, run by his kids, director Michael Lembeck and actress Helaine, best known from her run on Welcome Back Kotter.  The alumni of the school is a staggering list, from Robin Williams to Brian Cranston, from Sharon Stone to Kim Cattrall.  For some time, the school had space at Paramount Studios, and the producers of their TV shows would regularly visit the classes to see who Harvey was working with. Garry Marshall often picked the best of Harvey’s students, including his own sister Penny Marshall and Al Molinaro, to star in his shows.

By the time producer James Nicholson approached Harvey Lembeck to be in their first “beach party” film (creatively titled Beach Party) he had already amassed a successful acting career.  So what inspired him to take on the role? According to his son Michael Lembeck, a successful director in his own right, it was to help students in his classes.  He would populate the Rats (and its female auxiliary, the Mice) with his students. The films were, as Michael put it, “The silliest thing he ever did” but it provided a place to showcase “his kids”.  “He treated his students like family” said Michael, something that carries through to Michael’s work today. “I’ll have my cast over for dinner while we’re working”.

Eric falls victim (again?) to the
Himalayan Time Suspension Technique.

The beach party story has never gone out of style, and the role of the tough guy ruling the beach a la Eric and the Rats remains just as vital. While it didn’t take place on the beach, early seasons of Happy Days featured street gang The Demons, led by their Zipper-analogue, Bag Zombrowski.  Ten years after the last beach party film, Harvey’s daughter Helaine got her first professional job on The Krofft Supershow (which also featured her brother Michael as the lead singer of Kaptain Kool and the Kongs) in a show called Magic Mongo, about some teenagers spending all their time on the beach…with their genie (played by Lennie Weinrib).  The role of the beach tough “Ace” was filled by Bart Braverman, just a couple years before his run on Vegas. Another ten and change years after that, Frankie and Annette reunited for Back to the Beach, featuring many of the original cast.  Harvey had passed on by then, but the spirit of the Von Zipper clan was carried on by Zed and his gang, an 80’s punk re-interpretation of the Rats.  His last name was never given, but if he wasn’t the son of Eric and Puss (the muscular blonde in the Mice played by Alberta Nelson), I’ll eat my second-favorite hat. His sway has reached outside of film well. There’s a Brazlian surf-rock band, Erick Von Zipper, named after him, and sells quality sunglasses and goggles for the discriminating beach and snow-bum.