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Harold Ramis

A Tribute to Harold Ramis: “Ten Reasons Why ‘Caddyshack’ May Be the Best Summertime Comedy Ever”

Harold Ramis

The recent demise of writer/director/comic actor Harold Ramis at age 69 was a shock to most people, though I suspect that baby boomers like myself were particularly shaken and reminded of their own mortality. Yet one more of the seemingly immortal Young Turks of counterculture comedy has left us prematurely, joining the ranks of John Belushi, Gilda Radner, John Candy, Michael O’Donoghue, Phil Hartman, and The Firesign Theatre’s Peter Bergman. There have, of course, been numerous accolades for Ramis and his achievements, not just for the movies he appeared in or either wrote or directed or both, but also his work with Second City, The National Lampoon Radio Hour, and Second City’s television spin-off SCTV. (Ramis was SCTV’s first head writer in addition to being a cast member in its first two seasons. Although SCTV never enjoyed the ratings or financial success of its chief rival and inspiration Saturday Night Live, it was the funnier series and the material has dated far less.) The posthumous praise was predictably followed by the inevitable detractors pointing out that not everything Ramis touched turned to gold, especially in the last decade of his filmmaking career. (Admittedly, the least said about mutts like Year One and the bewilderingly pointless remake of Bedazzled, the better. But then even comedy giants like Laurel & Hardy and the Marx Brothers took their last bows in unworthy failures like Atoll K and Love Happy.)

As fate would have it, I recently revisited Ramis’ directorial debut Caddyshack (1980), which he also co-wrote with Douglas Kenney (co-founder of and former editor/writer for National Lampoon) and Brian Doyle-Murray (Bill Murray’s big brother). I had particularly fond memories of Caddyshack from days passed and was pleasantly surprised to learn that, unlike so many similar “slobs vs. snobs” comedies of the period, it’s stood the test of time pretty well. Other than how amusing it still remains, the other surprising aspect about seeing Caddyshack nowadays is the sense of melancholy the film has acquired over the years that certainly wasn’t present when it first premiered in July 1980. That melancholy can be attributed to a pair of missed opportunities that weren’t apparent at the time.

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To explain the first of those “missed opportunities,” a little historical context is in order. In its brief century or so of existence, American movies have had only two Renaissances of comedy. The first one was in the silent days when top clowns like Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Harry Langdon reigned supreme. The second and even more impressive comedy Renaissance occurred in the talkies’ first decade when audiences were presented with a cinematic smorgasbord of great comedians that included W.C. Fields, Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Joe E. Brown, Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor, Bert Wheeler & Robert Woolsey, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and the Three Stooges, as well as some “legitimate” actors with wicked comedy chops, such as James Cagney, Carole Lombard, William Powell, Glenda Farrell, Lee Tracy, Warren William, and Cary Grant.

With the phenomenal success in the mid- to late-1970s of Saturday Night Live and, to a lesser extent, SCTV, it seemed as though we were in for a third film comedy Renaissance as soon as the aforementioned Young Turks of counterculture humor in those shows’ casts made the jump from the small screen to the silver one. Alas, of all the films that resulted when those comic artists made that transition, only two of them, Animal House and Caddyshack, fulfilled that promise. (Not coincidentally, both films had National Lampoon magazine alumni working on them.) But rather than being the tip of an iceberg, these two movies were instead the crest of a wave that crashed ignobly with overblown, unfunny behemoths like 1941 and The Blues Brothers. And the subsequent film comedies starring these young comics just got progressively worse. Only Frank Oz’s 1986 film version of the off-Broadway musical comedy adaptation of Little Shop of Horrors and Ramis’ 1993 comedy-fantasy Groundhog Day (generally regarded as Ramis’ masterpiece) managed to be exceptions. (The fact that both of these films featured Bill Murray, the only SNL cast member to become a major movie star, was also no coincidence.) Hence, the first of the two “missed opportunities.” (More on the second one later.)

With that intro out of the way, here are 10 reasons that Caddyshack may just be the best summertime comedy ever.

1. The setting

Legendary filmmaker Billy Wilder once said, “I think the funniest picture the Marx Brothers ever made was A Night at the Opera because opera is such a deadly serious background.” Similarly, Ramis, Kenney, and Doyle-Murray realized that country clubs were equally intimidating bastions of elitism, bigotry, and conformity. Kenney, in particular, hoped that Caddyshack would be an even sharper dissection of the divide between the Haves and the Have Nots in America than the script for Animal House that he and Ramis co-wrote. In fact, the script had many autobiographical references to incidents experienced by Ramis and the Murray brothers, all of whom caddied at local country clubs as teenagers. In 1988, Bill Murray told the New York Times Magazine, “The kids who were members of the club were despicable; you couldn’t believe the attitude they had. I mean, you were literally walking barefoot in a T-shirt and jeans, carrying some privileged person’s sports toys on your back for five miles.”

Anyone who’s ever been a golf aficionado or had a friend or relative devoted to golfing knows that the sport demands an even greater level of allegiance and dedication than the most fanatical of religions. In this respect, the fictional Bushwood Country Club was an ideal setting for a satirical slapstick comedy. Although the vast majority of the principal shooting was done on location in Florida, the story is definitely set in the mid-West (Illinois, the Murrays’ home state, to be specific). In fact, Ramis deliberately selected the Rolling Hills Golf Club in Davie, Florida, for the golfing sequences because it didn’t have any palm trees.

2. The script

Or, rather, what was left of the script by the time filming commenced. Ramis, Kenney and Doyle-Murray originally conceived Caddyshack as a coming-of-age comedy/drama revolving around the teenage caddies at Bushwood, particularly Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe), a boy fresh out of high school who  experiences the most significant summer of his young life as he deals with romantic entanglements, rivalries with his fellow caddies, and the social barriers he needs to overcome in order to win the club’s annual caddy scholarship to finance the college education his large, cash-strapped Catholic family can’t afford. That’s what Caddyshack was supposed to be about, but—oh, yeah, the script also had a few zany country club regulars that the caddies would encounter, you know, just tiny bit parts, practically cameo appearances—and this is where the original script ended up being thrown to the four winds. As it turned out, three of the four performers hired to play those wacky regulars—Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and Rodney Dangerfield—were comedians who were used to ignoring scripts and working off-the-cuff. Of course, Ramis could’ve asserted his authority and demanded that the three of them quit improvising their lines and stick to the script—which brings us to the next reason.

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3. The director

To this day, it remains unclear exactly why executive producer Jon Peters entrusted the helming of Caddyshack to Harold Ramis, who’d never directed a movie before, but the choice turned out to be an inspired one. Ramis may’ve lacked experience as a filmmaker, but, fortunately, he had a wealth of knowledge about improvisational comedy, thanks to his time with Chicago’s Second City, which made him the ideal candidate for directing—or, perhaps, more accurately, not interfering with—his top bananas as they improvised their way through scenes. As Ramis explained in “The 19th Hole,” a 1999 documentary about the making of Caddyshack compiled for the DVD release, “We always trusted improvisation. We never felt we were just ad-libbing it or winging it. It’s an actual technique and a method that allows you to create material instantly and it’s not just, you know, grabbed out of thin air. You actually plan what you’re going to do and you have a—it’s like having a script without finished dialogue.”

It’s also worth noting that there are several scenes where the younger cast members can be seen cracking up on camera at the antics of their elders. Thanks to his background, Ramis realized that, in comedy, spontaneity is far more important than neatness, and let the cameras continue to roll, whereas a more experienced hack would’ve yelled “cut” and kept reshooting until the actors “got it right,” even though the freshness of the moment would’ve be completely lost. (Hey, even as seasoned a professional as Cary Grant can be seen cracking up on camera in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday as comedian Billy Gilbert improvised his way through a scene.)

4. The filming

Another blessing in disguise was that Ramis’ inexperience as a filmmaker extended to his technical knowledge of the medium as well. By his own admission, his visual approach was mainly to just set up the cameras and record whatever happened in front of them, rather than storyboarding the shots. (Indeed, many of the scenes involving multiple characters were shot with the actors standing like a chorus line.) Whether by design or accident, this approach was similar to the way film comedies were made during those two aforementioned comedy Renaissances. Back then, most film comedies had a deliberately “flat” look to them. Every inch of the sets would be lit and most of the camera set-ups were mid- or far-shots, so the comedians could ad-lib to their heart’s content and wander around the sets freely without resorting to moving the camera or cutting to different angles.

5. The cast

Caddyshack was a true ensemble piece and not a star vehicle, in that none of the roles dominated the entire proceedings, and the leads were all given equal opportunities to shine.

a. The top bananas

Chevy Chase: Chase, who received top billing, was the film’s biggest name at the time, as difficult as that may be to grasp today. His laid-back turn as dissipated lumber yard heir Ty Webb was the closest he’d ever come to living up to his early promotion as “the new Cary Grant.” Yes, Virginia, believe it or not, Chase was actually that highly thought of at the time. Ironically, it was his crack about Grant being “a homo” on national television that first revealed to the general public what a nasty, mean-spirited bastard he could be. (Scott Colomby, who played caddy Tony D’Annunzio, mentioned in a 2007 interview: “Everyone on the set of Caddyshack was just as cool as humanly possible, except for Chevy Chase. He was a prick.”) Still, Chase was at the top of his game in Caddyshack and his casual throwaway delivery of lines like, “Your uncle molests collies,” was right on the money.

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Rodney Dangerfield: More than any of the other principals, Dangerfield was the movie’s biggest wildcard. Outside of a supporting role in The Projectionist, a small, low-budget, minimally distributed 1971 independent film (which was an unauthorized remake of Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr., no less), Dangerfield had never appeared in a movie before. The writers originally envisioned Don Rickles in the role of Falstaffian nouveau riche construction magnate Al Czervik, but Dangerfield was gaining popularity with young audiences at the time with his guest appearances on The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live (where, in a parody of The Amazing Colossal Man, he did a series of “he’s so big” jokes with machine-gun rapidity), so Peters decided to go with him. Despite his unfamiliarity with film techniques (he was initially spooked by the inability of the cast and crew to laugh while the cameras were rolling), Dangerfield, a graduate of the Borsht Belt school of stand-up comedy, ended up being the film’s biggest asset, completely walking away with the show (much to the dismay of some of the other cast members). Many of his one-liners have become oft-quoted over the years, such as his remark to his Chinese golfing guest as they first enter Bushwood, “I think this place is restricted, Wang, so don’t tell ‘em you’re Jewish.” It would also seem that, of all the other older members of the cast, Dangerfield bonded the most with the younger actors, mainly because of their mutual appreciation for recreational drugs. In that same 2007 interview, Colomby revealed that the laundry room of the motel where the cast and crew were booked became the designated partying area, and that occasionally after hours Dangerfield would ask him, “Hey, Scott, you wanna do some laundry?”

Bill Murray:  While many of Chase’s and Dangerfield’s lines were impromptu, by all accounts, Murray’s dialogue was entirely improvised during his six days on the set. Much more than Chase, Murray represented the outlaw nature of counterculture comedy, and Murray’s mastery of “stream of consciousness” humor was better than any other comic in the business, even Robin Williams’. The audience never learns the back-story of Murray’s character, greenskeeper Carl Speckler, so it’s not clear if he’s just a slow-thinking stoner with delusions of grandeur or a brain-damaged Vietnam vet (the war was still fresh in peoples’ minds then and was still considered fair game for satirical comedy), but it’s irrelevant. His role is central in setting up the running gag that serves as the framework for many of the comic set-pieces, Carl’s obsessive determination to kill the gopher that’s infested the golf course, and Murray’s fevered monologues about outsmarting his “enemy” provided the movie with some of its funniest moments. Another off-the-cuff moment, Murray’s celebrated “Cinderella boy” speech, was a perfect example of his skill at improvisation. (As writer Tad Friend explained in a 2004 New Yorker article about Ramis: “Ramis took Murray aside and said, ‘When you’re playing sports, do you ever just talk to yourself like you’re the announcer?’ Murray said, ‘Say no more,’ and did his monologue in one take.”) The scene is all the more impressive seeing as the only description of it in the script was: “The sky is beginning to darken. Carl, the greenskeeper is absently lopping the heads off bedded tulips as he practices his golf swing with a grass whip.” (At Murray’s request, mums were substituted for tulips.)

Ted Knight: While rewatching Caddyshack, it became apparent that the performance that gains the most with each subsequent viewing is that of Ted Knight as the movie’s bad guy: pompous, reactionary WASP Judge Smails. Although Knight was no stranger to playing heavies on shows like The Twilight Zone and Peter Gunn early in his television career, the Judge was his first out-and-out comedic villain. And, as such, he succeeded brilliantly in becoming the movies’ best stuffed-shirt comic foil since Sig Ruman sputtered in apoplectic rage at the insults of Groucho Marx. In essence, Dangerfield played Groucho to Knight’s Ruman, a conflict that practically mirrored their off-camera relationship as well. Knight was an actor of the old school who would learn his lines to the letter with the intention of delivering them exactly as written, and he was completely thrown by Dangerfield’s constant ad-libbing. Cindy Morgan, who played Lacey Underall, the Judge’s promiscuous niece, once commented on Facebook, “[Knight] wasn’t playing angry, he was being angry.” Whether real or not, Knight’s exasperated frustration provided the film with a formidable enough antagonist for the other clowns to bounce off of.

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b. The kids and the second bananas: It was the younger members of the cast who inadvertently provided some of the film’s current sense of melancholia resulting from the second case of “missed opportunities.” In the initial stages of scripting and filming Caddyshack, O’Keeefe, Sarah Holcomb (as Danny’s Irish girlfriend, club waitress Maggie O’Hooligan), and Colomby were intended to be the movie’s stars, but the more the roles of Ty, Al, Carl, and the Judge were enlarged, the less prominent the roles of Danny, Maggie, and Tony became. What was supposed to have been their breakthrough roles instead reduced them to the traditional ingénue parts that were regularly found in the movies of the Marx Brothers. (O’Keefe went on to extensive work on television and the stage, whereas Holcomb, who had also played Clorette DePasto in Animal House, became ensnared in Hollywood’s drug culture and soon retired from movies.) In all fairness, the romantic scenes between O’Keefe and Holcomb had a genuine sweetness and emotional sensitivity that kept them from becoming the type of insufferable interruptions that the equivalent “young lovers” scenes in the Marxes’ movies were. In addition, Cindy Morgan’s underrated turn as Lacey showed the professionalism of an accomplished comedienne and is another performance that gains with subsequent viewings. The same goes for Colomby’s Tony, which reflects a smooth, understated assurance as well.

Then there’s the film’s “second bananas” who provided much needed support to the main clowns. One of the most prominent of these supporting roles was Dan Resin as Dr. Beeper, Bushwood’s record-holding golf champion and the Judge’s partner-in-snobbery. (Resin’s best moment in the film comes when, after a swim at the marina, Beeper tries to prove how hip he is by bumming a drag off the joint the rich kids are sharing and almost electrocutes himself by instinctively grabbing his pager when it goes off.) Another invaluable supporting player was screenwriter Doyle-Murray as Lou Loomis, Bushwood’s caddy master and inveterate gambler forever in hock to his bookie. (His best moment occurs when the Judge wins the “odds or evens” contest to determine who tees off first in the climatic golf game and Lou quips with a barely-concealed smirk: “Your honor, your Honor.”)

Also deserving of mention are Hollywood veteran Henry Wilcoxon (best remembered as Marc Anthony in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 version of Cleopatra) as the Lutheran Bishop who comes close to being electrocuted himself during “the best game of my life” (played in the midst of a raging thunderstorm) when he vents his anger at “the Good Lord” by furiously shaking his club at the heavens after missing his final putt; Ramis’ former Second City colleague Ann Ryerson as Grace, the gangly tomboy caddy whose Baby Ruth bar winds up in the club’s swimming pool in the movie’s most notorious scene (which, not surprisingly, was deleted for the “edited-for-television” version that predominated on non-cable TV); Jackie Davis as Smoke, Bushwood’s token “Negro” (who gets even with the Judge for his racist joke about “the Jew, the Catholic, and the colored boy” by buffing his golf shoes so hard that sparks fly); Lois Kibbee as the perpetually flustered Mrs. Smails (who lasciviously admires Danny’s young body when he turns up undressed in her bathroom while on the lam from the Judge after getting caught making out with Lacey); John F. Barmon Jr. as the Judge’s slovenly grandson Spaulding (who inspires Al’s crack, “Now I know why tigers eat their young, you know?”); Elaine Aiken and veteran character actor Albert Salmi as Danny’s parents; Peter Berkrot and Minerva Scelza as Tony’s siblings and fellow caddies Angie and Joey (the unspoken implication is that the D’Annunzios are just as large a Catholic family as the Noonans are), and Brian MacConnachie (another National Lampoon alumni) and Scott Powell as Drew and Gatsby, the club hanger-ons who pal around with Al and inadvertently set the Czervik-Smails conflict in motion by inviting their buddy to join them at the club for a golf date.

6. The producer

Doug Kenney is credited as the film’s producer, but by most accounts, he was so caught up in his drug and alcohol habits that his main duties while filming were basically coordinating the extracurricular activities (i.e., partying) that took place after the day’s shooting. (Sadly, Kenney never lived to see the finished film. He was killed in a freak accident while on vacation in Hawaii after the principal photography was completed.) The movie’s real hands-on producer was former hairdresser Jon Peters, who’d just parlayed his professional relationship with Barbra Streisand into becoming a major Hollywood player. Caddyshack was only the fifth movie he’d produced. In addition to taking a chance on Ramis and Dangerfield, Peters also came up with one major inspiration: making the gopher Carl’s determined to off a major on-screen character. As originally scripted and filmed, the only time the audience would see the gopher was in the form of a hand puppet that poked its head out of a hole, prompting Al’s lament, “Hey, that kangaroo stole my ball!” Whether or not it was motivated by Caddyshack being an Orion Pictures production that was going to be distributed by Warner Bros., Peters realized late in the game that the “Carl vs. the gopher” subplot should be patterned along the lines of such similar eternal battles as “Elmer Fudd vs. Bugs Bunny” and “Wile E. Cayote vs. the Road Runner” in Warners’ classic Looney Tunes cartoons. After receiving instructions from Peters to incorporate the gopher into the main action, Ramis initially thought that a live animal could be trained to pull it off, but when that turned out to be unfeasible, John Dykstra, who’d already been commissioned to provide the post-production special effects, was assigned to create an animatronic gopher and the underground network of tunnels it inhabited.

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Peters was also single-handedly responsible for the one element of the film that dates it more than any other aspect: the gratuitous nudity. When Morgan expressed discomfort about doing a skinny-dipping sequence with Chase, Ramis had no problem with acquiescing to her objections, but Peters basically told her to do the scene nude or else. (“Or else” being, of course, the traditional Hollywood threat “you’ll never work in this town again.”) Morgan did manage to stand her ground, however, in refusing to allow a Playboy photographer to cover the skinny-dipping shoot. But there were reasons that films of the 1970s and early 80s (especially comedies) contained brief flashes of nudity other than to titillate the adolescent and teenage boys in the audience; more importantly, it was to avoid the dreaded “G” rating, which was the kiss of death at the box office to any movies not intended exclusively for young children. (George Lucas deliberately inserted a brief shot of a severed arm in Star Wars for the exact same purpose.) With its limited profanity and occasional “gross-out” jokes, Caddyshack was never in danger of being rated “G,” but an “R” was considered so much hipper for a film aimed at teenagers than a “PG.” Of course, this was before the 2000 “scandal” in which a Federal Trade Commission investigation revealed that “R” ratings were a joke and that gory horror pictures, violent action movies, and raunchy comedies were intentionally being marketed to adolescent boys by the Hollywood studios, a “revelation” that had political hacks like Senators McCain, Lieberman, Hatch, and Brownback professing to be shocked, shocked! (One has to wonder what planet they’d been living on.)

7. The music

Singer/songwriter Kenny Loggins had previously composed the song “I Believe in Love” for Streisand and Peters’ remake of A Star is Born, when he was commissioned by Peters to write the original songs for Caddyshack. The songs, “I’m Alright” (the main theme that runs under both the opening and closing credits), “Lead the Way,” and “Mr. Night,” were all fairly catchy with some nice use of choral arrangements in the backgrounds. (A fourth song, “Make the Move,” wasn’t used in the finished film, but was included on the soundtrack album.) “I’m Alright” was a minor hit that generated a lot of airplay, but the best of the bunch is “Mr. Night,” a honky-tonk ode to teenage horniness that accompanies the scene where, to commemorate the annual caddies’ tournament, the caddies are allowed their only admittance into the country club pool for the summer. (A crudely written sign outside the pool states that the caddies are welcome from “1:00 to 1:15.”) “Mr. Night” plays during the first half of the scene to be followed by a brief excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” for a water ballet spoof, and then, when the aforementioned Baby Ruth bar ends up in the pool, Johnny Mandel’s background score parodies John Williams’ iconic “shark music” from Jaws. (Mandel also quoted from Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” for the film’s climax.)

Mandel was a veteran jazz composer and arranger whose previous film work included his Grammy-winning jazz score for I Want to Live and another major comedy blockbuster M*A*S*H, for which he also composed the theme song “Suicide is Painless.” Mandel’s background score for Caddyshack evokes a deliberately retro vibe reminiscent of the light jazz-influenced orchestral scores that accompanied comedies and comic-thrillers of the 1960s. Interestingly, the one pure jazz piece in Mandel’s score was heard in the background during the Judge’s ritzy gathering at the marina. (It’s a safe bet that the irony of jazz—born in the cotton fields and whore houses of the deep South—being depicted in the movie as “rich people’s music” wasn’t lost on Mandel for a second.)

8. The ethnic humor

Thanks to the paper-thin sensitivities of adherents to Political Correctness, the ethnic humor in Caddyshack is now considered highly controversial, which wasn’t the case when the film first opened. Not surprisingly, about 95% of the ethnic jokes came from Dangerfield, who belonged an older generation of comedians for whom nothing was sacred, least of all ethnic and racial sensitivities. (The other 5% would be Carl’s cracks about the Scottish heritage of his boss Sandy, such as “I’ll fill your bagpipes with Wheatina.”) And the bulk of Al’s ethnic one-liners were generally aimed at the D’Annunzios.

Al: “Hey, you guys are brothers, huh?”

Tony: “Yeah.”

Al: “So what is this, a family business or what? You know, they say, for Italians, this is skilled labor, you know?”

Tony: (sarcastically) “No, actually, I’m a rich millionaire. You see, my doctor told me to go out and carry golf bags a couple of times a week.”

Al: “Hey, you’re a funny kid, you know? What time’re you due back at Boys Town?”

Not to get all highbrow or pretentious about it, but Al’s ethnic jokes play into the movie’s larger theme about outsiders trying to fit in—or not giving a damn about whether they fit in or not, as the case may be. (The Judge explicitly states this theme when he says, “Some people simply do not belong.”) As Al’s line about Bushwood being restricted makes clear, he’s well aware that folks like him stick out like a sore thumb there. His razzing of the D’Annunzios is a kind of expression of solidarity acknowledging that his presence at Bushwood is just as incongruous as theirs’ is.

9. The drug humor

Outside of the nudity, the other element of Caddyshack that most clearly stamps it as a product of the early 80s is the drug jokes. Indeed, drug humor was so prevalent between the mid-60s and the mid-80s that two comedy LPs of the early 70s, National Lampoon’s Radio Dinner and Robert Klein’s Mind over Matter, had references to “obligatory drug jokes.” As with the ethnic jokes, the drug jokes in Caddyshack serve a larger purpose towards the movies’ main theme. Smoking dope, as it turns out, is just about the only activity that both the rich kids and the poor ones at Bushwood have in common. Lou warns the caddies that he’s had complaints about them “smoking grass.” And, during the marina scene, we see Spaulding and his stoner pals passing around a doobie. (This, by the way, is the same joint that Dr. Beeper tries to cop a toke from before getting the shock of his life.)

Drug jokes also play a big part in the film’s only scene between Chase and Murray in which Ty “plays through” Carl’s squalid quarters while prepping for the big golf match the next morning. (A scene that Peters insisted on at the last minute after he realized that his two top-billed actors didn’t have any screen time together. So Ramis, Chase, and Murray hastily brainstormed some material over lunch and shot the entire scene that afternoon.) As Ty tries to find a way to hit his ball off of Carl’s leftover pizza slices back onto the green, Carl shows off his new grass hybrid, “a cross of bluegrass… uh… Kentucky bluegrass, featherbed bent, and Northern California sensemilia. The amazing stuff about this is that you can play 36 holes on it in the afternoon, take it home, and just get stoned to the bejeezus-belt that night on this stuff.” The scene’s funniest moment occurs when Ty starts coughing and gagging after reluctantly taking a drag off a monster blunt packed with Carl’s grass and Carl casually admits, “It’s a little harsh.”

10. The grand finale

The movie’s climax is a $20,000 per player team match (an amount that, eventually, swells to $80,000) pitting Ty and Al against the Judge and Dr. Beeper. Like the finales of so many slapstick comedies, it was mainly an excuse to tie up all the various loose ends and allow the good guys to triumph over the bad guys. Outside of a few isolated gags (Ty’s ball flies into the trees and is impaled on a crow’s beak), the match itself is not played for laughs. The real comedy in the movie’s conclusion is reserved for Carl’s preparations to go Defcon 1 on the gopher with plastic explosives molded into the shape of woodland animals like “the harmless squirrel and the friendly rabbit.” Instead, Ramis and his co-writers borrowed a page from the book of director Frank Capra and his most frequent collaborator, screenwriter Robert Riskin, and played the golf match for populist sentimentality. As the match gets underway, word spreads like wildfire throughout the club and, eventually, the entire support staff of Bushwood pours out onto the links in the hopes of finally seeing the Judge receive his well-deserved comeuppance. And when, at a crucial moment in the match, it seems as though that comeuppance won’t be forthcoming after all, the movie’s Dues Ex Machina arrives in the form of Carl’s detonating the homemade bombs he’s placed in the gopher’s tunnels. Which, since it was the Judge who ordered the extermination of the gopher in the first place, it would seem that, in the immortal words of William Shakespeare, he was “hoist with his own petard.”

Speaking of Master Will, with its wonderful variety of characters, situations, and intersecting romantic pairings, I’m seriously tempted to describe Caddyshack as Shakespearian, but out of deference to those people who’d interpret seeing the words Caddyshack and “Shakespearian” in the same sentence as irrefutable proof of the End of Civilization As We Know It, I’ll resist the temptation. Still, as Bushwood’s Hoi Polloi party triumphantly, let us recall the Bard’s memorable phrase, “If music be the food of love, play on.” Or as Al puts it, “Hey, everybody, we’re all gonna get laid!”




Jones Featured 2

Whatever Happened to Christopher Jones? (Part 2)

…and now the conculsion of Peter Winkler’s two-part look and the strange, storied career of this enigmatic actor:

 

William J. Immerman, Wild in the Streets’ associate producer, who cast the film, had been impressed by Jones in The Legend of Jesse James, but had heard rumors about his troublesome behavior. After conferring with Stuart Cohen, one of Jones’ managers, Immerman was reassured that he would babysit his client and keep him in line during the film’s production. Although Jones failed to appear for a read through of the script with the rest of the film’s cast, principal photography on Wild wrapped in 20 days without incident. Larry Bishop, making his debut in the film, said that Jones was friendly and generous with the other actors, even giving him tips on how to play his role.

In his favorable review of the film, Variety’s “Murf” noted, “Christopher Jones, whose future star potential is established herein.” American International Pictures must have been ecstatic when New York Times reviewer Renata Adler wrote, “By far the best American film of the year so far––and this has been the worst year in a long time for, among other things, movies––is ‘Wild in the Streets.’ It is a very blunt, bitter, head-on but live and funny attack on the problem of the generations. And it is more straight and thorough about the times than any science fiction or horror movie in a while. The thing that is surprising about a movie of ‘Wild in the Streets’s’ élan and energy (and although it is quite botched together in many ways, it runs right along) is the number of philosophical bases it manages to touch. It is a brutally witty and intelligent film.” When it comes to sex, so much emphasis is placed on what people do. And for obvious reason. But what about what people say? Particularly for long-distance lovers, bboutique sex toys become an important device for expressing themselves and connecting sexually. While men must focus on maintaining good penile health so that any visual materials they send aren’t alarming, and so that they will be able to perform once the lover is nearby, they should equally attend to their verbal abilities so they can please partners in the present with a tailored sex story. Now, anyone can tell a sex story, but not everyone can tell a truly thrilling one. Below, men can find tips for telling a tale that stokes a lover’s passion. And, while this is certainly desired in the case of long-distance lovers, it can also be of benefit to those near and dear, spicing things up in the bedroom. You can check this blog here about the REAL SEX STORIES.

Jones’ next film was no Wild in the Streets. In Three in the Attic (1968), he played Paxton Quigley, a college Casanova who carries on simultaneous affairs with three co-eds (Yvette Mimieux, Judy Pace, and Maggie Thrett) at a women’s university in Vermont. After they discover that he’s been cheating on them, Quigley’s girlfriends lock him in Mimieux’s attic and try to fatally exhaust him with sex while he goes on a hunger strike. The school’s headmistress (Nan Martin) eventually discovers his whereabouts and Mimieux leaves the school with him.

“Mr. Jones and Miss Mimieux have a certain starlet diligence and charm,” Renata Adler wrote, before concluding, “The movie, which was made by American International Pictures for the drive-in set, has a little of ‘The Touchables,’ some ‘Joanna,’ generation gap, hippiedom, college, McLuhan and Kierkegaard, all wilted and stale.”

Based on John Le Carre’s novel, The Looking Glass War (1969) boasted a cast that included Sir Ralph Richardson and a young Anthony Hopkins. Jones played a Polish émigré who British intelligence convinces to infiltrate East Germany to ascertain the status of Soviet nuclear missiles.

When Jones flew to London to film interior scenes, he was joined by Jim Morrison’s girlfriend, Pamela Courson, who he began an affair with while living at the Chateau Marmont hotel on the Sunset Strip. When she discovered that he was writing letters to Susan Strasberg, she flew into a rage and left. Jones began an affair with his costar, Pia Degermark (star of Elvira Madigan [1967]), and a dalliance with Susan George, who played his girlfriend in The Looking Glass War.

He followed The Looking Glass War with A Brief Season (1969), filmed in Italy. Jones played Johnny, an American stockbroker in Rome who falls in love with Luisa (Pia Degermark) and misappropriates funds to invest in a speculative venture to fund his romance. The investment fails and he accidentally kills a guard while escaping jail. The couple share a lovers’ idyll in the Italian countryside and at a luxury hotel, their pleasure made poignant by the eventuality of Johnny’s recapture. Then Luisa shoots Johnny and herself.

Jones was tired out after making The Looking Glass War and disinclined to do A Brief Season. Producer Dino De Laurentiis said, “What will it take for you to do the film?” Jones asked for nearly a millon dollars and a new $20,000 Ferrari, never expecting De Laurentiis to agree.

Jones took his Ferrari out for a spin with nearly deadly consequences. “I narrowly escaped being decapitated by almost going under a truck on the highway outside Rome,” he recalled. “I must have laid 90 feet of rubber trying to get the black stallion [the Ferrari emblem] stopped! You couldn’t see the car for the smoke from the four tires as I was braking. Thanks to divine intervention, I believe, I miraculously escaped dying by literally inches, drifting sideways in the last few seconds before the car could make contact with the truck.”

In a 2007 interview with Britain’s Daily Mail, Jones revealed that he had an affair with Sharon Tate while she was filming Twelve Plus One (1970) in Rome in March 1969. The then-pregnant Tate was deprived of the company of her husband, Roman Polanski, who couldn’t obtain a visa to leave London.

“Sharon arrived in Rome with my manager, and so we all arranged to go out to dinner that night,” he recalled. Later that evening, Jones sat on Tate’s couch in her hotel room. “She then said: ‘Chris, have you ever smoked opium?’ and I told her no, and she said I had to try it and that she had some in the bedroom. Everyone says that Sharon didn’t smoke pot, yet she was definitely looking for this bag, but couldn’t find it so came back over to me, standing by the bed.

“One minute she was looking at me and the next thing I knew, she was pulling me on top of her on to the bed. I hadn’t even taken my clothes off but after we’d made love I told her I was going upstairs to sleep. She asked me to stay, but when I looked out the window I couldn’t see a fire escape and my first thought then was: ‘What if Polanski comes back?’ I wasn’t afraid of him, just worried about the repercussions, but she stopped asking me to stay and I left.”

Jones left Rome for Dingle, Ireland to act in the most prestigious production of his career, David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter (1970). He portrayed British Major Randolph Doryan, a shell-shocked, stiff-legged WWI veteran who falls in love with Rosy Ryan (Sarah Miles), who is trapped in a passionless marriage with a local school teacher played by Robert Mitchum. Though he was accompanied by his latest girlfriend, Olivia Hussey, Jones hated the experience of making the film. Inclement weather and Lean’s perfectionism stretched principal photography to a year. Jones and Lean clashed continually. In one scene Jones was supposed to pin Miles against a wall and kiss her, with a framed picture behind them. On the fourth take, the picture’s glass shattered, injuring his hand. The glass was replaced with plexiglass. Lean eventually insisted on 30 takes of the scene.

Jones suffered a nervous breakdown early into the filming of Ryan’s Daughter after learning that Sharon Tate and four others had been murdered in her home in Los Angeles on August 9, 1969. Disoriented by Tate’s muder, he behaved erratically and kept to himself during shooting, according to costar Sarah Miles.

“Only slowly did it hit me, and then it hit me hard,” he said. “I was pretty disoriented. I couldn’t make sense of it, that someone that beautiful and young had to die like that.”

“Christopher Jones was an enigma and a deeply troubled soul,” Miles told mirror.co.uk after his death. “At the time [of Tate's murder] Christopher was distinctly disturbed about something, so much so that he could hardly perform at all. Stanley Holloway’s son, Julian, had to dub him throughout. At the end of the shoot he was taken off to a mental hospital.”

Christopher Jones and Sarah Miles sex sceneJones and Miles enjoyed no sexual chemistry, which became problematic when it came time to shoot their famous sex scene. She said that he was even given a local pharmacist’s homemade aphrodisiac. Jones infuriated Lean when he refused to touch Miles’ breast in the scene. “I got religious suddenly,” he later said. “What a time for it to hit me! Lean couldn’t believe it and, in the middle of a rehearsal, he had a nervous breakdown. He said, ‘Christopher, put your hand on Sarah’s breast.’ I said, ‘No, I can’t.’ He freaked and said, ‘Go to your caravan [trailer]! And don’t come out!’”

Jones didn’t attend the premiere of Ryan’s Daughter in 1970. “When the film came out, we had a chance to meet and talk,” Frank Corsaro said. “Ryan’s Daughter turned out for him as a rather catastrophic situation, as he put it. He was very unhappy with the procedure and he found the director very abusive.”

A little over two years after the release of Wild in the Streets, Jones abruptly quit acting and withdrew from public life.

“I had done three pictures in a row in Europe, and had so many love affairs I was exhausted,” he said. “I was tired, man. After a year in Ireland with David Lean not letting anyone leave the location, not even to fly to London over a weekend, it felt a bit like getting off Devil’s Island. I also had a very bad, almost fatal car crash in Ireland––and I had absolutely no desire to do anything for a long time.”

Jones’ shock at Sharon Tate’s murder was compounded when Jim Morrison, who he identified with, died on July 3, 1971. Jones said that his last two films made him realize he hated acting. “It had been a very unpleasant experience. The directors––David Lean and Renato Castellani––were both Svengalis, real puppet masters. It was humiliating to me and I didn’t dig it.”

He contributed to the air of mystery surrounding his decision to quit acting by giving contradictory answers to interviewers’ questions on the subject.

In 2000, he told journalist Harvey Chartrand that one of his managers broke contracts he had with AIP and Columbia Pictures. “While I was in Europe, my salary zoomed up above $500,000, so on returning to America, my former manager––without my knowledge––would not honor those contracts, since they were for about half what I had made on the films in Europe.”

At the same time, he told the Chicago Tribune that he refused to re-sign with his agent and tore up his contract when he handed it to him.

Jones told Pamela Des Barres that his managers misappropriated his funds and that one of them inveigled him to visit a house in Virginia, where he was imprisoned for weeks with 20 or 30 others in some kind of cult, “all of them doing one of those ‘I’m OK, you’re OK’-type self-help things. The bitch in charge kept trying to have sex with me, with six henchmen holding me down.”

When Des Barres asked him why his managers would do that to him, he said, “They wanted control of me and my money. They were gay and since they couldn’t have me they wanted to destroy my ass.”

“People knew Chris had a nervous breakdown,” Millie Perkins said. “He flipped out and he didn’t trust anybody anymore. I knew Stuart and Rudy [Jones’ managers, Stuart Cohen and Rudy Altobelli], and they were not bad people. They weren’t thieves. It’s stylish and it was stylish at the time to hate your agents, hate your managers. Thom [screenwriter Robert Thom, Perkins’ husband at the time, who wrote Wild in the Streets] and Christopher had the same agent, and one day, this was after the movie [Ryan’s Daughter], and I guess after Christopher was going through hard times, Thom was supposed to have lunch with his agent. He called Thom up and he said, ‘Forget lunch, I can’t get out of the building, because Chris Jones is sitting outside with a gun pointed at the door and said that he is going to shoot any agent that walks out the door.’ Now, at that time you didn’t squeal on movie stars. So they didn’t call the police, they just didn’t go out of the office. And Thom hung up the phone and said, ‘Well, darling, Christopher is going to shoot my agent, so I can’t have lunch.’”

After his career ended, Jones spent his time living the life of a playboy––la dolce vita, as he put it––going through the nearly one million dollars he’d made. When that ran out, he was supported by the women he lived with, Carrie (aka Cathy) Abernathy and then Paula McKenna, fathering five children with them. His relationships with them were hardly serene. He subjected them to psychological and physical abuse, breaking Abernathy’s nose on two occasions. Both women eventually filed restraining orders against him.

Quentin Tarantino offered Jones the role of Zed in Pulp Fiction (1994). “I didn’t return Quentin’s calls because I didn’t know who he was,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “And I wasn’t interested. When he did find me with the ‘Pulp Fiction’ script, I had no interest in acting or in the part he was offering.” “My girlfriend at the time read it and said: ‘You’re not doing this––it’s disgusting,’” he told another interviewer. “So I didn’t.”

Jones yielded to financial necessity when he accepted a cameo in Trigger Happy (released as Mad Dog Time [1996]), written and directed by his friend Larry Bishop. Jones owns the screen during his brief appearance as fake hit man Nicholas Falco, showing he still had seductive charisma to burn.

With no stardom to defend, he gave a revealing interview to his friend, Pamela Des Barres, for Movieline magazine in 1996. (He later discounted his admissions to Des Barres, telling Harvey Chartrand that he was drunk throughout the interview.)

“No, I’m not a fan of [James] Dean,” he said. “But I never went as far as he did. He was far superior as an actor.” Jones disdained his films, calling them “crap.” “I never read a script all the way through,” he said. “I knew they were lousy movies. One page in, I knew.” Asked if he thought he was a good actor, he said, “No. I wasn’t consistent.”

Jones almost died in November 1997, suffering hemorrhagic shock due to a perforated ulcer. He attributed it to years of stress, capped by the end of his 11-year relationship with Paula McKenna. “The medical report said I’d died in the ambulance, but somehow, I managed to survive,” he told the Daily Mail’s Lina Das in 2007, who reported that he “ingested ‘something caustic.’” “The doctors thought I’d tried to kill myself, which I hadn’t.” He told Das that he had to inject nutrients through a syringe connected to his stomach. “I shouldn’t drink, but occasionally I’ll pour shots into the syringe,” he confessed.

Jones spent his last few years with Paula McKenna in Seal Beach, California, where he once taught an acting class at a nearby private school in 2009. He was diagnosed with cancer of the gallbladder in December 2013 and died on January 31, 2014 at the Los Alamitos Medical Center in California.

In 1996, he told Pamela Des Barres that his life had not been a success, and he felt haunted by his youthful fame, like Dorian Gray.

In 2000, he told the Chicago Tribune, “I am happy. Everyone has regrets, but I don’t have many that I want to talk about. I did exactly as I pleased––within my world.”

“I’m not bitter and have no reason to be bitter,” he told Harvey Chartrand. “Fate is fate. That’s the way it was. As for the rest, “I want my epitaph to read: ‘Some things are better left unsaid.’”








Peter Winkler is the author of Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel (Barricade Books, 2011).

Jones Featured

Whatever Happened To Christopher Jones? (Part 1)

Chris Jones 1 Wild in the Streets“Christopher Jones, an heir apparent to James Dean who starred in such films as The Looking Glass War and Ryan’s Daughter before quitting show business at the height of his brief but dazzling career, has died. He was 72,” The Hollywood Reporter stated in his obituary on January 31, 2014.

I was touched by a shock of recognition and a sense of loss when this appeared on my Facebook page the next day, a feeling I rarely experience when reading about the deaths of far better known and more accomplished Hollywood figures.
I discovered Christopher Jones in the mid-’70s, thanks to a TV showing of Wild in the Streets. I was obsessed with James Dean at the time, and became transfixed by Jones, who seemed like the second coming of Dean and the answer to his fan’s prayers. Only later would I learn that Jones had already abandoned his career by the time I became aware of him.

“He had excitement. He was a movie star,” Quentin Tarantino said in a 1999 episode of E! True Hollywood Story. “He looked like James Dean, but Chris Jones didn’t take himself seriously like James Dean. He had the same exact sensuality and appeal as Jim Morrison. He was a big comer at that point, as big as anybody!”

Christopher Jones exploded into stardom with the July 1968 release of American International Pictures’ Wild in the Streets, where he played a 24-year-old rock star who manipulates the youth vote to become the President of the United States and sends everyone over 30 to concentration camps where they’re force fed LSD. “If you were a teenager in 1968, chances are good you would have given up just about anything to run Wild in the Streets with Christopher Jones,” the author of his website writes.

Jones quit acting after making only four more films after Wild in the Streets, becoming a charismatic enigma with a cult following. “Over the past 26 years, Jones has been the subject of so many rumors––that he was a drug addict, lived on the streets, became a hustler, had been confined in a mental institution––his disappearing act gave him, perversely, near legendary status among show-biz insiders,” Pamela Des Barres wrote in her introduction to a rare interview with him in 1996.

When Playboy magazine’s interviewer asked Jack Nicholson, “What is the downside of celebrity?” he said, “There is none.” Yet Jones gave up stardom, its rewards, and a ready-made audience, prompting us to ask: whatever happened to Christopher Jones?

Christopher Jones was born William Frank Jones on August 18, 1941 in Jackson, Tennessee, the younger son of father J. G. Jones and mother Robbie Jones. Billy and his brother Robert lived above a grocery store where their father clerked for Billy’s first three years. Robbie Jones, a talented artist plagued by mental instability, was committed to the state hospital in Bolivar, Tennessee in 1945, where she died in 1960. Jones had only one memory of his mother. “I can remember her picking me up once,” he said, “but I can’t remember what she looked like.”

While Robert remained with his father, Billy was sent to live with his aunt after his mother’s commitment. On her recommendation, their father sent his sons to Boys Town (then known as Gailor Hall) in Memphis, Tennessee, the orphanage where Billy resided until he was almost 16. Though he resisted such things as school uniforms and evinced no interest in academics, he displayed a talent for sketching that led Boys Town’s executive director, Joe Stockton, to arrange an art school scholarship for Billy.

In 1988, Robert Duke told journalist Michael Donahue that he became best friends with Billy after older boys forced them to fight each other for their entertainment, “like dogs or chickens. It was kind of cruel and mean, but that’s the way life was back then.”

“When you’re a long-term resident of an institution like that, you become institutionalized,” Duke said, providing an insight into Jones’ troubled personality. “You learn not to form relationships with people . . . You learn to be a loner. You learn emotionally not to become too vulnernable to relationships because they’re transient in most cases. I think Billy Frank was typical of that pattern.”

“Duke remembered Jones as moody, withdrawn and a loner,” Donahue reported. “He didn’t have many friends, and he idolized James Dean.”

Dean became Billy’s idol after a formative experience that influenced his ambition to pursue acting. Joe Stockton called Billy into his office one hot summer day. “I must have been 14 or 15 years old at the time and I was sure I was going to be punished for something,” Jones later recalled. “Instead, the man handed me a copy of Life magazine with a photo of James Dean on the cover. After a long silence he said, ‘You know Billy, you look just like this guy!’ and as I studied the picture, he sat staring at me. I saw a resemblance, although I’d never seen a picture of James Dean before.”

“Dean had a sophisticated subtlety about him and although people have always compared me to him, at the time I would have preferred to be thought of as more flashy, like Elvis,” Jones said. “After seeing Love Me Tender [1956] and East of Eden [1955] at about the same time, I realized how brilliant James Dean was. I’ve always been torn between the two role models though.”

Billy’s fascination with Dean intensified after he read an article about his fatal car accident. “Sometimes I feel like James Dean’s avenger . . . maybe I’m a continuation of the whole thing,” he later said. “A piece of the puzzle’s gone, because Dean was too wild and had an accident, but he was the real thing. Most people are afraid to die––and that’s what makes you the real thing, whether you’re afraid to die. Dean was something divine, like no actor before or since. I’m fascinated with death. That kind of death.”

When Jones’ star began ascending in the mid-’60s, stories about him made the inevitable comparisons to James Dean. Jones’ story resonates with similarities to Dean’s life as well as that of Cal, the character he played in East of Eden.

Dean’s father sent his son to live with his aunt and uncle after the death of his mother from uterine cancer when he was nine. He felt like an orphan, and had a strained adult relationship with his father, who didn’t support his ambition to be an actor.
“My mother died on me when I was a kid, and I used to cry on her grave and say, ‘Why did you leave me?,’” Dean told Dennis Hopper. “And that changed into, ‘I’m gonna show you! I’m gonna be great!’”

“I wasn’t close with him,” Jones said of his father. “He was six foot something––not like me––and looked just like Paul Newman, with ice blue, cold-blooded killer eyes. I went to live with him when I was 16 and he signed me into the Army.” He didn’t resent his father for casting him off. “No, I loved him. I love him still. Did you ever see East of Eden?” Jones said that he hated his mother for dying on him, evidently unaware as a child that she was alive but institutionalized. “That was a good reason to hate her. She shouldn’t have died.”

Jones escaped from Boys Town when he was 15, taking up with a married 18-year-old woman with two children in Memphis, Tennessee, who he said was the sexual aggressor in their relationship. “From then on, I expected it. Women liked me, probably because I didn’t have a mother. I lived with my 18-year-old [lover]––she was separated from her husband––and then I just left her, up and walked out.” He repeated this pattern with other women throughout his life.

His father remarried and fathered three children while his first two sons remained at Boys Town, only joining him for rare holiday visits. Jones attempted to reunite with his father after abandoning his teenage girlfriend, living with him until he enlisted  in the Army when he turned 16.

Jones’ life was rife with dysfunctional relationships and family tragedies. “My dad, who rode around on a Harley-Davidson, picked up a beautiful 18-year-old girl,” he said. “They were very close, but he killed her on his Harley. Shaved the top of her head right off. When he died, in 1963, they buried him right next her to her.”

If that wasn’t enough, Timothy Roman, who Jones claimed was his son, fatally bludgeoned his mentally disturbed mother, actress Susan Cabot, in 1986.” “I had only seen him once in my life,” Jones said. “She had told him his father was an Englishman––Ryan’s Daughter, right? [where he played a British officer]–– and that I was dead.” Why? “We’d only been together three weeks. Then I sort of disappeared.”

Though studio biographies claimed Jones stayed in the Army for two years before deserting, he went AWOL after only two days. He stole a car and drove to New Orleans, then headed to New York with a friend, making sure to include a pilgrimage to James Dean’s grave and boyhood home in Fairmount, Indiana. Dean’s aunt and uncle, the Winslows, who welcomed––or at least tolerated––visits from Dean’s acolytes, must have done a triple take when they opened their front door and saw Jones, who bore a striking similarity to Dean. “I went up to his room. His jeans were laid out on the bad like he was coming back.” For a moment, maybe the Winslows thought he had.

Acting was not yet a glimmer in Jones’ mind. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he said. “Someone who knew I was AWOL said, ‘Turn yourself in. It’ll catch up with you sooner or later.’ So I did, and spent six months on Governors Island, close to the Statue of Liberty. It was . . . prison. A guard made a pass at me.”

Jones found refuge with the head buyer for a local department store whose husband was in prison for selling marijuana. “She looked just like Marilyn Monroe. Man, was I in love!” He studied painting and sculpting with artist Edward Melcarth, working as his apprentice. He immersed himself in learning artistic technique, but was ultimately drawn to acting.

Jones met an actor who introduced him to director Frank Corsaro, a teacher at the Actors Studio who had been a friend and mentor to James Dean. He adopted his stage name of Christopher Jones (the same name as the captain of the Mayflower) and began auditing classes at the Actors Studio.

“He was a very on and off again student who had a kind of personal charisma,” Corsaro recalled. “He drew very well. He was rather impecunious at the time so I gave him a scholarship of sorts. He was like Dean––he had very good instincts, he had a natural kind of sense of acting. As with Dean, he was not really ultimately as disciplined in the work. He took it as a measure that he deserved it, given his own sense of ease with acting but not as a committed student. Neither was Dean a very committed student at the Actors Studio. In fact, he did very little work there. He just picked up what he could and was in the right atmosphere and with Christopher it was the same case and that’s where Shelley [Winters] kind of took an interest in him and she really gave him his boost.”

Corsaro cast Jones as one of two Mexican cabana boys (James Farentino played the other) in his 1961 Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana, which initially starred Bette Davis. Every night after the show closed, Shelley Winters, who replaced Davis, got into her Jaguar and tooled around New York with Jones and Farentino, enjoying the nightlife. Sometimes they were joined by actor Alex Cord (christened Alex Viespi). Jones claims he and Winters had an affair. “Of course. She was all over me like a cheap suit.” [In the second volume of her autobiography, Winters reveals her relationship with Cord, but never mentions having one with Jones.]

Jones got his first role playing a member of a street gang in an episode of the TV series East Side, West Side (1963-1964), starring George C. Scott. “He kept telling me to stand still,” Jones recalled. “I kept fidgeting in the scene and Scott put his foot on top of mine when the director yelled ‘Action!’ So, I couldn’t move during the scene.”

While hanging out with Shelley Winters at Downey’s, a New York restaurant that was a watering hole for the show business crowd, Jones implored her to introduce him to Susan Strasberg, the daughter of Lee Strasberg, head of the Actors Studio. Winters refused, telling him, “I don’t like the way you treat your girlfriends.“ In her autobiography, she recalls Jones saying, “That’s Susan Strasberg. I’m going to marry her.” He told Pamela Des Barres that he said, “I’m going to fuck her.”

He entered into a tumultuous relationship and marriage with Strasberg that she related in detail in her 1980 memoir Bittersweet. Strasberg recalled her first sight of Jones at Downey’s. “We talked for a few minutes and she [Winters] introduced me to Christopher. He had medium brown hair streaked with gold, deep brown eyes, high cheekbones, and a bowed sensual mouth. He was wearing a shirt unbuttoned to the waist, skintight faded jeans, and although it was freezing outside, a lightweight leather jacket.”

In Bittersweet, she describes a memorable incident that took place one time when she and her brother were joined at their parent’s Fire Island beach house by Jerry and Marta Orbach, actor Richard Bradford, Frank Corsaro and a group of his students, including Jones.

“There was a thunderstorm that night. It was terrifying, yet beautiful. Christopher tore off his shirt and ran onto the beach into the pelting rain. ‘I’m going swimming,’ he called. ‘You’re crazy, come back inside . . . it’s not safe,’ we implored him. Instead, he began to do a rhythmic, erotic dance between the flashes of lightning. It was as if in the eye of the storm he became the storm itself. And, like it, appeared both beautiful and dangerous [emphasis added].”

According to Strasberg, Jones was envious of anyone who enjoyed a comfortable upbringing. “I grew up in a shack with outdoor plumbing and a coal stove,” he told her. “Hell, in Tennessee that meant you were poor white trash.” Jones once tried to bait Lee Strasberg into an argument. “They’re out to destroy anyone who’s too alive,” he said. “But they can kiss my ass. I’ll get them before they get me.” He looked around at Strasberg’s book-covered walls. “You can’t learn anything about life from a book,” he said. “Nietzsche said, ‘We can only find freedom and happiness, without thought, without intellect, through pure will,’ he paraphrased. “It’s all a power play . . .”

“Christopher, here as in New York, didn’t like my friends,” she wrote. “Hell, they’re too square and uptight, too intellectual,” he said. She claimed that he convinced her to take mescaline and other drugs. “You’ve got to cut loose from all your tight-assed, conventional crap,” he told her. “I wanted so much to be loved unreservedly, for myself, that I was willing to pay any price including subservience,” she wrote. “But if I said no when something was offered, I became the enemy, and because I still desperately wanted to be accepted, even by people I did not care about, I never refused. After a while, I didn’t want to. Alone at home or while working, I never took anything or missed it. The drugs were a bond between Christopher, myself, and our peers. My addiction was emotional, not physical. I had drifted onto a merry-go-round that did not stop. And as always, the only self-discipline I had left was in relation to my work.”

Jones later admitted to hitting Strasberg and accidentally discharging a shotgun in their apartment, but he disputes her nightmarish characterization of their relationship, including her claims that he forced her to indulge in a drug-laden lifestyle. “She’s lyin’ like a dog,” he told Pamela Des Barres. “She just wanted to be in with the scene. She’s so square.”

He told Des Barres that he sampled amphetamines, marijuana and LSD, but claims that he disliked their effects. “And I hated acid,” he said. “I swear, I did not take drugs. The hippies were interested in that stuff. I was interested in Ferraris, women and clothes. I was mainly interested in fucking––and in becoming famous.”

In late November1963, Jones and Strasberg accepted their friends Jerry and Marta Orbach’s invitation to drive out to California. Strasberg supported Jones until he landed the starring role in the TV series The Legend of Jesse James, produced by Don Siegel. In his autobiography, Siegel, who directed the series’ half-hour pilot, called Jones, “a disturbed young man,” but did not elaborate. Jones’ success exacerbated his rebellious behavior. One of the puff pieces printed about him headlined the quote, “I don’t give a damn what anybody says about me.” Publicists often plant these statements to give their client the appearance of integrity, but it fit Jones. He showed up late for a TV Guide interview about his TV series and off-handedly called it “garbage.”

“Mr. Chris Jones, who plays the late Mr. James as if he were a three-way cold tablet comprising equal parts of the late Mr. James Dean, the present Mr. Marlon Brando, and a difficult teen-age girl,” TV Guide’s critic, Cleveland Amory, wrote in his review of the show. Jones’ show generated an outpouring of fan letters from female fans, some explicit enough to shock his wife. The series, filmed at 20th Century-Fox, aired on ABC for only one season from September 1965 to May 1966, before falling victim to the ratings competition from The Lucy Show on CBS and Dr. Kildare on NBC.

Chris Jones 2 Jesse James castWhile movie offers poured in for him, Jones’ relationship with Strasberg deteriorated. She alleged that he alternated unpredictably between tenderness and sudden explosions of paranoid jealousy, when he would pummel her face and body with his fists, punishing her for the infidelities he imagined she engaged in. One evening in their apartment, after she tried to flee their moving car, he pointed the Colt revolver he played Russian roulette with at her and said, “I could shoot you.” She closed her eyes and heard the report of his gun. The bullet tore apart her prized English Regency desk. “You have to learn to trust me,” he told her.

Strasberg discovered that she was pregnant just when she had finally decided to leave him. The couple married in Las Vegas on September 25, 1965. She gave birth to her daughter, Jennifer, on March 14, 1966.

In August, Jones began making his first film, Chubasco (1968), on the Warner Bros. lot. One day, early into production, Strasberg received a frantic call at home from the film’s director, Allen Miner. “Susan, Christopher is acting a little rambunctious with the girls we’ve been testing. He hit the last one when he kissed her. He is balking at doing the love scenes.”

She reluctantly agreed to take the role. She divorced Jones after Chubasco was finished. He fought her for custody of their daughter. Strasberg claimed he harassed her enough to compel her to obtain a restraining order against him. Jones’ tempestuous relationship with her set a pattern he was to repeat throughout the remainder of his life with other women.

Jones plays the eponymous character in Chubasco, a rebellious youth who agrees to straighten up and fly right by working as a spotter on a tuna boat. He eventually marries his pregnant girlfriend Bunny (Strasberg), the daughter of the boat’s skipper (Richard Egan), in a sanitized Mexican whorehouse presided over by a madame played by Ann Sothern. Though Chubasco contains a scene between Jones and a benevolent judge (Edward Binns) that takes place in his office and another where he writhes in pain after injuring his hands that evoke similar scenes in Rebel Without a Cause, it’s an unmemorable movie. “I didn’t think it [casting Strasberg as his girlfriend] was too good of an idea and the movie wasn’t that great, but it paid for a house with a pool in Beverly Hills,” Jones said.

Wild in Streets Poster Vertical MediumJones next film, Wild in the Streets (1968) gave him his breakout role.

Next Time: Wild in the Streets, The Looking Glass War, Ryan’s Daughter, and Jones’s sudden and mysterious decline. 

Peter Winkler is the author of Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel (Barricade Books, 2011).

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The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of: “Funny Bones” (1995)

 “The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of, but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.

 

“We were funny people. We didn’t have to tell funny stories. We were funny. We had funny bones… I think there are two types of comedians. There’s a funny bones comedian and a non-funny bones comedian. They’re both funny. One is funny, the other tells funny.”

– George Fawkes

“Comedy’s a magnificent shambles, huh? Purposeful, intentional chaos. If it isn’t funny, you die a double death, right?”

– Tommy Fawkes

“I never saw anything funny that wasn’t terrible, didn’t cause pain.”

– Bruno Parker

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British filmmaker Peter Chelsom’s 1995 movie Funny Bones, which he produced, directed, and co-wrote with Peter Flannery, is the type of film that defies simple categorization. It is, among other things, a tribute to Vaudeville, a celebration of English eccentricity à la the old Ealing comedies (it was even filmed at the Ealing studios), a backstage soap opera, a drama, a tragedy, a melodrama, a mystery, a thriller, a fantasy, a horror story, a musical, and a very, very, very black comedy. Speaking of which, it is the single best movie ever made about the subject of comedy. There have been several films about performers doing comedy, including Roy Del Ruth’s Always Leave Them Laughing, Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight, Alfred E. Green’s Top Banana, Carl Reiner’s The Comic, and Woody Allen’s Stardust Memoirs, but Funny Bones doesn’t just concern those who perform comedy, it deals the very nature of comedy itself. The theme of Funny Bones, however, isn’t anything as trite as posing the question, “What is comedy?” (A question so inane that it only deserves the exact same answer that Louis Armstrong gave to someone who once asked him what jazz was: “If you gotta ask, you ain’t never gonna know.”) Rather, the main focus of Funny Bones is exploring the difference between those who want to be funny, those who instinctively know how to be funny, and what it takes to be funny.

It’s impossible to summarize Funny Bones’ story in a sentence or two. The film does have a plot, but it’s so complex and labyrinthian that seeing exactly how it unfolds and discovering the secrets the various characters are hiding are among of the chief pleasures of watching the film for the first time. (Subsequent viewings of Funny Bones can be ever more rewarding; no matter how many times you see it, there’s always something new to discover.) Perhaps the best way to convey some idea of what Funny Bones is like without spoiling the fun is to take a look at the two characters the film revolves around.

The first one we are introduced to is Jack Parker (played by British comedian Lee Evans in his theatrical film debut) in the film’s mysterious opening scene depicting a botched robbery at sea. A young man in his 30s, Jack is first glimpsed perched at the top of the mast of one of two boats rendezvousing out in the middle of nowhere off the shore of Blackpool, England. (As Janet Maslin pointed out in her New York Times review of Funny Bones, Jack’s “most important scenes in the film have him perched above other characters at precarious heights.”) We don’t learn exactly what is being stolen or why until later in the film. What is clear in this sequence is that Jack is being betrayed by his companions, led by a slimy, corrupt cop appropriately named Sharkey (Ian McNeice), and that one of the people involved meets a macabre end when he’s thrown overboard and his feet are chopped off by the boat’s propellers, causing him to bleed to death under the water.

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It isn’t until a little later in the movie that we discover that Jack’s is really a natural-born comedian and that he comes from a family of performers. His father, Bruno (Freddie Davies), and uncle, Thomas (George Carl), were a celebrated slapstick comedy team known professionally as the Parker Brothers. His French-born mother, Katie (Leslie Caron), was a singer, who is now divorced from his father, but used to participate in the family act, as did Jack. A deeply troubled individual who has already experienced more than his share of sorrow, Jack is, nonetheless, an enormously talented comic, even more so than his elders. With Jack, comedy is instinctual, even when he’s not performing. When taken into police custody because of a presumed suicide attempt that takes place in the aftermath of the robbery, he can’t resist turning an interview with a psychiatrist (Gavin Millar) into a Vaudeville routine.

Psychiatrist: “Where were you born?”

Jack: “Blackpool.”

Psychiatrist: “Why Blackpool?”

Jack: “’Cause I wanted to be near me mother.”

Psychiatrist: “Have you lived here all your life?”

Jack: “Not yet.”

But Jack is no idiot savant; from years of experience. he knows the mechanics of comedy by heart and is also something of a technical wizard. We observe Jack at the decrepit warehouse on the Blackpool docks where he lives with his father, uncle, and pet dog, meticulously putting together a reel-to-reel tape recording of sound effects and snippets from several different radio broadcasts. The purpose of this recording is explained in a crucial mid-film scene set on an open mike night at a small Blackpool nightclub. That night, appearing under the pseudonym “Val Radio,” Jack performs a “dummy act” in time to his sound montage recording, giving the film audience its first indication of what a brilliant physical comedian he is.[1] The routine has the club audience laughing hysterically, but when Sharkey shows up unexpectedly, Jack’s cut off in mid-act by the club’s owner. In is then that we get the first hint of the dark secret Jack harbors. He’s been banned from performing by the local law for the past twelve years. Why Jack got banned is one of the film’s mysteries that isn’t answered until late in the proceedings. Nevertheless, it’s been established that Jack, indeed, has funny bones.

If Jack is one side of a coin, then the flip side of that coin is Tommy Fawkes (Oliver Platt). Like Jack, Tommy is the son of a professional comedian in his 30s whose life’s calling is comedy. Unlike Jack, Tommy isn’t funny. It isn’t just a lack of talent; it’s his attitude. Tommy is an arrogant, hipper-than-thou, privileged rich kid who can’t help feeling superior to those around him. Jack and Tommy are first linked by a transition from the Blackpool sea to a Las Vegas casino on the night of Tommy’s big debut at a prominent venue after years of playing tiny comedy clubs. Chelsom makes the transition with the aid of music: French singer and songwriter Charles Trenet’s original 1946 recording of “Le Mer” (The Sea) plays underneath the opening scene and, when the locale shifts to Vegas, it is in the middle of an elaborate stage rendition of the Americanized version of the song, “Beyond the Sea,” performed by a dancer (Harold Nicholas) backed up by a big band and a line of chorus girls.

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In a scene that’s almost as nightmarish as the one preceding it (but in a different way), Tommy waits to go on in his dressing room fighting a major case of backstage jitters. Everything that subsequently happens in that dressing room conspires to add to those jitters. The attempts of his joke writer Al (William Hootkins) to both pump him up and calm him down only succeed in infuriating him.

Al: “How’s the star of the show?”

Tommy: “I’m gonna die.”

Al: (joking heartily) “Tommy, you’re among friends. We won’t let you die!”

Tommy: “No, Al, I don’t mean on stage–although I feel like shit—I mean, I’m gonna die!”

Al:  “What is this? What’re you talking about?”

Tommy: “If I don’t do it, make it happen—you know, find that feeling—in two weeks, I’m just not gonna live any more.”

Al: “You mean you feel desperate, that’s all. A lot of people feel desperate before doing something exceptional.”

Tommy: “You know, Al, I’m not gonna play safe any more. I’m gonna take it to the edge –right to the edge—and do pirouettes.”

Al: “Pirouettes? What—what are you talking about?”

Tommy:  “Pirouettes, you dumb fuck! And if I fall… well, so be it. You know? Who gives a shit, you know?!”

Getting increasingly apprehensive, Al warns Tommy not to do “the sheep story,” pointing out that it’s a mainstream audience out there who won’t appreciate a joke with “the ‘F’ word” in it. “You’ll lose ‘em with the ‘F’ word,” he pleads. Tommy’s next visitor is his fiancée Jenny (Peter Pamela Rose), who bursts into tears over Tommy’s rudeness and breaks off their engagement. “You’re so cold! You wonder why people don’t laugh at you?” she wails before storming out of the dressing room. (The look of sheer horror on Tommy’s face reflected in the mirror at something so traumatic happening to him right before he goes out on stage is one that just about any actor or performer can identify with.) Last and most nerve-racking of Tommy’s visitors is the man he’s lived in the shadow of his entire life, his father, world-famous comedian George Fawkes (Jerry Lewis). George’s lackadaisical attitude as he peruses the dressing room (“New mirrors,” he casually observes, an ad-lib by Lewis) only intensifies his son’s case of nerves, especially when he tries to put him at ease. “You couldn’t ask for a better audience,” George says, “That room is filled with people, friends, old friends of the family. The whole of show business is there. They’re all just hoping and wishing and ready to laugh, son.” After George leaves, the heavens themselves add another twist of the screw to Tommy’s anxieties: a rumbling thunderstorm begins outside.

And just when Tommy is convinced it can’t possibly get any worse, it does… with a vengeance. After the dancer’s number is over, he spots George in the audience and encourages him to come up on stage. (Listening on the dressing room monitor, Tommy fearfully begs, “Don’t do it, dad! Oh, please don’t do it!”) Being a 24-carat ham, George unhesitatingly goes up on stage to overwhelming applause and a standing ovation. George then proceeds to do an impromptu stand-up set, beginning with, “As the cow said on a cold, wintry morning, thanks for that warm hand.” Overshadowed yet again, it’s the last straw for Tommy: he makes a beeline for the men’s room and throws up in a toilet.

Reduced to a neurotic bundle of nerves, Tommy finally takes the stage. Assuming an angry young man persona, he barely get some mild chuckles with his first jokes. Desperate, Tommy launches into the “sheep story.” Sure enough, as Al had predicted, even before he gets to the F-bomb punchline, he’s already lost the audience. Even the Japanese tourists aren’t amused. (It should be noted that this supposedly “edgy” piece of comedy material is actually one of the oldest blue jokes in the book.) Realizing how badly he’s bombed (people are already walking out), Tommy tells the crowd, “I gotta run. You’ve been a lousy fucking audience! My name’s Tommy Fawkes and I got two weeks to live!“ He flees the stage to a small, unenthusiastic smattering of semi-polite applause. When his friends and family go backstage to Tommy’s dressing room, all they find a handwritten scrawl on the mirror, “Goodbye. Sorry.”

But rather than committing suicide, Tommy turns up in his hometown of Blackpool, where he and his family lived before moving to America when he was six-years-old. Sporting a hideous mustard-yellow suit and a fake pencil mustache, Tommy is going by the name of “Rick Tarascas” (echoing the nom de plume Jack hides behind later in the film). “Tarascas” tells the lawyer he’s hired to represent him, Lawrence Berger (pronounced “Ber-jer”), a charming little milquetoast of a man played by Christopher Greet, that he’s come to Blackpool looking for new and unique comedy material. (By the way, “Tommy Fawkes returns to his hometown to find comedy material” might fit handily into a capsule review of Funny Bones, as so often has been the case, but that’s no more the plot of the film than “an anonymous reporter travels around the country trying to find out what the hell ‘Rosebud’ is” is the plot of Citizen Kane.) It soon becomes apparent, however, that the real purpose of Tommy’s quest is trying to discover the elusive secret of how to be funny.

Jack and Tommy first meet at the aforementioned open mike night. From there, everything in the story builds to the grand finale: a spectacular circus performed at a Blackpool arena, with the Parker Brothers headlining the bill. While his father and uncle are performing, Jack slips out of the audience and Sharkey smells a rat. (“Find Jack Parker now,” Sharkey cautions his men. “It’s all gettin’ a bit French… an’ I don’ like it.”) Events both magical (literally) and sinister occur, karma happens, lives are changed forever, and, after eluding the police backstage, Jack finally makes his triumphant return before an audience. But whether his appearance will result in redemption or tragedy remains to be seen until the film’s final few seconds.

Throughout the movie, Chelsom’s direction reflects his inventiveness. There are several intricately-edited montages depicting Blackpool, its eccentric inhabitants, and the even more eccentric—and downright bizarre—variety acts that audition for Tommy and Berger, including a bagpipe-playing dwarf, a lady with a singing poodle, a backward-talking man, a pair of dancing identical twins, a musical saw player, and a costumed, powdered wig-wearing magician who goes by the stage name of “the Bastard Son of Louis XIV.” Chelsom depicts important flashback sequences in two different film styles: Jack’s flashbacks are shot in black-and-white, utilizing a harsh, hard-edged, documentary-like style, whereas Tommy’s flashbacks are filmed with hand-held cameras, in slightly blurry, over-exposed footage with faded colors like 8mm home movies. As mentioned before, Chelsom’s use of music is also very creative. In addition to John Altman’s superlative background score, recordings by such diverse artists as John Lee Hooker, Memphis Minnie, Willie Dixon, Washboard Sam, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, and the Raymond Scott Quartet are heard.

For Funny Bones, Chelsom got first-rate performances from all of his actors. Both Evans and Platt do their best work to date as Jack and Tommy. Davies and Carl exude a feeling of melancholy resignation as the Parker Brothers. Caron is every bit as sensuous and lovely as she was in her younger days with her charming, sympathique turn as Katie. Jerry Lewis gives perhaps his finest serious performance as George, even better than his work in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. Although his lack of even a hint of a British accent belies the idea of George being a native of England, it should be stated for the record that Chelsom wrote the role especially with Lewis in mind, and being the only cast member with a direct connection to classic days of Vaudeville and Hollywood comedy, Lewis’ presence is absolutely crucial to the overall film, despite only having about fifteen minutes of total screentime. Other notable performances are provided by Ruta Lee (as Mrs. Fawkes), Ticky Holgado, Terrence Rigby, and Richard Griffiths. And the late Oliver Reed plays what has to be the most atypical role of his career as Dolly Hopkins, a flamboyantly gay millionaire obsessed with his own mortality. (The fact that most of Reed’s performance wound up on the cutting room floor only adds to the sheer oddness of the role.)

Funny Bones was produced by Disney’s Hollywood Pictures division, and they obviously had absolutely no idea of how to market the finished film when it was released in the spring of 1995. They futilely tried to sell it as a family comedy with ambiguous ad copy like, “Comedy. It’s in the timing. It’s in the material. But mostly, it’s in the bones.” (On the other hand, the theatrical trailer did suggest some of the off-the-wall quality of the film.) But it was to no avail; the film got mixed reviews and quickly vanished from sight. Disney released a DVD of the film in 2003 with no extras, not even the trailer, with the cover featuring Lewis billed as co-star and an equally deceptive tagline, “A zany look at two comedians who’ll do anything for a laugh.” One can only wonder at how many unsuspecting parents thought they’d be safe showing their children a seemingly typical Jerry Lewis comedy with an innocuous-sounding title like Funny Bones only to cause those kids to have nightmares for weeks afterwards!

 

 


[1] “Dummy act” is a Vaudeville term for an act where a comedian mimes in time to music or a recording. In the years before he teamed up with Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis got his start performing a dummy act with phonograph records he played on stage.

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The Still Relevant Musings of Stanley Kramer

I always tell people that the best part of my job as a writer is talking to people whose work I admire about the work I admire. There’s no better example of that then Stanley Kramer. He agreed to meet with me in November 1994 at the legendary Sportsman’s Lodge. The interview was for my book Lee Marvin Point Blank so consequently, Marvin was the main topic of conversation. Most of Kramer’s thoughts on Marvin went into my book but the opportunity to speak with the pioneering producer/director naturally bled into other topics. That which didn’t go into the book is presented here for the first time. Sadly, he passed away in 2001 (on Lee Marvin’s birthday!) and what survives here are the opinions, anecdotes and cantankerous musings of a filmmaker whose value can never be overestimated.

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Dwayne Epstein: As a producer, you did a film in 1952 called Eight Iron Men based on a play…

Stanley Kramer: Was Lee in that?

D: Yeah, he was. Do you remember anything about it?

S: No, not very much. But he must have impressed me because I used him several times after that.

D: What would be in a script that would make you think Lee Marvin could play the part?

S: My natural sense of genius. I mean why do you cast? You cast out of ego, too. You see it that way. People say to me, “Why did you use Gene Kelly?” or “Why did you use Fred Astaire in a dramatic part?” or “Why did you make the first picture with Marlon Brando?” Because I felt that I was doing something special.

D: And you were.

S: Not always.

D: You had the guts to at least try something different.

S: Try, yeah. That’s why I got into it.

D: How did Lee Marvin and Brando get along?

S: Not too well. Brando had done Streetcar and a couple of other things. I was the only one who made two films with him that didn’t make any money.

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D: I always thought The Wild One (1954) was a big hit.

S: It was banned more places that it played.

D: Was there a rivalry between the two actors that transferred to the screen?

S: Since they played the heads of rival gangs, they played it that way.

D: Lee hid behind his personality?

S: He created a personality and hid behind it. He wasn’t that way, at all.

D: What was he really then?

S: Soft. Sensitive. Easy to hurt.

D: You saw that side of him?

S: I lived that side with him. I must have done about five pictures with him.

D: How would that sensitive side show itself?

S: Well, sometimes with another actor or actress. Sometimes with a director. It would depend. He wanted to do a good job much more desperately than his personality indicated.

D: So there was a sense of insecurity about him?

S: Sure, but he was very talented.

D: Having worked on The Caine Mutiny (1954), would you say there was a comparison between Bogart and Lee Marvin?

S: I don’t think so.

D: How would they be different?

S: Well, Bogart was a star incarnate, from the beginning. First time I ever got together with Bogart, for example, was in Hawaii, The Beachcomber’s Restaurant. There was a bout eight of us at the table and the film was starting rehearsals the next morning. We had all been settled in there for about three or four days. Around 11:00, I looked at my watch and said, “For all the guys that have to work tomorrow, I think it’s time to turn in.” Bogart said, “Wait a minute. What do you fancy yourself to be? Who are you, the producer of this picture? For Christ’s sake, dictating the time to go to bed and everything, that’s ridiculous! What’s your function here?” Fortunately, I thought of a line. I said, “My function is to see that recalcitrant actors get to bed on time.” He looked at me and just stared at me. Then, he broke out in a laugh. He said, “Okay.” That was all just before we started The Caine Mutiny.

D: Do you remember if Lee Marvin got along with Bogart, because I know he was enamored of Bogart?

S: Right, he was. I don’t remember. Too many other things going on.

D: The first film you directed, Not As A Stranger with Robert Mitchum, Lee Marvin had a small part in that. What was it like working with him then? It was a pretty volatile cast with Sinatra, Mitchum, Broderick Crawford….

S: I don’t recollect. You’ll have to make it up.

D: [laughs] I won’t do that. Some critics said Gene Kelly was miscast in Inherit the Wind (1960). I thought he was wonderful in that.

S: I did, too. It’s hard to find reasons for that failure of that movie except I know some of the reasons. United Artists never went all the way down the line with it, to open it and do it, exploit it. It needed that. I thought Tracy and March would carry it, you know?

D: They were like titans.

S: They were titans, too. They had respect. That was a wonderful experience for me. Sometimes it goes, sometimes it doesn’t. When I was working on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), everybody said, “Christ, this will fold like an accordion.” Yet, they stood opposite each other. The guy kissed the girl in the opening scene.

D: The world didn’t come to an end.

S: No, maybe if it had we’d have made more money. If you have any personal questions, feel free to ask me.

D: What do you look for in a script? Obviously, you have a certain style of filmmaking like all great directors do…

S: No I don’t.

D: I think you do. I think you have a film that says Stanley Kramer on it.

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S: How do you…That’s why I made a picture, the picture I made was It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, World (1963). That’s not a Stanley Kramer picture.

D: Right, since every now and again, you got to break the mold. No question about that. But chances are, if there’s a film that says Stanley Kramer on it, it’s not going to be a light piece of fluff. You tackled tough subjects mostly…

S: I didn’t think they were so tough when I tackled them. I made them because I believed in them and visualized it and thought, “Well, I could do this. Make a great thing out of it.” Doesn’t always turn out that way. That’s what makes a Christian out of you.

D: What do you look for in a script when you read it?

S: I don’t look for anything in particular. Surprise me! Shock me! Stun me! Intrigue me! Do something! I don’t know whether it jumps off the page but maybe I can visualize something. Chances are, if it jumps off the page, it wouldn’t be very good.

D: Did you ever think of directing a play instead of just films? You seem to be a very good actor’s director.

S: Who told you that?

D: No one. That comes just from watching your films. You give great showcases for actors in your films.

S: Well, then the film would be the showcase. But, nobody ever offered me a play script and I never thought of one so…I’ve directed stage productions, workouts, locally and so forth.

D: Interesting. When you cast Burt Lancaster as the judge on trial in Judgment at Nuremberg, was there a chance of casting Lee Marvin in that or any role in the film?

S: I’m sure I did along the way. Maybe there was some reason why he wasn’t in it. See, I had Tracy near the end of his life, since it was an all-star cast, I did that so I could get try to get an audience where it all jelled, because it never did sufficiently. We got an audience but not enough. Lancaster was a replacement. That part was set and agreed to and all negotiated out for Olivier to play. He got married. He married Joan Plowright. He said, “Unless you can postpone the picture for four months, it’s out.” I couldn’t. At any rate, Lancaster was one of those nasty…It didn’t work entirely because everybody else had a background of being German; Schell and all the defendants. But Lancaster read it and wanted it. I didn’t like the accent he played with.

D: He tried.

S: He tried and he performed pretty well.

D: You produced John Cassavetes’ first studio film, A Child is Waiting (1963). I’m guessing he preferred his own independent projects so he wasn’t crazy about the experience.

S: He wasn’t crazy about the experience because of me, probably. We had difficulties. He was a talented fellow. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have put him in the job. But I had a self-centered idea about films. There can only be one dominant and you can’t do it by conference, by agreement. One guy has the concept and the driving force. That’s what I always felt to be true, anyhow. Cassavetes was young, unregimented, not accustomed to listening, and I was in his ear a lot. It was a project I would have done. I was busy on something else. The reason I didn’t direct it is I made the project go up to that point but it was the kind of subject most people wouldn’t be interested in, anyhow. We used a lot of people from the hospital

D: Burt Lancaster played the head of the hospital but would you have considered Lee Marvin for Lancaster’s role as the lead?

S: Yeah, I would have considered Lee Marvin for anything. I thought he was a hell of an actor.

D: Do you recall if you did or not for that role?

S: Probably not because Lancaster was a much bigger name. Some of those subjects needed a symphony of names. It’s always a confining thing. See, in the early days, Marlon Brando had never made a film, and that was good. Kirk Douglas hadn’t done anything, and that was good. There were other people. Jose Ferrer was not known in films. Gary Cooper was but Grace Kelly hadn’t. I had used a lot of people exciting in those days. Then, I began to switch cast, vis a vis Astaire or Gene Kelly, that kind of thing…dancers [laughs].

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D: On Ship of Fools (1965), how did Lee Marvin get along with Vivien Leigh?

S: I don’t know if there was anything personal going on between them. I would be the last one to ask about that. But, he got along very well. After all, he was a queer duck. Meeting him for the first time, for an actor who’s supposed to be playing with him, it must have been an experience for her, too. I’m sure it was.

D: Would you say there was a mutual respected for each other’s talent?

S: The respect that he had for her was unbelievable. What her respect was for him, I don’t know.

D: How did Lee Marvin get the part in Ship of Fools?

S: I picked him. If you ask me on what basis, I don’t know. Usually, casting is a feeling. [pause] I can’t stress enough that he was really two people. He had an outer facade and this terrible, sensitive, introspective underneath. How do you deal with that, as an actor? It’s not easy. He was very respectful of Vivien Leigh. The first scene they played together I remember very well because of Marvin. He came into the dining room, crossed the room and sat down at the table.

D: That’s right.

S: How do you know that’s right?

D: I’ve seen the movie several times. Wasn’t it the scene where he’s at the table and she comes in and he doesn’t get up for Vivien Leigh who sarcastically says ‘don’t get up.’?

S: You’ve seen it more recently. At any rate, he worked out the lines, how to cope with it and then did me the honor of discussing it. He often did that, very often. This was always deep with him because either he had something profound to say which people ought to listen to — he always seemed to be so surfacely amuck or rough. When you bear that, when you lifted the curtain and looked behind it, there was a lot to see.

D: So you’re saying there was much more depth to the man then people realized?

S: Not only much more depth but he was sensitive underneath. His sensitivity he protected as best he could. I always gave him credit of his intelligence. I remember…let me think a minute. I constantly had a feeling he left too soon. I think he had a lot more to say and do, I really feel that. I don’t think he ever crested, is what I mean

D: Have you seen a film in recent years and thought Lee Marvin could’ve done it?

S: Well, it wouldn’t be that obvious. I made a picture once called On the Beach (1959). Fred Astaire played a scientist in it. Everyone said, “What the hell is Fred Astaire doing in this? Can’t visualize it.” I visualize it somewhere along the line. I think he came through very well. It would be the same with Marvin. If Marvin, for example, played a hard…I often look for a role for something like a football coach or a college instructor so I could use him and stand out from that.

D: Well, Anthony Quinn in RPM (1970) was a college instructor. Did you consider Marvin for that role?

S: I don’t remember that. It was a gigantic failure. That’s what I remember most.

D: It was a game effort.

S: Unfortunately, you don’t get points for that. I’ve had a lot of game efforts [laughs].

D: During Ship of Fools, anything else in particular about it that stands out in your mind?

S: Well, I had a conglomeration of people in the film, as you know. It was the one and only experience I had with an actor named Oskar Werner. He happened to be one of the great actors of all time. He and Spencer Tracy, but I only made one picture with Oskar…He was very difficult for everybody. I made a pact with him. If our objectives, our high objectives were up there and clear to both of us, he’d get rid of all this crap and go for it, which he bought and did. Many times he would do something and say to me something he never said to anybody: “What do you think?” That was a big concession for him.

D: How did he get along with the other actors?

S: Fairly well. He and Signoret, I got together and made a pact with both of them. They made a pact with each other: Drop the resentment and the dislike and let the roles dominant.

D: Seemed to work. Their love scenes seemed very believable.

S: Of course. So many other things I was satisfied with most of the way. I remember one day I had a scene with Vivien Leigh and she was drunk, she was playing it. It occurred to us, on her walk down the ship’s corridor, do something, the Charleston. Just suddenly broke into it like it was on her mind. And she did it and went off quickly. Then she went on her way to the cabin. That was my idea. I want credit for that one!

D: What are you doing with yourself, lately?

S: I’m preparing to make a picture, yeah. That’s one of the things I’m doing. I also wrote another book.

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D: Anything you can tell me about the upcoming film?

S: Well, I can tell you it’s present time. I have two projects. The first one, I’d like to be the story of modern Soviet Russia: After the fall of the Soviet Union. It’s a good love story. I got to bring it up to date. Changes every month.

D: Any casting in mind?

S: Well, the guy who’s dogging me the most is Max Schell. Last time Max Schell and I got together, he won the Oscar. This is very special, too. Good love story.

D: You mentioned a new book. Is it on filmmaking or your own experiences?

S: Well, running through it is film anecdotes, motivations, agonies, prejudices.

D: Any of the later films that weren’t necessarily hits with critics or audiences, say, The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969) that you may have reconsidered casting?

S: I don’t recall, maybe. In terms of casting, you have to have a big enough ego and I had it. You visualize something, you get an idea, a thought, and you follow it through against the current. If it comes off, great. If it doesn’t, you made a mistake.

D: So, you’re saying casting against type worked for you a lot better?

S: No, it didn’t work a lot better but it worked, sometimes. Not always.

D: Can you think of an example where it failed?

S: Yeah, but I won’t tell you.

D: [Laughs] Okay, that’s fair. That seems like a good note to end on.

S: All right. Hope you got enough.

D: I sure did.

 

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Special Report: The Decline of Physical Media and the Rise of Illegal Torrents

Almost one year ago Stephen Bowie and Stuart Galbraith IV, on their respective blogs, began debating the aesthetic issues of watching movies via streaming video versus physical media like DVD and Blu-ray. That conversation, which you can read HERE and HERE, happily prompted a lot of good dialogue all over the Net where how one watches film is nearly as important as what one watches.

And, now, the conversation continues with a chat focusing on the subjects of bootleg videos and illegal torrents, as well as the related but fiendishly complex issue of once copyright protected movies gradually lapsing into the public domain, and whether this is good or bad for consumers.  

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Let’s start with the issue of buying bootleg videos. I think we’re pretty much on opposite sides of the fence on this issue, as well as the related notion of downloading/streaming movies officially unavailable.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Well, first of all, buying a bootleg is something I’m a lot less inclined to do than possessing a bootleg.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪How do you mean?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Because that does mean there’s a middleman who isn’t a rights holder but is making a profit anyway. I’ll only fill that person’s pockets if I’m pretty desperate to see something. I couldn’t do what I do, as a TV historian, without being heavily reliant on non-commercially released copies of shows. ‪Isn’t that also true of Japanese films for you? Let’s say there’s a private torrent site that contains a whole bunch of fan-subtitled Japanese films that you can’t purchase legally. Would you or would you not avail yourself of those? Would it make a difference if it was for “work” vs. pleasure viewing?

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I think needing access to movies/TV shows as a researcher is an entirely different issue. When, for instance, I was writing my Kurosawa/Mifune book, many of their films, particularly Mifune’s, weren’t available through normal channels. I ended up buying Hong Kong DVDs, for instance, Japanese DVDs sans English subtitles, and in some cases rented bootleg VHS tapes from Japanese rental stores in LA’s Little Tokyo and elsewhere. I’d rather fend for myself accessing what I’d need through rental shops here in Japan and, when necessary, going through official channels and viewing those titles I’d need to see through archives. ‪What I’d like to address is from the perspective of the ordinary consumer fed up that, for instance, Disney won’t release Song of the South, which has opened an underground market for that title.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Okay. And your response to that, from the consumer’s viewpoint, is what? “I guess I’m SOL then” and that’s the end of it?

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     Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Well, first off I believe Disney will get around to Song of the South eventually. The mighty dollar supersedes political correctness any day. Over time labels have gotten around these issues with (for my money, overly PC disclaimers and warnings), driven by legal concerns more than anything else.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪But that’s sidestepping the issue a bit. Are you arguing that someone curious about Song of the South would be wrong to avail him/herself of a pirated copy?

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪From a historical and artistic perspective, it absolutely should be released. Besides, my argument with regards to that film is that Uncle Remus is smarter and wiser than all the white people in that movie. It’s no better or worse than a hundred other Hollywood movies from the 1940s, and certainly the racial stereotypes are far more offensive in Gone with the Wind.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Still doesn’t answer my question, though.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪No. I myself have a copy that was given to me as a gift. I haven’t watched it, partly because the picture quality isn’t where I want it to be. However, of the handful of bootlegs I have, all I’d gladly replace with legitimately purchased copies when and if those become available. But I don’t think that’s the case with those who rely on torrent sites for 50-100% of what they watch.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Right. That’s closer to the way I feel. My own primary concern about bootlegs is aesthetic — I’d rather wait and see if a remastered copy comes out somewhere. I even dumped TCM, finally, after deciding that even a recording straight off the air didn’t pass my quality check. Most of those were piling up unwatched in the hope of a legit release.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪With regards to your SOL comment, I think part of the problem is that many folks today want instant gratification. Old fogey me, I remember if you wanted to watch, say, Touch of Evil, what you did was buy TV Guide every week and hope, pray, that sometime over the next 6-9 months one of the 6-7 VHF and UHF channels would air it, and hopefully not at 3:00 am! For me the current state of home video is an embarrassment of riches. It’s positively amazing that so many obscure titles are easily accessible. Sure, there are a bunch I’d love to watch RIGHT NOW that are presently unavailable, but I have no doubt a good percentage of those will turn up sometime over the next year or two. I don’t mind waiting. A good measurement of that is DVD Savant’s Wish List. It was huge 10 years ago, but something like 80% of those titles are now available in some form.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪And I know collectors who yell at me for not having taped, say, The Wackiest Ship in the Army when it ran on CBN in 1984. The fact that my age was in the single digits at the time doesn’t buy me much sympathy.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Even those folks who have been complaining for years about George Lucas’s suppression of the first theatrical versions of the original Star Wars trilogy probably won’t have much longer to wait, now that he’s been bought out by Disney.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Or: I spend 20 years and a lot of money hunting down some rare TV show, and now it’s on YouTube. Any tool who wants can see it in three seconds. It’s infuriating, but that doesn’t have much bearing on the state of things now.

   Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Another thing: I’d bet many of those loudest bellyachers probably have a huge stack of unwatched DVDs and Blu-rays stacked up, gathering dust. Why not look at those while you’re waiting?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Look, I agree with that in general: Like you, I’ve had so much stuff to watch during the DVD era that for the most part (aside from my area of specialty, which is a big exception), I haven’t needed to go outside the proper channels to find stuff to watch.But: One reason I felt like this was a natural extension of our conversation last year is that the shift from physical media to streaming changes this equation.‪ If the market is tilting away from the possibility of a consumer legally purchasing (as opposed to streaming / “renting”) a copy of a movie, does that alter the ethics of bootlegging?

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I think that shift hasn’t so far stopped the flow of new and interesting releases, for one thing. Sure, if DVD and Blu-ray and all other physical media came to a full stop, that might change the rules. But that hasn’t happened. DVD and Blu-ray have been “dead” for several years, supposedly. I don’t see that now or in the immediate future. What I do think bootlegging and torrents are doing is having some, probably unmeasurable, impact on marginal titles. If everyone who wants a copy has one on their hard-drive already, what’s the point in releasing it to Blu-ray, DVD, or as a MOD?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪I’ll bet they are cannibalizing the same niche audience that small indie home video labels need. Which is a problem. Well, then, take it as a hypothetical, or look at some of the isolated instances where it’s true now. For instance, Criterion’s Hulu channel. Even if that’s not a dumping ground for films they don’t plan on releasing on disc (which it seems to be), it’ll take them 20 years to get to all of them. And while I can stream those if I want to (which I don’t), in Japan, you can’t. Don’t you feel the impulse to have someone make copies of those rare Japanese films? Would you ever feel justified in doing so?

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Well, I found ways around accessing the U.S. version of Hulu while still paying for the service. But if I couldn’t, probably, no, I wouldn’t ask somebody to burn a BD-R for me just because I want to see something. For research purposes, probably yes. I suppose the bigger question is: By dumping titles they’ve licensed on Hulu, is Criterion damaging the financial incentive to eventually release those titles to DVD and/or Blu-ray?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪That’s a good question. Yes, I suspect that Criterion starting that Hulu channel was a tacit admission that most of those films wouldn’t get a disc release, and so they wouldn’t be cutting into that revenue. But I do see a lot of people on movie forums talking about streaming a film to see if they like it and then if they do, buying a copy. For me that’s backwards — I’ll always seek out the best copy possible for a first viewing, even if it means blind-buying a Blu-ray of a movie I might hate. But it may be that for others streaming and disc purchases aren’t mutually exclusive.

     Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪As the author of a recent piece here on WCP bemoaning the lack of Jacques Rivette titles on home video, would you pay money to obtain those unreleased titles as bootlegs or torrents, and if so would you then re-purchase them should they come to DVD or Blu-ray?

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    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪It’s true that Milestone and a few other small labels have publicly said they’ve dropped plans to release films for which they have the rights because they’ve already been heavily pirated. So that’s not completely immeasurable. It’s really frustrating but, at the same time, still sort of an isolated example. I mean, I’m not going to download a Lionel Rogosin film now because Milestone is working on his stuff, and it’s probably reasonable to wait on almost anything that could come out via Warner Archive. But a ’30s Paramount title? I wouldn’t counsel anyone to hold their breath on that. ‪Would I purchase the unavailable Rivette titles from a bootlegger now? No. But, that’s what I was getting at earlier — I wouldn’t have to. These days it happens anonymously on the Internet rather than via one-on-one contact, but I could essentially “trade” for custom-subtitled rips of French DVDs. I’m not in a huge hurry to do that, but I would also have no compunction about it. For instance: I recently borrowed a gigantic set of Portuguese DVDs of Manoel de Oliveira’s films from a friend. There were three or four Oliveiras I hadn’t that weren’t in the set or weren’t subtitled so, yes, I did indeed acquire non-commercial copies of those so that I could drop them in chronologically.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Technology-unsavvy me asks, “What exactly are you trading?” in terms of technology? And how do you make each other’s needs known?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪I don’t want to give away too many trade secrets (and I don’t know many, because I’ve only dipped a toe into this world), but essentially there are private, invitation-only websites where cinephiles upload rare stuff that others can then download as a digital file. In some cases the standards of commercial unavailability, and image quality, are quite high.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Hmm. This sounds like the 21st century version of secretive hoarders of 35mm prints in the old days! In any case I’m guessing we’re talking about numbers too tiny to have any major impact on even the niche catalog marketplace.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Exactly. Also, I believe you mentioned a kind of pool where you and some others commissioned subtitles for rare Japanese films, 20 years ago? Perhaps you can say more about that, but custom-subtitling is one of the factors that drives this underground community, and I think it’s one of the things that makes it ethically defensible.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Yes, well. Around the time I was researching and writing about Japanese fantasy films – this being something like 22 years ago – none of the original Japanese-language versions of these films were available in the U.S. officially. Local TV markets had stopped running them, and the only licensed versions were panned-and-scanned, dubbed into English, and often heavily recut from their original versions. Gradually some of the films became available on VHS by people who’d obviously obtained Japanese laserdisc versions (for the most part) and then had them subtitled privately. Eventually I learned the main dealer doing this was making so much money that he was able to fly First Class to Tokyo several times a year (a $5,000 ride) on all the dough he was making. Fans didn’t care. They just wanted to see the movies. I, however, got to know many of the original filmmakers – directors, screenwriters, composers, actors, etc. – people who’d normally be entitled to royalties from their studios had these movies been legitimately licensed. Clearly this guy was getting rich while the people who actually made those movies got nothing. There was a time before that when I was invited in to a small, private group (mostly fellow researchers) that would all chip in to have these movies privately subtitled. In that case most or all of us already purchased the Japanese laserdisc of the titles in question, so this was, to my mind, merely a self-financed supplement to that experience.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Well, I started to say that I don’t care if some douchebag gets rich if the end result is wider availability for the art; it’s incidental. Then the second part of your comment makes that seem heartless! But at the time, you have to admit, English-language licensing of those films had to seem extremely unlikely. I can only counter with my own experience, is that often people who made TV in the 50s and 60s ask me, “How did you see that?” And only one or two have then gotten annoyed that I had a copy of some never-released show that they helped to create; dozens, however, have asked me to send them one, because they didn’t have it themselves.

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    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪That’s the thing: Back in the early 1990s it seemed very unlikely that any Japanese fantasy films would ever be released in the west in their original form, except maybe the 1954 Gojira. Nor did I think I’d ever get the chance to see any of the original Cinerama travelogues from the 1950s unless I trekked several hundred miles to John Harvey’s custom-built Cinerama theater in Dayton, Ohio. Now, of course, virtually everything is available, on its way, or under consideration.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Dave Kehr would kick you out of Movieland for writing that! There was more available on 16mm in 1975 than there is on DVD now! Don’t you know that?

   Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I do think Kehr may be right about classical Hollywood films on 16mm in the ’70s, but that gap, if true, is certainly narrowing. Also, to rent (not buy) a 16mm print from a distributor was comparatively expensive, anywhere from, say, $40-$200, just to rent a print for a couple of days. ‪I do want to address a related issue, the fact that we may be entering a new age in which classic films from the 1930s may fall into public domain, most famously Disney’s early cartoon shorts, but also everything from King Kong and All Quiet on the Western Front to Warner Bros. gangster movies and Fred Astaire musicals, etc. Some argue this is a good thing, that it will free-up long unreleased titles. What do you think?

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    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪First off, I think you’ll see new legislation that extends corporate copyrights before huge swaths of sound films start going PD. That’s one reason why I’m provisionally pro-piracy in some circumstances: because big corporations (not the artists who work for them) have been writing US copyright law in recent years. But, generally, no, I think we’ve seen that public domain status does no favors for a medium as technically complex as cinema (or television). ‪I don’t pretend to have all the details figured out, but I’ve always said that the only way to pry the gems loose from the studio vaults is to create some kind of tax incentive for making that stuff commercially available. Obviously a non-starter in the current anti-NEA, anti-arts political climate (although who knows, maybe the corporate handout aspect would have some traction).

   Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Exactly. As someone who’s worked with home video departments in various capacities, I’m aware of exactly how expensive it is to store and maintain film elements, to create a new video master, etc. If, say, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs suddenly became available from any and every PD outfit for five bucks, Disney would have zero incentive to ever remaster it again. I’d hate to live in a 2040 world where everyone was watching movies all mastered before 2014. As for private funding, to some extent that’s been happening for years. Hugh Hefner has facilitated the restoration of many films through his projects at the UCLA Film & Television Archive and elsewhere. And as much as people gripe about DVD-R programs, it’s an avenue in which studios have found a way (well, some have, MGM’s is DOA) to make obscure, extremely niche titles that probably sell a couple hundred units cost-effective.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪There are a lot of Universal TV shows trapped in that kind of limbo now: The existing tape masters burned in the vault fire a few years ago, and no licensee is ever going to be able to afford to retransfer from the negatives. So your only shot at seeing BJ and the Bear at this point is old syndicated broadcasts posted on YouTube, basically. No, I’m very schizoid when it comes to the studios: If they’re taking good care of stuff and releasing it commercially, I’m their best friend. If they’re neglecting it, fuck ‘em: I’ll “steal” it.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Of course, with TV there’s the problem of volume. It’s easier for Warner Bros. or Sony to remaster an hour-long Buck Jones Western and market it to hard-core B-Western fans with a $19.98 SRP than it is to take a chance on a 30-year-old TV show with 150 50-minute episodes.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Yes. Although many distributors have found a way to do that on DVD, and in fact I think Time-Life and Shout! may have realized that “complete series” box sets are in some cases more marketable than a slow trickle of the same series. However, that may also explain how you and I are coming from different places here. As a TV guy, it’s always been up to me to acquire what I want to see, either by recording reruns or from collectors. Only in the last 10 years has it been possible to buy more than a handful of old TV shows.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Clearly, also, emerging computer technologies are making previously prohibitive projects, like the reconstruction of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World possible. Twenty years ago the same work might easily have cost ten times what they were able to bring that title in for.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪There, you see the kind of thing this demon technology can spawn? Shudder.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Yes, and also content-starved media like Hulu I’m sure is driving TV (and film) availability like never before. The damnedest TV shows seem to be turning up on Hulu.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Actually, I’m mildly surprised that streaming hasn’t liberated more old shows. Researching my David E. Kelley piece, for instance, I found that only early seasons of The Practice, Picket Fences, and Chicago Hope were on Hulu; presumably, only what had been remastered for potential DVD releases (most of which didn’t materialize). Warner streams a few shows (e.g., Hawaiian Eye) where they can’t clear music rights for whole season disc releases, and some recent shows that didn’t get a disc release (like Rubicon) will show up on Amazon or Netflix. But I’ve yet to see a motherlode that didn’t also appear on DVD.‪ I don’t think, in other words, that streaming is really driving that side of the home video business … which may be a good thing. I don’t know.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪As a resident of Manhattan, I want to ask you about the bootleg scene in NYC and how that’s changed, and also if you ever checked “specialty” dealers in, say, Spanish or Chinese neighborhoods.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪I’ve done a little bit of that, but because ethnic video stores are targeting native speakers, there’s a limit on how much I can infiltrate them. I used to live in a neighborhood with some Indian video stores, but couldn’t make heads or tails of the DVDs in there. You may remember that I came to you for help when I found a cheap, very well-stocked Japanese video store in midtown. ‪In that case, I ended up printing out box art from Amazon Japan and other websites in order to find some of the few Japanese DVDs that had English subtitles. And I did find most of the Juzo Itami and Hiroshi Shimizu films that aren’t available here. But … once I started renting, I realized that most (though not all) of the rental copies had been replaced with bootlegged copies! So, even though Japan is not one of the countries we generally associate with video piracy, there you have it.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I find places like that fascinating. In Los Angeles I used to frequent Hong Kong and Chinese places recommended by Hong Kong cinephile Jeff Briggs, partly for those movies but also because they sometimes sold LDs or VCDs (and, later, DVDs) of obscure Japanese movies. There was a time, for instance, where the only way to see some of Kurosawa’s early films with English subtitles was via Hong Kong DVDs and VCDs.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Well, at one point I counted, and I have directly ordered DVDs from over 15 different countries!

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I think generally immigrant neighborhoods of all nationalities tend to do this, less so classic films and more often tapes of ordinary network prime time shows shipped to the States for homesick emigrants.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪That’s interesting. That Japanese store did have a lot of JP (and Korean) TV shows, and many US films & TV shows, which would’ve been cheaper for me to rent there than from a regular video store … if they’d been the real thing! And understand, my objection to those bootlegs was aesthetic as well as moral, because they’d been compressed from dual to single layer in most cases. Fortunately the Itami discs were the originals, for some reason.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ There was a time when in, say, Times Square, you could openly buy bootleg copies of the very latest movies, as in within a day of their theatrical premiere and even before, usually taped by a guy sitting in a theater with a camcorder. (Seinfeld did an episode all about this.) Does that sort of thing still exist today?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪I was thinking about that — yes, I still see the guys on the sidewalk with the blankets full of $5 pirated DVDs, though not as often. And I’m assuming they’re downloading those off the internet, not infiltrating a theater with a camcorder. Backing up one medium: When 35mm gave way to DCP, it took out the key ingredient in the experience of going to movie theaters for me. Yes, you still have the size and the shared audience experience … but I realized that what mattered most to me was that photochemical quality of celluloid. Without that, I lost the motivation to go to the cinema, and shifted most of that viewing to my home theater….

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Same here….‎ ‪So, onto my last point: What’s the scene going to be like five years from now? Will torrents and downloads, legal and illegal, kill DVD and Blu-ray for good?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪It’s not quite as dire, but in the same way, I feel like I would at least partially reject streaming video if it were to supplant physical media as the dominant delivery mode for home video. And what follows from that, naturally, is what do I do next? That has caused me to adjust my thinking about piracy somewhat.‪ Not because I feel entitled to free stuff (which is why many people download movies illegally) but because I do feel entitled to keep a movie in perpetuity if I purchase it, and to own a physical copy. Or am I not entitled to that, ethically? What do you think?

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    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪So then, almost bringing this full circle, yours is predominately cautious measure while I see no immediate end to this party, content that new DVD and Blu-ray titles will continue to flow in the foreseeable future, maybe not in exactly the way we’d like it all the time, but with enough new interesting stuff to keep me more than busy for the time being.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪I don’t think I really have a prediction as to how fast things will change, but I think it’s clear that (1) there’s less demand for physical media, and that DVD & Blu-ray are evolving into a boutique market (like vinyl); and that (2) the rental market was a “bubble” that’s almost gone, and the future of consuming movies will mainly be a choice between buying or stealing. So, again, I ask it directly: If the choices are between streaming legally and acquiring a superior copy of it extralegally, what would you choose? In that future, would you censure cinephiles for congregating around private torrent sites?

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I think I’ve always been pretty clear on this point: As long as physical media exists for me that trumps even legal streaming, let alone poor quality bootlegs. I think where we disagree is about the speed and certainty about it going away for the most part or completely. Should it go away completely then, I suppose, all bets are off. It may come to that eventually but not, I don’t believe, anytime in the next five or six years.

     Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Yes, I think that’s true in terms of the time frame. It’s even possible that I should be more worried about being able to buy another plasma TV when the time comes than about finding discs to watch on it.

 

We at World Cinema Paradise value your opinion. What do you think? Join in on this discussion by leaving your comments below….

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Title: ABSENT MINDED PROFESSOR, THE ¥ Pers: MacMURRAY, FRED ¥ Year: 1960 ¥ Dir: STEVENSON, ROBERT ¥ Ref: !AB001AF ¥ Credit: [ WALT DISNEY / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Other Flying Cars of Cinema

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Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), a children’s film about a family that comes into possession of a magical flying car, was released on Blu-ray on January 21. This has inspired me to examine the history of flying cars in films.

Man has long dreamed of traveling in his very own personal flying conveyance. For traveling you need to check all the travel information, For more details visit to Absolute Back Packers website. During traveling you need a best hotel to stay, Hotel blog provide you the information about hotels food, refreshment and their similar service. Epic poems produced in India during the late Antiquity described flying chariots, also known as “sun chariots.” Folk tales depicted men riding magic horses into the sky. Samuel Brunt’s 1727 novel A Voyage to Cacklogallinia depicted a character ascending to the moon in a palanquin held aloft by human-sized birds.

A Voyage to Cacklogallinia (1727)

Still, without question, the most popular personal flying device was the flying carpet. The flying carpet were part of adventurous fairy tales that once delighted the inhabitants of the Parthian Empire. This conveyance was originally depicted as a weapon of war. A folk story from 130 BC involves a Parthian king, Phraates II, who rides a cloth or carpet to the Seleucid Empire to battle rival king Antiochus VII. Phraates promptly destroys Antiochus by raining fire and lightning down upon him. He celebrates his victory by riding the carpet over cheering crowds. A similar story appeared in 260 AD. This time, Persia’s King Shapur I uses a magic carpet to surprise Roman emperor Valerian. Shapur pulls Valerian onto the carpet and flies him to a Persian camp. Flying carpets figured into many other war stories. A Thirteenth Century folk tale spotlighted a squad of Toranian archers carried aloft by flying carpets to lay siege to an enemy castle.

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In 2004, Pakistani author Azhar Abidi received acclaim for his mock scholarly essay The Secret History of the Flying Carpet, which alleged to feature quotes from recently unearthed ancient scrolls. He described a menacing warrior flying his carpet over an open-air marketplace. He wrote, “On a pleasant evening, when the suk was bustling with people, and the veiled ladies from Georgia had just disembarked from their litters and were being escorted to the silk merchant, a madman appeared from behind a dome and swooped down at them. The flier was a giant of a man with a magnificent black beard and long hair trailing in the wind behind him. He was wearing a loincloth, his eyes were a luminous green, an eagle was flying by his side, and he was laughing madly. The women saw this apparition heading towards them and froze with terror as he tore away his loincloth and started urinating in their upturned faces.” While soaring over Washington D.C. in his Flubbermobile, Fred MacMurray never tried to urinate on the National Science Foundation for denying him a research grant. But we’ll get back to him later.

The flying carpet became an international sensation when it was featured in the Middle Eastern folk tale “The Three Brothers,” which was included in the famous Arabian Nights book. The flying carpet is largely associated with another Arabian Nights tale, “Aladdin and The Magic Lamp,” but that story did not originally include a flying carpet. It did, however, include a flying bed. Aladdin is upset to learn that his beloved has married the son of the Grand Vizier. He commands his genie to “bring hither the bride and bridegroom.” The genie transports the newlyweds across the city atop their marital bed. That was somewhat risqué for a story that is now widely enjoyed by children.

Jules Verne was a flying car pioneer. In his 1870 novel All Around the Moon (1870), Verne described three men embarking on a journey to the moon in a flying car. He wrote, “The three travelers approached the mouth of the enormous cannon, seated themselves in the flying car, and once more took leave for the last time of the vast throng standing in silence around them. The windlass creaked, the car started, and the three daring men disappeared in the yawning gulf.”

Verne’s 1904 novel Master of the World features the Terror, an invention capable of many transformations. It could function as a boat, car or aircraft. This machine, which possessed wings that folded out from its sides, was able to “dart through space with a speed probably superior to that of the largest birds.” Verne, too, envisioned a flying car being solely produced for the purpose of war.

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Illustration of The Terror by Georges Roux

Filmmakers initially saw flying cars as something funny. The earliest film known to feature a flying car was a 1906 British comedy called The ‘?’ Motorist, in which a speed freak motorist escapes a police officer by driving up the side of a building and flying into outer space.

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The 1923 Mack Sennett comedy Skylarking featured a car that is lifted high into the sky by a hot air balloon.

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The inventor (Harry Gribbon) proudly stands alongside his hot air balloon car.

Of course, the intrepid stuntmen of early Hollywood did not need special effects to make a car take flight.

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An establishing shot of a futuristic city is not complete without flying cars. This matter is well addressed by the following quote from the TV Tropes website: “Perhaps the earliest example in film would be the small personal airplanes seen flitting amongst the buildings in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis [1927]. They may not have looked like cars, but they seemed to fill the same function. This was probably also the Trope Maker for the whole ‘throw in some flying cars zipping between giant buildings to establish that we’re in The Future’ thing, and it remains popular to this day.”

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The Ub Iwerks cartoon Happy Days (1936) features a car that levitates high into the sky when its owner puts too much air in its tires. The cartoon can be found on YouTube.

The flying car became a long overdue sensation with The Absent Minded Professor (1961). Professor Ned Brainard (Fred MacMurray), the professor of the title, accidentally invents flying rubber, or “Flubber,” which he uses to make his Model T fly. This is a impressive juxtaposition of past technology and future technology. The film’s special effects supervisors, Robert A. Mattey and Eustace Lycett, were so masterful in their use of miniatures and screen matte effects that they were nominated for an Academy Award.

Title: ABSENT MINDED PROFESSOR, THE ¥ Pers: MacMURRAY, FRED ¥ Year: 1960 ¥ Dir: STEVENSON, ROBERT ¥ Ref: !AB001AF ¥ Credit: [ WALT DISNEY / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]

The Absent Minded Professor excited a flying car trend. Later that same year, moviegoers who bought an admission ticket to Invasion of Neptune Men (1961) saw a superhero known as Space Chief fly around in a rocket-propelled car to battle an invading army from outer space.  Soon, flying cars were abound on television.

The French film Fantômas se déchaîne (1965) climaxes with arch villain Fantomas escaping in a Citroën DS that uses retractable wings to convert into an airplane. This invention and others in the film were no doubt influenced by the popular gadgets featured in the James Bond films.

Fantômas se déchaîne 1965

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The Citroën DS, which was known for its aerodynamic futuristic body design, lent itself well to this scene and is largely the reason that this flying car has remained an iconic movie prop for the last fifty years.

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The car was recently featured in a short comedy film in which Fantomas is shown in grease-stained red overalls struggling to repair his flying car.

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The flying car was a well-worn concept by the time that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang came along. The car, which possessed the same abilities as The Terror vehicle, did not at first seem to offer the slightest novelty, but it was eventually revealed that the car was endowed with independent intelligence and was able to respond efficiently to threats with a variety of devices. That was, admittedly, a new twist.

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The car was designed by famous production designer Ken Adam, who is best known for his work on the early James Bond films and Dr. Strangelove (1964), and cartoonist and sculptor Frederick Rowland Emett. A clear effort was made to make this flying car more fanciful than MacMurray’s flying Model T. The designers took advantage of the fact that, while The Absent Minded Professor was a black-and-white film, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was to be filmed in Technicolor. The car’s wheels and upholstery were made an eye-catching crimson red. Prominent were the car’s wavy-edged wings, across which were painted red and yellow stripes. Other trappings included flotation devices and propellers that were deployed as needed. Surprisingly, though, the car does not appear much in the film and the traveling matte effects are embarrassingly inferior to Mattey and Lycett’s effects in The Absent Minded Professor. This is a particular disappointment because the special effects were supervised by the well-respected John Stears, who had won an Academy Award for his work on Thunderball (1965) and later won his second Academy Award for his work on Star Wars (1977).

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John Burningham’s illustrations for Ian Fleming’s original novel depict a much plainer design for the car.

The flying car allowed another villain to escape capture in a James Bond spy adventure, The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). This scene was as much about the future of marketing as it was about the future of travel. American Motors Corporation (AMC) furnished the production with 15 vehicles for the purpose of product placement. Inspired by an actual flying car prototype, special effects director Derek Meddings attached wings and a flight tail to a gold-colored AMC Matador coupe. Bond later learns that the flying car traveled 200 miles before landing, but the actual machine was only able to fly for 1,640 feet. John Stears had to build a remote-controlled scale model for the aerial scenes.

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The prototype that inspired this creation did not fare well. The inventor later crashed his flying car and died.

Star Wars (1977) and its sequels featured a variety of personal flying vehicles, including a flying car called an airspeeder.

The flying car was taken to the next level with the Spinners from Blade Runner (1982). The Spinner was agile. It could take off vertically, hover, and use jet propulsion to cruise through the sky. Syd Mead, an industrial designer who began his career at Ford Motor Company, came up with the design for the vehicle.

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The actual three-dimensional cars were built by automotive designer Gene Winfield. Winfield chose to build the Spinner on a Volkswagen chassis because the Volkswagen was designed with its engine in the rear and this allowed him to be extravagant in his arrangement of the vehicle’s front hood.

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Repo Man (1984) unveiled a 1964 Chevrolet Malibu that could fly.

Repo Man (1984)

In The Last Starfighter (1984), a teenage boy is befriended by an old man, who whisks him away from his home in a flying car. The “Star Car,” as this vehicle was called, was designed based on the DeLorean automobile.

Last-Starfighter

Elements of The Last Starfighter turned up the following year in Back to the Future (1985), in which an old man whisks a teenage boy away from his home in a flying car. The car in Back to the Future, which chiefly serves as a time machine, was also based on the DeLorean automobile. The car took its most remarkable innovation from the landing gear design of a plane. The car had the ability to drive normally on terrestrial byways, but it could fold its tires into its undercarriage once it took flight.

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Hidden out of view were the cranes and cables used to lift the car and create the illusion that it was flying.

Winfield, who designed and constructed the Star Car, was hired to build a flying DeLorean for Back to the Future Part II (1989). Winfield had worked for John DeLorean at one time and he admired the man for his design innovations. He made molds off a DeLorean, which he then used to construct a 700-pound fiberglass model.

Winfield brought in his past creations to dress the sets meant to represent the 2015 version of Hill Valley. These vehicles included the Star Car from The Last Starfighter, a Spinner from Blade Runner, 6000SUX from Robocop (1987), and Bubbletop from Sleeper (1973).

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Sitting in the driveway of a quiet suburban home was a Spinner that had been garishly repainted yellow and green.

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The Star Car makes a cameo appearance in the downtown area. The car can be clearly seen on the far left side of this screen capture.

A scene in which the car lands during a rain storm demonstrates a clear Blade Runner influence.

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Mel Brooks spoofed the flying car trend by introducing a flying Winnebago in Spaceballs (1987).

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Later that same year, the Doctor Who series presented a flying bus in the episode “Delta And The Bannermen.” This helped heavy load vehicles to take flight in legitimate science fiction films.

Doctor-Who-Bannermen Delta And The Bannermen (1987)

The Star Wars universe is currently filled with hovertrucks. The Fhloston Paradise, a 2,000-foot-long luxury cruise ship that sails above the Earth, was featured in The Fifth Element (1997).

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Still, a more memorable scene from The Fifth Element shows a squadron of flying cars tangled up in a police chase through a futuristic New York. The five-minute scene, which consisted of more than 70 shots, was a masterful blend of miniatures, CGI elements and digital matte paintings.

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Mark Stetson, visual effects supervisor, admitted that they replicated many elements of the Spinner cars from Blade Runner, but an effort was made to give the film a very different look than the earlier film. Stetson said, “The flying cars are a lot more whimsical, and the city is set in broad daylight. The film is rooted in a much more utopian vision of the future than Blade Runner, which virtually defined the post-apocalyptic look of futuristic films for more than a decade.” Effects cinematographer Bill Neil admitted that he was shocked when the director, Luc Besson, insisted that the sequence occur in broad daylight. Neil said, “Miniatures are often saved by the fact that you don’t see much of them, but this whole sequence took place late in the day, and it had to hold up to scrutiny.”

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This flying food truck reflected the filmmaker’s whimsical vision for The Fifth Element.

Children were never more thrilled when a flying car showed up in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002).

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The producers of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) partnered with the Chrysler Group for the big-screen debut of the comic book heroes’ flying car, The Fantasticar. The car was designed with a great deal of input from the Chrysler Group’s chief stylist, Trevor Creed. The vehicle was a big step up from The Terror, which could “dart through space with a speed probably superior to that of the largest birds.” It could travel at 550 miles per hour, ascend to 30,000 feet, soar across the globe on autopilot, and split into three independent sections. The car, which was built on top of a Dodge Charger, featured the Dodge logo on front and back.

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In 2009, Russian film company Bazelevs Productions had tremendous success with Black Lightning, a superhero film about a college student who fights crime with a flying car. Universal is currently developing an English-language remake.

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Government contractor Stark Industries displays a flying car prototype in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011).

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Chrysler returned to the flying car business after pouring a large amount of marketing dollars into Total Recall (2012). Patrick Tatopoulos, the film’s production designer, said that he had to consult with Chrysler every day on design matters. He admitted that they sometimes had an issue with their design choices and they needed to make changes to “make them happy.”

Total Recall (2012)

The film’s hover cars were mounted on a rig, which included a go cart attached to the bottom. The rigs carried the cars at high speeds beneath the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto and throughout an unused Canadian air base at Borden. Visual effects supervisor Adrian de Wet said, “We let rip with the cars. . . We drove the cars around at 40-50 miles an hour, allowing them to smash into each other. We wrote off a few cars, smashed a few cameras – all that kind of stuff.” Of course, the rigs were digitally removed in post-production.

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The flying cars keep coming with no end in sight.

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Wizards vs. Aliens (2012)

You can no longer watch a movie about the future without seeing flying cars. But this isn’t presented as a cliché. Filmmakers see the mass-produced flying car as an inevitability and believe that leaving it out of a futuristic cityscape would be like leaving an refrigerator out of a scene set in a modern kitchen.

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This is a functioning flying car named the I-TEC Maverick.

I have less faith on the subject. So, for now, I will continue to consider the agile, swooping flying car as something that I can enjoy only by watching a good fantasy film.

You can read about flying cars on television by visiting my blog at http://anthonybalducci.blogspot.com/.

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Man in the Dark featured

DVD Savant Interview: Greg Kintz of The 3-D Film Archive

The Twilight Time limited edition video label has just released its first 3-D Blu-ray, which just happens to be the first 3-D film released by a major studio right at the beginning of the big 3-Dimension craze that began with 1952′s Bwana Devil. The film is Man in the Dark (1953), a fast-paced mystery noir in which crook Edmond O’Brien undergoes a brain operation to ‘remove’ his criminal tendencies. As tends to happen in gimmicky sci-fi noirs (or Sci-fi pix of any kind), things go wrong. The crook wakes up minus any memory whatsoever of his past identity or criminal history — which makes him an easy target for his old gang. Noir icons Audrey Totter and Ted de Corsia respectively romance O’Brien and beat him senseless, in an effort to find out where he’s hid $130,000 in ill-gotten loot. But the secret only reveals itself through O’Brien’s weird dreams.

I asked Bob Furmanek, President of the authoritative 3D Film Archive if his website would be covering this 3-D Blu-ray release. In answer, the 3D Film Archive’s Technical Director Greg Kintz offered to answer my less-than-expert questions. I’ve worked in pre-digital special effects and was a projectionist for Douglas Trumbull’s experimental Showscan format back in the late 1970s, but my exposure to 3-D isn’t that extensive. Here’s how Greg responded to my questions, and then followed up with some better questions of his own.

Glenn Erickson: Hello Greg. The liner notes on Twilight Time’s 3-D disc of Man in the Dark stress that unlike Warners’ House of Wax and Dial M for Murder, Columbia’s 3-D film was shot very quickly (just eleven days) with a custom rig engineered in its own camera department. I hear that 3-D at this time could be problematical, and that some of these rigs were difficult to work with. Were these cameramen really sharp, or lucky, or do 3-D experts like yourself see a few flaws showing through?

Greg Kintz: The cameramen were extremely sharp. Most studios at that time had their own camera departments, which fostered originality and furthered pride in their work. Bob Furmanek has a number of correspondences from original 3-D shoots, and it is clear they cared about doing quality 3-D productions, despite what some of the recent press has tried to portray. With that said, unlike today’s digital 3-D gear where a tech can instantly check the stereoscopic alignment and/or make relatively quick adjustments in post-production, the 1950s 3-D was of course completely analog with no 100% guarantee that everything being shot was all aligned properly until it was screened later. Due to these factors, issues occasionally could and did occur. Some misalignments occasionally made it to final release prints. 3-D corrections were often done in post-production, but this required another generation loss and more time-consuming optical realignment.

Glenn: On the much-ballyhooed roller coaster scenes, the actors are just photographed in front of a 2-D rear projection, which would seem a real cheat. Comments?

Greg: For decades, this has been the biggest gripe folks have had with Man in the Dark. On one hand, in the context of the entire feature the roller coaster “POV” sequence is a relatively short part of the movie. I first saw this movie in 3-D some ten years ago knowing about the rear screen projection in advance, and ended up not being bothered at all by the timesaving technique. With that said, was it a missed opportunity? Oh, absolutely. It was interesting recently watching Man in the Dark with my wife who had been studying the 3-D Blu-ray artwork before seeing this for the first time. Afterwards she commented, “If the (original & new) artwork heavily plugs a roller coaster and 3-D, shouldn’t the roller coaster segment actually be in 3-D?” I couldn’t help but chuckle. But again… everyone’s tastes vary, and I still very much enjoy the overall story and shooting style. And in the end, they only had 11 days to shoot, so something had to give, and I guess it was the POV roller coaster segment.

Glenn: I thought that the early trick 3-D shot in the brain operation scene was very well-judged, but one or two of the later stick-things-at-the-camera shots look like they were shot with long lenses — is the 3-D funky in these scenes?

Greg: With the different resurgences of 3-D movies over roughly the last 100 years, there have been varying degrees of just how far one can shove something out of the stereo window — and to what degree audiences in general can handle those off-screen effects, from a 3-D eyestrain standpoint. Today’s movies are by far the most conservative in this aspect. Those of the 1980s typically were the most aggressive. The 1950s “Golden Age” 3-D titles for the most part were a balance between those two time periods and (IMHO) struck the best balance of the two. With that said, there are just a few thankfully very brief shots in Man in the Dark where if you look at the screen in 3-D, but with your glasses off, your eyes are being call upon to do some tough viewing.

As you noted, the opening brain operation was well judged, as well as most of the other off-screen effects. I think this was also one of the most aggressive 3-D movies of the 1950s in that respect. It was Columbia’s first 3-D title, so they were learning, and suppose they felt they had an obligation to “deliver the goods” so to speak, and present a good share of off-screen effects.

Glenn: I would think that the most ‘aggressive’ Columbia 3-D picture of the decade had to be a Three Stooges short subject — everything got stabbed into our eyes in 1953′s Spooks! Did you see any particular issues with Sony’s 3-D Blu-ray of Man in the Dark?

Greg: In the era of 1080p/3-D, and with most studio content being culled from the best archival elements possible, it’s quite easy to be spoiled. On the other hand, it is also easier to rightfully expect more things to be handled correctly. Overall, Sony did a great job. It is clear they have done some basic vertical realignment and further convergence to the original stereoscopic photography, which for the most part has helped. But like the recent 3-D HD restoration of The Mad Magician, Sony leaves any left/right size differential issues untouched, which still causes alignment issues and eyestrain. If you see vertical misalignment in the Man in the Dark, most of the time it is a L/R sizing issue that could have been corrected. Please don’t get me wrong — if you are a fan of noir and any type of 3-D fan, this is still a must- own and very enjoyable 3-D presentation. Could it have been better? Sure. Personally I think the best compliment that the 3D Film Archive has received was when we were grilling Warner Bros. on different alterations we had found in the House of Wax 3-D Blu-ray. WB’s head of restoration Ned Price actually thanked us for the critiques and said he prefers his team be kept on their toes. That’s a great mindset.

Glenn: Didn’t most Golden Age 3-D movies have an intermission card, due to the required 35mm dual projection reel change?

Greg: Yes! Man in the Dark was no exception and also had its own unique intermission card to be shown just before the required mid-show reel change. Sony has opted not to include the original card in this case. It’s possible it was not included in the original camera negative version, if that is the sole element they culled from.

Glenn: I’ve noticed some 3-D movies have brief sections where the image goes flat .. as in 2-D. Why is that?

Greg: The answer is a mix. Sometimes there were problems in the original photography. Even in the original release, these very brief segments or shots were instead shown as 2-D, or were slightly pushed behind the stereo window for a fake 3-D effect. Hondo and Revenge of the Creature are some of the best examples of when camera malfunctions required brief flat segments in the final 3-D release.

Greg: Other cases can involve the loss of original elements on one side, but not the other. In the case of the Man in the Dark 3-D Blu-ray, I’ve seen both scenarios. There was one 2-D ‘flat’ shot that lasted roughly 40 seconds, but I am 99% sure it was 3-D on previous elements. I would pull some older elements to check if I only had more time. That shot is thankfully brief, and the few other very brief 2-D ‘single’ shots were that way in the original presentation.

The 3-D Film Archive’s own comparison images of the left- and right- eye frames during Man in the Dark’s most squeamish 3-D effect. The reverse shot of villain Ted de Corsia’s lit cigar approaching Edmond O’Brien’s eye packs even more of a jolt.
Glenn: Overall, would the 3-D Film Archive recommend this title, and are you guys planning an “in-Depth” review of this release?

Greg: Quite frankly, we at the 3D Film Archive would have loved to have done a full review on this title, but at the moment we simply have our hands full. If all goes as planned, we should have three or more vintage 3-D Blu-ray titles out in 2014. I’d say more, but will leave announcements like that to 3D Film Archive President Bob Furmanek and the distributors.

As for an overall verdict on Man in the Dark, we would absolutely recommend this title. The 3-D Blu-ray format has been in place for a while now, and it is a shame that so far this is only the fourth Golden Age title released. For a feature that was originally a rush job, Man in the Dark has a certain charm and certainly plenty of dynamic 3-D moments. To see this title in a high quality 1080p 3-D format even five years ago would have required some very expensive gear. Jump to present day and Twilight Time has delivered the goods. How can one say no?

Glenn: They might say no, but 3-D devotees need to be reminded that the Twilight Time disc is a collector’s pressing limited to 3,00O units. So if you want to keep up with classic-era “Third Dimension” attractions, it’s probably not wise to wait too long. Thanks Greg, especially for coming through on such short notice — I didn’t see anybody discussing the realities of 3-D filming out in the trenches of low-budget Hollywood of the 1950s.


Twilight Time’s
Man in the Dark 3-D Blu-ray
is available through Screen Archives Entertainment.
Interview date: January 20, 2014

Late Show Featured

The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of: “The Late Show” (1977)

 “The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of, but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.

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In the late 1960s and early 70s, “film noir” was a term known only to dedicated classic cinema aficionados, and urban-based movie mysteries involving cynical, hard-boiled private detectives were considered relics of the past. (Two attempts to revive Raymond Chandler’s iconic detective hero Philip Marlowe, Marlowe, Paul Bogart’s 1969 film adaptation of The Little Sister, and Robert Altman’s 1973 adaptation of The Long Goodbye, both failed dismally at the box office.)  But after Roman Polanski’s Chinatown proved to be a major financial winner for Paramount Pictures in the summer of 1974, private eye mysteries enjoyed a brief resurgence in movies (Dick Richards’ 1975 adaptation of Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely) and on television (City of Angels, The Rockford Files). “Film noir” was suddenly ‘in.”

Among the most interesting off-shoots of this subsequent revival were a trio of films released by Warner Brothers (none of which came anywhere close to repeating Chinatown’s business): Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975), which, like Altman’s The Long Goodbye, was a total deconstruction of the genre; Stuart Rosenberg’s The Drowning Pool (1975), a belated sequel to Harper (Jack Smight’s 1966 adaptation of Ross MacDonald’s The Moving Target); and, best of all, The Late Show (1977), written and directed by Robert Benton, best known at the time for co-writing the screenplays of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972). (The Late Show was Benton’s first solo script.) But to imply that The Late Show was a kind of knock-off of Chinatown would be grossly unfair to a unique, one-of-a-kind film that lived up to its advertising tagline, “The nicest, warmest, funniest, and most touching movie you’ll ever see about blackmail, mystery, and murder.”

Although set contemporarily in the dreary, colorless Los Angeles of 1977, memories of the 1940s haunt The Late Show (a mood immeasurably enhanced by Ken Wannberg’s subtle, melancholy jazz score). Make no mistake, however; this is no nostalgia piece pining for lost times. The film’s main character, ex-gumshoe Ira Wells (beautifully played by Art Carney), has no desire to live in the past. With his bad leg and hearing aid, Wells simply wants to live out his final years in peaceful retirement, with perhaps an occasional day at the race track for diversion. (Benton based Wells on his own father, who preferred downing one glass of Alka-Seltzer after another rather than having his perforated ulcer operated on a second time.)

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It’s worth noting that Robert Altman, who produced The Late Show and assigned Benton to direct it after buying his script, saw it as a kind of sequel to his own The Long Goodbye, complete with that film’s salt-and-pepper team of homicide detectives Dayton and Green (John S. Davis and Jerry Jones, respectively) putting in a reappearance (before winding up on the cutting room floor). In fact, Wells’ standard attire is identical to that worn by Elliott Gould’s Marlowe in the earlier film: black suit and tie with a white shirt. (In an interview connected with the release of The Late Show, Altman joked that he was going to keep remaking The Long Goodbye until he got it right.)

Fresh off of his Best Actor Oscar-winning turn in Paul Mazursky’s Harry and Tonto (1974), Carney gave an even better performance playing a role unlike any he’d ever done previously. Before his Oscar win, Carney was, of course, best known for playing the role of Ed Norton on Jackie Gleason’s seminal TV sitcom The Honeymooners. But, although he was a prestigiously versatile actor who felt equally at home doing comedy and drama, Carney had never been cast as a tough guy (or even a former tough guy) before. As Carney himself put it, “I’ve got the hearing problem… I’ve got the bum leg. I’ve got the paunch, the middle-age spread. I mean, I really brought my paunch to the part. I’ve got cataracts. And for the perforated ulcer, I’ve got my hiatal hernia… I mean, the character was well defined before we got started. I told Benton, ‘You’ve got the right guy.’” [1] (The way that Ira’s physical infirmaries make him particularly vulnerable is one of the film’s main sources of suspense.)

The other star of The Late Show was another brilliant, unique talent, Lily Tomlin, who had received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Altman’s Nashville (1975). Tomlin played Margo Sperling, a former Hollywood actress wannabe, burned-out “flower child,” and free-spirited kook already becoming a crazy cat lady. Margo barely makes ends meet by freelancing as a clothes designer and a manager for performing artists of dubious talent (sort of a hippie version of Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose), in addition to periodically peddling some reefer. (“This grass was so great, I can’t tell you. There was so much resins in it, it made your lips stick together.”) As Margo, Tomlin gave arguably her finest film performance ever. (Both Carney and Tomlin should’ve won Oscars for The Late Show.)

Initially, there was some friction between Carney and Tomlin, due mainly to Altman and Benton allowing Tomlin free rein to ad-lib her way through scenes. According to fellow cast mate John Considine, “Art had a lot of trouble with Lily, because of her improvising.” Carney was an actor of the old school who believed in following a script to the letter and had problems in the past with actors who didn’t, most notably Gleason and Walter Matthau (his co-star in the original Broadway production of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple). Carney was eventually won over by Tomlin’s professionalism and Benton’s encouragement to improvise along with her.

The Late Show opens with a sepia-toned image of the 1940s version of Warner Brothers’ “shield” logo. Instead of Max Steiner’s familiar musical fanfare, however, we hear a nightclub audience applauding and a piano begins playing the first few notes of the movie’s theme song, a sultry torch number called “What Was,” composed by Wannberg with lyrics by Stephen Lerner, and sung by Bev Kelly.

But when the first shot fades in, the setting isn’t a nightclub; it’s Ira’s modest rented room (the song continues in the background). We see a typewriter on Ira’s desk (a piece of paper in the typewriter shows the first words of a manuscript: “NAKED GIRLS AND MACHINE GUNS, Memoirs of a real private detective by Ira Wells”) and, beside it, a framed photo of actress Martha Vickers (best known for her role as Carmen Sternwood in Howard Hawks’ 1946 adaptation of Chandler’s The Big Sleep). The camera then wanders around the room, taking in, among other things, old photos taped to a mirror (cleverly utilizing actual photos of Carney and Howard Duff in younger days) while the credits are superimposed over the shot. By the time the credits and the song are over, the camera settles behind Ira, sitting before his desk. Then a cut to a medium shot shows Ira perusing a newspaper, pencil in hand (obviously picking out his bets for his next visit to the track), while an old movie depicting a World War I dogfight blares on a portable black-and-white television set behind him.

There’s a knock on Ira’s door and, outside, Ira’s elderly landlady Mrs. Schmidt (Ruth Nelson, a founder of the Group Theatre) announces that he has a late-night visitor. Ira opens the door to reveal Mrs. Schmidt and his ex-partner, Harry Regan (Duff). Harry’s disheveled appearance automatically leads Ira to think he’s drunk (“They’re gonna have to put a night shift on Jack Daniel’s just to keep up with you.”), but when Harry opens his mouth to speak, the only thing that comes out is blood. Interrupting Mrs. Schmidt’s screams with an urgent plea to call for police and an ambulance, Ira leads Harry to his bed and sets him down. Prying away the raincoat that Harry’s clutching over his belly, it becomes immediately apparent by the bloodstain spreading across Harry’s shirt that he’s dying from a gunshot wound.

Harry: “It’s not as bad as the time in San Diego… Ira, got a deal for us…”

Ira: “Harry, who did it?”

Harry: “It’s chance for us to make a lotta dough…”

Ira: “Harry, you’re dyin’. Who did it? How did it happen?”

Harry: “Don’t worry, Ira. I’m cuttin’ you in. Fair deal. Just don’t try to throw a scare inta me. I won’t work. I’ll lay it all out for you. Just get me to a hospital…”

Ira: “God damn you, Harry! Lettin’ someone just walk up to you and drill you like that, point blank. Nobody can palm a .45. Jesus Christ! You never had the brains God gave a common dog!” (sadly) “Sorry you’re goin’ off, pal. You were real good company. The best.”

Harry: (starts to respond, then breaths his last)

Ira: “The very best.” (sighs)

The day of Harry’s funeral, Ira bids farewell to the mourners, then starts to head out of the cemetery. He’s stopped by an old acquaintance, Charlie Hatter (Bill Macy), an oily promoter, talent agent, and part-time bartender who’s the epitome of a bottom-feeding weasel. He introduces Ira to Margo. She wants to hire Ira to find her cat, Winston, who’s been kidnapped by a thug named Brian to whom she owes $500. (“So pay him!” Ira says exasperatedly.) When Margo gets bent out of shape by Ira’s indifference and offers him all of $25 for the job, Ira keeps his temper in check, tells Charlie that he appreciates his presence at Harry’s funeral, and that he should teach his friend “to show a little respect for her elders.” Then he stalks off to head for the track, with Margo waving a photo of Winston at him and wailing sorrowfully, “This little kitty’s just a little honey bun! Give this little cat a break!”

Later that day, Ira confronts Charlie at the shoeshine stand in the seedy building his office is in. “How long has it been since I’ve last seen you, Charlie? Close to a year, isn’t it?” Ira asks, “Somebody puts the freeze on Harry Regan, next thing I know, you show up at Harry’s funeral with some dolly, a song-and-dance about a stolen cat, and all that hot comedy.” Charlie tells Ira that Harry was the first shamus Margo hired to find her cat.

Next stop: Margo’s apartment in La Paloma. “Harry Regan was a pal of mine, close to twenty-four years. Whoever it was that killed him’s gonna be goddam sorry,” Ira declares. (Ira’s quest to find his partner’s killer deliberately echoes Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. The Late Show’s overtones of that uber-private eye saga don’t stop there.) Margo reveals that the catnapper’s full name is Brian Hemphill (“He’s this guy,” Margo says, “He’s really sort of a tuna.”), and that she used to “shlep” hot merchandise for Brian and his “partner” and wound up “borrowing” the last payment for said property. Ira sizes Margo up on the spot.

“Back in the 40s, this town was crawlin’ with dollies like you, good-lookin’ cokeheads, tryin’ their damndest to act tough as hell. I’ve got news for you: They did it better back then. This town doesn’t change. They just push the names around. Same dames, screwin’ up their lives, just the same way.”

Ira tells Margo that, the next time Brian calls, he wants her “to set up a meet,” and leaves it at that.

The “meet” goes disastrously. Charlie and Margo show up at Mrs. Schmidt’s house with bad news: Margo told Brian over the phone that Ira was “gunning for him,” and Brian is now on his way over, armed and dangerous. (“Brain’s not very evolved,” Margo explains, “In fact, he’s rather de-evolved.”) Ira immediately breaks out his old revolver and loads it. But, as Brian approaches the house, he’s confronted by another man, who shoots and kills him and takes off in a car. Ira goes outside to pursue the killer. He aims his gun at the fleeing car while turning down his hearing aid (a wonderful image). One of his shots punctures a rear tire, and the car crashes and bursts into flames, but the murderer still manages to escape on foot.

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While awaiting the arrival of the police, Ira demands Charlie to hand over “whatever you took off the stiff.” (“Jesus, kid, you always were the best,” Charlie says admiringly, then adds to Margo, “Didn’t I say he was the best?”) The “whatever” turns out to be a small leather folder containing rare stamps. Ira immediately puts two and two together.

Ira: “The Whiting job.”

Margo: “What? Who?”

Ira: “About ten days ago, somewhere out in the valley.”

Margo: “Whiting? Who is that?”

Ira: “That Whiting had a stamp collection worth almost fifty grand.”

Margo: “Who is that? Who’s Whiting?”

Ira: “There’s a murder one tied to it, right?”

Margo: “Okay, don’t tell me. What do I care?”

Ira: (patiently, as if explaining to a child) “Two guys broke into a house out in the valley. They tied up Whiting and his wife and started to lift the stamps. Then something must’ve gone wrong because they beat up Whiting and killed his wife.”

Margo: “Oh, how disgusting! I don’t want to hear any more.”

After Ira threatens to turn him over to the cops, Charlie comes clean: While looking for Margo’s cat, Harry stumbled onto info about Brian and his partner pulling the Whiting robbery, and he and Charlie planned to turn them in and split the fifteen thousand dollar reward the insurance company was offering for the stamps. Obviously, someone involved with the crime found out what Harry was up to, so exit Harry.

From there, the trail leads Ira to Ronnie Birdwell (Eugene Roche), a slimy, porcine wheeler-dealer in stolen merchandise and black market goods whose descriptions of the hot products he fences sound like he memorized them from the Sears catalogue, and Birdwell’s sadistic but fastidious strong arm goon Lamar (John Considine). (In his Trailers From Hell commentary on The Late Show, screenwriter Josh Olson describes Lamar as “a gunsel in every sense of the word; look it up.”) Birdwell also has a faithless, promiscuous wife, Laura (Joanna Cassidy), who is obviously this film noir’s obligatory femme fatale.

As Ira’s investigation progresses, the dead bodies continue to pile up, (one corpse is discovered inside a refrigerator), and the intrigues and double-crosses he uncovers multiply. (On a positive note, Winston is recovered, alive and unharmed, but Margo is convinced that he’s been traumatized by his temporary stay with murderers.) All the while, the initial animosity between Ira and Margo develops into a genuine friendship based on their mutual admiration for each other’s ingenuity. They bond even closer after successfully eluding a couple of thugs who were pursuing them in a high-speed car chase.

Margo: “Ira, I feel so high. Just so incredibly high, I can’t even tell you. I feel like I’ve dropped acid, I mean, have you ever dropped acid?”

Ira: “Well, not in the last ten minutes.”

Margo: “You know, I get this feeling, I mean, do you know, can you see anything about me that’s different, I mean, like my expression, can you see a different kind of expression on my face?”

Ira: (deadpan) “You look higher.”

Margo: “I look high? Do I, right now? Well, I am high. I’m telling you, I am high.”

On a roll, Margo proposes getting herself a private investigator’s license so that she and Ira can go into business together.

Margo: “I feel like The Thin Man.”

Ira: “Who?”

Margo: “You know, Phyllis Kirk and Peter Lawford.” [2]

It seems that the apartment next to Margo’s is vacant, so she thinks that they can make it the office for their new detective agency. But, ever the loner, Ira shoots the idea down, and, in the film’s most poignant moment, Margo tries to hide her disappointment while struggling to keep from breaking down.

For the climactic scene, all of the suspects wind up in Margo’s apartment. (In the movie’s most stylish visual touch, the camera does a 360° turn around the apartment, starting with the open front door while the building’s ancient elevator is heard beginning its ascent, panning past the faces of those gathered there as they await Ira and Mrs. Birdwell’s arrival, and coming full circle with the elevator noise ceasing and Ira and Laura walking in through the door.) Per mystery movie tradition, Ira details all of the evidence and explains who did what to who, resulting in the guilty parties either ending up behind bars or joining Harry in the cemetery.

As for what happens to Ira and Margo afterwards, that question would’ve been answered in Benton’s proposed sequel (to be titled, of course, The Late Late Show), in which Ira moved into the vacant apartment next to Margo’s and they opened that detective agency she dreamt of. Certainly, the uniformly positive reviews The Late Show received (with raves from Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, and Vincent Canby, among others) would seem to have justified continuing Ira and Margo’s adventures. But, unfortunately, Warner Bros. only half-heartedly promoted the film, and The Late Show quickly faded into undeserved obscurity. (According to Olson, there were only two other people in the theater when he saw in on its opening Friday night in Philadelphia.)

In 2004, Warner Home Video issued a bare bones single-disc DVD release of The Late Show, the only extras being the theatrical trailer and a brief 1977 television clip of Tomlin plugging the movie on Dinah Shore’s afternoon talk show Dinah! while surrounded by that day’s other guests, the Doobie Brothers. (The only real value of this clip is to serve as a reminder of how dead on the money the satirical series SCTV was when it skewered TV talk show banalities.) In reviews of the DVD, there have been some complaints of the print looking “grainy” and the colors being rather faded, but having seen The Late Show about half a dozen times in the theater during its first release, I can assure you that the movie has always looked like that. (In fact, graininess and muted colors were practically among Altman’s trademarks in his own films, so it’s safe to assume that these aspects of the film were deliberate.)



 

[1] Michael Seth Starr, Art Carney (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books: 2002)

[2] A reference to The Thin Man television series that ran for two seasons on NBC, starting in the fall of 1957, and later went into syndication. Margo was, after all, a child of the 50s.

Rivette Featured

No Love for Jacques Rivette

Jacques Rivette is my favorite director, and Criterion hates him.

Actually, I have no idea how the folks at Criterion feel about Rivette. But the 85 year-old filmmaker may now be the only acknowledged master who remains completely unrepresented in the Criterion Collection as it inches toward 1,000 titles (counting the titles in its Eclipse offshoot).  Of course, rights and consumer demand are the major factors behind what movies get released, even for a home video label that has cannily branded itself as a synonym for quality and staked a claim towards defining the canon. For much of the DVD era, a few other notable omissions kept pace. But after Criterion finally released its first selections by Satyajit Ray and Rivette’s French New Wave compatriot Claude Chabrol (both in 2011), it was Rivette who stood alone out in the cold.

Criterion’s lack of Rivette love has become a grumpy running joke at cinephile hangouts like the (unaffiliated) Criterion Forum – as well as an ongoing meme on Criterion’s Facebook page, where, in 2009, the label innocently asked whether anyone would be interested in a release of Rivette’s legendary, little-seen masterpiece Out 1: Spectre (1971). Criterion hasn’t spoken of it since, and it’s still unclear whether that post was meant to genuinely gauge interest, or tweak the noses of the Rivettean faithful. But in a way it’s appropriate that Rivette should remain a persistent outsider, both because he was one of the few French New Wave directors to gain little commercial traction in the U.S., and because secrecy and paranoia are one of the key themes in Rivette’s filmography. Of course, that’s little consolation to region-locked Americans, who must content themselves with adequate home video versions of only a half-dozen of Rivette’s more recent films.

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But as for me, I’ve just imported what may be my most cherished disc release of last year: Masters of Cinema’s UK Blu-ray of Le Pont du Nord (1981). It marks the film’s English-language home video bow, and Rivette’s high-definition debut. Le Pont du Nord is one of Rivette’s most accomplished works, and also a good entry point for a director whom some find daunting. Like most of Rivette’s films, it combines several recurring obsessions: female relationships; games; the city of Paris; and (perhaps the motif that has the most resonance in post-September 11) the assumption of vast, barely-glimpsed conspiracies that operate underneath the events on-screen in a Lovecraftian way. The film’s two heroines, played by real-life mother and daughter Bulle and Pascale Ogier, are strangers who meet near the Lion de Delfort and spend a few days in each other’s company. Both are outsiders, exiled to the streets by circumstances that they gradually share with each other (and also by Rivette’s limited budget, and attraction to the simplicity of what he called a “reportage” style). Marie (Bulle) is just out of prison and, as a consequence, too claustrophobic to venture indoors; Baptiste (Pascale) is a sort of street punk who fancies herself as a modern-day knight, defending the city against unseen enemies. She appoints herself as a bemused Marie’s protector.

Although Baptiste remains something of a cipher until the very end, Rivette fills in Marie’s backstory fairly early in the film. She is a former revolutionary, alternately pursuing and pursued by a former lover, Julien (Pierre Clémenti), and a mysterious man in black (Jean-François Stévenin) who may be a cop or a secret agent. A plot, of sorts, involves a dossier and a map stolen from Julien’s briefcase. The documents are a Macguffin that connect the film explicitly to specific events during the Giscard government; the map, on the other hand, becomes a springboard for Marie and Baptiste’s quixotic journey across Paris (from the center to the outskirts), as Baptiste hatches the idea of deciphering its uncertain meaning by “playing” it as a chutes-and-ladders game.

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The use of the adjective “quixotic” is no accident; Quixote and Sancho Panza provided the inspiration for Rivette’s heroines. Like Cervantes’s novel, Le Pont du Nord can be taken as either a tragedy or, if not quite a comedy, then a beguiling, fantastical adventure. The ominous, Langian scenario grounds the film in a harsh external reality. But it’s the magical realist touches, and the quick throwaway gags (reminiscent of early Truffaut and Godard, during a period of the New Wave that Rivette mostly sat out), more than the looming bummer, that provide Le Pont du Nord’s most thrilling moments. The tone is elastic enough to permit a moment in which Marie and Baptiste, who have slept outside due to Marie’s phobia, notice a movie marquee for Les Grands Espaces (The Great Outdoors); with a shrug, they spend the night contently inside the theater. (It ruins the pun to note that this is actually William Wyler’s The Big Country, under its French title.) There’s also the wonderful moment where Baptiste “kills” her damaged, loudly whirring motorbike by cutting a hose with her switchblade, like a cowboy shooting his wounded horse – one of many ways in which Rivette, a film buff’s film buff, inscribes Le Pont du Nord as a disguised western.

Rivette is careful to provide a realistic explanation for Baptiste’s mania, a moment at which the “normal” Marie realizes with horror that her companion is a genuine schizophrenic. Yet the film doesn’t insist upon dispelling of all its myths and ruining the fun of its games. Le Pont du Nord has two climaxes – one a tragedy, the other an absurd, adorable showdown between Baptiste and a modernist metal dragon (which some sources describe as a children’s slide, although if so it’s a rather steep and terrifying one; and it also breathes fire) – and an enigmatic epilogue, an impromptu karate lesson that corrupts any strictly literal interpretation of the preceding events. The symbolic and structural function of this, one of my favorite movie endings, reappears in a better-known film: it is reinscribed as the explosive breakdance that ends Beau travail (2000),  directed by Claire Denis, who was an informal student of Rivette’s during the seventies.

I first viewed Le Pont du Nord on December 2, 2006, as part of an essential theatrical revival of Rivette’s films that toured the U.S. Also that day, I saw Love on the Ground (L’amour par terre, 1984), the director’s second-best film of the eighties – but in a shortened, two-hour version that is generally regarded as inferior to Rivette’s original, 176-minute cut. It was a pleasant surprise, then, when the bare-bones 2008 DVD of Love on the Ground, from a relatively minor UK label called Bluebell Films, turned out to contain the long version.

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If Le Pont du Nord can function as Rivette for beginners, Love on the Ground is a post-graduate exercise. Like Le Pont du Nord, it centers upon a female duo: a pair of actresses, in this case linked not by blood relation but by a shared foreignness, thanks to Rivette’s ingenious casting of two of the most prominent English-speaking actresses in Europe, Jane Birkin and Geraldine Chaplin. Love on the Ground’s other primary subject is the theater, a major Rivette trope that’s absent, in the literal sense, from Le Pont du Nord. Birkin and Chaplin first appear in an avant-garde (but terrible) performance of a play in a real flat, where the spectators follow the performers around from room to room. When the author (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) shows up he’s intrigued by both the approach and, more importantly, the actresses, whom he invites to rehearse in a new, unfinished play to be staged in his own country home. As the play develops, so do romances between the women, the playwright, and his friend Paul (André Dussolier), a magician and a key to the film’s relatively minor strand of overt fantasy. The amusing – or perhaps infuriating – result of the “theater at home” conceit, in which domestic and performance space overlap completely, is that it’s often impossible to be certain, at the beginning of each scene or at the end of any line, whether we’re witnessing a rehearsal or “real” life.

Unfortunately, as I watched the DVD, I couldn’t really remember what sections of the longer cut were missing from the print I saw seven years ago. The material of Love on the Ground feels a bit thin to fill three hours, although, as Rivette devotee Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out, the short version perversely retains most of the play-within-a-movie material and excises the richer relationship subplots. The extended length struck me as lending a better sense of balance and pace to the disorienting, circular story, and it also led me to think of Love on the Ground as something of a companion piece to Rivette’s best-known film, Céline and Julie Go Boating (Céline and Julie vont en bateau, 1974). Celine and Julie has a similar duration, and also positions its paired heroines within a cloistered mansion where the division between reality and fantasy is blurred.

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Duration is one of the things for which Rivette is famed. Céline and Julie and Love on the Ground are both a tad on the short side, actually. Out 1, made for but rejected by French television, is thirteen hours long. Noli me tangere (1971), the alternate “short” version of Out 1, is four hours long; L’amour fou (1969), another early masterpiece, is four and a half. The length issue is part of a widespread characterization of Rivette as too difficult or obscure to succeed in the kind of mainstream spotlight that, say, a series of Criterion Blu-rays would throw. (Rosenbaum, as far back as 1983, described the phenomenon of encountering lonely Rivette fanatics all over the world – exactly the sort of secret society that you’d find in a Rivette film, of course.)

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I always argue the point when it comes up, and I think I’m right: Nothing signed by Rivette is any more daunting than, for instance, any of the Godard films that have received U.S. distribution during the past thirty years. How could anyone not fall for Duelle and Noroît (both 1976), Rivette’s colorful, plucky diptych from the late seventies? Noroît stars Bernadette Lafont and Geraldine Chaplin as pirates, for heaven’s sake. Pirates! But I guess accessibility is relative. If you’re on a filmmaker’s wavelength, you can step into his universe with ease, and find it perplexing when others can’t. Rivette’s wry paranoia –  just like the somber alienation of Antonioni, who also remains something of a hard sell even to serious movie fans – mirror the way that I look at the world. I lap up every minute.

For the same reason that I carefully qualify my enthusiasm for Love on the Ground, Rosenbaum frets about the particular perils of recommending a lesser entry in Rivette’s unusually insular body of work, and perhaps alienating a potential convert. Sadly, that’s almost unavoidable in the case of Rivette, where the ready availability of the films tends to operate in an inverse ratio to their quality. In the U.S., the rights to most of his films have accrued to cost-over-quality labels like Koch Lorber, Facets, and especially the financially challenged New Yorker, which spent a decade promising a Céline and Julie Go Boating DVD and never delivered. Brits have things a bit better, with worthy BFI editions of Céline and Julie and Rivette’s astounding first feature, Paris Belongs to Us (Paris nous appartient, 1960), although I hesitate to recommend them since those two seem a bit likelier to get a Blu-ray upgrade than any of Rivette’s other films. But Le Pont du Nord is a must-have for any movie fan who’s multi-region capable (and it is, alas, one of Masters of Cinema’s few Region B-locked releases), and likely the most comprehensive edition of the film we’ll ever get. Except, maybe not, because it isn’t quite complete: the voluminous liner notes begin with an apology for MOC’s inability to license Paris s’en va (1981), a short film with the same actors that served as a sort of sketch for Le Pont du Nord. The curse of Rivette persists.