Archive for February, 2016

George Kennedy: The Disaster Movies

Posted in disaster movies, Hollywood (History), Movies, OBITS with tags , , , , , on February 29, 2016 by travsd

The word just came down that character actor George Kennedy has passed away. He was an amazingly busy actor, given that he started out as military advisor to the sit-com Sgt. Bilko. He was a career army man. But he also looked the type, and so he began to act on the show. Then he got cast in a zillion westerns in film and television. And many other sorts of movies. But the ones that will always matter the most to me are the disaster movies he anchored in the 1970s when he was at the peak of his career.

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The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

I think of this quintessential “guy picture” as a bit of foreshadowing for the crop of disaster films that would follow in the ’70s. A sandstorm knocks down a cargo plane in the middle of the Sahara desert. The survivors are compelled to make tough choices in order to escape, and time is running out. Like any good disaster film, it has a familiar gaggle of A and B list stars (James Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Dan Duryea, Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy) made unrecognizable by the grime on their faces. Much like The Poseidon Adventure which was to follow years later, it depicts a group concentrated on a single task propagated by a very difficult and dubious person which may or may not be the salvation (in this case Hardy Kruger as a suspicious German engineer who devises a plan to rebuild their plane out of salvaged pieces).

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Airport (1970)

The first film in the Airport series, based on Arthur Hailey’s novel, is much different from what followed, although it establishes many elements of the template. Most of the film (over an hour really) is just a soap opera about the trials of running an airport. Really, really boring stuff….politics, administrative hassles….who the hell cares? It’s an HOUR of exposition. Thematic relevance includes marital troubles…airport manager Burt Lancaster has trouble with his wife because he works long hours, not because he’s unfaithful, although he’s beginning to look at his beautiful female colleague and hooks up with her at the end. Pilot Dean Martin is a serial philanderer…he has knocked up a stewardess. He too chooses a younger, prettier, newer woman. There is some degree of a natural disaster here: a blizzard, although it feels quotidian…that aspect could have been amped way up into something far more scary. The actual “disaster” of this film turns out to be a mad bomber (Van Heflin) who is going to blow up the plane so his wife will get insurance money. It takes forever for anyone to discover it. Having found about it, it takes forever for anyone to do anything about it. Finally, the guy blows his bomb up…luckily he’s at the back of the plane so damage is minimal. There are a few scary minutes. Then it becomes about the tension of landing the plane…at the same airport the plane departed from, on the horrible, partially snow-cleared landing strips that Lancaster and Martin had been arguing about in the  beginning of the film, with George Kennedy’s airport trouble-shooterJoe Patroni finally saving the day. Not as many celebrity passengers as in the later films. Helen Hayes as an elderly stowaway (she’s supposed to be comical, but she’s dreadfully unfunny for a so-called “First Lady of the American stage”.) Vaudeville vet Benny Rubin is an extra.

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Earthquake (1974)

This is one of my favorite movies. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it. A dozen? I love everything about it. With each passing year it gains more charm as a product of its times. And it has the best, most all-encompassing disaster of the classic disaster film era, assisted by the technical innovation of Sensurround. It’s marred by some serious flaws, which only make me love it more. It’s way over-dependent on coincidence and implausible incident — ridiculously so. In a city of millions, the same ten or so characters keep bumping into each other.  Architect/ football player Charlton Heston cheats on wife Ava Gardner with Genevieve Bujold but is loyal to father-in-law Lorne Greene…meanwhile Blaxploitation/ Evel Knievel hybrid Richard Roundtree is trying to do his motorcycle jumps with his manager Gabe Dell, whose sister Victoria Principal is being harassed by grocery store/ national guard psycho Marjoe Gortner. And running through it all is LA beat cop George Kennedy (who would later play an identical role on tv as The Blue Knight). And Walter Matthau in a hilarious cameo role as a drunk. Then, the earthquake comes and shakes all these people out of these dramas like nuts out of the trees. And they keep encountering each other amidst unimaginable destruction and chaos.  Until Kennedy and Heston rescue a bunch of people trapped in a collapsed parking garage which is about to be engulfed in flood water. There’s more to be said on this film; rest assured I’ll be writing much more about it.

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Airport 1975

This one may be thought of as the archetypal Airport movie, though the 1970 original is considered the best of the series. Clearly the producers of 1975 set out to inject their franchise with a lot of dross borrowed from Earthquake and Towering Inferno. Heston reprises his Earthquake role as the middle aged philanderer. George Kennedy, also from Earthquake, returns in one of many increasingly implausible job promotions for his character Joe Patroni. The opening scenes of this movie are the best, as all the main characters are introduced and there is much hilarity revolving around the twin themes of sex and booze. Erik Estrada! Gloria Swanson! Myrna Loy! Sid Caesar! Jerry Stiller, Norman Fell and Conrad Janis! Helen Reddy as a singing nun! Larry Storch as a tv reporter!  Dana Andrews plays a guy who crashed into the airplane in his Piper Cub. That’s the bulk of the excitement. The balance of the movie is boring and insanely implausible. With the pilot Efrem Zimbalist Jr incapacitated, a stewardess with no flight experience (Karen Black) takes control of the plane. On a 747, with hundreds of passengers aboard, the odds are 100% that there would have been at least one person better qualified to take over: a professional or amateur pilot, a military veteran, a policeman, fireman or other rescue worker or anybody other than a weeping, apparently feeble-minded stewardess. Eventually they dangle Heston down on a rope from another jet and he climbs in a hole in the side of the plane to land it. Don’t laugh, it happens!

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Airport ’77

While every bit as implausible as the other Airport movies, this one at least has the Poseidon-esque virtue of focusing on a very few characters and stranding them. It also borrows from Poseidon the idea of putting them underwater, and entertaining us with a song (though, like the one in Towering Inferno and unlike the one in The Poseidon Adventure it did not become a hit). The song is unbelievably awful — a blind guy singing “Beauty is in the Eyes of the Beholder”. The premise is that it’s a special luxury plane featuring entire furnished rooms. It’s owned by millionaire Jimmy Stewart and is carrying many art treasures from his collection, along with Captain Jack Lemmon (trying his best to be macho), Darren McGaven, Christopher Lee, Lee Grant, Joseph Cotten, Olivia de Havilland etc . Bad guys try to steal the plane by putting everyone to sleep with gas but then they hit an oil derreck and crash into the sea and sink to the bottom…completely intact. They’re pretty much on their own (no radio contact) but George Kennedy’s Joe Patroni still manages to put his two cents in.

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The Concorde…Airport ’79

In this one, Kennedy’s Patroni character is elevated to the Captain of the endangered aircraft, putting him front and center for once instead of the periphery of the disaster. On the other hand…it’s the cheesiest of a very cheesy series. They try to generate interest by setting it on the trendy, relatively new supersonic plane, but that doeesn’t really add anything to the story. And the celebrities in this one are a new low….Charo! John Davidson! Jimmy “J.J.” Walker! Martha Raye! And what happens to them? Evil arms dealer Robert Wagner keeps trying to shoot the plane they’re on out of the sky with missiles, because reporter Susan Blakely is about to do an expose on his illegal arms sales. Ya know, like ya do.

At any rate, soon after this the Airplane! spoof movies made any more Airport movies impossible. But those were followed by the Naked Gun films …in which George Kennedy appeared.  Because there’s always a role for George Kennedy.

 

I’m at the Southern Sideshow Hootenanny This Week!

Posted in Dime Museum and Side Show, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Human Anomalies (Freaks), ME, My Shows with tags on February 29, 2016 by travsd

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The Southern Sideshow Hootenanny returns to New Orleans this week, and I’m honored and thrilled to have been asked to participate in a panel there this Friday, called “Sideshow, Variety, Vaudeville: History and Where We Are Now.” On the dais with me will be Baltimore’s legendary James Taylor, editor and publisher of Shocked and Amazed and co-founder of the American Dime Museum and Washington’s Palace of Wonders; AND Reggie Bugmuncher of Philadelphia’s Old City Sideshow and organizer of the Southern Sideshow Hootenanny. In addition to our panel, there is a dizzying array of way-out performance in store at this festival. I look forward to being startled and entertained!  Information and tickets at www.southernsideshowhootenanny.com. 

Alice Davenport: Leap Year Battle-Ax

Posted in Broadway, Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick, The Hall of Hams, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 29, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Alice Davenport (Alice Shepphard, 1864-1936). Born in New York, Alice went on the stage as a child and acted in stock and melodrama productions for decades. She was briefly married to stage and screen actor Harry Davenport, of a famous theatrical family (we’ll inevitably blog about them). Mr. Davenport is best known to modern audiences as Dr. Meade in Gone with the Wind. The couple had two daughters, Dorothy (who married Wallace Reid) and Ann.

Davenport went into films in 1911. She worked for the Nestor and Horsely companies before coming to Biograph in 1912 where she became part of Mack Sennett’s stock company in films like A Spanish Dilemma and Mabel’s Lovers. Sennett loved types, and Davenport was perfect for playing dowagers, mothers-in-law, and “battle-ax” wife characters. She stayed with him at Keystone, and she is a staple of many of Charlie Chaplin’s first films, and comedies starring Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Mack Swain and others. In 1919, she left Sennett to appear in Fox Sunshine comedies, although she does appear in Sennett’s Oh, Mabel Behave (1922). She has a bit part in the audience on Larry Semon’s The Show. Her regular film credits end in 1924. She returned to Broadway in 1929 and 1930, took one last role as an extra in the western The Dude Wrangler (her only talkie) and then retired. The prolific Davenport appeared in 140 films — many of them classics of silent comedy.

To learn more about comedy film history don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc. For still more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Happy Birthday, Tempest Storm!

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Burlesk, Women with tags , , , on February 29, 2016 by travsd
This is the tamest picture of her I could find. Believe me -- I looked and looked and looked

This is the tamest picture of her I could find. Believe me — I looked and looked and looked. Oh, how I looked!

Today is the birthday of burlesque legend Tempest Storm (Annie Banks, b. 1928). We’ve waited so long to do a post on her because her proper birthday doesn’t roll around too often — she’s a leap year baby. And when I say baby, I mean baby!!

Originally from rural Georgia, already a twice divorced child-bride at 20, she decided to put her 44DD-25-35 measurements and fiery red hair to good use by becoming a burlesque performer. She debuted as Tempest Storm at the El Rey Club in Oakland, California around 1950 and went on to become one of the most famous of all burlesque dancers, through her nightclub appearances, pin-ups, movies, celebrity hook-ups (she was married to singer Herb Jeffries and had affairs with Elvis and JFK), and national press in places like Life Magazine.

She danced professionally until she was 67 years old, and still comes out to perform on occasion. You can see her in Leslie Zemeckis’s excellent film Behind the Burly Q. She’s the last of the living legends!

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Forgotten Shows of My Nonage #91: Joys

Posted in Bob Hope, Comedy, Forgotten Shows of My Nonage, Marx Brothers, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 27, 2016 by travsd

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I first saw Groucho Marx on prime-time television, when he was still alive. This was years before I saw any Marx Brothers movie, but Groucho was a well known figure, and so when I saw him on this show, I perked up. The show was a 1976 Bob Hope special on NBC called (rather lamely) Joys. The unusual special was a sort of long-form sketch, mixing the popularity of Jaws with a whodunit murder mystery. As I recall, the premise was that a Great White Shark was killing all of the great comedians in Bob Hope’s swimming pool? Something like that. And six tv detectives were supposed to solve it: Mike Connors (Mannix), Angie Dickinson (Police Woman), David Janssen (Harry O.), Jim Hutton (Ellery Queen), Telly Savalas (Kojak), and Abe Vigoda (Barney Miller and Fish — that one was a stretch).

Further it boasted a cast of 50 comedians, or perhaps I should say “comedians”, presumably everyone going at the time….but remember: this is a Bob Hope special. The cast was spotty (ranging from the great to the grating), and typically square and surreal in the extreme, including (alphabetically): Don Adams, Jack Albertson, Marty Allen, Steve Allen, Desi Arnaz, Billy Barty (we’ll get back to him), Milton Berle, Foster Brooks, George Burns, Red Buttons, John Byner, Glenn Campbell, Jack Carter, Charo, Jerry Colonna, Scatman Crothers, Bill Dana, Phyllis Diller, Jamie Farr, George Gobel, Arte Johnson, Alan King, Don Knotts, Fred MacMurray, Dean Martin, Jan Murray, Wayne Newton, Vincent Price, Freddie Prinze, Don Rickles, Harry Ritz, Phil Silvers, Larry Storch, and Johnny Carson (who turned out to be the culprit — spoiler alert!). By the end there is a Holocaust-like pile of dead comedians in the swimming pool, and THAT disturbing image doesn’t soon leave you. It’s like a tv critic’s fantasy. Oh, yes — Rona Barrett is in it too.

My introduction to Groucho was quite sad. He had had several strokes by this point (he was just a few months away from death) and it was very difficult to understand his speech. He sat in a chair the entire time, sort of slurring his scripted lines, with canned laughter to smooth things over. Even more ignominiously, little person Billy Barty was cast as some of doppelganger to Groucho, wearing a pair of Groucho glasses and wiggling his cigar, like some sort of imp or homunculus who could run around causing the mischief that Groucho otherwise would.

I never missed any variety show, and this one never left my memory, mostly on the strength of it being my first exposure to the legendary Groucho and the sheer volume of stars. Imagine my excitement when I saw the other day that Gilbert Gottfried and Frank Santopadre had devoted a podcast to this show. And THEN imagine my DISAPPOINTMENT when I played the podcast and the show consisted of them mentioning that they heard from Steve Stoliar about this show, and gosh, they wondered what it was. How is that a show? They lost me after about five minutes. This is the age of the internet. Why do a show about something which you haven’t investigated yet but sounds quite fascinating? I may go back and listen to the rest of the show though. It’s about Irwin Allen, and I’m a huge Irwin Allen fan, as readers of this blog know from the many posts we’ve written about him. But that fact is probably not likely to make me any more a friendly listener than I was as regards the Joys non-show.

Bert Lytell

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Bert Lytell (1885-1954).

Lyell was a thespian of stage and screen, whose Broadway career lasted from 1902 to 1946, and whose film career from 1917 to 1953. A notable Broadway show was A Mix-Up (1914-1915) with Marie Dressler. On film, he was the screen’s original “Lone Wolf” as well as the screen’s original “Boston Blackie”, and appeared in such films as Alias Jimmy Valentine (1920) and Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925). The coming of sound hurt his film career badly, although he did make the occasional film and tv appearance through the early ’50s.

But in vaudeville for many, many years he toured the big time with a one-act called The Valiant, that later became part of the traditional community theatre repertoire. He played The Palace with this act more than once. His scene partner at one point was Mary Hay. From 1947 through 1952 he was Shepherd of the Lamb’s Club.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Trav S.D.’s Guide to the “Ma and Pa Kettle” Films

Posted in AMERICANA, Comedy, Crackers, Hollywood (History) with tags , , , , , on February 24, 2016 by travsd

This being the birthday of the great Marjorie Main, we thought we’d take the opportunity to publish a little guide to the comedy film series she starred in with Percy Kilbride, Ma and Pa Kettle. This is that interesting period in Hollywood (mostly the 1940s) when television had yet to conquer the American living room and yet (thanks to radio) the tv sit-com was desperately striving to be born. I’ll be blogging more about this period in future — there were many such B movie comedy series at the time.

The premise is that the Kettles are a poor but hilarious hillbilly couple with too many children to count (it’s essentially an elaboration on “The Little Old Woman Who Lives in a Shoe.” Both Kilbride and Main were essentially playing types they often played in other films. Kilbride’s “Pa” was lazy, slow moving, and droll. Ma was hard-working, and always fussing and yelling. Like the later Beverly Hillbillies a lot of humor is derived from culture clash: the Kettles will luck into some money or some other good fortune and suddenly be thrust up against the modern world.

A strange quirk of the series is that it is off-type in one way. Instead of being set in the traditional hillbilly country of the Smokies or the Ozarks, it takes place in Washington State. This was the setting of the original novel on which the series was based The Egg and I (1945) by Betty MacDonald. 

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The Egg and I (1947)

The Kettles are not the stars of The Egg and I, but they stole the show and that’s how they got their own spin-off series. The Egg and I is one of those tedious “darnedest house ever” comedies, where a couple of city folk (Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert) decide to try their hand at chicken farming. How do you think it works out? The hilarious Kettles are their neighbors.

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Ma and Pa Kettle (1949)

As he had in The Egg and I, Richard Long plays the Kettle’s fancy son who went off to college. He also meets and falls in love with a lady reporter – she becomes his wife in the series. Much class-based conflict, an important anchor for both the comedy and the drama. Pa Kettle wins a contest by devising an advertising slogan for a brand of tobacco. The prize is a fancy new house . Culture clash! Tv interviews! Meddlesome town women conspire to unseat Pa by saying he stole the idea for the slogan. It all comes crashing down. Then Pa wins another house in another contest.

For some reason, though it is set in contemporary America, the series features “How, Ugh” Indians, which is not just politically incorrect but factually incorrect. And there is a funny running gag where Pa makes the radio work by tapping the floor with his rocking chair.

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Ma and Pa Kettle Go To Town (1950)

The Kettles are still ensconced in a fancy, modern new house.  They win a trip to New York.   A gangster gets a flat tire and stays at their place and volunteers to babysit so he can hide out (then the kids make life hell for the gangster). Meanwhile Ma and Pa Kettle take their trip to the Big Apple unwittingly carrying the gangster’s loot. Jim Backus is in it as a crook. The suitcase with the loot is accidentally taken by a millionaire, so the Kettles keep buying replacements, which in turn keep getting stolen. Later they attend a fancy party at the millionaire’s home. Pa leads a square dance. The son (Long) and his wife live in New York and are part of the plot. A subplot concerns Long’ss efforts to raise money for a chick incubator he has invented.

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Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm (1951)

In this one , the son (Long) and his wife come back to stay with the Kettles because she is going to have a baby. (There is a funny bit where, through a misunderstanding Pa thinks Ma is the one who has had the baby). The rich in-laws show up. The wife puts on airs, and chases the family out – they go back to the farm and leave their modern house to the in-laws.  The father in law (Ray Collins) is down to earth however. A former mining engineer, he discovers that there is uranium on the Kettle property. Some schemers briefly swindle them out of the property but then it turns out there’s no uranium ore…it’s just radioactive dust on the son’s old army uniform from atomic tests! Meanwhile the couple breaks up. First their friend Billy Reed the peddler tries to steal the baby, but he steals the wrong one Then the daughter and her mother head back east—but the kettles head them off in a big chase sequence and they reconcile.

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Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair (1952)

Ma and Pa Kettle go to the county fair, where they try to win contests to put their daughter through college. That’s it!

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Ma and Pa Kettle on Vacation (1953)

This one mixes elements of Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town and Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm. Their millionaire in-laws take them on a trip to Gay Paree. Meanwhile they are carrying a secret envelope that some spies want!

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Ma and Pa Kettle at Home (1954):

The Kettle’s young son wins an essay contest describing life on the farm. Unfortunately the picture it paints is dishonest. So they must go back to their farm and pretend it is as idyllic and efficient as his description, as the contest judge, a publisher (Alan Mowbry) is coming west to see for himself. Very sit commy. Lots of slapstick business with a stand-in for Main, and undercranking. The publisher is an irritable hypochondriac. Everything goes wrong. Pa has jerry-rigged the whole place. Everything falls apart. Their most mischievous kid (Richard Eyer—a child star, recognizable from many movies of the time) plays practical jokes. The inevitable Mary Wickes plays the local librarian.

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Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki (1955)

This was Percy Kilbride’s last performance as Pa Kettle and perhaps you can see why. He hated being typecast as rural characters to begin with. And with this one, the franchise has perhaps jumped the shark, stretched even farther than they were originally stretching for the sake of novelty. The Kettles go to Hawaii to help relatives with their pineapple ranch. It’s funny, because, well, look at that poster. But think how great it would hgave been if Elvis Presley had joined them in the cast.

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The Kettles in the Ozarks (1956)

Kudoes to them for keeping the franchise going without Kilbride! I would have thought it unthinkable! At any rate, in this one the Kettles go to help Pa’s brother (Arthur Hunnicutt) with his Ozarks farm (haven’t they belonged in the Ozarks all along?) While there, they get mixed up with moonshiners! Una Merkel is in the cast.

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The Kettles on Old McDonald’s Farm (1957)

The last in the franchise. Believe it or not it was one of the top grossing films of 1957! Here they return to the original set-up, with Parker Fennelly playing Pa. I’ve not yet seen this one, but the plot is one of the most depressing things I’ve ever heard: “Ma and Pa help out Brad Johnson to turn his girlfriend Sally into a good farm wife”. Why don’t you just take that double barreled shotgun and shoot me, Kettles?

The presence of Claude Akins in the cast is to me a kind of clue about why the series ended here. We are getting awfully close to modern times. As I said above, Elvis Presley was a movie star by now. This was a hoary brand of comedy to begin (though I happen to love it) but now they were repeating themselves. But that wouldn’t stop The Beverly Hillbillies from being a monster hit on television just a few years later.

 

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