Archive for February, 2017

Zero Mostel: The High Brow’s Low Brow

Posted in Broadway, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Movies with tags , , , , , , , , on February 28, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the great Zero Mostel (1915-1977).

It would be par for the course that such an eccentric actor and performer as Mostel would also have a highly idiosyncratic career in the bargain. He is best known his hot streak in the 1960s, encompassing the original Broadway production and film versions of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, and the original film version of Mel Brooks The Producers. These iconic star turns, combined with one of his last roles, as a blacklisted comedian in The Front (1976) helped, I think, to cement a false if welcome image of Mostel as the traditional Jewish-American show biz creature, perhaps someone who had been in vaudeville and burlesque, and then later worked as a Catskills comedian. As it happened, Mostel had the right background for that: Jewish immigrant parents, and a childhood in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. And he was just that kind of a broad, physical comedian, with such a sure-fire repertoire of schtick, that one could be forgiven for thinking he had developed in those time honored schools of show biz. He certainly would have thrived there, with his uninhibited, scenery-chewing mania, his hilarious comic mask with those flashing, popping eyes, and his populist, earthy appeal.

But if you look at his birth year, he was just a little bit too young for vaudeville and burlesque. Technically, he could have performed there as a child or teenager, but as it happens, he didn’t. A precocious, intellectual child, he drifted into show business in the most unlikely way possible — as an art instructor. An accomplished painter himself, he gave gallery talks at New York City museums as part of a New Deal works program in the mid to late 1930s. He was so funny and entertaining, he began to be hired for private parties and other functions. This led to performances at cabarets and night clubs. By the early 40s, he was getting roles on Broadway and in Hollywood films (Dubarry Was a Lady).

Service in the army during World War II, and anti-Communist blacklisting in the early to mid ’50s were speed bumps in his career. A local tv show with Joey Faye in 1948 may have been the closest he ever got to real burlesque. In reality he was drawn to high-brow theatrical roles and Absurdism, including Brecht (The Good Woman of Setzuan on Broadway, 1957), Joyce (Ulysses in Nighttown, off-Broadway 1957-58, Broadway 1974), Beckett (Waiting for Godot, television, 1961), and Ionesco (Rhinoceros, Broadway, 1961, and film, 1974). These critically acclaimed turns helped catapult him into the comic tour de forces he is best known for.

It goes without saying to anyone familiar with his work that Mostel was a bundle of insane, animated energy, a performer of genius, but one of a particular type. He shone best as the untrammeled star of whatever he appeared in. But parts for his special talents — a mercurial Jewish zany in his late 50s — don’t come along every day. Many of his roles in the ’70s tended to hide his light under a bushel, shoehorning him into films in more conventional character parts. He died of an aortic aneurysm following a crash diet at the relatively young age of 62.

For more on slapstick comedy 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 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.

5 “Lost Films” I Can Live Without Seeing

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , on February 26, 2017 by travsd

Well, this is more of a headline that a blogpost, I’m afraid. It seemed like a nice heretical stunt until I tried to draw up the list. I started with ten, and then realized I’d better make it five, and then had a hard time filling the five. Like you, no doubt, I rate any loss a tragedy and I have a lot of curiosity. There is a long list of silent films and early talkies and director’s cuts that I am extremely bummed about. These are just a few that I don’t lose any sleep over.

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Greed  director’s cut (1924)

Eric Von Stroheim’s original cut of his masterpiece was reportedly a gazillion hours long: eight? Then six? Then five? Then three? Producers kept asking for shorter versions until it was down to 2 hours, 2o minutes. And then unfortunately a janitor destroyed the cut footage. There’s a “restored” version that employs stills that’s about four hours. Some of the 12 people who saw the complete version hailed it as the greatest movie ever made. But the edited one remains near the top of the list anyway. Given that A) I’ve seen the general release edit and think it is a great masterpiece, and B) the average silent feature is about ONE hour long, I’m really content to imagine what the eight hours consisted of without having to sit through them. Eight hours is a long-ass silent movie.

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The Seagull or A Woman of the Sea (1926)

The only reason Edna Purviance was ever in films was that Chaplin’s scouts had spotted her in a cafe and he decided to try her out. Purviance was a secretary with no ambitions to become an actress. Still, from 1915 through 1923 she was Chaplin’s leading lady, and a memorable and important part of his classic pictures. After A Woman of Paris (1923), Chaplin’s ardor cooled. Purviance had long since ceased to be his paramour offscreen, and in his view she had gotten to be too mature for what he required in a leading lady onscreen. To ease her transition to Life After Chaplin, he commissioned Josef Von Sternberg to direct her in this feature, sometimes called The Seagull, or Seagulls or A Woman of the Sea. When Chaplin saw the rushes, her performance was apparently so embarrassing that he destroyed all of the footage. It must be noted that Chaplin directed by telling the actor every move to make, which often enabled him to work with neophytes, children or amateurs. Without Chaplin’s painstaking directorial style as a guide, Purviance was probably fairly lost. Yet she was charming in Chaplin’s movies. I have no morbid desire to see her limitations exposed.

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London After Midnight (1927)

Due to Lon Chaney’s iconic make-up this Tod Browning horror film used to rate high on my list of wanna-see lost films, and it remains there for many people. But I’ve now seen a reconstructed version made up of production stills, and was disappointed to learn that it has the exact same plot as the director’s later Mark of the Vampire (1935). It’s really a silly plot. But many of Browning’s films have extravagant, implausible stories. So, I’m not glad precisely that I can’t see the complete London After Midnight. I’m just kind of OK with it!

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The Magnificent Ambersons director’s cut (1942)

RKO messed with Orson Welles’ planned edit of his second feature when he was down in South America shooting It’s All True. Not only did the studio switch scenes around and cut it differently, but they tacked on a silly ending which Welles’ didn’t even shoot. But I am completely okay with that. I love the existing version of the film. Maybe Welles’ version would have been better, but maybe not. He did seem to have obscurantist, baroque instincts when it came to editing, which are what they are. It makes it rewarding to watch his films many times, as many of us love to do. But the first viewing of nearly all of his films tend to be confusing, and producers and audiences can be forgiven for not warming up to that. I’m totally okay with the existing version of Ambersons. It is by no means a given that Welles’ version would have been objectively “better”.

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Him (1974)

A gay pornographic film about Jesus. Yeah, no, I don’t ever need to see this.

Last Night’s Town Hall in Brooklyn

Posted in BROOKLYN, CULTURE & POLITICS with tags , , , , on February 23, 2017 by travsd

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In recent days we’ve been seeing footage of Town Hall meetings across the country as congresspeople meet with their constituents to hear what they have to say about our first month of President 45. Most of the clips we’ve been seeing have been of angry people yelling at Republicans, over such things as cancelling Obamacare without having the promised replacement system ready to go. Last night, my congressperson, Representative Yvette Clarke, held her own meeting at the Union Temple in Brooklyn just a short walk from my house.

I gather it was a huge success. Arriving at the announced start time I was amazed to see that the line to get in stretched all the way around the block. And when I say “all the way around”, that’s just what I mean. 360 degrees. The back of the line reached almost to the front. Several hundred people (including me) were turned away. But in a democracy, that many people taking an interest is a good problem to have. My good friend Gabriele Schafer got there good and early though and here is what she reports:

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Panelists included representatives of Planned Parenthood New York, the NYCLU, SUNY Downstate Medical School, and the NYS Department of Health, as well as experts on climate change and civil rights/immigration law. On the environment, presenters cited how this kind of poll is consistent with the public’s attitude. On healthcare, the audience heard that 40+% of women in NY don’t get any prenatal care; but New York has and will continue to have “Obamacare”. SUNY Downstate Medical say that they provide healthcare to ALL comers. An NYCLU lawyer and a local immigration lawyer said that under the law you do not have to show nor carry ID; and that you can remain silent. The authorities may hold you and try to intimidate you but to remain silent may be considered a legitimate form of protest.
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In her own presentation, Clarke called Kellyanne Conway “Kellyanne ConArtist” to big cheers. Her mentions of Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller and Rudy Giuliani all garnered loud boos. The biggest cheer and standing ovation she got was when she used the term “act up”…. “I’m going to act up!” Clarke she said that it is vital that the public keep doing everything they can to resist and let their feelings known to their electeds, even though they may think it does no good, especially in blue districts. Elected officials need the cover, they need the motivation, and they need to be able to point to the discontent and groundswell behind them. More on last night’s event is here. 

 

(Not My) President Day in NYC

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, Protests with tags , , , , on February 20, 2017 by travsd

There’s only one way to spend Presidents Day in the age of Drumpf — that’s by rejecting the present office holder utterly and vociferously, and refusing to include him in any honors extended to his august precedessors.  Accordingly, tens of thousands of protesters gathered on Central Park West and Columbus Circle to make their point outside Trump Tower. Your correspondent was among them.

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I wore the swell shirt you see above, created by my old friend Matt Cohen. Now I know for certain that I am one of the 65,844,954 who voted for HRC. I am less certain that I one of the actual ones represented in the difference between her total number of popular votes and Trump’s puny, pathetic lesser total. Still, this handsome article was the appropriate shirt for today’s outing, and if you want one of your own you can get it here.

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Minutes after arriving I looked back and all these people had filled in behind me.

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I do not endorse siccing a dog on Donald Trump. However I would be delighted to watch one tear apart his effigy.

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These are the folks ahead of me in the march. We entered Central Park West at 68th Street, and worked our way south toward Trump Tower

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Trump Tower within sight

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At this stage I left the enclosure, thinking I’d never make it all the way up to the main demonstration, which was a block south at the Columbus Circle corner of Central Park, across the street from Trump Tower.

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At this stage I had actually left the official demonstration. Notice the difference?

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This gave me great joy. Departing protesters showed their disrespect for our pretend President by depositing their protest litter in front of the sign advertising his architectural phallus substitute

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When I turned the corner I learned to my great happiness, that there was easy access to the main demonstration from the Columbus Circle side. (Which no one back at the main march knew — we were all instructed to enter at W. 68th). At any rate, I zipped over for a few minutes to see what I could see, and yell at a Trump building for a few minutes.

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These were the only bona fide anarchists I saw the whole time. Most of the folks I saw at the rally looked like families, senior citizens, students, young couples, and the like. At any rate, I imagine this sign far exceeds the radicalism of 99% of the people there. Presidents can be plenty infuriating, but most of us are quite fond of our Constitutional system. In fact, one of our major problems with the present President is the contempt he shows for that system.

Look! The protest followed me home!

Look! The protest followed me home!

Today, I Am a Muslim Too (Pix from Today’s Rally)

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, Protests with tags , , , , on February 19, 2017 by travsd

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Today was the “Day of Remembrance”, the 75th anniversary of the day FDR signed an executive order that resulted in the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during WWII. I’m thinking it was no coincidence that this day was selected for the solidarity rally in NYC called “Today I Am a Muslim Too”. Trump’s Muslim ban and the greater anti-Muslim hysteria by him and his followers is a completely parallel phenomenon: an entire American minority group being punished, unconstitutionally and prejudiciously, for…nothing really. For being who they are rather than anything they, as individuals, did.

The location of the event seemed significant, too, to me, anyway. For it was held in Times Square, the site of a failed bombing attempt in 2010 by a Pakistani-American named Faisal Shahzad. It’s a point of pride with us New Yorkers to remain true to our mission as the Gateway to America, in spite of all the tests. We are the ones on the front lines (domestically, anyway) in the War on Terror. We are the ones who have been hit, repeatedly and hard (and sometimes ineptly) by actual terrorist attacks. Yet it’s y’all out in East Bumfuck who are the ones who are losing your shit, giving into fear, relinquishing everything America stands for in the name of “security”. Ain’t no Muslims coming to blow up your gas station, Gomer! Although you might want to keep a real good eye on your meth-head cousin in the cargo pants who’s heading for the mall right now. Here in New York we have the Statue of Liberty to keep us honest, and no one’s going to make us out a liar. All are welcome here. One Pakistani guy tried to bomb Times Square. So what? I’ve probably crossed paths with 1,000 other Pakistanis in my time here. And you know what? They DIDN’T!  Not punishing people and depriving them of their rights based on who they are is America 101!

Around 10,000 people came out to the event today, which was organized by Russell Simmons, Imam Shamsi Ali, Rabbi Marc Schneier, Daisy Khan, Linda Sarsour, and others. It was launched by a performance of the National Anthem, and followed by multi-denominational prayers (Christian and Jewish in addition to Muslim), and — as this was a religious solidarity event — I saw lots and lots of church groups. Children and old people. Veterans. Know what I mean? SEE THE PHOTOS BELOW. So when the orange schmuck in the White House and all his Cro-Magnon followers go on about how an event like this “unpatriotic” and it’s a bunch of violent jihadis who want to destroy America, don’t listen to them. Better yet, respond in New York-ese: tell them go to fuck themselves.

The speakers platform was on the other side of this flag. The event was on the other side. I only got there about 15 minutes after the announced start time, and I had to stand so far back I couldn't hear half of the speakers.

The speakers platform was on the other side of this flag. The event was on the other side. I only got there about 15 minutes after the announced start time, and I had to stand so far back I couldn’t hear half of the speakers.

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This is looking behind me, to the north. When I got there, no one was behind me. Ten minutes later I looked back and all these were there.

 

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This one was touching; hard to read because the sunlight is shining through: “I love my Muslim Family and Friends”.

 

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I couldnt get far enough back to get the Ms on either side! The girls were spelling out M-U-S-L-I-M, of course

I couldnt get far enough back to get the Ms on either side! The girls were spelling out M-U-S-L-I-M, of course

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Boy, was this guy in the wrong place

Boy, was this guy in the wrong place

 

My friend Gabriele Schafer was also there. Her pix better capture the scale of it, I think:

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Onward! Tomorrow is Not My Presidents Day and another huge protest planned outside Trump Tower.

The Many Roles of Melvin Allan, I Mean, Allan Melvin

Posted in Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of tv character actor and voice-over artist Allan Melvin (1923-2008). Don’t shout out just yet where you know him from — the odds are quite good that you know him from more than you are remembering where you know him from.

After attending Columbia University and fighting in World War Two, Melvin won first place on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts (he was skilled at impressions, among other things.) His break was a role in the original Broadway production of Stalag 17 (1951-1952), which lead to his getting cast as Henshaw on Sgt. Bilko (1955-1959) with Phil Silvers:

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Then he was the voice of Sgt. Snorkle on the short-lived 1963 Beetle Bailey cartoon show (and wrote two episodes!):

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He provided the voice of Magilla Gorilla on various Hanna-Barbera cartoon shows from 1963 through 1994. Can you match the voice with the visage?

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Then he found himself back on another service comedy, as a semi-regular on Gomer Pyle USMC (1964-1969), playing Charlie Hacker, Sgt. Carter’s rival:

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In 1969 he provided the voice of Drooper (the lion) on The Banana Splits:

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Next he was Sam the Butcher on The Brady Bunch (1969-1974), which I’ll just bet is his best known character nowadays:

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And also he was Barney Hefner on All in the Family (1971-1979) and Archie Bunker’s Place (1979-1983).

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This must be some kind of record for being a series regular, right? (I ask rhetorically, I’m uninterested in learning the factual truth about who the record holder might be). And we haven’t even gotten to all the shows on which he (or his voice) did frequent guest shots (The Flintstones, The Andy Griffith Show, Love American Style), and dozens more. And all the tv commercials.

He just had the perfect face and voice — “ordinary” is what they used to call it, but that’s wrong, because actually his persona was far more memorable than so many so-called “leading man” types.  If you’re bland and forgettable, isn’t that ordinary? Anyway, you know his face and voice. You should know his name: Melvin Allan — I mean, Allan Melvin.

Why You MUST See “Paradise Alley”

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , on February 18, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of stage and screen Renaissance man Hugo Haas (1901-1968). Haas is an intriguing cinematic figure whom I am only just now discovering for myself, and the process is giving me great joy.

Of German-Jewish parentage he was born in the city of Brno, the capital of Moravia, which was part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire at the time of his birth, but was incorporated into the new nation of Czechoslovakia after the First World War. Haas became a star of Prague’s National Theatre, and by the 1920s he became a popular film actor as well. In the mid-30s he expanded his reach, also become a successful film director. His biggest hit while still based in his native country was Skeleton on Horseback (1937) an adaptation of a play by Karel Capek, best known to many of our readers no doubt as the author of R.U.R. 

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Like so many others, Haas was displaced by the Nazi takeover of Czechoslavakia (1938-1939). It took several years for him to make his way to Hollywood, where he begins to show up as a character actor by 1944. He was successful as such for several years, in films like The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947), The Fighting Kentuckian (1949) and King Solomon’s Mine (1950).

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But unlike many refugee film directors from France and Germany whom one might rate as his peers, Haas was unable to get a foothold with the major studios as a director. Nothing daunted, at a time when such risk-taking was rare, he poured his income from acting into his own independent films which he wrote, directed, produced and starred in himself, a series of seedy, gritty, sensationalist noir melodramas with titles like Pickup (1951), One Girl’s Confession (1953), and Bait (1954). The films were not highly-rated by the critics, but netted enough profit to keep him going as long as demand for B movies remained.

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By 1959, That B movie market had dried up, and he seemed to be at the end of the line. There seems to be some awareness of that in his last film Paradise Alley (completed 1959, released 1962). Much like Shakespeare’s The Tempest, it is a highly self-reflexive work, a kind of valedictory statement. And it has the kind of mix of intellectual pretension and seedy poverty row folk-art non sequitur that graces such wide-ranging films as Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin (1955), Roger Corman’s Bucket of Blood (1959), and Utopia (1951) starring Laurel and Hardy.

Haas plays a once-famous German silent-film director named Mr. Agnus (Latin for “Lamb”, i.e. Christ), who moves into a slum neighborhood which evokes everything from Elmer Rice’s Street Scene to Dead End to the then-current West Side Story. Like the latter, it has a Romeo and Juliet thing going, with the star-crossed lovers played by former Miss Universe Carol Morris and Don Sullivan, star of such epics as The Giant Gila Monster (1959) and Teenage Zombies (1959). The neighborhood is a seething cauldron of sex, hatred and violence. A gang of not-so-juvenile delinquents, all of whom seem to be about 47 years old, run around; one of them is played by Duke Mitchell, who’d co-starred in Bela Lugosi meets a Brooklyn Gorilla seven years earlier, but is ignominiously overshadowed by bigger stars in this film.

Amazingly, Paradise Alley does have a large number of well-known names in the cast, although at the time the film was made, most of them were either former stars or would only later come to have cults of fans in retrospect. And this really fuels the down-at-the-heels Hollywood magic of this film in a manner that recalls Sunset Boulevard. Morris’s parents are played by comedian Billy Gilbert and former silent star Corinne Griffith. Sullivan’s mother (and Gilbert’s enemy) is played by none other than Margaret Hamilton. Familiar character actress Almira Sessions is the landlady. Noir sexpot Marie Windsor is the provocative burlesque dancer just across the way. Silent comedian Chester Conklin, in one of his last roles, plays a retired Hollywood camera man; character actor Pat Goldin, best known from Jiggs and Maggie comedies, plays another retired film professional.

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These last two provide the engine for the film’s rather slight action. Haas (his name is a stand-in for Jesus, recall) gets it into his head to bring peace to the slums by pretending to make a film with Conklin and Goldin, casting everyone in the neighborhood, and making them say nice things to each other. (An oddly Catholic impulse I felt, in its formal ritualism leading to grace, though Haas was Jewish).  Further, there is no film in the camera, giving the entire charade an existential slant not unlike we get in the plays of Jean Genet.

In the end, a real Hollywood film producer played by William Schallert gets wind of the project, and decides to make a real film, and that’s where we get into some heady territory. Not only has peace been achieved, but the poor people of the ‘hood will now be on the payroll merely for existing. Is this communism? Utopia? Heaven? Then it gets trippier, when much like the Monkees movie Head, the last few moments of the film become a replay of the film’s first few moments, including theme song and credits: the film is a film of a film of a film of a film in an endless feedback loop.

I don’t want to oversell the film’s technical brilliance. Its aspirations are great, but so are its limitations. The dialogue is frequently bad, almost Ed Wood level in its inexplicable refusal to move the plot forward. Haas’s lines are often simply strange and clunky; after all English was Haas’s third language (at least). Directorially, the pace is often slow, stilted, and full of dead air, with no sense of urgency or narrative momentum. Though the cast is well known, most of them were character actors accustomed only to small parts. Ironically Paradise Alley may have given them the largest, most dramatically challenging roles of their careers, and many of them seem stretched beyond their abilities. And then there’s the fact that Haas seems incapable of refraining from weird, inappropriately sexual jokes and moments, including a gratuitous near-rape scene in the film’s opening minutes. Also I’m not sure, I have to watch it again, but I think one of the female characters is inexplicably played by a man in drag. All of this goes to explain why the film wasn’t released for nearly three years after it was made, and why it continues to be so rare today.

But it is now one of my favorite films. Paradise Alley somehow manages to incorporate nearly everything I love in the world into an exceedingly strange and cosmic fruit salad. Watch it here. 

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