Archive for the CAMP Category

On the Great Ghost Shows of Dr. Silkini

Posted in CAMP, Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies with tags , , , , , , , on June 28, 2017 by travsd

June 28 is the birth date of one John Edward Kessler, a.k.a. Jack Baker, a.k.a., Dr. Silkini (1914-1980). If you are easily frightened I urge you to turn back now!!!

He was born Kessler but adopted by the parents of one Wyman Baker, who was to become his producing partner. In 1933, the Baker brothers created  “Dr. Silkini’s Spiritualistic Séance and Ghost Show, later known as the “Asylum of Horrors” and by many other names. Yes, the Baker brothers are essentially the innovators who brought us the midnight spook show. What they did was to mash-up two previously separate vaudeville disciplines: supernaturally charged magic acts like those of Blackstone and El-Wyn…and fast-paced blackout sketch comedy like that of Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin. It’s like chocolate and peanut butter makin’ a Reese’s, right? This historic moment may very well represent the birth of horror camp!

Silkini’s shows were spooky and creepy and featured genuine illusions, but were also full of jokes and skits and hokum like phony hypnotist acts and people in monster costumes and skeletons and ghosts on fishing line. As the second wave of Universal Horror waxed big in the early 1940s, film screenings became the climax to the show.  The Asylum of Horror toured from city to city with hoopla and advance publicity and gimmicks like temporary graveyards with markers announcing the show. Dozens of competitors sprang up, freely stealing Baker’s ideas and material.  Things that would probably not exist without Silkini include the showmanship of William Castle, The Rocky Horror Show, AIP horror comedies, and funny tv horror hosts like Vampira, Svengoolie and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

By the mid 60s, Baker and his show, which had once been incredibly lucrative, had run out of steam. He died in 1980. At that point his apprentice Steven J. Conners purchased the rights and all the sets and illusions to the show, and revived it, presenting it throughout the 1980, mostly in the L.A. area. He is currently working on a biography of Dr. Silkini, which will be published
by 1878 Press and is scheduled to be released in time for Halloween!

Irwin Allen: Mover of Worlds

Posted in CAMP, disaster movies, Hollywood (History), Impresarios, Movies, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2017 by travsd

It’s shocking to me to realize that I haven’t done a proper tribute to visionary producer/ director Irwin Allen (1916-1991) prior to now. Allen’s film and television productions dominated my entire childhood, influenced and inspired the hell out of me. Though he has been virtually synonymous with the genre he brought into being, the disaster movie, since the 1970s, he actually made his mark in many genres, across both film and tv, making his mark in science fiction/ fantasy, and nature documentaries, and he even played a significant role in the later career of the Marx Brothers. He is at the center of so much that I love. He was an old school impresario, the principal heir to Cecil B. DeMille, and yet there are undeniable similarities to William Castle, Roger Corman, and even Ed Wood. Somehow he was both Big Budget and Low Budget, sometimes at the same time.

Allen’s origins are surprising, yet they make a great deal of sense. Originally, he went to City College, then transferred to the Columbia School of Journalism. Though he had to drop out due to financial difficulties (it was the Great Depression) his education allowed him to get a job editing a magazine in Los Angeles in the late 30s. This led to his making his mark in celebrity journalism, a natural springboard for the remainder of his career — stars would always be central to his oeuvre. From 1941 through 1952 he produced The Irwin Allen Show on local Hollywood radio, later renamed Hollywood Merry-Go-Round. He also had a syndicated newspaper column under the latter name, as well as a television edition, which ran from 1949 through 1951, with no less than Steve Allen as the announcer. This got him in on the ground floor of the new medium. He also ran an advertising agency, a very useful muscle for the career on which he was about to embark. He became an expert at assembling all the necessary pieces to make deals happen: signing authors, stars, and properties that could attract backers.

To break into movies he served a brief apprenticeship with a gent named Irving Cummings, first with a 1950 noir thriller called Where Danger Lives with Robert Mitchum, Claude Rains, and Faith Domergue. But next comes the Marx Brothers connection! For Allen was involved in Groucho’s last two starring vehicles and the last film to contain all three Marx Brothers. He co-produced Double Dynamite (1951) and A Girl in Every Port (1952) with Cummings. And he produced The Story of Mankind (1957), featuring Groucho, Harpo and Chico, and dozens of other stars — we’ll return to that one in a second.

Note the killer eel

But first — nature documentaries?! Yes, nature documentaries. Believe it or not, he won an Oscar for his 1952 adaptation of Rachel Carson’s book The Sea Around Us. In 1956, he made The Animal World. But even in these purportedly educational films, Allen’s hacky instincts were already coming to the fore. Both films relied extensively on stock footage (hence the comparison to Ed Wood above). The Sea Around Us was full of sensationalism, including an extended bloody sequence of whales being slaughtered. And The Animal World featured a nine minute stop-motion dinosaur section animated by Ray Harryhausen. But something else is notable. The Sea Around Us establishes Allen’s fascination with the power and majesty and terror of the oceans and nature in general, a theme he would return to again and again.

We next come to the brief phase when Allen was most overtly like DeMille. As we blogged here, The Story of Mankind has echoes of DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, which had been released the year before with an all-star cast, including some actors in common (e..g., Vincent Price). Yet it was done on the cheap, with huge portions of the film consisting of obvious stock footage from previous Biblical and Roman epics. In 1959 he made The Big Circus, an obvious rip-off of DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. 

Next comes his sci-fi fantasy phase (presaged by that Harryhausen section in The Animal World). In 1960 he remade the 1925 classic The Lost World (based on the Conan Doyle novel), starring Michael Rennie, Claude Rains and Jill St. John. Then came Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) with Walter Pidgeon, Joan Fontaine, Peter Lorre, Barbara Eden, Michael Ansara and Frankie Avalon (with theme song sung by Avalon). Then Jules Verne’s Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962), again, loaded with stars: Red Buttons, Fabian, Eden again, Lorre again, Cedrick Hardwicke, Herbert Marshall, Reginald Owen, Henry Daniell and Billy Gilbert. 

He next moved into television where he was able to keep old school sci-fi vital long after it had wilted at the box office. The best remembered of these shows was the classic Lost in Space (1965-1968), probably what he is best remembered for (after his disaster movies) due to its big success in syndication. But there was also the tv version of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968), The Time Tunnel (1966-1967), Land of the Giants (1968-1970), and City Beneath the Sea (1971, a pilot for an unsold series). During the sixties at least, Allen was actually a much more successful producer of tv science fiction than Gene Roddenberry.

A very tall disaster

In the 1970s, he shifted gears and enjoyed his biggest success. As I blogged here, The Poseidon Adventure (1972) was the first film I ever saw in a cinema. It made a major impact on me and remains one of my favorite films. Seen from the perspective of time, Allen’s producing of this film at this juncture, and the fashion in which he did it, is not unlike William Castle’s decision to make Rosemary’s Baby in 1969. He saw that cinema was changing, and he disciplined himself to create a big-budget blockbuster that spoke to those changes (although, without a doubt 20th Century Fox had a major hand in keeping Allen to that discipline). His next film 1974’s The Towering Inferno (which I blogged about here) extended the magic yet again on an even larger scale, although it does contain some warning signs that he would revert to form as soon as was given the opportunity.

But next — a forgotten gem, but one I haven’t forgotten, because I was a big fan of it. In 1975 and 1976 he produced his next TV series The Swiss Family Robinson starring Adam 12’s Martin Milner, Cameron Mitchell, a young Helen Hunt, and Willie Aames (who would soon go on to bigger stardom in Eight is Enough). The Swiss Family Robinson had been the obvious inspiration for Lost in Space. The new version went back to the original children’s classic and was excellent family entertainment.  Ditto his 1978 minseries The Return of Captain Nemo, with Jose Ferrer in the title role. If Allen’s career had ended here it would have ended on a high note.

“I want the letters on the logo to resemble the cracking wall of a dam!”

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on your point of view), his career did NOT end there. The terrific financial success of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno gave Allen lots of power and influence. Not just because of his own films, but many imitations showed he was the inventor of a sure-fire genre. Earthquake (1974) rivaled Towering Inferno at the box office, and several sequels to 1970’s Airport were clearly made in response to the phenomenon. Even Roger Corman got in on the action with Avalanche (1978).

And now suddenly Allen had all of the power of DeMille, but was still imbued with many of the bottom feedings instincts of Corman, Castle and Wood. He chose to exercise his newfound power by making the campy dreck with which his name has been associated ever since. He made eight more disaster films in four years. Five of them were for television — with television budgets and production values. He may have been inspired to transfer the genre to TV by the 1974 telefilm Hurricane, which for years I assumed was an Allen production, but was not. But Allen followed its template anyway with Flood! (1976), Fire! (1977), Hanging by a Thread (1979), The Night the Bridge Fell Down (1979), and Cave-in! (1979).

And he made three more films for theatrical release. Because he had directed the action sequences of Poseidon and Inferno he made the grave error of thinking he ought to direct now as well as produce. He decided to helm The Swarm (1978) and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979) himself, and great sprawling, hilarious messes they are.

The Swarm was clearly a response to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), but Allen was clearly out of his element. Spielberg, a cinematic genius, had now set the bar of quality impossibly high. (Although Spielberg and Allen shared one important thing in common: an appreciation for the genius of composer John Williams. Williams had written the music for Lost in Space, Land of the Giants, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno prior to beginning his long association with Spielberg). At all events, compared to New Hollywood mavericks like Spielberg, Allen now seemed by comparison old-fashioned, irrelevant, and quite simply, stinky. He got someone else to direct his volcano movie When Time Ran Out (1980), but that one was no less a sprawling, hilarious mess than his other two recent pictures.

Allen was not yet through, however. In 1981 and 1982, he produced the series Code Red about a family of Los Angeles fire fighters, close to the disaster genre, but also close to the procedurals (e.g., Emergency!) that were then still popular.

The Lion and the Unicorn. Beau Bridges as the latter; Ernest Borgnine as the former.

In 1985 he produced his astoundingly awful all-star mini-series version of Alice in Wonderland, a masterpiece of terribleness, not to be believed. It has about 100 recognizable names in it — some of them respected ones. Even the name “Irwin Allen’s Alice in Wonderland” makes me laugh heartily. It’s like something from SCTV. It’s a certainty that I’ll be blogging further in much more depth about this debacle and all of the Allen projects I have not yet done posts about. Maybe I’ll get to some of them later today.

Allen’s last credit was the highly uncharacteristic Outrage (1986), a tv movie about a lawyer having to defend an unsympathetic client.  After this, health problems prevented further output.

I joke, as everybody does, about Allen’s foibles and missteps, but where I may differ from most (ill-informed) others is in my level of overall respect. For he did leave a legacy. Obviously, the disaster movie has made a comeback in the last couple of decades. Frankly I don’t like any of them as much as I like Allen’s, including Allen’s bad ones, although they certainly owe him a debt. Roland Emmerich is his most obvious heir, both in terms of special effects, and in terms of cramming your vehicle with stars. I think anyone in the stunt or special effects field can tell you how groundbreaking and influential he was. They had to solve new problems to make films like Poseidon and Inferno — I’m sure they are still using solutions devised by Allen’s team. And as a promoter and producer he is to be idolized. Frankly, it’s how it’s done. I admire his ballyhoo to no end.



“Multiple Maniacs” and the Genius of John Waters

Posted in CAMP, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, ME, Movies, Movies (Contemporary), My Shows, PLUGS with tags , , , , , , , , on August 5, 2016 by travsd


Tonight at New York’s IFC Center: opening night of the re-release of John Waters’ fully restored 1970 trashterpiece Multiple Maniacs! (With Waters there himself tonight)

Waters has been hugely influential on me, and inspirational to me as an artist and impresario, most evident in my musicals House of Trash,  my Manson musical Willy Nilly, and Beach Blanket Bluebeard, and in certain other productions of mine like Jack the Ripper’s Holiday Spectacular, and the short film Poison Shirt/ Boots of the Transsexual. But he may even be more important to me as a critic and aesthetic theorist. A large part of my philosophy, I think can ultimately be traced to Waters’ 1981 book Shock Value and his many public utterances over the decades, as well as J. Hoberman’s terrific contextualization of the artist in his 1983 book Midnight Movies.

What it boils down to is a different scale of merit than most critics and audiences bring to the table when they go to see a movie or play. Its antecedents are Theatre of the Ridiculous, the European avant-garde, and French auteur theory, which dared to see art in the Hollywood film (though Waters stakes out new territory, going “below” B movies all the way down to Grade Z pictures). One sees so much in Waters: Jack Smith, Jean Genet, Kenneth Anger, Russ Meyers, William Castle, exploitation pictures of a hundred different kinds. Under Waters’ spell I long ago pulled away from the conventional measures of “good” and “bad”. For the most part (except in cases of remarkable genius) I am indifferent to the prosaic pursuit of the illusion of “truth” in acting, or of “professionalism” in scenography. All I care is whether what I am watching makes an aesthetic impact of any kind, for that is rare enough. More often than not, what others will call “bad” (naive art, folk art, melodrama, amateur theatre, etc) will strike me as excellent — more excellent than the conventional and the polished, simply because it is more interesting. (See my essay on Ed Wood here).

I would say even that as an acolyte of Waters, I (and some of my friends, I think) now exceed the Master on this score. Waters is of his generation. He often seems to have a tongue-in-cheek, ironic stance about much of what he enjoys, and hence it can be read as camp. An example might be found when he speaks about one of his favorite movies, Boom! , a screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, which he loves, but feels compelled to brand as “bad” for our benefit. I knew the play and was thrilled to get to see the movie earlier this year. To me, it is only fascinating and over-the-top and excellent. No need to filter it through camp and irony. No need to apologize for it. It is just great. But of course, I am empowered to feel this way because Waters made it possible. He is an aesthetic pioneer. He plunged into terra incognita and then sent back travelogues that told us it was OK to follow.

Multiple Maniacs is an early linchpin in Waters’ career and his second feature. I’d long read about it, but it had long been unavailable. I’d long seen everything that came after, but never this legendary film. Shot in then-highly unfashionable black and white, it features his famous cast of “Dreamlanders”: Divine, Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller, Edith Massey (the egg sucker from Pink Flamingos), David Lochary and Mary Vivian Pearce. It looks like a combination of a French art film from ten years earlier, mixed with a home movie. The locations include Waters’ parents’ lawn, his own apartment (the poster for Boom! provides an excellent clue), local (Baltimore) streets, dive bars, and (most appallingly) churches. Some scenes are out of focus. Actors go up on lines. On one take, Lochary accidentally walks into a tree branch. In another, the old heap of a car the cast was riding around in died right in the middle of the road — it’s in the film. Passers-by look at the camera. Extras laugh out of character. When the budget is this small, there are no retakes.

But even at this early stage of his career, Waters is a story teller of genius. I found myself wanting a copy of the screenplay. (I just looked; it is indeed available to purchase). In the beginning, Lady Divine and Mr. David (Divine and Lochary) are running a sideshow called The Cavalcade of Perversion, featuring “real queers”, “sluts, fags, dykes and pimps”, a junkie going through withdrawal, a bunch of naked hippies, a man performing cunnilingus on a bicycle seat, and a “Puke Eater” (hilariously, there is a helpful sign next to him with those words, even as we watch him eat the puke out of a bucket). But this layout is only a dodge. It is the bait that allows Divine and Mr. David and their company of freaks to kidnap and rob the customers. Unfortunately, this time Divine shoots and kills one of them in a fit of passion and now she must flee. Divine is now developing a taste for murder for its own sake. This proves especially unfortunate for Mr. David, who is beginning to have an affair with a devotee named Bonnie (Pearce) who longs to “perform acts” with him. When Divine charges down the street to get her revenge on the couple, she is clubbed and raped by a couple of freaks in an alley. She stumbles into a church, where she has a long, artistically shot (except for the hot dog rolls)  epiphany (done MOS under a long monologue by the actor), and then encounters lesbian adherent Mink Stole who gives her a “rosary job” — surely one of the most appalling things you will ever see on screen. Later, in a scene very much inspired by the then-current Manson Family events (which were so fresh the characters still refer to them as the “Sharon Tate Murders” —  it seems as though Manson and his family were discovered to be the culprits halfway through the shooting) Divine kills all the other main characters, eats their intestines, gets raped by a giant lobster (without explanation) and then chases people through the streets like a monster until she is taken out (shot like a rhinoceros) by several long-haired National Guardsmen to the tune of “America, the Beautiful”. The innards she gobbles were actual rancid cow guts from the butcher shop, making the stunt a dry run for Divine’s poo eating in Pink Flamginos. Have I sold you a ticket yet?

Astoundingly, the restoration is jaw-dropping. The film looks almost pristine, despite the fact that the original was edited under the crudest conditions and stored badly for decades. This version also has a new original rockabilly score by George S. Clinton, and it is appropriately Watersesque.

 But ya know what? I can stop here, because my buddy (and editor) Scott Stiffler has written a much more thorough feature on the film for Cheslsea Now, including an exclusive interview with Waters! Read it here. It’s a must!

In the Wee Hours: Two Crawford Camp Classics

Posted in CAMP, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies with tags , , , , on August 10, 2015 by travsd

As part of TCM’s Summer Under the Stars salute to Joan Crawford, early tomorrow morning they will be showing two camp classics starring the high strung actress, from her late, “thick eyebrow” period:


1:45 am Eastern:

That heartwarming family classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The part of the film that seems to stick uppermost in our mind is the situation of two old sisters, the one (Bette Davis) terrorizing and abusing her invalid sister (Crawford).

Ah but there is a vaudeville angle! For Davis’s character is the fictional former vaud child star Baby Jane Hudson, a cloying, irritating spoiled brat of a thing. If memory serves, the vaudeville scenes in the movie’s prologue are wildly inaccurate, neither the theatre itself, nor the nature of Baby Jane’s act nor the music played or the amount or type of merchandising of Baby Jane products in the lobby bear any relationship to reality. However, according to my personal experience, the scene where one sibling serves another a dead rat for luncheon was not only true to life, but tastefully realized for the screen.


4:15 am Eastern: Trog (1970)

This is the movie that made Crawford (who LIVED to be a movie star), say, “Fuck it. I’ve had enough of this shit.” It was her last starring film role (not including television) and I’m sure there was no love lost by this point. In this peculiar monster movie Crawford plays some vague sort of scientist, who finds a living caveman, or troglodyte (trog for short). In numerous hilarious scenes, she attempts to “reason” with him, to “understand” him, to treat him kindly and with love in the accepted 1970 fashion. But to no avail. The instant the creature gets loose he goes on a rampage, just like monsters are supposed to do.  Maybe it’s because she calls him “Trog” — like that’s his name! A little insulting if you ask me. I got your touchy-feely social science right here, “Doctor”! Amplifying the hilarity is Trog’s costume, which consists of a single ape mask. The rest of the guy’s body is normal, not even particularly hairy. He’s just some guy wearing an ape mask. In the end, our Trog, just like Old Yeller, must be destroyed. To quote the late Pete Seeger, ” O, when will they ever learn?”

Dueling Harlows (Featuring the Battle of the Carols)

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, CAMP, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Movies, Women with tags , , , , on February 25, 2015 by travsd

This is part of a continuing series on Hollywood show biz bio-pics. The preceding three parts (this, this, and this) focused on bio-pics from the classic studio era. An upcoming post will cover some from the 1970s through the present. In between, this transitional one.

In mid 1965, a rare thing happened: two different Hollywood movies were released that had the exact same title and the exact same subject: the life and career of the original Blonde Bombshell Jean Harlow.


Harlow (released June, 1965)

This film is a stepping stone to the modern era, containing franker attitudes about sex than earlier studio bio-pics, and modern techniques like location shooting and real exteriors (rather than studio sets and back lots). But it is still (despite being based on a biographical book) almost entirely fictionalized. The greater sensationalization makes it feel like many of the later films we talked about in part three of our earlier series: I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Love Me or Leave Me, The Buster Keaton Story, The Helen Morgan Story, The Joker is Wild and Jeanne Eagels. In fact it plays VERY like another of our favorite films Valley of the Dolls, released two years later.

In this major Paramount release, Carroll Baker portrays Harlow in a vehicle that seems more geared toward Baker’s own recent screen roles than anything that ever happened in the life of Harlow. Not that Harlow’s life was completely without its tawdry touches. It’s just that this movie feels like Heaven and Earth were moved to tweak Harlow’s life into a suitable follow-up to films like Baby Doll, Something Wild and The Carpetbaggers. 


The film takes the oddly prurient position that Harlow was a naif who wished to maintain her virginity, even at the cost of fending off every mouth-breathing wolf who wants to help her career in exchange for sexual favors. Riding shotgun is her fictional manager Arthur Landau (played by Red Buttons) who spouts some gobble-de-gook about how they’ll create a screen character “every man will want but can’t have”. Soundtrack, art direction, hair and costumes all egregiously offend the anachronometer, in roughly that order. The sets often make me feel like I must be watching the Jayne Mansfield Story.

HARLOW, Carroll Baker, 1965

The film starts out with Harlow being cast as a bit player in what are plainly meant to suggest Hal Roach comedies (since that’s where Harlow got her start), but are heavily fictionalized so there are no recognizable comedians, and they’ve been transplanted to the sound era (despite the fact that they’re full of the kind of slapstick gags that were only common in the silent era). The movie also blows off the messy fact that the teenage Harlow had a husband during these early years, thus making all this blather about her being an innocent virgin at the beginning of her career a load of nonsense.


Then she encounters a succession of fictional men. Howard Hughes has been fictionalized into “Richard Manley” (Leslie Nielsen – – and, yes, that is every bit as entertaining as it sounds). Clark Gable (I guess?) has been transformed into “Jack Harrison” (Mike Connors). Louis B. Mayer has become “Everett Redman” (Martin Balsam). The only real-life characters in the film besides Harlow are her mother (Angela Lansbury), worthless Italian stepfather (Raf Vallone), and her husband Paul Bern (Peter Lawford), whom (God forgive me) constitutes the meat of both this and the other Harlow movie, although neither movie quite knows it. Most bio-pics fail because they bite off more than they can chew (God forgive me again). You have a much better play or movie if you simply choose one major crucial incident or phase rather the entire cradle to grave story. In this case, you’d get such a terrific movie if you just focused on the tragic alliance between Harlow and Bern. (If you don’t already know the legendary story, Bern proved to be a washout on their wedding night. Gay? Impotent? Intimidated? Asexual? I don’t claim to know the answer, but he was found shot to death shortly afteward, many think by his own hand. The irony: Harlow is the most desired female in the country, and her husband can’t consummate the marriage.

The last act of Harlow’s life in this film is an entirely invented phase where she has a downfall, and becomes washed up, and hurting for money. This never happened. She never had any sort of fall. She was at the top of the industry when she passed away. They also turn her into a drunk, creating a libelous scenario where it looks like she EARNS her early death with debauchery when in fact nothing of the kind happened. For some weird reason the film rewrites her fatal kidney ailment as pneumonia. I hope her ghosts haunts those responsible.


Also Harlow (released May, 1965)

This one, starring Carol Lynley, was actually released a few weeks prior to the other one. We list it second because its production was actually launched after the other film’s, but it was a cheapie made in just a few days, so it was able to be rushed to market ahead of the other one. Also I have seen the other one three times — I saw this one for the first time last night.

A small point perhaps but this is way better hair

A small point perhaps but this is way better hair

Also, this one (IMHO) happens to be vastly superior to the one. Though it’s clearly a shoestring affair made for a fraction of the other one (black and white, VERY cheap sets, and above all shot in some short-lived process called “Electronovision”) it does much better on several of the essentials. It gets WAY more of the facts correct (not that that TRULY matters in the entertainment business), and it’s written with a good deal more focus and movement. Where the other film is a soap opera containing numerous scenes featuring people simply talking with no dramatic object of any kind, this one moves along fairly briskly. So many rewards in this film. It introduces us to the interesting and true fact that she actually got her start in Laurel and Hardy films.  It mentions that first husband. It mentions her first hit movie Hell’s Angels. Things like music and hairstyles are WAY more accurate. Her mother is played by actual 30s movie star Ginger Rogers, which has a kind of nice symbolism, don’t you think? (Barry Sullivan plays the useless Italian stepfather).

Carol Lynley Harlow (1965)

The film very cleverly references the raciness of pre-code movies in a way the big budget Paramount production couldn’t even touch. There’s, oh, the bra removal scene. The Gothic blood-spurting-on-the-bust-of-Beethoven scene. And many more requisite bath-tub scenes. Louis B. Mayer is an actual character, as is Marie Dressler. In fact the only major fictionalized character in the film is William Powell, whom here has been changed to “William Mansfield” (Efram Zimbalist Jr), probably because Powell was still alive (which was probably why he wasn’t he even mentioned in the other Harlow movie). While it was interesting to include him…everything after the Bern suicide seems to overstay its welcome. And once again, Harlow is made to pay for sins she never committed, and dies in another apparently unwarranted oxygen tent. Oh, well

Had enough yet? Wait there’s more —


Hughes and Harlow: Angels in Hell (1978)

But this will have to wait for some later date….

“Nefertitty in Space” and Why Lola Rock’N’Rolla is Our Favorite Film-maker

Posted in African American Interest, CAMP, Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Drag and/or LGBT, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2014 by travsd


I don’t think it’s too much to say that Lola Rock’N’Rolla is now my favorite film-maker. The Mad Marchioness and I attended the world premiere of Lola’s new opus Nefertitty in Space at Anthology Film Archives on Monday, and only just now am I recovering from the onslaught of camp excellence, let alone the excitement of seeing so much burlesque, drag and variety royalty all in one place: Hovey Burgess, Murray Hill, World Famous Bob, Gal Friday, Albert Cadabra, David Bishop, Legs Malone etc etc etc not to mention the film’s star The Maine Attraction who sat behind us with her highly supportive mom.

Maine falls on top of me with her drink

Maine almost falls on top of me with her drink

“I just wanna be John Waters!” Lola declared at the end of the festivities…and we do indeed need someone to fill that niche now, have needed that for TEN BLOODY YEARS, because that is when Waters made his last friggin’ movie (his most recent planned film project, a Christmas movie called Fruitcake died in the oven back in 2008). But there is so much of her own that Lola brings to the table that I think calling her the heir to John Waters would be selling her short (as much as we need an heir to John Waters). For one, her love of genre seems wider, deeper and more ambitious than Waters, who has always been pretty strictly focused on exploitation films. In a manner that reminds me of the Kuchar Brothers, her “B movies” attempt big budget spectacle, and she dares pay homage to classics with reach beyond cult aficionados.

Her first film Dragzilla (2002) is like an opening salvo in a campaign to conquer the underground, one cardboard building at a time:

Then there is her zombie send-up Night of the Living Gay (2006):

And who could forget I Was a Tranny Werewolf (2009):

Whereas Waters is a genius of effect, and certainly a genius of comedy, there is something to be said for the focused messaging of Lola’s films. Like Waters, she is a gay film-maker. In her films she frequently returns to the theme of queer people and other outsiders as monsters, and ridicules that representation, which in the end amounts to a simultaneous catharsis, exorcism and celebration.


In the Nefertitty series, she ups the ante by helping us do the same thing about race. In these blaxploitation send-ups, burlesque star The Maine Attraction plays the titular ‘titty, a foul-mouthed, street-wise ghetto chic SOMETHING. Is she even a cop or a private eye like Pam Grier’s characters? I don’t think so. I think she’s just herself: Nerfertitty, a blaxploitation heroine qua blaxploitation heroine (I said “heroine”, not “heroin”).

Now, this is a genre ripe for parody. In fact even when it was originally in full-bloom, the classics of the genre were usually smart self-parodies, 1972’s Blacula being the supreme example. Mel Brooks went there early with Blazing Saddles (1974), although he flinched from going all out (originally the film was to have starred Richard Pryor — that would have been a VERY different movie). Then Keenan Ivory Wayans went there for real in I’m Gonna Get You Sucka (1988), Quentin Tarantino produced a loving tongue-in-cheek homage in Jackie Brown (1997), and Scott Sanders created a dead-on formal spoof in Black Dynamite (2009). (Judging by that time-table it looks like the world wants a blaxploitation satire flick every ten years).

The original Nefertitty joint came out in 2011:

Several things about Nefertitty set it apart. One is context. This is a Lola Rocknrolla film. We know there’s more to it than a stand-alone goof because we have her whole body of work to look at, and it’s plain from the way she tells the story. There is no pussyfooting here. The film-maker and her actors jump with both feet into stereotype (both black and white) like it was a swimming pool full of champagne. But there is something else at work. Blaxploitation has always been a complicated genre (as have many previous forms of American show business). At best it’s an unresolveable question. Yes those historical films back in the early ’70s did emphatically NOT depict a lot of black doctors, statesmen, philosophers and rocket scientists, but instead a bunch of pimps, hookers, junkies and drug dealers (and, the brothers and sisters who bust them). But on the other hand, the form was chic, its stars were admired and set the fashions throughout the show biz world for the entire decade. For better or worse, people EMULATED these films. And this was the first time in history black Americans had a widespread cinematic format in which to take chances, stretch their legs, and just BE….as opposed to playing menials, servants and sidekicks in a “white story”. And though blaxploitation films were the farthest thing from a representative “black story”, they were a mainstream forum for black acting, black music, and black culture in general. There is a certain palpable joy and liberated energy in these movies. (We watched Shaft, Black Caesar, Hell Up in Harlem and the Blacula films on TCM just a few weeks ago, so it’s all fresh in my head.) As Nerfertitty, Maine Anders broadcasts that exhilarating feeling of “owning it” that is the whole performance style. Then she compounds that feeling with the giddy gas of getting to send it up, all done with a wicked, mischievous gleam in her eye worthy of Arlecchino.

The other major stereotype in blaxploitation films is, duh, whites, invariably rendered as uptight assholes, clueless idiots, white collar criminals, shifty public officials, wanna-be fascists, and sometimes wanna-be blacks. Playing it this way was a stroke of genius on the parts of producers (apart from any intentional character defamation they may have engaged in): it struck the perfect balance between manipulating the resentments of black audiences, and stoking the sublimated guilt feelings of white ones. Lola goes here big time in both Nefertitty films. In fact, the big plague infecting the ghetto in the first Nefertitty is an insidious cocaine that turns the user into an albino honky. And here is Anders as an ofay police captain in Nefertitty in Space (like Eddie Murphy or Martin Lawrence she plays multiple characters in both films):


Second is that, as always (and this is something that Lola can definitely be said to have inherited from Waters, and others such as Russ Meyers) she turns the heat WAY the hell up on the playing style. Here too (I’m assuming) she’s a conscious heir to the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, which developed an entire playing style along these lines (and Lola has also done theatre, a show called Homo: The Musical.) This isn’t mere acting; this is PERFORMANCE. This is SHOW BIZ. It’s a movie as a “movie”, with no reality beyond the line-by-line, shot-by-shot immediate need to entertain and engage the audience. If your attention flags while watching this movie, you have issues and you probably need to check in someplace where they give you a pill and a plastic cup of water twice a day.

And, as always, Lola smashes in other genres and brings her insane imagination to bear, which takes this far, far beyond the realm of mere blaxploitation spoof, because no blaxploitation flick ever did anything as weird or as outre as smashing together blaxploitation with gay camp with Star Wars, as she does in Nefertitty in Space, in which the villain is the World Famous Bob as a floating, topless, tassled torso, who uses her breasts as a “white sabre”, shooting a ray that turns her victims into valley-girl talkin’ crackers. It’s clever casting indeed to give a gal named ‘titty an arch nemesis like World Famous Bob, whose pendulous jugs are the Eighth and Ninth Wonders of the World.


At all events, here’s the trailer to the new film. It’s just about to make the rounds on the festival circuit and I’ll warrant it’ll soon be available online as well. Bottom line: all hail Lola Rock’N’Roller, whose movies put the spring back in my step big time.

The Night The Bridge Fell Down

Posted in CAMP, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, disaster movies, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television with tags , , , , on November 19, 2014 by travsd

If it looks like comedy, and sounds like comedy…

Thank God for the Mad Marchioness, who noticed recently that we have access to the Warner Archive through some thingamajig on what used to be called our television. And the Warner Archive turns out to be a fragrant meadow strewn with the finest, choicest trash, all ours for the picking.

Last night we chose wisely and we chose well. I consider myself something of a connoisseur of the work of big budget disaster movie producer Irwin Allen. As a child I was addicted to his productions beginning with the one that started it all The Poseidon Adventure (1972), the first movie I ever saw in a cinema, and still an important film for me. Amazingly, lightning struck twice with The Towering Inferno (1974), which follows the formula of its predecessor to a tee and far exceeds it in hokum (and everything else, including running time) but at least the movie is still full of “A” list stars. As the 70s wore on, though, the law of diminishing returns came into play, the disasters becoming ever more contrived and the casts dwindling in prestige (rest assured we will write about them ALL here. I was amassing material for a book, but the hell with it). At any rate, the ridiculousness grew apace, until we reach what we saw last night.

I was shocked never to have seen or even heard of the tv movie in question before, but I’ve just discovered why. Though produced in 1979, The Night the Bridge Fell Down didn’t air until 1983. And guess what night it aired? At the very same time as the last episode of M*A*S*H. The entire human race watched the last episode of M*A*S*H, myself included, although I’m still debating whether I’ll condescend to call myself a member of the human race. At any rate, it would only be natural for executives at other networks to schedule something for this slot which they wanted to bury. And this movie fits that description.


The all-star cast for this extravaganza consists of James MacArthur (Dan-o from Hawaii 5-0), Eve Plumb (Jan Brady), Gregory Sierra (Chano from Barney Miller) Desi Arnaz, Jr., Barbara Rush, Char Fontane (daughter of nightclub singer Tony Fontane), familiar character actors Richard Gilliland, Ted Gehring and Philip Baker Hall, and, most astoundingly, Irwin Allen repeat offender Leslie Nielsen. We were particularly nonplussed about the presence of Nielsen given that he had starred in Airplane, which pretty much blows the lid off the entire genre, three years earlier. How could Allen ever think anyone would take Nielsen seriously in a disaster movie at that late date? Was it just pure stubbornness? But, there again, we have the answer. As we saw, this movie was actually made before Airplane. It only ever saw the light of day in 1983, I’m assuming, out of desperation on somebody’s part.

Comedy. Notice the difference?

Comedy. Notice the difference?

Now, this movie kept us howling on two totally divergent scores. On the one hand, we were uncanny in our ability to predict so many lines and plot developments just before they happened; the beauty of such formulaic producing is that it makes psychics of us all. (“I’ll be there as soon as I can. I’ll just drive there over the bridge.“) BUT! Never underestimate the powers of this movie to confound all precedent. I think ultimately it has to be the most implausible movie, presented with a straight face, that I have ever seen. I am fully confident in saying that the likelihood of the events of this film happening anywhere in this galaxy is ZERO. And, isn’t that just what we’re frightened of, Mr. Allen —  events that would never happen?

As in all disaster movies, we first meet our gaggle of stars as they go about their ordinary daily business: oh, robbing banks, embezzling stolen bonds, breaking up with your fiance to become a nun. Only house painter Gregory Sierra (yes, they made the only ethnic person in the movie a house painter)  just seems to be driving across a bridge like a normal person when the disaster happens. Everyone else is driving across the bridge on the most harrowing mission of their lives, making the collapse of the bridge seem at most an inconvenience.

Did we mention there was a collapsing bridge? James MacArthur (the son of Helen Hayes and writer Charles MacArthur – – he inherited all his acting talent from his father) is, it seems, both a civil engineer and a seismologist. He warns his superior (Hall) about a looming disaster, but will Hall listen? No! Too much inconvenience to the drivers of this (unnamed) city! So guess what happens? All of the main characters, most of whom know each other and have been interacting throughout the story, all driving separate cars, coincidentally all get in the same car accident together at the peak of the bridge. No one gets hurt. Then, immediately thereafter, there is an EARTHQUAKE, and both sides of the bridge fall down, trapping all those people, conveniently stopped there at the center of the bridge because of the car accident. And there were apparently no cars on the parts of the bridge that fell down (nearly the entire span of the bridge in both directions).


But that’s not enough. Because Desi Arnaz Jr. is a bank robber and he has a gun. Remember, of the half dozen or so people trapped here, one of them has just robbed a bank, and two others have just stolen a large sum of money from their company. This bridge is a magnet for every fleeing criminal in this (unnamed) town! What’s more, the two conspiring embezzlers (Neilsen and Rush), were riding in entirely separate vehicles — they just happen to be in the same place at the same time!  (The 53 year old Nielsen’s errand was to bring his sick infant to the hospital, a development that is seriously cramping his style). Meanwhile, pursuing bank robber Arnaz is police officer Gilliland, and it’s a good thing, too. Because when he gets shot by Arnaz, his former fiance Eve Plumb just happens to be on the bridge too to take care of him as he bleeds.

Arnaz periodically tries to climb down the bridge on his own, gets discouraged, and comes back up. This happens four times. So many times, that towards the end when he comes back and starts waving his gun around again, the other victims barely notice him anymore. Anyway, they’re too busy having melodramatic flashbacks using that hokey Gilligan’s Island wavey image technique to pay attention.


Then, the authorities rescue everyone with ropes — in real time. The part of the movie that should take a few minutes, thus takes a century, as we watch the characters carry ropes, tie ropes, tighten ropes, climb ropes. A couple of characters are thrown to their deaths in the (unnamed) bay as the bridge disintegrates. Upon which, the remaining four characters climb down the bridge — in real time. Seems to take about four hours. And, if they could do that, why didn’t they just do that before??? Because then we wouldn’t have a movie, that’s why!

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