Archive for movies

Cinematic Selfies: The Most Self Indulgent Vanity Movies Ever

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , on June 23, 2017 by travsd

This is by no means an exhaustive catalog of Self Indulgent Vanity Movies, but merely  some of the most egregious examples that sprang to mind. To qualify for this list, a film must: 1) be primarily about gratifying the whim of its star(s) over, say, such elements as plot, character, or dialogue; 2) be about glorifying the star to a nakedly transparent, downright embarrassing degree; and 3) possess few redeeming qualities, or none at all. Note that these bad films are not made by people at the bottom, but those at the top, those with so much power there is no one to check it. Usually the film will have either a weak director (cowed by the star) or the star will direct the film himself. In either case, in these examples, it’s the same as having no director.

Always Leave Them Laughing (1949)

Milton Berle’s only true starring vehicle after having become Mr. Television — and it’s a weirdie. Essentially, Berle plays a character who is indistinguishable from himself: America television’s top tv star and a man so obnoxious you want to throttle him. What makes it weird is that it’s such an unflattering portrayal: he’s manically ambitious, screws over his friends, dumps women when better ones come along, and basically drives everyone away with bad jokes. Appearing in this film, released at the top of his fame, seems like almost some sort of penance, a masochistic martyrdom of some sort. The thing is, Berle was a pretty good actor when given the chance to demonstrate it. After his tv career wound down, he made a pretty heavy push to appear in films, usually only landing supporting parts. But that’s okay, he does enough scenery chewing in this movie for fifteen films.

Far Be It From Me to Disturb Your Pool Game, But Do Me a Favor: If You Get Near a Movie, Shoot It

Oceans 11 (1960) and Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964)

I wanted to hate on Sinatra far more than this, believe me, but to my astonishment, when I went down his list of film credits, what I saw was mostly a lot of excellent movies, about half of them musicals and half of them dramas. But there’s plenty to hate about these two films. In fact, it might plausibly said that the Rat Pack ethic is what spawned nearly every other bad film on this list. Oceans 11 broke the sound barrier in terms of not supplying any of the ingredients of a good movie, under the presumotion that the documentary presence of the film’s stars would be more than sufficient. The entirety of its breathtakingly amoral plot is that its “heroes” (Rat Packers Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop) rob five major Las Vegas casinos. That is the WHOLE plot. No one has moral misgivings. No one gets caught. There are no consequences. It’s a movie for moral bankrupts and sociopaths. While the movie was being shot, the stars picked up extra dough performing in the casinos at night, and did a lot of drinking, gambling, and womanizing both on camera and off. That is the extent of the thing. I cannot tell you how much I despise this lazy, self-indulgent non-movie. I’ve not bothered watching the remake or its sequels on the assumption that they operate on the same plane. I can’t imagine why anyone would watch it.

Robin and the 7 Hoods gets on my nerves for different reasons. By contrast, this one has a plot, but it irritates because of its meta relationship to the real life stars. It seems to owe something to Frank Capra’s A Pocketful of Miracles (1961), which Sinatra was to star in but walked out of, and both of them build on Guys and Dolls. Peter Falk appeared in both Robin and the 7 Hoods and A Pocketful of Miracles. The former film also has Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Bing Crosby (replacing Lawford, who was now banned from the Rat Pack) and Edward G. Robinson. This film irritates because it is an exercise in what I call “hoodlum inoculation”. Sinatra, a guy with a thousand REAL Mafia ties, overplays a cute, cuddly, stereotyped “gangster” in order to prove that he really isn’t one in real life. That’s what every minute of the film feels like to me. Let’s make this fantasy as unrealistic as possible; let’s make organized crime appear as unbelievable as we can. I find myself particularly irritated by the hoodlum voices they all (particularly Sinatra and Peter Falk use) They don’t HAVE to use those voices. They are perfectly believable as gangsters with their natural voices.

Are there Rat Pack movies I like? Yes! Some Came RunningSergeants Three and Four for Texas are all pretty palatable because the actors are playing characters, not demanding that you bask in the sunshine of their existence.

What the Hell is This Shit?

Jerry Lewis in the late 1960s

Staking out my position on Lewis’s movies is always very difficult (not that anyone cares!) The majority of people outright hate him and dismiss him out of hand. That’s not me. I almost always find him enormously interesting, though almost always equally mortifying and irritating. And while I think it can be plausibly said that ALL of his film performances and outings as a director are self-indulgent to put it mildly, new horizons were broached between the years 1966 and 1972.

To be fair, when he entered his 40s and middle age, Lewis was confronted with a serious problem. How to age his character, who was essentially an adolescent? About half of the films of this period deal with it by abandoning the slapstick character altogether. Unfortunately, the other Jerry, the “real” Jerry comes off as an unlikable creep, essentially variations on Buddy Love, his jerky alter ego from The Nutty Professor. So there are all these essentially unwatchable “sophisticated adult” comedies: Boing, Boing (1965); Three on a Couch (1966); Way, Way Out (1966) and Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (1968) which appeal to almost nobody. And then there are other ones like The Big Mouth (1967), Hook, Line and Sinker (1969) and Which Way to the Front (1969), where he reverts to form a bit more as a performer but is now 42 years old. The latter one breaks new frontiers of cinematic self-indulgence. I seem to recall one scene where he holds the same shot for many, many minutes while he does a seemingly endless number of double-takes — perhaps 15. (That is a lot of double takes). Of course, none of us has yet seen what is reported to be his masterpiece of self-indulgence, his sad-clown-in-a-concentration-camp film The Day the Clown Cried (1972), although, as we reported here, there is now hope that we will see it in our lifetimes. He retired from directing for a time, but not before giving us:

Salt and Pepper (1968) and One More Time (1970)

Well, Jerry never did get back together with Dean for a picture, but he did collaborate with his fellow Rat Packers Sammy and Peter for a pair of pictures. I wrote about those unseemly spectacles here. 

O, To Participate in Your Own Deification

Viva Knievel (1977)

I wrote about daredevil Evil Knievel and his massive influence on American popular culture in the 1970s here. Viva Knievel is a bizarre exercise in megalomania in which Knievel plays HIMSELF as a crime-solving superhero who also clears up people’s personal problems and heals a crippled child while giving out action figures of himself and doing death-defying motorcycle jumps. At the climax, he gives an anti-drug speech to kids in which he swears (yes, uses curse words) several times. When the film was in the can, Knievel and his cronies beat the hell out of its promoter with an aluminum baseball bat, and that hurt the film somewhat at the box office.

The Greatest (1977)

The Greatest goes Viva Knievel one better by being an “autobiography” of its star Muhammad Ali — starring Ali, playing himself. Once you’ve done that, what is there left to do?

Everything the World Hates About America All in One Piece of Art

Cannonball Run (1981) and Cannonball Run II (1984), et al.

Burt Reynolds was America’s top box office star for at least part of the 1970s, and did he let it go to his head? Nah! The thing is, he has proven himself a good actor on many an occasion when he puts his head and heart into it. And it’s kind of hard (for me anyway) to pinpoint precisely when he went completely bad. There are many films in which he plays good ol’ boys or football players or the like, and they’re not all bad. The catalyst for descent appears to have been Hal Needham.

Hal Needham had been the stunt coordinator on several Reynolds pictures: The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973), White Lightning (1974), The Longest Yard (1974), and — most relevantly — W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings (1975). In 1977, he was finally given the keys to the vehicle as it were and was allowed to direct Smokey and the Bandit, which became a monster hit. Now, in no way, shape or form do I object to a stunt man becoming a movie director on principle. No true lover of silent comedies ever could. In the silent days, that very transition happened all the time, the most natural thing in the world. Certainly it’s as natural as a choreographer becoming a film director and that happens frequently, too. Now, I really liked both W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings and Smokey and the Bandit when I was a kid, and I’ll let you in on a little secret: they’re both the same movie. Almost character for character, plot point by plot point. It’s just that the latter film was bigger and splashier, and got all the publicity and box office. And that’s fine. That’s how most directors start out, imitating a previous movie. The problem is that then he went on to lots of other movies.

For me, the Cannonball Run movies are the nadir. They make Oceans 11 look a like a towering mountain of integrity. Both the Cannonball Run movies are essentially just a bunch of stars (some big, most of them minor, people who were known for being on a sit com for a year or two, ten or twenty years prior) driving in an illegal cross country car race and having mishaps along the way. The “characters” are somewhere on the order of the “characters” teenagers play in the school talent show, or guests play when they show up to a Halloween party. I would tell you who’s in it and what they do, but it’s too embarrassing. (But I will take this opportunity to point out Jamie Farr in the Arabian Oil Sheik costume in the poster above). And Cannonball Run II is worse by an order of magnitude. They should have called it Cannonball Run to the 10th Power.  

Give My Regards to Broad Street (1984)

Tops as a songwriter, musician and singer, Paul McCartney was easily the worst actor of the four Beatles, trailing behind the other three by a good distance. He also had a fairly dismal track record as a cinematic mastermind (the critical disasters Magical Mystery Tour and Let it Be were both his ideas and were produced largely under his supervision). Still…when there’s no one around to tell you you can’t do something…I guess you go ahead and do it. Especially when you’re one of the richest men in the world. He wrote the screenplay for Broad Street himself, a film in which he plays himself (poorly) and nothing happens except that the master tapes for his next album are lost or stolen, and he doesn’t precisely look for them, or track them down so much as occasionally wonder what happened to them. There are lots of songs, but in between songs this is all that happens.

I Want to Punch This

Hudson Hawk (1991)

Bruce Willis seems to have gotten the mistaken idea from the success of Moonlighting that he could make an entire movie out of fourth wall breaking asides, ad libs, smug self-referential in-jokes and getting bonked on the head. It is relentlessly irritating, and was co-written by Willis. Willis plays the titular safecracker. Danny Aiello is his equally unendurable sidekick. Skip it! Even skip reading any description of it.

Waterworld (1995) and The Postman (1997)

High and giddy off the smash success of Dances with Wolves, the now all-powerful Kevin Costner seized his newfound power to play a self-glorifying savior figure in no less than two big budget post-apocalyptic action films — and to direct both of the sprawling, expensive messes himself. The photo above was carefully chosen: the end of The Postman depicts a town full of people gazing worshipfully at a statue of Kevin Costner. He seems somewhat chastened by the failure of these films. While he continued to produce his vehicles, he only directed one more, the much less ambitious and better realized western Open Range (2003).

Beyond the Sea (2004)

Look at that poster. “The Voice, the Passion, the Confidence”? “The chutzpah” is more like. Look at how that woman is gazing at him! Kevin Spacey himself is obnoxious, narcissistic and soulless, so it kind of stands to reason that it would be his life’s ambition to play the obnoxious, narcissistic and soulless Bobby Darin. Leaving aside the mean criticism that he’s too old for the part, it’s simply torture to watch Spacey do all these smug, sickening musical numbers in between the endless paint-by-numbers bio-pic scenes about the ups and downs of a rich singing star. But it’s really all on screen only so that we can know that Kevin Spacey can sing — it’s evident in every frame.

Voice Over Actor Paul Frees (Boris Badenov) Got His Start in Vaudeville

Posted in Hollywood (History), Impressionists, Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2017 by travsd

Paul Frees (Solomon Hersh Frees, 1920-1986) made his entrance on a June 22. Seldom has there been a voice so well recognized without an equally well-recognized face to go with it. For well over four decades Frees’ voice was a staple of animated cartoons, radio, tv commercials, children’s specials, and film narration and voice-loops. And occasionally, just occasionally you would get the whole actor.

Frees began his career as an impressionist in what was left of local Chicago vaudeville in the the late 1930s as a comedian and impressionist under the name Buddy Green. In 1942 he broke into radio. Much like Orson Welles and William Conrad he was gifted with a voice PERFECT for the medium. Once he was in the door he worked all that he wanted; probably MORE than he wanted. In addition to his radio jobs, he worked for just about all the major animation studios starting in the 1940s. He was unique among voice over artists in that he could be the straightest of straight (serious, square) narrators, but could also do very funny characters. So on the one hand, we associate him with being the voice of dire portent in science fiction films, on the other, he could descend into wackiness.

His best known character is Boris Badenov on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. I also associate him strongly with all the Rankin-Bass holiday specials. He plays several characters in Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus is Coming to Town (as the Burgermeister Meisterburger), and Here Comes Peter Cottontail, among about a dozen others. And lots and lots of Disney. But he’s also highly present in several sci fi classics, most notably War of the Worlds (1953) and The Thing from Another World (1951). So distinctive is Frees’ voice that it is highly jarring, even alarming when he makes an on-camera appearance, as he does in both films. Even more unsettling is when his voice was used to replace that of another actor whose performance somehow marred the audio-track (e.g., because of a thick accent). In both  Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) and Midway (1976), a Japanese officer will open his mouth to speak, and Paul Frees’ voice will come out.

By then, producers should have known better, and by the ’70s Frees’ voice as so recognizable that it had essentially become camp. Ernie Fosselius wisely employed his talents in this fashion in the spoof classic Hardware Wars (1978). But camp or not camp, Frees remained in demand until the day he died. He never stopped working. That’s the goal of all performers.

For more on the history of vaudeville, including youthful impressionist like Paul Frees, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold. 

 

Helene Costello: Born with Summer; the Rest Was So Much Winter

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2017 by travsd

Helene Costello (1906-1957) was born the first day of summer, June 21. She is usually spoken of as part of a pair with her older sister Dolores Costello, also an actress. Both were daughters of the patriarchal thespian Maurice Costello. Dolores is best remembered today for having been married to John Barrymore, and for starring in The Magnificent Ambersons. Helene was married and divorced herself four times; her most famous husband was actor and director Lowell Sherman.

Dolores and Helene started out as child actresses in productions of their father’s, on the legit stage, in vaudeville and in silent movies. They appeared in the 1924 edition of George White’s Scandals together. Helene was voted a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1927. As talkies began to be phased in, she was in some notable landmark features, including the semi-talkie Lights of New York (1928), and the musical revue Your Show of Shows (1929), in which she performed a number with Dolores.

At this stage, she was poised for a great career in sound films, but a long list of personal problems (two divorces, a custody battle, money woes, and drug and alcohol problems) conspired to keep her away from the camera for the first half of the 1930s, crucial years to miss. By the time she attempted a return with a small role in Riffraff (1936) it was too late to regain momentum. There followed two more decades of the very same sorts of personal difficulties, and a single walk-on role in The Black Swan (1942). She died in a psychiatric hospital in 1957.

For more on the history of show business consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold. For more on early film, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 

On the Acerbic Mary Wickes

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2017 by travsd

Beloved character actor Mary Wickes (Mary Wickenhauser, 1910-1995) was born on June 13. The gawky, wise-cracking Wickes was ubiquitous on screens big and small for half a century, usually playing maids, nuns, nurses and other no-nonsense types on the periphery of the main action but just close enough to see what was going on and make an exasperated and cutting joke about it.

I almost certainly first knew her from her regular role on the Sid and Marty Krofft kid’s show Sigmund and the Sea Monsters (1973-1974). (Though she was also a regular on the sit com Doc around the same time too so it was probably both). Thus I was already a fan (without knowing it, perhaps) from about age eight. Wickes’ screen character aged extremely well. When she was young, because of her attitude and her crone-like drawl, she had always seemed older than she was. When she actually became older, she simply WAS.

Still, there was in evolution, if an incremental one. If you look at the photo at the top, when she was very young she was, if not pretty, at least pretty-adjacent. She was not in the Margaret Hamilton category as a type. Wickes was quite young when she began her career on Broadway. She is said to have been in the original production of Marc Connelly’s The Farmer Takes a Wife (1934), though, if she was, it was probably either as a walk-on or a replacement as she is not listed in the IBDB credits. She was in the original productions of two George S. Kaufman plays, Stage Door (1936) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939-1941). The 1942 film version of the latter was her big screen Hollywood debut.

She had been in at least one film prior to The Man Who Came To Dinner, however. As a sometime member of Orson Welles’ and John Houseman’s Mercury Theatre, she had appeared in Welles’ legendary Too Much Johnson (1938). She also acted in the Mercury’s stage production of Danton’s Death (1938) and on radio with Mercury Theatre on the Air.

From 1942 until her death she was almost constantly on movie screens; starting in 1948 it was also true of television. Notable films include Now, Voyager (1942), On Moonlight Bay (1951), By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953), The Actress (1953), White Christmas (1954), Cimarron (1960), The Music Man (1962), How to Murder Your Wife (1965), Postcards from the Edge (1990), and the Sister Act films (1992 and 1993). She also appears in comedies of Abbott and Costello, Ma and Pa Kettle, and Blondie. Lucille Ball LOVED her and used her in a dozen episodes of her various tv shows I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, and Here’s Lucy. She also appeared memorably on The Doris Day Show, Columbo, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, M*A*S*H and many other shows. Her last screen credit was a voice over in Disney’s animated The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996).

For more on show business history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold. For more on  film comedy, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 

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.

 

 

Some Tales of Vaudeville Suicide, Despair and Murder

Posted in Hollywood (History), Variety Arts (Defined), Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 9, 2017 by travsd

This one is by special request — a reader (some morbid soul) wanted to see more stories like a certain tragic one we posted a few days ago. Essentially this is just a round up of several tales of show business tragedies, mostly vaudeville, but I’ve added some Hollywood ones as well. Just click on the performer’s name to learn more.

Down and Out, Penniless, Forgotten: 

Tens of thousands of aspiring stage and screen performers found themselves in this predicament, but we mention a few notables who had been either at the top, or very successful, and spent their last days broke and alone: Stephen Foster, the Father of American Song died drunk, penniless, singing for his supper and owing back-rent for his Bowery hotel room (this was in the days before songwriters got royalties),  Eva Tanguay, at one point the “Queen of Vaudeville” and one of the highest paid entertainers in the country, died blind, bed-ridden, and broke; Clarice Vance, also a star, wound up homeless and eventually in an insane asylum; Agnes Ayres, a Paramount star, toppled from fame, eventually losing her child, and going mad; Johnny Arthur died a charity case; Leo Dryden spent his last days singing for coppers on street corners. However, the most extreme cases wound up as:

Suicides 

Nat M. Wills, “The Happy Tramp”, suffering money and romantic woes, may have been one of the first people to kill himself with automobile exhaust fumes. There is some ambiguity because it was not well known at the time that one could actually die that way. And his career was going just great at the time. In most cases, the facts were much clearer. The clown Slivers Oakley killed himself with gas when vaudeville didn’t pan out. Premiere monologist Charley Case shot himself in his hotel room. Legendary screen beauty Mary Nolan’s slow descent ended with an overdose of pills. Jenny Dolly of the Dolly Sisters, having lost her beauty in a car accident, hanged herself. Lou Tellegen stabbed himself when talkies killed his career. Paul McCullough of Clark and McCullough, chronically depressed, slit his own throat while sitting in a barber chair. Sideshow performer Waldo the Human Ostrich gassed himself when a love affair went sour. Actor John Bowers drowned himself over a career decline (some think this event was the model for the climax of A Star is Born). Silent screen comedienne Phyllis Haver had been tragically isolated for years when she took an overdose of sleeping pills in 1960.  And one of the greatest of all 20th century comedians Max Linder and his wife, despondent over failing health and career, each committed TRIPLE suicides by taking barbiturates, injecting morphine, and cutting themselves.

The above folks all have connections to vaudeville. We’ve also written about some purely Hollywood suicides, including Peg Entwistle (who jumped off the famous “Hollywood” sign); the “Mexican Spitfire” Lupe Velez, who took pills when she became pregnant out of wedlock; Clara Blandick (Aunt Em of The Wizard of Oz), who suffocated herself with a plastic bag in response to health problems; and Doodles Weaver who shot himself.

Syphillis and Other Diseases

Strange to think that we could get a whole category out of venereal disease, but in the days before penicillin it took a shocking number of lives — especially (it shouldn’t surprise you to learn) a high number in the theatrical community. It was a terrible way to go because it usually first manifested itself in madness. The afflicted person was normally put away for a few years before they finally gave up the ghost. At any rate; the risks were known at the time, so in a way, to die in this manner was a kind of a suicide. Those who went in this fashion included Scott Joplin; Maurice Barrymore; George Walker of Walker and Williams; Tony Hart of Harrigan and Hart; Bob Cole of Cole and Johnson; Harry Kernell of the Kernell Brothers; Ernest Hogan; and Joe Welch.

Mabel Normand died of TB at 37. Tuberculosis was also common in those days, although Normand was almost certainly weakened from her hard-partying life style. Fellow silent comedian Larry Semon also died of the disease, among other factors.

If we concede that alcoholism is a disease, the catalog of those whose lives were shortened, ended or harmed by that affliction would be too long to list but some prominent examples included W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton, Lillian Roth, Leo Gorcey, Bert Williams and Jack Pickford. (and some of those also mentioned elsewhere on this page)

DISASTERS AND ACCIDENTS 

A few notable examples of stagefolk who died prematurely under bizarre or sudden circumstances. Blackface performer Artie Hall was killed when a theatre collapsed during the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. Magician Ching Ling Foo died while performing the dangerous “bullet catch” stunt. Houdini died of peritonitis after some college students punched him in the stomach, rupturing his appendix. Drag performer Bert Savoy was struck by lightning. Cowboy star Buck Jones was killed in a terrible night club fire. Olive Thomas accidentally drank poison, resulting in a slow, painful hospital death. Rosetta Duncan of the Duncan Sisters died in a car crash, as did Bernard Gorcey. Marilyn Miller’s story is a double tragedy: first her husband Frank Carter died in a car accident, then she herself was killed in a botched hospital operation.

MURDER

A few notable murders have found their way into these pages. There’s the famous William Desmond Taylor mystery. Most rule comedienne Thelma Todd’s death a murder (there are SUSPECTS and suspicious circumstances) although it’s possible it may have been an accident or suicide. Professor Backwards was famously killed by some inept robbers. Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer lost his life over a petty money dispute.

Fame and wealth are all well and good; but NO ONE escapes the ubiquitous pitfalls of life on Abattoir Earth!

For more on the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold. For more on silent film, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 

 

 

Joseph Hart: The Original Foxy Grandpa

Posted in Broadway, Impresarios, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2017 by travsd

Performer, producer and songwriter Joseph Hart (Joseph Hart Boudrow, 1861-1921) was born on June 8. Hart was the nephew of Josh Hart, who managed Boston’s Howard Athenaeum. Through his uncle, he played boy’s parts in productions at the Howard, leading to a career in the professional theatre.

Hart started out as an end man in minstrel shows (including Tony Pastor’s), singing, doing comedy routines and playing the banjo. For a time, he performed in Gilbert and Sullivan musicals. In 1888 he teamed up with Frederick Hallen, and for six years they toured in the musical comedies Later on and The Idea. After splitting with Hallen in 1894, Hart spent over a decade touring (and performing on Broadway) with a succession of his own starring vehicles. From our perspective, the most notable of these would be Foxy Grandpa (1902), based on a then-popular comic strip created by Carl E. Schultze. Here he is as the rascally old gentlemen:

Why I say his Foxy Grandpa characterization is most notable to us is that Hart made ten silent Biograph film shorts in 1902. Several of these are extant and can be viewed on Youtube. I had seen these little films years ago without knowing the backstory on the performer or the comic strip. 1902 is extremely early in film history; the films are only a couple of minutes long, and contain a single shot from a single angle, and were undoubtedly created to be watched on Nickelodeon machines (Mutoscopes, in this case — “Biograph” was originally the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company”). At any rate, you can watch Hart’s funny performances any time you like — knock yourself out!

In 1904, Hart also made a comedy called A European Rest Cure with Edwin S. Porter.

From 1892, Hart’s wife and co-star was the actress and singer Carrie de Mar. Hart also toured his own vaudeville revues (much as Weber and Fields did), in opposition to the circuit model being established by the big time managers at the same time. A number of color lithographs advertising his shows survive, telling us that some of the acts who performed in his shows were Elizabeth Murray, O’Brien & Havel, The Three Rosebuds, Frank Gardiner, Smith & Campbell, the Van Aukens, and Fleurette de Mar, Carrie’s sister, a dancer, billed simply as “Fleurette”. Many of his posters (see above, which dates from 1899), touts that he is “direct from Weber and Fields’ Music Hall”, although the credit isn’t mentioned in IBDB or in From the Bowery to Broadway, which is the definitive book on Weber and Fields. If I learn what the connection was, I’ll drop it in here.

For more on the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on silent film, consult Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. 

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