Friday, December 14, 2018

Hank Worden and John Wayne

This is my entry in the What a Character! Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken and Freckled and Paula's Cinema Club.

Hank Worden appeared with John Wayne in 17 films over the course of his career.  Only a couple of other actors had a bigger number of roles with Wayne.  Paul Fix (the marshal from the TV show Gunsmoke) topped them all with 25, but Worden was still up there.  And I'd hazard a guess that if you thought of minor characters in Wayne movies, at least one or two in the top 10 would be a character played by Worden.  Some of them were quite memorable.

 Worden was raised on a ranch in Montana, so he came by his cowboy skills naturally.  He went to Stanford University where he studied engineering.  After a stint in the US Army, worden started working the rodeo circuit.  It was there that he got his first big acting break when he and fellow rodeo star Tex Ritter where cast in a stage play on Broadway.

A few years later Billie Burke saw him and recommended him to several producers in Hollywood.  His acting career in Hollywood initially started as a co-star with his fellow rodeo compadre Ritter, who was by now a star in Hollywood.  He was in a couple of dozen movies in the 30's, mostly uncredited, as an extra in Westerns.

Worden has 222 credits on his resume on IMDb, including some 150 movies and various TV roles.  His last role was as a waiter at the hotel in the TV series Twin Peaks, in which he appeared in 4 episodes.

In 1991 Hank Worden was the focus of a documentary, Thank Ya, Thank Ya Kindly, in which many stars paid tribute to this legendary fixture in the character actor pantheon.

According to his bio on wikipedia, Worden first appeared with Wayne in Stagecoach.  Not that you would be able to spot him.  He was one of the Cavalrymen.  He went on to several other (uncredited) roles over the next 10 years.  His most prominent role was probably as Mose Harper in The Searchers, with a close second as the Parson that accompanied Wayne's character, Davy Crockett.

Mose Harper is a role that I find the most endearing of Worden's career with John Wayne.  In The Searchers, Worden is an old friend of the family whose only real desire is to have a roof over his head,  a nice warm fire and a cup of coffee.  And a rocking chair.  Mose helps Ethan (John Wayne) and Marty (Jeffrey Hunter) on their search for Ethan's niece who has been captured by the Comanches.  Mose serves as the comic relief character in an otherwise grim Wayne movie and a contrast to Wayne's hard-scrabble embittered warrior character.  (It is in this movie that Worden utters the line for which he is most remembered "Thank ya, thank ya kindly" which became the title of the documentary about his career.)  Mose is a bit eccentric and maybe a wee bit balmy.  But he has a good heart. 

In The Alamo, Worden plays a character called The Parson.  The Parson is the spiritual mentor of Day Crockett (John Wayne) and his contingent of Tennessee volunteers that help defend the Alamo from Santa Ana.  The Parson is not nearly as eccentric as Mose, but Worden does have some memorable scenes in the movie.  Of course, he is just as ridiculed for his ramblings as his character Mose.  Most of the Tennessee volunteers seem to put up with him as a necessary evil (so to speak.

The rest of Worden's career with John Wayne are just as memorable, even if they are fleeting.  Check out his role as one of the new cavalrymen in Fort Apache.  He is the best horse rider in the new unit, but he stands out primarily during the scene where the sergeant is training.  He wobbles in the lineup like he is drunk.  But he puts the rest of the new recruits to shame when he jumps on the saddle-less horse.

Although some of Worden's roles in John Wayne movies are rather brief, he usually stands out.  And he is recognizable, even if the role is brief.  As such a recognizable face, he is even credited as the role of the trainer of Sean Thornton in a flashback scene in The Quiet Man. But it should be noted although some sources credit it as Worden, Worden himself claimed it wasn't him but another actor who looked like him.  (It looks a lot like him to me, but I have to concede that if Worden himself says it wasn't him it wasn't...)

Hank Worden died in 1992.



Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Slogging Through the Snow

Christmas movies are a tradition on TV during the holidays.  The biggest question is which ones to watch.  You have your Miracle on 34th Street, (both the classic and the remake).  You have It's a Wonderful Life (which I watch on TV every Christmas Eve, whether anyone else wants to or not.  No, I don't impose my will; I just trek off to another room if nobody else is up for it.)  You have any number of a slew of versions of A Christmas Carol.  You have cheesy Hallmark movies out the wazoo.  And of course you have the ones that appeal to the rather twisted minds like me, such as Bad Santa, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, The Mistle-tones, and even Scrooged, the Bill Murray twist on the traditional Christmas Carol story.

And then there's the John Candy/Steve Martin comedy called Planes, Trains and Automobiles.  To tell the truth I really love this movie, but I completely don't get how it became a Christmas tradition. I mean after all, it's about two guys trying to get from New York to Chicago for Thanksgiving!  But be that as it may, you do get snow, which some folks do like to have for Christmas Day, so that's one point scored for it.

John Hughes, who gave the world such memorable classics as Ferris Bueller's Day Off and The Breakfast Club, and wrote the screenplays for many others, gave us this classic love-fest, as an uptight advertising executive, Neal Page (Steve Martin) is ultimately saddled with a well-meaning buffoon, Del Griffith (John Candy), as Neal attempts to get back home to his family in Chicago for Thanksgiving.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles  (1987):

Neal Page (Steve Martin) is an ad executive, sitting in a boring conference in New York.  He is desperate for the conference to end so he can catch a plane to return to Chicago, his wife and kids, and a family Thanksgiving get together.  but fate is working overtime to make sure his plans are all for naught.  For one thing, the client is determined to mull over the layouts until the last minute (and then adjourns the meeting without making a decision...)

Trying to catch a cab during rush hour proves to be problematic, too. First he races another passenger (Kevin Bacon in a cameo), but trips over what turns out to be Del Griffith's steamer trunk.  Then while negotiating with another potential cab fare for an available cab, Del (John Candy) steals Neal's cab away from him.  But it won't be the last time that Del gets under Neal's skin, not even in the slightest.

On boarding the plane Neal finds that his first class ticket has been downgraded to a coach set.  And guess who is Neal's seat companion?  Del.  It turns out that Del is a crude, brash and annoying seat companion, the exact opposite of the uptight Neal.  And to make matters worse, the plane is rerouted from it's original destination of Chicago  to Wichita, KS.

When flights to Chicago are all cancelled, Neal ends up taking Del's offer to go to a low-rent motel, although upon arriving it turns out all the rooms are booked and Del and Neal are going to have to sharte the same hotel room.  Which wouldn't have been too bad if it were a double, but they have a single king bed instead.  And Del manages to make things worse in his own inimitable way.  Plus some malcontent breaks in to the hotel room and steals all the money from the pair.

The two take a train, fortunately for Neal not seated together, but the train breaks down and fate casts the two together again.  In town, Del manages to acquire bus tickets for the pair, but they only go as far as St. Louis.  When Neal tries to get a rent a car, it is not there and, after a fruitless argument with the rental agent, attempts to hire a cab.  But Neal is obnoxious to the cab manager who punches him and he falls to the street, where, guess who just happens to come along in a rental car?

Del and Neal use the car to try to get to Chicago, but since Del is not the most attentive driver, the car ends up wrecked.  Whereupon Neal finds out that through an inadvertent switch, Del used Neal's credit card to rent the car.  And the car is not road worthy, as a police officer impounds it.

Will Neal ever make it home?  This being a feel good movie in it's basic form, you know what the answer is.  But the trip itself is well worth the watch.

Well, the old Plymouth may not be the best form of transportation, but its sure to get me home without any cops stopping me.  Drive home safely folks.  And have a great holiday season.


Friday, December 7, 2018

A Tribute to Ray Dennis Steckler

This is my entry in The Unexpected Blogathon hosted by Taking Up Room

Preface  note: Most of the tidbits of information that follows comes from an interview that a man named Boyd Rice conducted with Steckler,  that I found in a book called Incredibly Strange Films published by Research Publications or from comments made by Joe Bob Briggs in the commentary segment of my DVD copy of the film.  

Ray Dennis Steckler (some 40 years after our movie)

OK, are you people ready for bizarre?  If you've read every entry on this blog, maybe.  But I think most of you are going to decide I've finally did a high dive into the shallow end of the pool.  Ever forward in my attempt to try to educate you into the realm of "bottom of the barrel budget" drive-in fare, I found something that makes everything that came before this seem like Oscar night.

Ray Dennis Steckler may just have been Ed Wood, Jr.'s successor in trashy low-budget fare.  About the time that Eddie moved from "normal" cinematic fare to pornographic films, Ray Steckler moved in to take up the mantle of low-budget tripe.  (And Steckler would also later follow Wood's footsteps into doing pornographic films).

Steckler always had his eye on saving money.  Basically his philosophy seemed to be why spend $5,000 on special effects when you could spend $500, and why spend $500 when you could get something for $50?  And if you could save 50 cents here, go for it.  A perfect example is the movie that was titled Rat Phink a Boo-Boo.  The actual title was supposed to be Rat Phink and Boo-Boo, but the guy doing the title credits made a typographical error.  Rather than pay the $50 that was required to correct it, Steckler just left it the way it was.

Steckler never made the same movie twice.  He seems to have had the same kind of eclectic interests that I have.  After being hired by Arch Hall, Sr. to direct his son Arch Hall, Jr. to make a rockabilly movie called Wild Guitar, Steckler set his sights on making his own brand of movies.  The first (and arguably best) movie was a monster movie, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?  (BTW, just as a side note; the official title of the movie is supposed to include the "!!?".  Why?  I have no freaking idea...but it is sort of cool).  His second movie was a slasher flick called The Thrill Killers. He followed that with a quasi-superhero parody called Rat Phink a Boo-Boo and a pastiche that was kind of a tribute to the 30's Bowery Boys movies called The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Monsters.

He also had a career making low-budget pornographic movies (like Ed Wood, Jr.) He also did a movie in 1979 called The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher.  The unique thing about this particular movie was that he filmed it 10 years earlier and intentionally withheld editing it for release for 10 years, but establishing the fact (within the movie) that it takes place in the year it was actually made.  The idea being, in his head, that people would marvel at how "accurately"  he got the look and feel of the late 60's/early 70's, even though the movie had been actually made in the late 60's/early 70's, just not released at that time.    (The guy was nothing if he wasn't creative, that's for sure.)

The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? (1964):

The Dancing Girls of the Carnival 
Murdered by the Incredible 
Night Creatures of the Midway!

The Hunchback of the Midway
Fight a Duel of Death With The 
Mixed-Up Zombies!

The First Monster Musical!

The classic masterpiece of Steckler was this gem, made for about $38,000, according to sources, and that was, supposedly, the most he ever spent to film a movie. Unless you watch these low-budget types of films, you won't recognize any of the actors' names, but a look at the screen credits reveals some real future star power on the other side of the camera.  Both Vilmos Zsigmond (credited as Wiliam Zsigmond) and Laszlo Kovacs (credited as Leslie Kovacs), names familiar to Academy Awards aficionados, appear as camera operators, and Joseph V. Mascelli, the man who wrote the book that is still studied today on camera work, was the main director of photography.

If you were paying attention, this gem is indeed a "monster musical".  In fact, it is billed as the first monster musical.  Before The Rocky Horror Picture Show, before Little Shop of Horrors, before Phantom of the Paradise, and, yes, before such recent masterpieces as Cannibal! The Musical, The Haunted World of Superbeasto, and Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead (and, no, I'm not making any of these titles up...) there was The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?

A note about the title.  Steckler originally was going to call this movie The Incredibly Strange Creature, or Why I Stopped Living and Became a Mixed-Up Zombie.  But on another lot, Stanley Kubrick was filming his classic Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb. Apparently Kubrick thought the title sounded too similar and threaten to sue for big bucks, way more than Steckler had for his movie to produce in the first place.  But a deal was eventually worked out with Kubrick,  and he got to use the title that was eventually used.

Steckler (billed as Cash Flagg) stars as our "hero", a slacker by the name of  Jerry.

Jerry has a buddy named Howard (Atlas King) and the two make plans to go for a day to the carnival on the beach, stopping on the way to pick up Angela (Sharon Walsh), Jerry's girlfriend.  Because Jerry is a slacker with no foreseeable future, Angela's mother does not approve of Jerry, but Angela loves him, primarily because of his free spirit, even though he is a bit of a jerk.

Some background to the carnival:  First, there is this gypsy woman named Madam Estrella (Brett O'Hara, whose main claim to fame is as Susan Hayward's stand-in and had never been in a movie before...and never would after this.  You only have to watch to see why...)  Madam Estrella and her right hand man, an ugly brute named Ortega (Jack Brady) have this lovely little habit of taking unsuspecting patrons and pouring acid in their face, and then imprisoning them in the back room of Estrella's gypsy fortune-telling tent.  (Tents have back rooms???)

Estrella has a sister named Carmelita (Erina Enyo, another one-time only actress).  Carmelita is a stripper who also acts sometimes as a lure for her sister's potential victims.  There is also a dancing duo in some sort of exotic ballet dance number, Marge (Carolyn Brandt, who was Steckler's wife at the time so we know how she got into the movie) and Bill Ward (Bill Ward).  No that's not a typo.  He actually seems to be playing himself.  Marge is an alcoholic who can barely get through her numbers without a drink.  She is also a superstitious sort and visits Madam Estella for what turns out to be bad news.

Meanwhile Jerry has shown up with Harold and Angela and after frolicking around for a while end up in Estrella's tent, where she tells Angela that someone near her will come to an untimely end near water.  But she refuses to tell Jerry's fortune.  (Any ideas why?)

Jerry then has a falling out with Angela because he becomes enchanted by the beauty of Carmelita and wants to go to the strip show, but Angela doesn't.  Of course, Jerry, being the jerk that he is, tells Harold to take Angela home and goes in by himself.  Where, guess what, she lures Jerry back to Estrella's tent.  Where Estrella does some nefarious things with him, including hypnotizing him into being a slasher to take care of some of her more private enemies.

But remember I said this was a musical?  Well it is.  Not that you'd ever write home about these musical numbers.  A couple of them are halfway decent (key word; "halfway"), but none of them have anything to do with advancing the plot.  Which if you've read my opinion on musicals you know that makes it an acceptable musical to me on those merits.  But you may cringe at the singing of the various singers.  There is one guy who does a lounge singer song that makes me wonder if Steckler intentionally found the worst lounge singer he could scrounge up to appear in his movie...

All the dance numbers were done with only one rehearsal.  A bevy of showgirls (showgirls?  in a strip show?), in costumes that probably ate up a big chunk of that $38,000, perform with the lead singer most of the musical numbers.

Keep your eye on those chorus girls, by the way.  One of them is Sharon Walsh, our lead actress playing Angela.  Another interesting tidbit:  An entirely different girl was going to play Angela, but on the night that Steckler wanted to film her in her first scene the actress tried to beg off until the next day because her boyfriend, a drummer in a band, was playing a gig that night and she told Steckler  "I always go to his shows".   Steckler fired her on the spot (as would have I) and grabbed one of the dancers who happened to be walking by and told her she was now going to be the female star.   And that's how Sharon got the part.

Another note; this time about Atlas King.  His real name was, I think, Dennis Kesdekian and he was from Greece.  He couldn't speak much English when he was hired for this movie.  He had to learn is lines phonetically.   The fact that he sounds like a terrible actor can be attributed partially to that fact, but the fact that he seems to do it without an accent seems all that more impressive.  He was only in two movies, this one and Steckler's follow up, The Thrill Killers, and seems to have disappeared off the face of the Earth after that.  Maybe his experiences with Steckler sent him scurrying back to Greece where he has been operating a gyro stand, for all I know. 

I wasn't sure going in how I'd feel about this movie.  I knew I'd appreciate the low-budget aspect of it, but I wasn't sure how I'd feel about the film in general. It turns out, at least to me, that it's not quite the "bad" movie that the general public claims it is.    I liken it to one of those train wrecks that is just so bloody awful but you can't pry your eyes away from it no matter how hard you try.  And to think, it was all done for $38,000.  That's less than one day's bill for some grand extravaganzas you can see down at the multiplex today.  Plus, the "zombies" aren't like any zombies you've ever seen before.  I think they look more like actors in cheap dime-store masks.  But even that is part of the humor I get from it.  Of course you have to bear through the first hour and a half before you get to see these zombies in the last 5 minutes of the movie.

An added note, after it's initial run, Steckler often sent this movie out again under different titles.  Like The Teenage Psycho Meets Bloody Mary (no you didn't miss something.  Nobody in the movie is named "Mary"). and The Diabolical Doctor Voodoo (No doctors in it either).  Steckler even arranged for actors to go to showings and dress up like zombies and run out from behind the screen in the theater, at a pivotal moment, to scare the crap out of unsuspecting patrons (and sometimes he would be one of the actors).  Much like some of the tricks William Castle used to use for his movies, Steckler had a showmanship sensibility.

Well folks, time to fire up the old Plymouth and head home.  I suggest if you see a carnival on the side of the road on the way home, you bypass with all gusto.  Drive safely, folks.


Thursday, November 29, 2018

Clothes Make the Man

This is my entry in the Richard Burton Blogathon hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews

Richard Burton was one of the most iconic actors of his day.  He was a Shakespearean actor who performed in plays for many years, mostly in productions of plays written by William Shakespeare.  He was also a frequent also-ran in the Academy Awards , ranking only behind Peter O'Toole's 8 nominations without an award.  (He was nominated 7 times, including one for today's movie).

Arguably it could be said that Burton is more famous for his off-screen relationships than his actual catalogue of film roles.  He was married five times (although two of those times were to the same woman, Elizabeth Taylor, which maybe only counts as one time.  Or then again, it maybe counts for 20 times... depending on how you feel about Elizabeth Taylor...)

Burton's birth name was Richard Jenkins, Jr.  He was made a legal ward (as opposed to being adopted) by his schoolmaster, Phillip Burton, and legally changed his name to Burton.

The Robe (1953): 

In Imperial Rome, Centurion Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton) returns from abroad.  He is feted as he enters the city and is greeted by Diana (Jean Simmons).  Diana was a childhood friend of Marcellus, and in their youth he had pledged to marry her when they were mere children.

Diana is now the ward of Emperor Tiberius (Ernest Thesiger), and Tiberius is planning to marry of Diana to his nephew, Caligula (Jay Robinson).

Although Marcellus is rather blase' about his commitment to Diana, he is less than enthused about having her be married to his political enemy, Caligula.  The two are bitter rivals, born out by the fact that Caligula intentionally outbids Marcellus for two slave girls that Marcellus wants.

In retaliation, Marcellus intentionally outbids Caligula for Demetrius (Victor Mature), a renegade Greek slave that Caligula only wants as meat for the gladiator ring.

To make matters even more contentious, Marcellus frees Demetrius.  Caligula pulls some strings to get his revenge and has Marcellus sent to the most despicable post in the Roman Empire; Jerusalem.  There, circumstances lead to Marcellus being responsible to see to the execution of a Jewish rebel named Jesus.

At the foot of the cross where Jesus is executed soldiers play dice and gamble on the garments.  Marcellus wins the robe, which he immediately regrets because he has an attack of mental anguish which he blames on the robe because he thinks it is cursed.  He gives it to Demetrius demanding that he burn it.  But Demetrius has an epiphany and refuses.  He also tells Marcellus he is no longer going to serve Marcellus because he will now serve the Master, Jesus.

For the middle part of the film, Marcellus continues to suffer from mental problems and determines that the only solution is to find Demetrius and the robe and have the robe destroyed.  In this effort he is given a commission by the emperor top not only find his cursed robe, but to also weed out the followers of this new sect, who have been calling themselves Christians.

Of course, this being ultimately a Christian film, it was bound to happen that Marcellus converts to Christianity.  He is recalled to Rome, where Tiberius has died and Caligula is now the emperor.  Caligula has Marcellus arrested for treason, since he is no longer fulfilling the mandate given him, and refuses to divulge the location of the Christians, especially the leader, Peter (Michael Rennie).

The Robe and a sequel which featured many of the same actors in the same roles, Demetrius and the Gladiators, come across as astounding epics.  Your opinion on them may be influenced by your opinion on the Christian theology, but both are very good well-acted dramas.  Burton, of course, is the standout performer in The Robe.  But Victor Mature carries his own and Jay Robinson as Caligula is a treat, even though he seems to be over-acting out his butt.  (He was a former Broadway stage actor, and these two films represent his first roles in Hollywood).

Drive home safely, folks


Sunday, November 18, 2018

South of the Border

This is my entry in the Rock Hudson Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Love Letters to Old Hollywood.

The Undefeated (1969):

The Civil war has ended.  Unfortunately for Col. John Henry Thomas (John Wayne), the news comes a couple of days late.  His cadre of Union soldiers has just demolished another cadre of Confederate soldiers.  Thomas is distraught over the needless slaughter of men who should have lived to an older age.

Thomas and a group of loyal companions decide to round up a herd of wild stallions, the goal being to sell the herd to the States.  Thomas is joined by a cast of soldiers that include many names of which you have probably heard; Roman Gabriel as Blue Boy, the adopted Indian son of Thomas; Ben Johnson, a frequent guest star in Wayne movies, as Shortgrub, Thomas's second-hand man; Dub Taylor as the cook McCartney (That's MR. McCartney to you...).  The men round up horses and prepare to sell them.

But the people who represent the United States are trying to back out of the deal.  They are only prepared to take 500 of the 3000 horses Thomas and his crew have captured.  They also try to weasel out on the agreed upon price of $35 a head, instead insisting on $25 a head.   But Thomas insists it's all or nothing, and at the previously agreed upon price to boot.  He instead decides to take a counter offer from representatives of Emperor Maximillian in Mexico, and heads to Mexico with his herd.

Meanwhile, Col. James Langdon (Rock Hudson), of the former Confederate States has decided there is no use in living in a country that doesn't meet his standards and decides to pack up his former crew and their families and go to Mexico themselves, to offer their services to Emperor Maximillian. 

He has with him a cast of his own famous names like Jan-Michael Vincent as Lt. Bubba Wilkes, the potential husband of his daughter; Merlin Olsen as Little George, his burly blacksmith;  and Bruce Cabot as his First Sergeant, Newby.

Langdon burns down his ranch, rather than sell it to carpetbaggers, or leave it for them to take over and goes on a trek towards the border with his crew.  Both Langdon and Thomas have to deal with agents who are determined to prevent them from crossing the border, but both end up safely in Mexico.  (Or so it seems they are safe, anyway, but you know it's not going to end so quickly, don't you...?)

Eventually the two groups do hook up.  At first there is some animosity after Langdon learns that Thomas was on the other side.  But the two become somewhat partners as the former Union soldiers band together to help the former Confederates defend themselves against a band of Mexican banditos.  Later, Langdon invites Thomas and his buddies to a 4th of July celebration.  Which  ultimately breaks out in an old-fashioned, all-out (but good natured) brawl.

But all is not well in Mexico.  The Juaristas (the rebels who oppose Maximillan and his French rule) are on the rampage, and before this movie is over, both the Thomas contingent and the Langdon forces are going to have to come to terms that Maximillan's days are numbered as ruler of Mexico.  There is of course a rousing ending, and both forces do end up friends t the end.  Butwhat else would you expect from a Wayne movie?

There are a whole host of other recognizable faces in this movie other than those mentioned above.  Lee Meriwether plays Langdon's wife, but you will (or should) al;so be able to spot Royal Dano, John Agar, Richard Mulligan, Paul Fix and a host of other character actors who showed up in dozens of TV and movie westerns (and other genres of film).   See if you can count them all. 

Time to saddle up and head back to the ranch.  Drive safely, folks.  And watch out for banditos and rebels on the way home.