Saturday, October 27, 2018

Skid Row Monsters

Frankenstein was the first in line
And the Wolfman came up next.
Dracula was a-doing his stuff,
Breathing down my neck.
Jump back, make tracks, here comes the Hunchback
Better get outta his way.
Fee fee fi fi fo fo fum
It was a Monster's Holiday!

Buck Owens Monster's Holiday"

In the 30's, even at the height of the Depression, monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein and the Wolf Man could find work.  Sometimes they even got to team together to scare the living daylights out of the theater crowd.  The 30's through the mid-40's were halcyon days for the fright masters.

But then came the late 40's.  By this time the fickle horror fans had moved on and the classic monsters were passe, out of work.  It must have been devastating to see the Wolf Man on the unemployment line, Frankenstein picking up day labor work as a gofer on a construction site, and Dracula sitting under a bridge with a cardboard placard that read "Will work for blood."

Then came the most embarrassing moments of their lives.  Their agents called and said they had work for them.  But it turned out that work was as comic foils in a series of movies with a comedy duo, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.  It was work, they were going to be headliners again, but not in the classic scare movies they had made their bread and butter in the years previous.  This time they would only be scaring Abbott and Costello, while their audiences would be howling with laughter.

The preface above is written tongue-in cheek, of course.  I thoroughly enjoy the twist on the old Universal Monsters being paired up with Abbott and Costello.  The run of the Abbott and Costello versus classic horror monsters numbered 5 theatrical releases (Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Abbot and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff, Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy.)  There was also a meeting of the Creature from the Black Lagoon on their syndicated TV show.

Universal Studios went full bull goose loony with the first outing however, pitting the comedy duo not only against the titular Frankenstein monster, but also had the addition of Dracula and the Wolf Man (and a brief cameo by another Universal monster headliner, the Invisible Man).  Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is considered by many to be one of the top comedy horror films of all time.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948):

The film opens with a worried Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) trying to get a phone call through from London to Florida.  He is desperate to deliver a message to the customs office there that under no circumstances should a couple of crates bound for McDougal's House of Horrors be delivered.

Unfortunately, not only is Talbot under duress because he is about to be turned into his arch-nemesis/alter ego, the Wolf Man, the customs office is being run by a couple of dimwits; Chick (Bud Abbott) and Wilbur (Lou Costello).

Wilbur tries to carry on a conversation with Talbot, but unfortunately Talbot is a dollar short and a full moon late.  He turns into the Wolf Man during the telephone conversation and Wilbur dismisses him as a kook.  Meanwhile, Mr. McDougal (Frank Ferguson) shows up, a blustery windbag, demanding that the two customs agents deliver his packages personally.

While delivering the packages, the two dolts manage to exasperate McDougal in many ways, not the least of which is mishandling his prized packages.  It turns out that the two packages contain the coffin of the legendary Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange), which Mc Dougal plans to make showcases in his wax museum.

Wilbur has attracted the attention of Dr. Sandra Mornay (Lenore Aubert).  She coos and frets over Wilbur, which only serves to make Chick jealous.  Chick being the ladies man of the pair.

And when MacDougal has the pair arrested for damaging his packages, they are bailed out by a woman, but it turns out that it is not Wilbur's admirer.  It is Joan (Jane Randolph).  And she too coos over Wilbur to the consternation of Chick.

It turns out that both of the women have ulterior motives for flirting with Wilbur, however.  Joan is really a private investigator for the insurance company that insured McDougal's packages and thinks she can get the information on what happened by getting in with Wilbur.  And Sandra?  Well she is working in cahoots with Dracula.  She and Dracula want Wilbur's brain to transplant into the Frankenstein monster.  (Not that much of an improvement...)  And Talbot (remember Larry Talbot?) knows of the nefarious plans.  So he tries to work in conjunction with Chick and Wilbur to thwart them.  But then he has a hairy problem that makes that a tough go.

If you are familiar with any of the horror/comedy output of Abbott and Costello you can probably guess all of the vaudeville acts that are incorporated into the film.  And of course Wilbur is usually the only one who encounters all the monsters (at first), while Chick berates him for being idiotic for even thinking the monsters are real.

This one has one of the classic funny lines that most people will have heard, even if they never saw the movie:

Talbot (Wolf Man): "I know you'll think I'm crazy, but in a half an hour the moon will rise, and I'll turn into a wolf."

Wilbur: "Yeah, you and about 20 million other guys."

Believe it or not, this was only the second time that Lugosi ever played Dracula.  Yes he had been vampires in other movies, but none of them had been the original horror master himself.  And of course there had always been only one Wolf Man, Lon Chaney Jr.  As to why Boris Karloff did not appear as the monster, well there are several stories behind it.  But the most believable one, to me, is that Karloff objected to his iconic role being played for laughs.  But apparently money talks, because he not only appeared in the next A &C output, Abbott and Costello Meet Boris Karloff, The Killer, but he was also the titular character in Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Well folks, time to fire up the old Plymouth and head home.  Drive safely.


Wednesday, October 24, 2018

A Measure of Individuality

This is my entry in the Disability in Film Blogathon hosted by Pop Culture Reverie and In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.

In the 24th century, disabilities are almost non-existent (at least not in the idealistic 24th century that Gene Roddenberry envisioned...).   And those that do crop up can be easily remedied.  Blindness, for example, can be fixed by just attaching an instrument across the eyes that lets them see things.  Thus, one of the crew of the starship USS Enterprise, is effectively a viable member of the crew, who, though blind, can see with the aid of a VISOR (Visual Instrument and Sight Organ Replacement). 

Star Trek - The Next Generation: ("I Borg" episode first broadcast May 11, 1992):

 On a mission in a remote solar system of the galaxy, the Enterprise detects a faint distress beacon on one of the moons within the system.   Upon investigation the crew finds the remains of a crashed Borg ship.

If you are new to the Star Trek Universe, allow me to give you a brief description of the Borg.  The Borg are a race that are somewhat humanoid, but are entirely driven by a central computer source.  Think of robots, an entire race of which are driven by a central processor.  Except the Borg are not content with existing in a multi-racial universe.  They are driven by their central source to conquer other civilizations and turn them into Borg themselves.  In order to understand all that follows, you really need to understand that the Borg is one, not a race, just one individual with albeit, multiple bodies.  In other words, when one identifies himself, it is in the third person collective of "We are Borg."

By the 5th season of the run of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the crew of the Enterprise had become well acquainted with the Borg.  In fact, in an earlier episode, Capt Jean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) had actually been captured and "assimilated" as a Borg. 

So when Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) insists that it is her duty to help save the life of the one surviving Borg, of course Picard, and the entire rest of the crew have their own uneasiness at the situation

Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) is given the task to help repair the damaged circuits of the injured Borg.  But he is also given another mandate.  Develop some kind of computer virus that will infect the Borg collective.  (see, since all Borg or connected, if you introduce a computer virus to one, eventually all Borg would be infected by the virus.)

Of course, the moral implications of this concept of intoducing a virus that would effectively wipe out an entire race from the face of the universe HAS to come into play.  And despite the adamant desires of some to exact revenge on the Borg for what they have caused to their own worlds, each of the characters in the piece must come to the same conclusion.  That this Borg is no longer a faceless enemy.  By this time many of the people associated with the injured Borg have began to call him(/it/??) "Hugh".  And Hugh himself has demonstrated that a certain sense of individuality has started to come to the fore.

Ultimately it is decided not to introduce the computer virus to Hugh's memory banks.  Hugh elects to be returned to the crash site because a rescue team of Borg is on it's way.  And the Borg will seek out their survivors, no matter where they are, which means if Hugh chose to stay with his new friend, Geordi, eventually the Borg would find him.  And that might not be good for the crew of the Enterprise.

Well, folks time to head home.  The theater is closing.  Resistance is futile.  You will be ejected.  Drive safely.


Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Love and Bulls

This is my entry in the 100 Years of Rita Hayworth Blogathon hosted by Love Letters to Old Hollywood

Rita Hayworth was the classic bombshell of a woman in the 40's and 50's.  She was, by most every source I could find, one of the most popular pinup girls of WWII.  Maybe even the most popular.   Every soldier's barracks had at least one pinup of her (at least ones that didn't have George Patton as commander, and if you don't get that reference go watch Patton.)

She came by her acting and dancing abilities naturally.  She was born in Brooklyn to an acting family.  Born Margarita Cansino, she was the daughter of two vaudeville dancers, Eduardo and Volga Cansino.  She originally appeared in films as "Rita Cansino" (from 1926-37), but the powers that be objected that the name would be too limiting because of it's Spanish descent.  She took the stage name Hayworth which was her mother's maiden name.  Volga was of Irish descent, which accounts for the astoundingly beautiful river of red hair Rita sported.

Blood and Sand (1941):

In Spain, the national sport is bullfighting.  That's just the way it has always been.  Every poor young boy in Spain has dreams of being a grand matador in the ring, the ultimate in status symbol.  Little Juan Gallardo (played by Rex Downing) has dreams of being the premiere matador of Spain.

His father had been one of the top bullfighters, but he had been killled in the ring several years before.  So Juan's mother (Alla Nazimova) is very discouraging of her son's ambitions.  But Juan is determined.  In a brawl in the cantina, Juan bashes snobby fight critic Curro (Laird Creagar) in the head with a wine bottle because Curro said Juan's father was a third rate matador at the best.  Juan tells his sweetheart Carmen (played by Ann Todd) that he is going to runaway to Madrid to learn the craft of bullfighting.  He is under the impression that he is in imminent danger locally because he thinks the blow he delivered to Curro killed the man.

Ten years later, Juan (Tyrone Power), now a consummate professional returns to his home.  He thinks he is coming home to acclaim, because an article in the newspaper read to him by a fellow passenger claims that even Curro thinks he's hot stuff.  Unfortunately, Juan can't read and the passenger made up the praise, rather than read the actual article.  Curro did not die after all from the head shot Juan delivered and is still as ever the same snobby critic.  He really had written that Juan was no matador and that he would end up dying in the ring just like his father.

When Juan hears the real content of the article he becomes even more driven to become the premiere matador.  And eventually, of course, he does.  Which makes Curro claim that he knew all along that Juan would be big.  (You will probably end up just hating this smarmy jackass, just like me.  Creagar., whom I never really warmed up to as an actor before managed to pull off a character that doesn't really seem all that cardboard, although it could have ended up that way...)

Juan has married his sweetheart Carmen (Linda Darnell) and life is going well for him.  But he attracts the attention of Dona Sol (Rita Hayworth), a woman who goes through lovers like a woman changing clothes.  She itches her current lover for Juan, signified by a matching ring set, one of which she wears and the other which she gives to her current man of the moment.

The effect of Dona Sol on Juan is dramatic.  His attention to her detracts from his love for Carmen, although he still proclaims his love for her.  It also tends to make him less adept in the ring, as his practice sessions decline in favor of more time spent in the arms of his secret lover.  Eventually Carmen discovers his illicit affair and leaves him.  It takes about 2 minutes for Juan to realize that he has lost the only true passion he ever had.  So he leaves Dona Sol, who has already set her sights on her next conquest anyway, and finds Carmen.  He promises her after his next bullfight he will leave the ring forever and buy a ranch and settle down with her.

How all this works out I will leave to you to watch the film.

Time for me to saddle up and head home.  Drive safely, folks.


Sunday, October 7, 2018

Life in the City

My friend, Chris, (Angelman @ Angelman's Place) turned me on to this series. I had seen it in the racks at the library, but it didn't attract my attention, mainly because the title (and the spine of the DVD box) didn't reach out and slap me.  (I admit I have sometimes checked out movies just because the DVD box's spine looked cool.  What can I say...)

Tales of the City is based on a series of articles written by Armistead Maupin. originally written for The San Francisco Chronicle.  It covered the lives of several fictional characters, based on Maupin's experiences, living in San Francisco in the late 70's.  The articles were collected and edited into a novel also titled "Tales of the City".  Maupin went on to write a total of 9 novels (so far) surrounding the characters he created for the original series.

San Francisco, in 1976 at least, was the gay capital of the United States.  More or less.  As a young adult in the 70's I saw the parody of that idea.  Talk show comedians and hosts pounded the point home in their monologues all the time.  Of course, I have never been that far west in my life, so I only know from what I see on TV, but it probably is significant that the first openly gay politician, Harvey Milk, was from San Francisco.

Tales of the City (1993):

The series opens as we look in upon a phone conversation between Mary Ann Singleton and her mother.  Mary Ann has decided to become independent (and at age 25, it's probably about time, but her mother is reluctant to untie the apron strings...)

Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney) is perhaps the most naive and inexperienced person I have ever seen in film.  I thought of Candide, the novel by French author Voltaire, which was about a similar type of character experiencing the world outside his own rather narrow view.  She is from Cleveland, on vacation in San Francisco in 1976 and has decided to stay in San Francisco permanently.

Mary Ann

I get the feeling that she never saw drugs in Cleveland, nor any gay people, because she reacts with shock when she encounters both within her first few days as a permanent resident.  I also got an idea that she may even still be a virgin, although she is 25 and that seems highly unlikely given the time frame of the film.  She certainly seems to have never met the kind of guys she meets at the bar.  These are guys who must have religiously read a pamphlet called "How to Pick Up Women", a pamphlet that was advertised in men's magazines in the day.

Initially Mary Ann goes to live with Connie Bradshaw (Parker Posey).  Connie is a friend from Mary Ann's high school who has been living in SF for some time previously.  But Connie's freely sexual lifestyle is the exact opposite of Mary Ann's.  Plus Mary Ann wants to be a bit more independent, so she goes apartment hunting.


She ends up at a boarding house owned by Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis).  Anna is a free spirit from an earlier age.  (It turns out she also harbors a dark secret, which I won't reveal, but will say it would have been shocking at the time, although not so much in today's age.)  Anna grows her own marijuana on the premises which she distributes to her tenants freely.  (No that's not the dark secret...)  I think Anna is kind of like a god in her own little realm of 28 Barbary Lane, the location of her rooming house.  She certainly seems to have a second sense of what is going on in the lives of her tenants, anyway.

Her other tenants include Mona Ramsey (Chloe Webb), a latter-day hippie who works as an ad consultant for Edgar Halcyon (Donald Moffatt), an advertising exec, and the one for whom Mary Ann eventually starts working a a secretary.  Also living in the building ids Brian Hawkins (Paul Gross), a womanizer whose only goal seems to be getting in the sack with every woman he meets.

Mona (with Michael)

Edgar Halcyon

Brian (with Michael)

Halcyon has a daughter, DeeDee Halcyon Day (Barbara Garrick), who is married to Beauchamp Day (Thomas Gibson), Edgar's second-in-command at Halcyon and a man who can't commit to one woman, even if that woman s his boss' daughter and his wife.  Beauchamp sleeps around on DeeDee, and even beds Mary Ann at one point.  He is the second most unsympathetic character in this film, in my opinion.  Even if DeeDee is somewhat of a harridan, that's no excuse for not staying commited to your marriage.

DeeDee and Beauchamp (with a friend)

Rounding out the core cast is Michael Tolliver (Marcus D'Amico), who often goes by the name "Mouse".  Michael is gay.  His romantic relationships always seem to fall though.  But he is happy-go-lucky most of the time.  It was he and his then partner whom were the first gay men Mary Ann met early in the film. Early on, Mouse's relationship with his partner goes into the dumpster so he ends up rooming with his best friend, who just happens to be Mona.

Michael (again)

Over the course of the series relationships develop. And sometimes deteriorate.  Mouse meets a new lover, Dr. John Fielding (William Campbell).  But the doctor is a bit out of his league socially.  John takes Michael to a private party hosted by some rich gays.   These guys are rich, elitist, and entirely prejudiced against the lower class gay people.  (Gay Republicans?  Is there such a thing?)  The cadre of friends include characters who are played by Ian McKellen, Bob Mackie, Paul Bartel and Lance Loud.

Dr. John

Mona, it turns out, has a former lover, D'orothea Wilson (Cynthia Williams).  D'orothea has a secret of her own. (Of course she does... didn't I say this is basically a soap opera?)  Mona ends up moving out of Barbary Lane, to the disappointent of Michael who had just moved in with her, as well as the extreme disappoint of Mrs.Madrigal.

Mary Ann takes on a part time job as a volunteer for a suicide hotline, where she befiends the somewhat unstable operator of the hotline, Vincent (John Fleck).  Vincent has problems of his own, mainly that he is dealing with the loss of his wife, who left him.

Living in the "penthouse" above Barbary Lane is Norman Neal Williams (Stanley DeSantis), a shy overweight older man with whom Mary Ann develops a platonic (to her) relationship.  But it turns out that Norman has the biggest dark secret of all, which leads to one of the biggest "didn't see that coming" moments of my film watching career.

But the main story line, aside from Mary Ann's trip from innocence to experience would be the relationship that Edgar Halcyon develops with Anna Madrigal.  Edgar is dying and has been given only six months to live by his doctor.  He ends up meeting Anna in the park and they discover they have a common past.  From this develops a blossoming relationship, only encouraged by the loveless marriage Edgar has with his wife.

This film is so much like a soap opera.  Everybody is connected to everybody else.  I never was much for soap operas.  I briefly watched General Hospital back in the 80's but after three months I stopped, it just wasn't my cup of tea.  Despite that fact,  this big budget "soap opera" intrigues me.  I actually care about the characters. And to be honest, I actually cried at a couple of the developments.  (I wanted so much for things to work out for Michael.  I felt something of a kindred spirit for the guy.)

To the faint of heart:  Be forewarned, there is some nudity in this.  Enough so that the ultra right wing Moral Majority blew a fuse when it aired on PBS.  It was a point of contention in the often fought battle to curb public funding to people who don't stick to the rules of common decency, or common decency as it is viewed by the fundamentalist sect of the Religious Right anyway.  But it is mostly topless women and a few bare asses.  In other words, there are no dangling participles in this film.


Friday, October 5, 2018

Brazilian Barbarism

This is my entry in the James Mason Blogathon hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Movies.

"Mr. Kohler... it may be a blinding revelation to you that there are Nazis in Paraguay, but I assure you it is no news to me..."  So says Ezra Lieberman (Laurence Olivier) to the young intrepid Jewish investigator, Barry Kohler (Steve Guttenberg).  And of course, everybody knows that many Nazi war criminals hid out in South America, some to be found by intrepid Nazi hunters,  like a younger Lieberman, who was fictional; but based on real people.

The trope of a Nazi Fourth Reich has had a half-life of popularity in fiction almost since the day the Allies invaded the bunker that held Hitler's body.  The action/adventure section of the used book store stacks will reveal any number of books that concern espionage and covert operations, and in fact there actually were plans to revive the Reich. (For an actual history, might I suggest The Axmann Conspiracy: The Nazi Plan for a Fourth Reich and How the U.S. Army Defeated It by Scott Andrew Selby? It's rather intriguing.)  Not all the novels came with such intriguing scenarios as the one portrayed in Ira Levin's book and subsequent film The Boys from Brazil, however.

Lieberman continues to chide Kohler, implicitly stating that if he continues in his prying, "there will still be Nazis in Paraguay, but there will be one less Jewish boy."

The Boys from Brazil (1978):

There you go. As Barry Kohler (Steve Guttenberg) discovers, there are indeed Nazis in Paraguay.  But Kohler is onto something really big.  He has been pestering his idol, the aging Ezra Lieberman (Laurence Olivier) with his findings and persists in his endeavors, despite the relative lack of encouragement Kohler receives from his would be mentor.

And indeed there are some serious shenanigans going on in Paraguay.  Dr. Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck) himself, the holy grail of Nazi criminals, if you will, is on hand.  As well as several trusted bigwigs in the former Third Reich.

Mengele has a plan.  There are almost a hundred men, all civil servants, who must die in the coming years.  Not just die, but die at certain points in their lives.  It's all part of a nefarious plan.  And no it's not a coincidence that all the men must die at or around age 64.  Nor is it a coincidence that each man will be leaving behind a wife who is 20 years younger than he is.  And it is definitely not a coincidence that all the men have a son, each of which looks astoundingly like each other.

(I don't have to put a mustache on that picture to help you along, do I?)

Mengele is gung ho on his plans, and everything is going along smoothly.  He even has the encouragement of the boss of his project, Eduard Siebert (James Mason).

Except that somewhere along the way things start to go awry.  As they usually do when bad guys try to rule the world.  See, Kohler, despite his failure to initially get Lieberman's help, manages to instill a curiosity in his idol.  Of course, Kohler had to die to do it, just like Lieberman predicted.

But now, without much to go on, Lieberman is making progress on unraveling the nefarious plans of Mengele, Siebert and  So Siebert and the hibernating Nazi bigwigs cancel Mengele's day in the sun.  But Mengele, the dedicated Nazi that he is, is not about to let a bunch of incompetent lily-livered  bureaucrats put a damper on his parade.  The men will die, even if he has to personally kill each one himself.

Lieberman finally puts all the pieces together after talking with a former Nazi he helped track down who is in prison and a doctor who clues him in on the progress science has made in the field of cloning.

Getting any ideas yet?

The plot is rather formulaic by today's standards, but this rather unique twist on the trope was pretty cutting edge when it first appeared, and it's still entertaining, even if you already know the plot.

Time to head home, folks.  Drive safely.