Monday, December 24, 2018

What's in the Bag?

Christmas Eve:  A time when children dream candy cane dreams and miracles can happen.  The Twilight Zone typically had stories that either dealt a healthy dose of "You had it coming"  to malcontents (like Bartlett Finchley in "A Thing About Machines") or a heaping helping of "Thems the breaks" to the innocent (like Henry Bemis in "Time Enough at Last").  But every once in a while there was a good old-fashioned heartwarming happiness, such as what happened to Henry Corwin one Christmas Eve.  As Rod Serling states in the opening:

This is Mr. Henry Corwin, normally unemployed, who once a year takes a lead role in the uniquely popular American institution, that of a department store Santa Claus in a road company version of "The Night Before Christmas".  But in a moment, Mr. Henry Corwin, ersatz Santa Claus, will enrter a strange kind of North Pole, which is one part the wondrous spirit of Christmas and one part the magic that can only be found in the Twilight Zone.

The opening of this episode features Henry Corwin (Art Carney) commiserating with Bruce (Val Avery), a bartender at a bar where Corwin has gone on his lunch break from a job as a department store Santa.  Henry is an alcoholic, obviously, since he has forgone most of a sandwich in favor of six shots of liquor.

Corwin is a sentimental idealist.  He wonders why there is no real Santa Claus.  The poor kids in his neighborhood get nothing for Christmas, and Corwin feels that they deserve better.

Back at the department store, obviously three sheets to the wind, Corwin takes his chair as Santa.  His first kid is a snot-nosed brat named Percival Smithers who when asked what he wants for Christmas declares "a new first name".  (A side note here:  Try as as I might I could not find a correct credit for the kid who plays "Percival".  IMDb incorrectly attributes it to "Andrea Darvi".  The little girl who appears early in the episode is whom is portrayed by Darvi, not the obviously  boy named "Percival".  It appears his name is lost to obscurity.)   When Corwin crashes to the floor drunk, Percival's mother (Kay Cousins) irately complains to the floor manager, Mr. Dundee (John Fielder), who summarily fires Corwin from his Santa Claus job.

Corwin stumbles from the department store back to the bar, but is refused entry.  So he heads back towards his rooming house.  But in an alley he surprises a cat sitting atop a bag of garbage.  When the jingle of sleigh bells jangle, Corwin notices the bag is not filled with garbage, but a mound of goodies.

He proceeds to hand out the goodies around his poorer neighbors, including the shelter where the homeless men are being preached to by a woman , Sister Florence (Meg Wylie).  (One of the homeless is a character actor you will immediately recognize if you watch much old TV and movies, Burt Mustin). The suspicious Sister calls the police and Officer Flaherty (Robert P. Lieb) takes Corwin and his bag into custody.  He contacts Mr. Dundee who shows up and smugly declares that he hopes Corwin goes up the river for a long time for the theft of valuable goods from the department store.

Wait! Valuable goods?  You mean these empty tin cans?  And the cat?  This trash is valuable?  Dundee berates Flaherty for wasting his time, but Corwin declares the bag has a magic.  Dundee demands proof in the form of a vintage bottle of brandy, which Corwin promptly produces.  Leaving Dundee and Flaherty stunned, Corwin exits the police station and continues his role a Santa delivering toys to the poor children of his neighborhood.

Having received the dream of his life, and with  the bag empty, Corwin heads home.  Only, this is The Twilight Zone, so the final twist of the denouement has yet to be delivered.  But I'm willing to bet even if you haven't seen this episode, you can guess how it's going to end. Rod Serling closes the episode with the following narration:

A word to the wise to the children of the twentieth century, whether their concern be pediatrics or geriatrics whether they crawl on hands and knees and wear diapers, or walk with a cane and comb their beards.  There is a wondrous magic to Christmas and there's a special power reserved for little people.  In short, there's nothing mightier than the meek.

I leave you with blessings of the season and hope tonight and tomorrow bring  your fondest desires.  Drive home safely, folks.


Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Capra Fights the Good Fight

On Dec 7, 1941 the United States was catapulted into the escalating war with the Axis Powers of Germany, Italy and Japan.  The event that changed what had been previously viewed by Americans as a European War and not worthy of changing the national non-interventionist status was the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese.  Prior to that the Franklin Delano Roosevelt presidency had done everything in it's power short of actually declaring war to help the Allied Powers in their ongoing struggle, including the Lend-Lease program, which basically gave aid without actually deploying soldiers to help. Pearl Harbor changed all that.  The U.S. declared war in retaliation and the war was on for the US, both on European and Asian soil as well as on the home front.

Frank Capra joined the fight 4 days later, becoming a major in the United States Army.  At age 44, he was a little too old to be fighting, but he became a prolific help in the battle on the home front.  His major role in said effort was to film a seven part series of films, a sort of counter-effort to the propaganda films that Nazi Germany and the Japanese were creating for their own efforts.  Primarily Capra wanted to counteract the Nazi/Leni Riefenstahl propaganda film Triumph of the Will. The Why We Fight films were initially made to educate members of the Armed Forces for the need to fight the "good fight".

But the films were so well made and viewed by the brass as so important that they were released into theaters.  And not just in the US.  Winston Churchill, England's Prime minister, thought they were essentially enough that he decreed they be shown in theaters in the UK.  And the first in the series Prelude to War was honored with an Academy Award for Best Documentary (which it shared with three other films, but still...)

Prelude to War: was the first in the series.  It delved into the rise of the three "slave" worlds of Germany, Italy and Japan and made an effort to compare them to the free world (primarily the US, but also those nations that were fellow fighters in the struggle.) A quote, which was added before it's release to the public, by Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War at the time, sums it up pretty well:

"The purpose of these films is to give factual information as to the causes, the events leading up to our entry into the war and the principles for which we are fighting.”  

 Ultimately the first film focuses mainly on Italian and Japanese aggression, reserving the bulk of Nazi Germany's role in the war for the next film.

The Nazis Strike: The second film in the series and delves into the duplicitous nature of Adolph Hitler, as well as his and Nazi Germany's use of fifth columnists (Traitors inside the countries he sought to conquer.  It reveals the many treaties of non-aggression that Hitler signed with various nations only to tear up those treaties and invade anyway when the time was ripe. There are some inaccuracies within the film, primarily concerning the Soviet and German relations within Poland.  This was primarily because, at the time, the Soviets were allies in the struggle and it was probably a good idea not to make an enemy of a "friend", but to some historians it does have some inconsistencies. 

Divide and Conquer:  Continuing after the fall of Poland from the second film, we are continuing to see that any pact or statement made by Hitler is only just so much bull as he invades other countries with whom he had agreed to leave alone.  This hearkens back to the Heartland Theory, covered in the second film, which basically reveals that the ultimate goal of the Nazis was to conquer the entire world.  As Hitler continues his drive to be a world dictator, he invades the northern countries of Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium.  France is next.

The Battle of Britain:  After the fall of France, Britain is left almost solely to fight the war herself.  An early effort by the Nazis to take out military installations and ports is resisted wholeheartedly, so Hitler tries a different tactic; attacking civilians, bombing the city of London.  But this blitzkrieg is also resisted by the determination of the British citizenry.  As Churchill says "never[...] has so much been owed by so many to so few".

The Battle of Russia: represents how hard the Soviet allies have struggled against invasion, not only against the current enemy of Germany, but down through history.  Here again the Soviets are cast in a positive light as the good guys because of their association with the Allies, not mentioning certain factors that would have shed a negative light on them if they had been portrayed; such as the Soviet role in the invasion of it's neighbors prior to the conflict.

The Battle of China:  The series moves east and focuses on Japan's aggressive nature, specifically with it's attempts to conquer China.  

War Comes to America: The final film of the series, and by far in the opinion of your humble reviewer, the best.  It gives a brief history of the United States up to the early part of the 30's, when the aggressive Axis powers started extending greedy fingers into other countries.  It then shows how the US gradually changed from a staunch non-interventionist society, in 1936 being an overwhelming majority of staying out of the conflict.  But as the tides started to turn in Europe and the East, views, as they will, changed.  The short history of how the US approached relationships with both sides of the war changed as much of the public opinion changed from staying out of the conflict, to helping what seemed to be the correct side.  The true nature of the propaganda portion of the film concludes with the following revealing statements:

German conquest of Europe and Africa would bring all their raw materials, plus their entire industrial development, under one control. Of the 2 billion people in the world, the Nazis would rule roughly one quarter, the 500 million people of Europe and Africa, forced into slavery to labor for Germany. German conquest of Russia would add the vast raw materials and the production facilities of another of the world's industrial areas, and of the world's people, another 200 million would be added to the Nazi labor pile.
Japanese conquest of the Orient would pour into their factory the almost unlimited resources of that area, and of the peoples of the earth, a thousand million would come under their rule, slaves for their industrial machine. Altogether, the German, Italian and Japanese aggressors would undertake a catalystic crisis, one that would enslave most of the world's population and liquidate about 90% of cultural life on Earth.
We in North and South America would be left with the raw materials of three-tenths of the earth's surface, against the Axis with the resources of seven-tenths. We would have one industrial region against their three industrial regions. We would have one-eighth of the world's population against their seven-eighths. If we together, along with the other nations of North and South America, could mobilize 30 million fully equipped men, the Axis could mobilize 200 million.
Thus, an Axis victory in Europe and Asia would leave us alone and virtually surrounded facing enemies ten times stronger than ourselves.

If you are as avid devotee of history as I am, I think you will find this series extremely riveting.  Even if you only watch it to gain a perspective of the times, it will certainly open your mind.  And you can watch Casablanca, the next time in a whole new light.


Monday, December 17, 2018

Christmas with the Baileys

Christmas movies.  I have stated elsewhere my love of A Christmas Carol and it's various permutations, but there is one tradition that I have had that ranks up there with watching a version of that movie.  For years, on Christmas Eve, on one of the national stations, I think NBC, they broadcast It's A Wonderful Life, a classic from 1946.  I make it a point to watch this movie every year.  Sometimes the rest of the family doesn't want to watch it, so I repair to another room and watch it by myself.

Saturday I had the rare opportunity to go and see it on the big screen at a theater in Austin.  Several things, besides getting to watch it in a movie theater, made this experience memorable.  For one thing, a very old theater in downtown Austin, the Ritz, was the venue.  This is an old-fashioned theater that originally opened in 1929.  It had a run for about 40 years as a movie theater, playing mostly Westerns according to wikipedia,  and then spent a second life as a music venue.  About 10 years ago it was bought and reopened as one of the Alamo Drafthouse theaters.  It only has two screens and the feel of the place is reminiscent of the kind of theaters that were prevalent when I was a kid, although the seats have been upgraded to more comfortable style.  But it still feels like those theaters of old.  Had to enter the theater itself by going upstairs.  That reminded me of when I used to go to movies at the Rialto back home.

Second, prior to the movie, one of the employees came out on a stage that still remains from the music venue days, and regaled us with about a 10 minute historical introduction, including both Frank Capra's and Jimmy Stewart's stints in the military during WWII, and the aftermath in Hollywood.  Most of it I already knew,but it was still entertaining.

The last thing, a rarity these days (but I have read it was sometimes common in movie viewings in the old days), after the movie was over the theater erupted in applause.

It's A Wonderful Life did a decent showing at the theater, although it only barely made back the cost of production. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, but lost out on all of them, most of them to competition from The Best Years of Our Lives.  But I'd hazard a guess that more people have seen It's A Wonderful Life than have seen that other classic.

It's A Wonderful Life (!946):

Things are not all roses and chocolate on Christmas Eve.  Everyone in the town of Bedford Falls is praying for one man, George Bailey.  It seems he may be on the verge of doing something rash.  Rash, indeed.  We see several stars in the sky light up as an angel named Joseph (voiced by Joseph Granby) confers with a senior angel (voiced by Moroni Olsen) about Bailey.  It seems that Bailey is on the brink of committing suicide.  The two call on an apprentice angel, Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers) and educate him on the life of Bailey up to that point, which is what the bulk of the movie is about.

George Bailey, starting out at a young age (played by Bobby Anderson), has had an impact on people in his life.  First, he saves his younger brother (played by George Nokes) from drowning in a frozen pond.  Some months later he helps his boss, the druggist Mr. Gower (H. B. Warner) from committing a grievous error by giving a local family poison instead of medicine.  (Gower has gotten drunk because he has just received word by telegram that his son has died, so he made the mistake honestly if not acceptably).

And we also find that Mary Hatch (played by Jean Gale) has a crush on George and swears that she will love him to the day she dies.  (Of course, she whispers this in his bum ear which had been affected by the dip in the frozen pond to save his kid brother.)

Several years later, after George grows up, his kid brother is graduating high school and George is making plans to tour Europe before heading off to college.  See he had waited four years in order to save the money and all his high school mates have already been.  (Which makes him, roughly, 21 in his first scene as an adult and if you can accept a 40 something actor playing a 20 year old young man, you are a better dreamer than I am, but that's really the only downside to the movie.)

Unfortunately George's plans are derailed when his father dies of a heart attack and George is corralled into running his father's Building and Loan Company.  See, "Old Man" Potter (Lionel Barrymore) wants to dissolve the Building and Loan because it represents a hedgerow that he can't tear down in his drive to own the whole town.  Potter is that bugaboo of old time-y movies, the rich miser who would probably have been good friends with Ebenezer Scrooge.  (Then again, they may have been mortal enemies since both wanted to have complete control of the resources.)

George gives the money to his brother Harry, expecting that when Harry returns home from college, Harry will take over as executive at the Building and Loan so George can finally go off to college.  Fate sticks her little fingers in the pie once again, as Harry has gotten married while away at college (and he didn't invite the family...???).  And Harry's new father-in-law wants Harry to go to work for him.

But things aren't entirely bleak.  George finally succumbs to the love bug and marries Mary (Donna Reed).  But just as they are about to leave on honeymoon, there is a run on the bank and George ends up doling out his entire nest egg of honeymoon money to keep the Building and Loan from being closed.

As you can guess, just when things start to look up for George, every time Fate pulls the rug out from under his feet.  The final straw happens in the latter third of the movie, when George's Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) accidentally loses a wad of cash needed to pay for loans the Building and Loan owes.  When it all seems bleak, George finally snaps and considers committing suicide.  At which point Clarence shows up in the flesh to prevent the bad decision.

When George laments that everything would be better if he had never been born, Clarence uses the idea to show him just what life would have been like for everybody else if he hadn't existed.  OK, even if you haven't seen the movie, you most likely have seen something of the same sort in any number of TV shows.  It is a recurrent theme, sometimes used for dramatic effect and sometimes for comedic effect.  Just seeing Bedford Falls transformed into a seedy low-rent Las Vegas called "Pottersville" would be enough to transform me, but George has to see it all, including how the lives would have turned out differently for his family, friends, and for Mary.

You don't have to be a psychic to know how it all turns out.  After all this isn't the jaded 2000's that this movie is taking place but the 1940's and good old wholesome happy ending's must ensue.

"No man is a failure who has friends."

Don't miss out on some great character actors playing roles in this movie.  Early in the scene at Harry's high school graduation, Carl Switzer ("Alfalfa" from Little Rascals)  shows up and pulls a rather mischievous stunt on George and Mary.  Frank Fenton, a frequent face in many western movies and TV shows has a scene.  And, OMG, isn't that a very young looking Grandma Walton during the bank run?  Yes, it is Ellen Corby, who told John-Boy "good night" every week for years on "The Waltons".

I leave you with the following: Just a few of what I consider the more fascinating tidbits from an article published on the Mental Floss website about the movie:  Originally the movie was going to star Cary Grant, but as usual with Hollywood things got a bit convoluted and when the rights were sold to Frank Capra he decided he wanted Stewart in the headlining role.  It was Donna Reed's first starring role, although she had been in several movies before this it was her first role as a headliner. The movie was actually shot in the summer.  All that snow is very, very fake.  (and I bet those actors were sweating like pigs under all those heavy clothes, in fact I think in some scenes Jimmy Stewart actually IS sweating...)  And finally, there is no relation to the fact that Bert the cop and Ernie the cab driver have the  same names as two characters on Sesame Street.

Time to fire up the old Plymouth and head home.  I'll try not to hit any generations old trees.  Drive safely folks.


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.