Saturday, January 12, 2019

AT THE CIRCUS

Image result for at the circus film

I first encountered the Marx Brothers' 1939 film AT THE CIRCUS on late night television many years ago. It was one of my earliest exposures to this classic comedy team and I loved it. I've since seen it several more times over the years, along with many other Marx Brothers films and, having watched it again recently, I find that it's a good but far from great Marx Brothers film.

Die hard Marx fans are well aware of the vast gulf that separates the early films the team made at Paramount Studios and their later efforts produced at MGM (with far bigger budgets and lavish production values). Put simply, the Paramount Marxes showcase a trio of anarchists, intent on destroying society through jokes and pratfalls while the MGM Marxes are merely funny guys who try to help people using unorthodox ways and means. DUCK SOUP (1933) is not only their masterpiece, it also ranks as one of the greatest comedies ever made while AT THE CIRCUS is simply a funny movie, a nice way to pass the time on a cold, grey winter afternoon.

In AT THE CIRCUS, the brothers come to the aid of a young circus owner (Kenny Baker) and his lovely fiance (Florence Rice). The couple is about to lose the circus to a bad guy (James Burke) and his evil henchmen, a strong man (Nat Pendleton), a midget (Jerry Maren) and a ceiling-walker stunt performer (Eve Arden). Chico sends for ace attorney J. Cheever Loophole (Groucho), to help the desperate couple and all three brothers are soon mixed up in a case of missing money. Loophole enlists a society matron (Margaret Dumont), to throw a benefit for the circus. She thinks her guests will enjoy an orchestral performance but Loophole literally brings the circus to her estate for a madcap finale.

All of the hallmarks of an MGM Marx Brothers' film are on display here. There's the young lovers and their sappy love songs, Chico demonstrates his amazing skills at the keyboard, Harpo performs for an audience comprised entirely of African-American men, women and children (as he did in AT THE RACES (1937)), Groucho and Chico exchange comic banter early in the film and Groucho insults Dumont repeatedly (which she appears to enjoy). Set pieces include the brothers in a tiny train car questioning a midget suspect, Groucho and Eve Arden walking on the ceiling (Arden completely disappears from the film after this sequence) and of course the flying trapeze finale. 

But the greatest thing about AT THE CIRCUS is Groucho's performance of the song, "Lydia the Tattooed Lady". It's far and away the high point of what is otherwise a pretty formulaic, routine comedy outing. 

Recommended for Marx fans and any one interested in becoming one. But if you're new to the Marx Brothers, start your viewing with DUCK SOUP. 



Sunday, January 6, 2019

3 GODFATHERS

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This may be a bit heretical but I'll go ahead and say it anyway. I think John Ford is among the most overrated American filmmakers of the twentieth century. While I haven't seen all of his films, the ones I have seen fall into three categories: great, good and terrible. I rate STAGECOACH (1939), THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940) and THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962) among the great with the worst being HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941) (a film I wouldn't watch again with someone else's eyes), MOGAMBO (1953), MISTER ROBERTS (1955), DONOVAN'S REEF (1963) and 7 WOMEN (1966). All of the other Ford films I've seen fall somewhere between these two extremes. 

And while I haven't seen every John Wayne movie ever made, I've seen a lot of them over the years and find the majority of them to be entertaining and worth watching at least once.  

I can now add to my list of good John Ford films 3 GODFATHERS (1948) starring John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz and Harry Carey Jr. Wayne plays an outlaw for a change of pace. He's Robert Hightower, who, along with Pete (Pedro Armendariz) and William Kearney (Harry Carey, Jr.), plot to rob the bank in the small town of Welcome, Arizona. Kearney is wounded in the getaway and Sheriff Buck Sweet (Ward Bond) is soon on their trail with a posse in tow. The men strike out across the desert and soon run out of both water and horses before stumbling upon a deserted wagon wherein a pregnant woman (Mildred Natwick), who is also Sheriff Sweet's niece, is about to give birth. The men assist with the delivery and she asks each of them to serve as godfathers for the infant boy. They agree, she dies and the men must now take care of a newborn baby while trying to keep themselves alive.

The gag of three incompetents saddled with a troublesome baby is usually the fodder for comedies. The Three Stooges tried to take care of a babe found abandoned on their doorstep in one of their two-reelers while THREE MEN AND A BABY (1987), was a blockbuster hit. Here, what starts out humorous quickly turns grim as first Kearney and then Pete succumb to their injuries, leaving Bob alone to care for the child. Kearney tried to impart some faith into his companions by reading from the Bible before he died and it's the Bible that Bob turns to, reluctantly, when he's at the end of his rope. He reads the passage about Jesus commanding his disciples to go into a village and find a donkey and her colt and bring them to him. Just then, miraculously, a donkey and colt appear to help transport Bob and the baby to the nearest town. All of this happens on Christmas Eve with a bright star in the heavens to guide him on.

Filmed largely on location in California's Death Valley, 3 GODFATHERS is a lush, Technicolor western that mixes humor with grim drama as Bob finds redemption from his life of crime by becoming a loving, caring father of his young godson. Ford regular Jane (THE GRAPES OF WRATH) Darwell has a bit part as a train station boss while young Ben Johnson is a member of Bond's posse. 

3 GODFATHERS is far from the best work of either Ford or Wayne but it's an engaging, handsomely mounted film that Judy and I thoroughly enjoyed watching. Thumbs up.



Sunday, December 16, 2018

REMEMBERANCE OF CHRISTMAS PAST 5


Lest anyone think that toys were the only things I got for Christmas when I was a kid, I present this. 

Published by Whitman, this hardcover novelization of the 1963 Walt Disney animated feature film is one of my most cherished treasures. In fact, pictured above is MY copy which I still have in my collection. Written in ink and in my mother's hand on the inside is the following: "To Frank Christmas 1963 from Mother & Daddy".

Priceless.


Saturday, December 15, 2018

REMEMBERANCE OF CHRISTMAS PAST 4

Image result for mechanical dino the dinosaur marx toys

THE FLINTSTONES debuted in prime time on ABC-TV in 1960. I was four years old at the time and I loved it. The show was immensely popular and it didn't take long for a slew of Flintstones related toys to hit the market.

 I had this one. Manufactured by Marx in 1962, this mechanical Dino the Dinosaur was a favorite plaything of mine. The battery operated Dino would move courtesy of wheels on the bottom of his feet. His body was dyed plush fabric over a mechanical frame while Dino's head was rubber/hard plastic. Fred was made of pressed tin. 

More Flintstones toys to come. Stay tuned. 


...THIS CAT SHAFT IS A BAD MOTHER....


For the record, there are two songs that I want played at my funeral (whenever that day comes and hopefully not for many, many years). The first is EL PASO by Marty Robbins. The second is Isaac Hayes' THEME FROM SHAFT. 

I'm not kidding.

For some reason, I never saw SHAFT when it was first released in1971. I've since seen it twice now and I love every minute of it. It's not a great film, in fact, far from it, but it's a landmark in the American cinema of the '70s, qualifying as the first of the "blaxploitation" film trend that dominated urban and inner city movie screens for much of the decade. I'm a huge blaxploitation fan and SHAFT is the grandaddy of them all.

Richard Roundtree stars as New York City private detective John Shaft. He's all leather jackets, turtle-neck shirts and .38 police specials. As the title song indicates, Shaft is indeed a ladies man, bedding both an African American woman and a white woman he picks up in a bar. He maintains a rat hole of an office for his private detective business, which must be profitable, since he has a cool apartment (complete with a  reel-to-reel tape machine and a spiral staircase). Shaft has a love/hate relationship with the NYPD and he's constantly being squeezed by Lt. Vic Androzzi (Charles Cioffi) for information about what's going on with the criminal gangs in Harlem.

What's going on is that the daughter of Harlem crime lord Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn), has been kidnapped and held for ransom by the Mafia. Shaft is the only man Bumpy can trust to get her back which Shaft does with the help of a group of radical young men led by Ben Buford (Christopher St. John). 

Roundtree owns the film from start to finish. He struts and swaggers around Manhattan with cool to spare, gleaning information from a variety of sources. When the action comes, he's tough enough to take a couple of slugs and keep going. That's right, this cat Shaft is a bad mother....

Hayes' Oscar winning title track is one for the ages, as is the rest of his score, which served as the template for countless other '70s detective films and television shows. Director Gordon Parks and cinematographer Urs Furrer have a real feel for the New York City locations and the whole production has that unmistakably '70s gritty look and flavor. 

Roundtree returned as Shaft in two sequels, SHAFT'S BIG SCORE ! (1972) and SHAFT IN AFRICA (1973) and played the detective in the short lived SHAFT television series on CBS-TV in 1973-1974.

 As an urban crime film, SHAFT is pretty routine. But as the opening salvo of the blaxploitation film trend, the introduction of a legendary screen hero and as a time capsule of NYC in the '70s, SHAFT can't be beat. 

Thumbs up.



Friday, December 14, 2018

I BLAME IT ON THE HOT PANTS


Billy Jack Movie Poster
I recall seeing BILLY JACK (1971) a couple of times at the old Varsity Theater on the Drag in Austin when I was in high school. The first time was in the company of a young lady named Diane Howerton whom I went out with a few times. I remember that she wore a pair of the then popular "hot pants" shorts and I found it exceedingly difficult to keep my adolescent mind focused on the film. 

But when I did focus, I found BILLY JACK to be an amazingly profound film, full of messages about social justice, peace and love versus violence and hate, young vs. old, progressives against conservatives, hippies vs. straights, the generation gap, spirituality and way cool exhibitions of martial arts at the hands (and feet) of star Tom Laughlin. By the way, Laughlin also wrote, produced and directed BILLY JACK (there's an unsubstantiated rumor that he also made and served sandwiches to the cast and crew during lunch breaks). Produced on a shoestring budget, BILLY JACK grossed a pot load of money, making it one of the most successful independent films of the 1970s. And the biggest demographic buying those tickets were impressionable kids like me who thought the movie was an instant classic, ranking alongside WALKING TALL (1973) as one of the films that practically everyone at Austin High saw at least once. 

BILLY JACK was actually the second Laughlin production to feature half breed, Vietnam vet, martial artist and peaceful warrior Billy Jack. The first film, THE BORN LOSERS (1967) was marketed as a biker flick but it made enough money to allow Laughlin and his wife (and co-star/co-writer/co-producer) Delores Taylor to make BILLY JACK. The film was initially going to be an American International Pictures production and you can well imagine how that final product would have turned out. Next, the film was in production through 20th Century Fox whose executives  wanted to dictate creative terms to Laughlin, who would have none of that. Warner Brothers finally agreed to back the film and I'm sure they were glad they did. Two sequels followed, THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK (1974) and BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON (1977). I've never seen any of the other three Billy Jack films but I watched the 1971 entry this afternoon for the first time in forty-seven years.

You'll have to forgive my fifteen-year-old self for thinking that BILLY JACK was a profound film. I simply didn't know any better and was probably caught up in the buzz among my classmates about how great the movie was. I was for sure distracted by those hot pants, which left an, as you can tell, indelible impression upon my memories of the film.  BILLY JACK is one hot mess of a movie, a strident, preachy, rambling, overly earnest effort with a patchwork narrative and horrible acting (by both professionals and amateurs).

 The action scenes aren't nearly as well staged as I remembered them (any random episode of KUNG-FU had better martial arts fights) and the film is endlessly and needlessly padded with lame comedy improvisation shticks, bad "folk" songs, plot points that go nowhere (what the hell was the whole Billy gets bitten by a rattlesnake ceremony about?), a Chevy Corvette that survives being completely immersed in a mountain lake only to ride high and drive in the next scene, a now-you-see-it-now-you-don't gun rack in a vintage pickup truck and on and on. 

The story, such as it is, concerns a pregnant young runaway, Barbara (Julie Webb), who takes refuge from her abusive father, Deputy Mike (genre veteran Kenneth Tobey) in a freestyle "school" on an Indian reservation. The school, in which literally everything and anything goes, is run by Jean Roberts (Taylor) and protected from the bigoted townsfolk by Billy Jack. The stakes escalate when Jean is raped by the son of a powerful local business man. The son, Bernard (David Roya), later kills Martin (Stan Rice), a young Indian boy who is in love with Barbara. All of this ugly violence pushes Billy Jack past the breaking point. He kills Bernard and Deputy Mike and prepares to make his final stand in an abandoned church with Barbara at his side. 

While I found BILLY JACK to be a truly terrible film, I have to give props to Laughlin and Taylor for having the courage and determination to take control of this franchise from start to finish and bring their vision, no matter how cockeyed, to the screen. I dunno, maybe things got better in the third and fourth films but for my money, one BILLY JACK movie is enough for this movie watcher.

Thumbs down.



Tuesday, December 4, 2018

REMEMBERANCE OF CHRISTMAS PAST 3


Remco's FASCINATION game debuted in 1961 so I got this electronic maze game for Christmas of either '61 or '62. Designed for two players, the object of the game was to get all three of the ball bearings out of the maze and into the holes at the top of the hand held playing surface. First player to land all three balls would cause the light on the tower (pictured in the middle above) to turn on and a buzzer to buzz. A lot harder than it looks and I don't recall that I ever mastered it. It took a lot of body English and you had to hold your tongue between your teeth just right. Spent hours playing it though.