My tenuous connection to PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE

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Happy Halloween! The following is a very personal and, as such, potentially boring story. If you’re not interested, feel free to sign off. But a blog is a place to share one’s history, so here’s a small piece of mine.

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To most people, Plan 9 from Outer Space is esteemed simply as one of the best worst movies ever made — full of wooden dialogue, shots that don’t match, and hubcaps pretending to be flying saucers. But its writer-director, Edward D. Wood Jr., would probably be pleased that he inspired me in some small way.

In the summer of 2005, I was doing what I could to get by after having suffered a nervous breakdown two years previously. One day, for no particular reason, I bought a cheap DVD of Plan 9 from Outer Space. I had first viewed the movie 25 years earlier on TBS after having read about its gloriously trashy reputation.

As I watched the movie again, I listened to its silly dialogue, and in my mind, I started shouting comebacks to the actors a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show. When the movie was over, I thought to myself, “I gotta write this down.” Blessed be the Internet, for I was easily able to find a transcript of the movie’s script online. I printed it out and red-marked it all over the place, and then I “adapted” it into my own script.

So now I had my own version of the movie. What to do with it? I converted into into stage-play format and tried to shop it around town. But you’d be amazed how tightly sewn up the local theater clique is — at least, our local theater clique. They claim to want to try something different, but in the end, they do productions of either public-domain works or the thousandth production of The Odd Couple.

I finally found a very adventurous local venue named Boomtown Theatre, managed by a self-described local gadfly named Stephen Dare. He liked the script and was willing to take on the production, even letting me share in the profits. For Stephen’s willingness to stick his neck out for a completely unknown quantity, I’ll be forever grateful.

The story of getting this production together would be a great story in itself. But with the help of Stephen, his crew, and a very fine cast (including my two children, who were naive enough to take speaking roles), we managed to do a really good show, performing all throughout the second half of October. The attendees responded very well to it. One of them even asked me to autograph his play program.

This month marks the tenth anniversary of the show, and it provides me with a special memory. (If you’re really interested, click here to visit a website that I created at the time to promote the play.) To anyone who has any kind of dream of performing, I say: If you believe in it, don’t let anyone talk you out of it. There’s always a way to make it happen, and I’m living proof of it.

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Please Join Us for the Backstage Blogathon!

Here’s a unique upcoming blogathon!

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I’m thrilled to be co-hosting another blogathon with the fabulous Fritzi at Movies Silently! And this one premieres in—gasp!—2016. Which is much closer than you think.

On that cheery note, please join us January 15-18 for the Backstage Blogathon!

What’s it about? Well, the entertainment industry has always loved looking in the mirror, and we’re going to be taking a peek at what they put on the screen as a result—from love letters to scathing indictments and everything in between.

This isn’t limited to movies about movies: You can pick films that go behind the scenes of any performing art: ballet, theatre, puppetry, opera, the circus… use your imagination!

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The film must feature performing arts as a significant part of the plot. So it’s not enough for a character to simply be, say, an actress; the profession must play an important part in the story. John Cassavetes, for instance, plays a struggling actor in Rosemary’s Baby

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#BNoirDetour Film for 10/25: The Leopard Man (1943)

Join #BNoirDetour on Twitter.com at 9 p.m. EST tonight!

B Noir Detour

BNoirDetour will truly earn its name with tonight’s film, 1943’s The Leopard Man. Produced by B horror king Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tournier, with a budget of only $150,000, the film makes the perfect entry for the week of Halloween.

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With the aid of the talented RKO crew and skilled cinematographer Robert de Grasse, a tale of a nightclub publicity stunt gone wrong becomes one of Hollywood’s first attempts at a serial killer film.

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From the castanets of Clo-clo (Margo) to a leopard on the loose (Dynamite, the same black cat featured in Lewton and Tournier’s Cat People), you’ll be riveted to your seat by the dark terror of The Leopard Man!

Please join us at 9pm ET tonight!

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THE GANGSTERS ALL HERE Live Tweet movie for Sat., Oct. 31: CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN (1955)

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You didn’t think The Gangsters All Here was going to ignore Halloween, did you? Darned if we didn’t dig deep in the vaults and find an honest-to-gosh gangster-zombie movie for ya!

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Creature with the Atom Brain chronicles the only-slightly-hard-to-swallow tale of Frank Buchanan (Michael Granger), an exiled American gangster who has sworn revenge on the former cohorts who squealed on him. With the help of ex-Nazi-but-nevertheless-mad-scientist Dr. Wilhelm Steigg (Gregory Gaye), Frank returns to America and gets his vengeance. Dr. Steigg is able to use atomically charged brains to reanimate corpses, whom Frank then uses to wipe out his old enemies.( It’s a bit like Plan 9 from Outer Space [released four years later], but with the backing of Columbia Pictures to give the movie a thin veneer of legitimacy.)

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Luckily, there’s a relentless good guy on the case, in the form of habitually pipe-smoking police scientist Chet Walker (Richard Denning from Creature from the Black Lagoon) — who, in best ‘50s chauvinistic style, seems just as interested in slapping his wife on her behind and demanding a cold martini from her as he does in solving the strange case of multiple murders. And speaking of behinds…

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On a scale of 1 to 5 fannies, I’d give this one a 3. It’s not quite as bad as anything that writer-director Ed Wood ever cooked up, but it’s not for lack of trying. You’ll be amazed at how nonchalant people are when they’re accosted by monotone gunslingers with huge stitches across their foreheads.

HEAD1. When this movie was first released, it was banned in Sweden and Finland (giving those countries far more points for good taste than I previously would have).

2. The movie’s title inspired a same-named song (by a performer named Roky Erickson), which in turn provided the name for an alternative rock band from Antwerp, Belgium.

DUCK SOUP (1927) – Our first glimpse at the “real” Stan and Ollie

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The following is my entry in The Silent Cinema Blogathon, being hosted Oct. 24-26, 2015 by the blog In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Click on the above banner to visit the blogathon and read an assortment of great blogs related to the era of silent movie classics!

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Duck Soup‘s interest for movie academics might be more historical than hysterical. Yet even on that basis, it’s as worthy of L&H buffs’ attention as Unknown Chaplin is to Charlie Chaplin fans, or The Beatles Anthology is to Fab Four aficionados. It’s a worthy addition to the L&H canon, and it helps make our mental image of them more complete.

For years Duck Soup was a lost movie, and it was assumed the film was one of Stan and Babe’s back-burner Pathe numbers, where they each performed in the movie but not as a team. Then a print turned up in the 1970’s and showed that Stan and Ollie were (or should have been) a bonafide team from the start. Ollie badly needs a shave, but other than the vagabond garb, Stan and Ollie were far closer to the way we now “know” them then they were in their other Hal Roach/Pathe productions. Why they “began” as a team and then went back to doing separate appearances in the same movie remains one of movie comedy’s great unanswered questions.

But there’s enough recognizable “Stan and Ollie” byplay to warrant at least one viewing. For one thing, Duck Soup is the quite recognizable origin of its talkie version, Another Fine Mess (1930). Both films were based on an old vaudeville sketch written by Stan’s dad (though Pop later complained loudly about what his son had done to the source material).

Duck Soup shows Stan and Ollie on the run from local police, though unlike the talkie version, they are not trying to avoid arrest but are instead trying to avoid the zeal of a sheriff looking for help in putting out a forest fire (Was this a common kind of recruitment in 1920’s Los Angeles?). In later films (with their personas more firmly established), whenever Stan and Ollie are on the run from the law, it’s usually due to their fear of authority figures. Here, the cause is just plain laziness.

Anyway, Stan and Ollie hide out in a millionaire’s mansion, and as luck would have it, the millionaire is out of town and has advertised for boarders to rent the house. Ollie and Stan quickly assume the disguises of the millionaire and his maid.

And “quickly” is the key word here. The most unrecognizable element in this L&H film is its frenetic pace, making it closer to typical Hal Roach/Pathe fare than to the later, more leisurely paced L&H shorts. Also, there are no particularly memorable “set pieces” here — unlike Another Fine Mess, where Ollie revels in his disguise, or Stan has a hilarious conversation with the wife of the would-be boarder (Thelma Todd).

Yet it still makes for fascinating viewing, not least because of its view of a surprisingly undeveloped ’20s Los Angeles. The movie also shows that even from the beginning, Stan and Ollie intuitively worked as a team–it just took their own movies a little while longer to figure that out.

TRIVIA NOTE: Duck Soup proved to be an especially sturdy movie title. Six years after Laurel & Hardy used it, former L&H associate Leo McCarey nabbed it for his classic Marx Bros. movie; nine years later, Hal Roach nabbed it back for an Edgar Kennedy short subject. Maybe Judd Apatow will be using it next.

Jerry Lewis in DON’T GIVE UP THE SHIP (1959)

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The purpose of this blog entry is twofold. First, it’s worth mentioning that Paramount Pictures has done something uncharacteristically generous for a movie studio. They have started their own channel on YouTube, named The Paramount Vault, onto which they’ve uploaded more than 100 movies from their backlog of film releases. Granted, they’re not all classics, but it’s certainly worth a look to see what Paramount has made available for free online viewing.

Secondly, I’m going to do something I never imagined undertaking on this blog. I’m going to say a few kind words about Jerry Lewis.

To me, Jerry Lewis is a cinematic car wreck. Not liking most of his work, I should completely look away from it, but I can’t. He has (or had, in his heyday) a gift for superb physical comedy that is rare in movies, and like many of his old-old-school fans, I wish he had stuck to that.

What has always turned me off of Lewis are his many chest-pounding moments as the all-knowing auteur, using his movies as a vehicle for showy directorial stuff, while letting plot elements dangle in the wind. If only he’d done just one movie where he hadn’t felt compelled to show us that he was Jerry Lewis The Genius, where he had just let loose with the funny.

For me, that one movie is Don’t Give Up the Ship, filmed early in Lewis’ solo career and just before he got the auteur bug. I came across it on local TV one boring Sunday afternoon, and I was surprised to find that I laughed myself silly all the way through it.

In the movie, Lewis plays John Paul Steckler VII, a Navy veteran who has just gotten married and thinks he’s about to enjoy his honeymoon. Unfortunately, the Navy has other ideas. It seems that Steckler was a junior officer aboard a WWII destroyer, and Steckler was responsible for sailing the ship back to the U.S. so that it could be decommissioned. Now the ship is missing, and Steckler’s was the last name associated with it. So Steckler can either find the ship or reimburse the Navy for it! How does one lose an entire Navy destroyer, anyway?

IMHO, this is Lewis at his purest and funniest. He plays a well-meaning but neurotic and put-upon guy whose reactions to stressful situations are a bit more over-the-top than most people’s. That’s something I can relate to — not some wacko moron who does quadruple takes and shoves an entire glass in his mouth to get laughs.

And the first thing that Lewis’ detractors point out is that Lewis never learned that less equals more — that sometimes, it’s the simplest moments that are the best. The moment in Don’t Give Up the Ship that completely won me over to Lewis’ side involves only a hat and a piece of cake — nothing elaborate, but perfectly executed. (If you want to cheat and zip ahead to that moment in the movie, it’s a set-piece that starts at about the 5-minute mark.)

So don’t bother trying to sell me on the glories of The Nutty ProfessorThe Bellboy, or any of Lewis’ other directorial indulgences. Don’t Give Up the Ship is the one Lewis movie that I completely enjoy from start to finish. I’d go so far as to say that it’s probably the Jerry Lewis movie for people who don’t usually like Jerry Lewis movies.