The end has arrived! With the help of Quiggy at The Midnite Drive-In, we will spend the next three days reading bloggers’ lively — or, we hope at least, alive — critiques of movies with apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic themes.
If you are one of the participating bloggers, please leave the URL of your blogathon entry in the “Comments” section below, and we will link to your blog ASAP. If you are one of our curious readers, please keep checking back at Quiggy’s and this blog through the end of Sun., Apr. 1. We will continually update the list below with appropriate links, and I will do a daily round-up of the entries submitted thus far. So bend over and kiss yourself goodbye — at least for the next three days, as we immerse ourselves in blogs about cinematic world’s end!
Here are the blogathon entries, in chronological order:
As parody (in this case, of old stage melodramas), The Fatal Glass of Beer was ahead of its time. Roundly panned upon its initial release for its cheap look and over-the-top acting, its sense of bad taste is positively quaint in this post-Mel Brooks era. Plus, it’s still funny as all get-out.
Fields plays Mr. Snavely who, with his wife (Rosemary Theby), live in a modest cabin in the Yukon at the turn of the century. The Snavelys have a son named Chester (George Chandler), who left his modest home to go find his way in the big city, only to be arrested and jailed after stealing some bonds. We find this out in a song that Snavely torturously sings to a visiting Mountie (played by Rychard Cramer, frequent villain of Laurel & Hardy comedies), as well as hammily acted flashbacks that accompany the song.
Besides the inevitable, bathetic reunion of Chester with his parents, much of the movie’s comedy comes from what we could kindly call its lack of mise-en-scene. At one point, Snavely goes “over the rim” with his team of sled dogs, one of whom is so spindly that his paws don’t even touch the ground. As Snavely repeatedly commands the dogs to “Mush!”, he swallows some of the fake snow that has been lobbed at him and observes, “Tastes more like cornflakes!”
Whereas in most W.C. Fields comedies whose cheapness and lack of coherency are to be taken at face value, The Fatal Glass of Beer presents those debits as comic relief to what we’d have had to endure if the melodrama had been played straight. The movie is a real hoot.
The Pharmacist is easily the slightest of the three shorts that W.C. Fields made for producer Mack Sennett. With its utter defiance of film sense and continuity, it almost seems a short-subject companion to Fields’ equally surreal feature film Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941).
Fields plays Mr. Dilweg, the owner of a pharmacy that does not seem to be thriving. And small wonder — Dilweg seems to regard himself as most successful when selling entries from his postage-stamp inventory, and he gives away huge, arty vases to all of his customers (even the non-paying ones) as “souvenirs.”
Even stranger than the movie’s miniscule plot is Babe Kane — the worldly fiancee from Fields’ Sennett short The Dentist— as Dilweg’s Baby Snooks-like toddler daughter, whom Fields disciplines in a way that is just short of child abuse. As with Sucker, this movie’s finale seems to have come about mostly because Fields couldn’t think of anything better with which to end the movie.
As W.C. Fields’ final starring movie, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break has its moments, but with its extreme non-plot and non sequitors, it is probably not the movie with which to introduce an unsuspecting viewer to Fields. An online friend of mine hit the nail on the head when he described the movie as “The Bank Dick after a few drinks.”
The main crux of the movie is Fields (who plays himself, more or less) trying to sell his movie script to the flummoxy boss (Franklin Pangborn) of a studio named Esoteric Pictures. As the boss reads Fields’ script aloud, it is presented to us in the form of a, er, non-movie-within-a-non-movie. The “real” movie’s bookends are no more than a series of vignettes. The best of them are probably Fields trying to consume a peach shake at an ice cream parlor (He prefaces the bit by telling us, directly to the camera, “This scene was supposed to be set in a saloon, but the censor cut it out”), and a wild climax of a chase scene that comes out of nowhere but is quite elaborate and pretty funny on its own.
Despite the movie’s rambling motif, its biggest debit is Gloria Jean, an ingenue whom Universal Studios was grooming to be their new Deanna Durbin (another ingenue who had outgrown her child-like roles). Fields reportedly had major battles with Universal over this movie, and one wonders if Gloria Jean’s role as Fields’ starry-eyed niece was forced upon him by the studio. In any case, with her many operetta numbers and her character’s pious loyalty to her uncle, the movie stops dead in its tracks whenever she appears.
But if you put your sense of cinematic continuity on hold, there’s a lot of fun to be had from the movie. Among other treats, Marx Brothers buffs will enjoy seeing Margaret Dumont (heavily eyebrowed) as Mrs. Hemoglobin, a widowed hermit who has her sights set on Fields. (Also, look for Fields’ real-life on-and-off mistress, Carlotta Monti, in a brief bit as a sharp-tongued receptionist.) At only 70 minutes long, the movie is quite a brief yet heady brew.
(TRIVIA: In one of his many feuds with Universal over the movie, Fields wanted to name it The Great Man, but instead, Universal knicked one of Fields’ quotes from his movie Never Cheat an Honest Man  for its final title. Fields is said to have grumbled, “What difference does it make? They can’t get that on a marquee. It’ll probably boil down to Fields – Sucker.”)
The following is my entry in The End of the World Blogathon, being co-hosted by this blog and The Midnite Drive-In from March 30 to April 1, 2018. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ takes on a variety of movies with apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic themes!
There are a lot of great movies whose end-of-the-world themes have inspired food for thought. But what happens when filmmakers’ intentions (or pretensions) outstrip their talent? There are probably a dozen Robot Monsters for every Dr. Strangelove.
So for this blogathon, I thought I’d take a look at what happens when an apocalypse-minded filmmaker with minimal talent gets behind the camera. My first example is fictional (though all too plausible); the second example is a very real (and bad) piece of cinematic history.
Bob and Doug McKenzie, “Mutants of 2051 A.D.”
Quick comedy history lesson: “SCTV” (1977-1984) was a half-hour, “Saturday Night Live”-type spoof of TV and movies that, even though its roots were in the Second City improv troupe in Chicago, was taped in Canada. When the show became popular, Canadian TV execs insisted that each episode must contain two minutes of Canadian-based content.
From this dry idea were borne Bob and Doug McKenzie (Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas), the dim-witted sibling hosts of “The Great White North,” a weekly show in which they shared tips on the best way to cook back-bacon, and how to get liquor store refunds by sticking a live mouse in an empty beer bottle.
As with many “SNL” stars, Moranis and Thomas couldn’t resist expanding their brief sketches into a feature-length film. Although it later segues into a formulaic plot, Strange Brew (1983) begins with a “Great White North” sketch in which Bob declares, “We made a movie, eh?” With that, the duo show us their movie, an ultra-low budget sci-film that runs for an excruciating minute-and-a-half before, happily, the film breaks.
If you’re not already familiar with Bob & Doug or “SCTV,” it’s hard to say how this mini-epic will play out of context. IMHO, it’s a perfect depiction of every movie fan who ever had too much time on his hands and got hold of a movie camera.
Plan 9 from Outer Space
Plan 9 is the immortal choice of bad-film lovers everywhere. And yet, it’s so entertainingly bad that one almost wants to believe that this is exactly what producer-writer-director Edward D. Wood Jr. had in mind all along. There have been far more sincere films, with far bigger budgets, that ended up with the same results as this movie. (If memory serves, one pundit referred to John Travolta’s 2000 pet sci-fi project Battlefield Earth as “Plan Ten from Outer Space.”)
The premise is that some outer-space beings (including future TV director Joanna Lee) have launched eight previously botched attempts to claim Earth for their own, and evidently the only plan that will get it right is to bring some corpses from a San Fernando Valley cemetery back to life. And yet, if the key sign of a sci-fi film’s success is that it successfully establishes an otherworldly environment, then Plan 9 succeeds in spades. The film is filled to capacity with:
* double-take-inspiring dialogue (“He’s dead. Murdered. And somebody’s responsible!”).
* non-existent continuity — as a writer once said about Leo McCarey’s work in the Marx Bros.’Duck Soup, if two shots don’t match, Wood’s answer is to throw them together and let them fight it out.
* strangeness accepted as normality. Prime example: Washed-up star Bela Lugosi died three days into filming and was replaced by Wood’s chiropractor, who was taller than Lugosi and who “doubled” for him simply by masking his face with a black cape.
And yet, many latter-day movies and TV shows ask us to accept just such incongruities in the name of entertainment. For example, we’re meant to accept a bare desk with a goose-necked lamp as being the office of a Pentagon official. Pretty silly. And yet, is NASA’s headquarters conveyed any more realistically on “I Dream of Jeannie”? And any number of sitcoms have dialogue that doesn’t sound any more “life-like” than the stuff that pops from the mouths of Wood’s actors.
It takes a special sense of mise-en-scene to present a facade so weird that it takes on a life of its own. For that alone, Plan 9 from Outer Space deserves its spot in film history.
Behind the Red Door has every potential to be one of the most bathetic TV-movies ever. Instead, it’s one of the most uplifting ones.
It concerns Natalie Haddad (Kyra Sedgwick), a photographer whose friend (Stockard Channing) tricks her into a free-lance assignment. Natalie, too late, finds out that the job is to photograph her long-estranged, gay brother Roy (Kiefer Sutherland).
The movie’s plot sets up a number of hurdles for itself. For one, Roy is succumbing to the final stages of AIDS. Natalie, a bitter loner, must make peace with both Ray and her dysfunctional family’s past, shown through black-and-white flashbacks of her mother’s murder.
The past credits of the movie’s co-writer and director, Matia Karrell, are not promising; they include scripts for the schmaltzy sitcom “The Wonder Years.” But evidently, Karrell’s own past — the movie is dedicated to her late brother, also named Roy — inspired her to take a great leap forward in quality.
Behind the Red Door pulls no punches in terms of its subject matter. Yet the movie, refreshingly, skirts every possible cliche presented by the movie’s familiar situation.
Sedgwick and Sutherland begin with familiar, almost conventional characters and whittle them down to their basic truths. Both deliver career-worthy performances.
And director Karrell never milks any situation for tears. Each scene lasts long enough to make its subtle point, and then the movie builds to a very low-key but moving conclusion.
TV-movies have come a long way from their origins as 90-minute time-fillers. Behind the Red Door is more satisfying than most theatrical releases of its year.
When Raiders of the Lost Ark was first released in 1981, I was as gaga over it as anyone, watching it over and over for the fine filmmaking and stunt work involved. A quarter-century later, I decided to show the movie to my then-9-year-old son (who had become a George Lucas-phile thanks to his intense connection with the Star Wars series).
In 1981, I would have given this movie five stars just for its non-stop thrills. Viewing it again, though, it looks a lot less than perfect.
As archeologist/adventurer Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford remains as roguish as ever, perhaps even channeling a little Humphrey Bogart into his sly performance. (Indeed, it’s a pity that Ford didn’t keep his “dark side” in further movie roles, instead transmogrifying into a pointy-jawed Mr. Perfection with each passing movie year.)
At the other end of the acting spectrum is Karen Allen as Marion, a long-deserted lover of Indy’s who reunites with him for his latest adventure. Marion is obviously intended as another spunky Lucas heroine (a la Princess Leia in Star Wars), but she fails miserably. She is forever telling the villains to “get your grimy hands off me,” and then as soon as they throw her over their shoulders like a sack of potatoes, she shuts right up with no riposte. (Reminds me of the woman in Monty Python’s Life of Brian who pounds incessantly on a Roman soldier’s chest, only to have him look down and nonchalantly say, “Stop that.”) There’s an especially unforgivable shot of Indy and Marion in the middle of a village swarming with bad guys; Indy seems to be literally fighting for his life, while in the background, Marion looks as though she’s taking a TV tray and robotically bopping willing villains on their heads.)
The story is set in 1936 and involves the lost Ark of the Convenant, which (the story tells us) Hitler as a fan of the occult was eager to possess. Archeologist Indy has been craving this treasure for years, and against all odds, tries to snatch it back from the Nazis.
There’s no denying that the thrills are still there and that the bad guys are movie-legend bad. (As evil Major Toht, Ronald Lacey seems to be letting the dialogue drip off his tongue.) If only it weren’t for that silly climax. (Big spoiler paragraph next.)
The greedy Nazis decide to have a look at the Ark’s treasures before delivering it to Hitler, while Indy and Marion are tied to a pole that is tantalizingly close to the Ark. The sucker gets uncovered, and suddenly ominous shapes and spirits ascend from the Ark and literally melt down the bad guys. Indy warns Marion to keep her eyes closed until the fracas is over. This leads to the strange thought that, if all these bad guys just shut their eyes for a while, they’d still have the Ark to themselves.
And then there’s that inane, Citizen Kane-tribute ending, where the Ark gets shoved into a warehouse with thousands of similarly crated treasures, and Indy complains that the Washington bureaucrats “don’t know what they have there.” But Indy does — shouldn’t he be warning them that if they ever open that thing, Washington bureaucracy will be decimated very quickly? Or does the evil that’s inside the Ark work its wonders only on Nazis?
Raiders of the Lost Ark is still an adventurous hoot, but nearly four decades have worn away its novelty, revealing a few too-smooth contrivances beneath.
Sorry to hear about yesterday’s death of actor David Ogden Stiers (above, top right). He died from bladder cancer, at age 75.
Stiers, of course, was best known for playing snooty Boston blueblood Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester on TV’s “M*A*S*H.” Winchester wasn’t my favorite character on the show, but he definitely had his moments, as when he bonded unexpectedly with Cpl. Klinger (Jamie Farr) in a Christmas episode, and particularly his well-rounded story arc in the series’ famous finale.
In later years, Stiers was reticent to discuss “M*A*S*H” in interviews because he didn’t want to be known only for his work on that show. And who could blame him? He had a long-running career on stage and in film as well as TV. His first movie role was as narrator of George Lucas’ debut film, THX-1138. He also did voice work for many Disney cartoons: Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast, corrupt Gov. Ratcliffe in Pocahontas, and the voice-of-conscience archdeacon in my all-time favorite Disney film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
His was a rich talent, and he will be sorely missed. Rest in peace, Maj. Winchester.