spatch: (Fleshy Headed Mutant)
In spite of some pretty serious pain recently, I did have the good fortune to watch a hilariously awful science-fiction film from 1967 called THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE and the title right there should be your first clue as to the quality of the film. Oh, it's presented in all seriousness, mind you, with none of that pesky irony to deal with, and that's what makes it all the funnier.

I mean, seriously: THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE. It's a classic B-movie title if ever there was one. Now nobody in the film actually takes the opportunity to dramatically declare "These invaders, Jim... they're not from space... they're from BEYOND space!" but you can pretty much tell that's the feeling they were going for. So when it's finally revealed that the aliens involved in this film's invasion are coming from the moon, it's a bit of a letdown. The moon isn't beyond space! It's not even beyond Mars! Sheesh!

Golly, I hope I'm not spoiling this cinematic masterpiece for anyone who's just itching to see it but haven't found the DVD in the $1.00 bin just yet. Anyway.

The story of the film involves mind-controlling moon meteorites which get into the heads of a group of scientists and then most of a small town, who then build an impressive mod bunker around the crashed stones complete with a rocket ship which we eventually learn makes round trip visits to the moon once every few days. Then we have a small but dedicated group of scientists who eventually learn to thwart the mind-control rays by, and I swear I'm not making this up, wearing colanders on their heads. (Okay, they're custom-made colanders made out of silver, which is the only metal which can apparently block these mind-control rays, but HELLO, IT'S A COLANDER.) They can also spot the aliens by wearing special goggles that make the Archie McPhee X-Ray Specs look like high-end sunglasses. As you can probably guess, the end result here is absolutely ludicrous, even moreso since it's not tongue in cheek. The scientists look like they're trying out for DEVO. If this video ever got out, these costumes would be a hit at cons.

But even better was the ending to the film. Oh, my! What an ending! What a deep climax of incredible emotion and pathos, and who am I kidding? It's a stinker. I'll summarize like so. If you really don't want spoilers, turn to page 74, where we'll determine which Brady Bunch character our true love would be. For the rest of you, here goes:

SCIENTIST HERO: I've chased you and your mind-controlled minions all the way back to the moon. Now tell me why you've been turning humans into slaves.

MASTER OF THE MOON (swear to god this is his name, honest): We are an advanced race, more highly evolved than you primitive savages on Earth. However, we evolved so much we lost our corporeal bodies and now exist as pure thought. We are also far far away from our home planet. We needed actual bodies to perform physical work on a rocket ship of our very own, so that we can blast off and return home to die. We would never have slaves. These human bodies would be returned to their rightful owners once work is complete.

SCIENTIST HERO: You just want to fix your rocket and go home. If that's all you wanted, why didn't you just ask?

MASTER OF THE MOON: Why... didn't... we just ask...

(It's so crazy it JUST MIGHT WORK!)

SCIENTIST HERO: We'd be happy to help you build your rocket... but by our own free will.

(The MASTER OF THE MOON takes a few moments to mull this over, and then approaches the SCIENTIST HERO. He suddenly RELINQUISHES CONTROL of the HUMAN BODY he was in. This NEW GUY and the SCIENTIST HERO then SHAKE HANDS while the music swells to a dramatic climax. "THE END" is superimposed over the shot of the handshake. SPATCH howls so much the CAT jumps off the bed and makes a beeline for the door.)

My god! Why didn't they just ask?! No science-fiction alien ever just plain asks! Except for like John Valentine, and look where it got him. No, if heroes were to try this tactic in other stories, it'd go like this:

SCIENTIST HERO: If all you want is to gather up Plutonium to feed to your offspring, why didn't you just ask us for it?
ALIEN GUY: Silence!! (disintegrates SCIENTIST HERO's head with his ray gun)

or maybe

SCIENTIST HERO: If all you robots want is freedom and the right to exist autonomously and not as mechanical slaves, why haven't you just asked?
ROBOT GUY: Beep boop bop borp boop (explodes SCIENTIST HERO's head with his atomoblaster)

or even

SCIENTIST HERO: If all you Martians want is some of our women for your breeding purposes, why don't you just ask? I'm sure we have some with loose enough morals around here who'd join you just for kicks.
MARTIAN GUY: WAK WAK WAAK (vaporizes SCIENTIST HERO's head with eye lasers)

Nobody ever asks. They just take. On the other hand, if ever I see a film where a giant irradiated termite walks up to the likes of John Agar and says "Terribly sorry, old chap, but my colony and I are simply famished and we sure could use a good nosh; might you know of any large collection of wooden structures which you don't need?" then by golly I'll totally keep that one close to my heart forever.
spatch: (RKO Radio Pictures)
One of the classic film urban legends (or rumors, or perhaps "hopes") is that somewhere in South America, stashed in someone's basement or hiding in a chest in an attic, is a full, uncut version of Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons. Welles finished his first cut of the film in 1942 while in South America shooting a documentary called It's All True, which itself was devised in an attempt to improve relations between the US and several key Latin American countries. We were in a war, see, and needed all the pals we could get. If we couldn't get pals, we would've settled for good neighbors.

Neither Ambersons nor It's All True turned out the way Welles wanted them to. Higher-ups at RKO, the studio which was to distribute the films, grew seriously unhappy with the way Orson was behaving while down in Brazil. Oh, sure, the guy worked like a madman, but he also played like a madman as well, and his filmmaking approach (progress? what progress? can't you see there are dances to dance, skirts to chase and delicious drinks to enjoy?) had long since ceased to worry the RKO brass. It had begun to piss them off something fierce. At this point in time Welles had only one film to his name. It just so happened to be Citizen Kane, which nearly everybody but William Randolph Hearst had praised, so Welles was under serious scrutiny from a lot of different eyes. His second film would have to surpass Kane in brilliance or else it'd just prove that Orson had gotten lucky the first time around.

The first audience preview of Ambersons was an absolute disaster. The film was previewed second on a double bill. The first film screened was a light-hearted, zippy peppy musical, which was what audiences wanted, especially so soon after Pearl Harbor. By all accounts, they loved it. The Magnificent Ambersons, on the other hand, was a brooding, slow-paced moody drama with (in the original cut) no uplifting ending, and it clocked in at just over two hours. Faced with this ordeal, the audience turned sour, began heckling, and left behind angry survey cards which were the 1940s version of YouTube comments only with just slightly less cussing (and, one presumes, without seventeen comment cards all containing the same line of dialogue with no extra comment.)

RKO knew they had to make drastic cuts to the film. Orson would never approve of their cuts, and they knew it. They also knew they didn't have to worry about that since Welles was completely powerless, being out of the country and without the right of final cut (he'd given it up during contract negotations.)

Welles could make suggestions from afar via telegram and telephone and he did, very much so, but his dispatches often carried no weight. If he had been in Hollywood, or if Robert Wise, the film's actual editor, could have gone to Rio to work with Welles (his trip was denied due to wartime travel restrictions) there's a good chance that the film might not have been butchered as it turned out to be. As it was, Wise edited the film under the guidance of studio executives who disliked Welles. Also involved with the editing process was Welles' own business manager, Jack Moss, but he was completely ineffective in defending the project and upholding what Orson wanted.

The result was a drastically shortened movie with a new, happier ending tacked on. Welles' relations with RKO fell apart. The studio eventually destroyed all the unused footage of Ambersons ("to free up vault space" was the official story, though it doesn't take a tinfoil hat to theorize they'd done it to keep the material out of Welles' hands.)

It's All True suffered disaster after disaster, including the accidental drowning death of an impoverished fisherman whose true story was being recreated for the film. The jangadeiro was one of four who sailed over 1600 miles down the coast of Brazil in order to bring public attention to their way of life, which involved working in a semi-feudal system of dubious legality. In the spirit of the pseudo-documentary, Welles had cast all four of the jangadeiros as themselves. However, as they were filming the re-creation of the dramatic conclusion of their journey, their raft capsized, killing one of the jangadeiros before a rescue crew could swim out to help him. Stop for a moment and boggle at that irony if you'd like; then we'll move on.

RKO quickly cut their losses on the project, which first had its budget slashed before it was eventually cancelled outright. Combined with the well-publicized Ambersons disaster, Orson Welles' reputation as an enfant terrible who couldn't finish a project was amplified and inflated, however justly or unjustly you want to call it.

Stories would later circulate that a print of the Ambersons first cut had been sent to Welles in Brazil, and there would be some folks in Rio who claimed to have seen it. Where that print went, though, nobody knows. It could very well be stashed somewhere. One can hope.

I only write this tonight (wait, was that just a lead-in?) because of an awesome piece of news out of Argentina. What appears to be an original, full print of Fritz Lang's Metropolis has been discovered in Buenos Aires. Lang suffered Hollywood studio butchery similar to Welles' ordeal when his amazing German impressionist masterpiece went over to the States. Executives at Paramount slashed nearly a quarter of the film's content, oversimplifying the story and removing key scenes for American audiences. Lang's original cut was lost in Berlin, and the versions of Metropolis you can get on DVD today will tell you, at certain points, what the next scene in the original narrative was supposed to have been. Even that, however, is based mostly on speculation.

Well, soon we won't need those title cards anymore. The discovered print has been brought to Berlin for restoration (after 80 years in hiding look as good you will not, hmm?) and it's only a matter of time before it's released. This is an amazing find. I cannot wait. Isn't it wonderful? And to think that maybe someday we'll be saying the same thing about The Magnificent Ambersons. Hope springs eternal, cat. Just remember that.
spatch: (Default)
For everyone else who didn't know Shipoopi, now's the chance to get it into your heads:

Here's the musical number from the Music Man film with Buddy Hackett as Marsellus. (Thanks, [livejournal.com profile] beth47!) The video starts out with a bit of distortion but works out near the end. Lookit those dance moves! As energetic as the barn-raising dance in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, though not as nearly creative with nearby props. But my!

And then here's the Family Guy parody, sung by Peter Griffin FOR REASON WHATSOEVER when he scores a touchdown for the New England Patriots (long story.) This is a lot more than a throwaway Let's Go There joke; notice how much of the movie's choreography is used in the number. This is why I can't totally write Family Guy off; Seth MacFarlane is a theater/old movie geek, plain and simple, and when he gets the chance to throw in Shipoopi or do an entire episode based off a Crosby-Hope Road movie, I'm happy.
spatch: (Default)
Q. How do you make Mr. D. Spatchel, Esq. holler OH FUCK YEAH at the television screen when it's not baseball or wrasslin' or a show about, uh, ice cream or something?

A. Be Turner Classic Movies and show Day of the Jackal, Three Days of the Condor, Marathon Man and The Boys From Brazil back to back to back to back.




This is one of the best television nights I've had in a long, long, long, long time.
spatch: (Spike Dancing The Hula)
I've noticed a curious callous on the side of my left index finger, just below the second knuckle. I couldn't figure out how in the world I could have gotten such a callous, until last night when I reached for the freshly opened two-liter bottle of soda on my computer desk, grabbing it by the neck for to take a healthy swig.

(I go through so much Diets Coke and Pepper that buying it by the two liter is cheaper than buying it by the six-pack. And I only swig out of my own bottles. Anything stored in public spaces gets poured into a glass in a most genteel and seemly fashion. Honest.)

I had a night of vaudeville last night and I was happy to have it. To celebrate the 80th anniversary of the release of The Jazz Singer and the first feature-length "talkie", TCM played the film and then followed up with an hour and a half of ancient Vitaphone shorts from Warner Bros. The shorts, all filmed with sound around 1929, weren't actual storytelling motion pictures, but of actual vaudeville acts which performed around the country then. Wowee!

I hadn't realized there were such abundant records of vaudeville, which has since passed into legend as one of the truly great American forms of entertainment. Yes, England had its music halls which featured a variety of billed acts just like American variety theater, but there was something about the American vaudevillian's itinerant lifestyle that gave the artform a unique image almost romantic in its nostalgia: enterainers schlepping from town to town, often bringing with their entire worldly possessions in one case, performing in horribly maintaned theaters to indifferent -- or worse, hostile -- audiences, sleeping in fleabag hotels and receiving numerous bedbug bites (a bedbug often feeds in three bites clustered around the same spot on the body, which became known as "Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner"), honing their act, perfecting their craft, and all the while hoping to Be Noticed and move from one of the small-time circuits to the Big Time, performing in the Keith's chain of theatres or, dare we dream, the biggest of all Big Time prizes, the sign that you'd finally Made It, playing the Palace in New York City. The Palace! The acts were wide and varied, from two-man comedy teams to singers both comic and serious to dancers to acrobats, jugglers, revue companies, and of course, trained animals.

The genre spawned its own slang. Some of the more colorful phrases are still in use today: "the big time", "second banana", "bombed", "schtick", "knocked 'em dead", "went over", "headliner" and, in the case of poor amateur acts, "getting the hook."

Ah, yes, vaudeville. )

This was not high art. Heck, some of it wasn't even particularly good. But you must know by now that I'm a sucker for entertainment for entertainment's sake, as well as any evidence of how generations before mine enjoyed their particular kinds of entertainment, and it was all the more fascinating to me since I realized I wasn't watching the cream of the crop. Sure, the acts I saw must've been well-known in their time; they were definitely good enough to be deemed worthy of filming, but they never broke into the new Big Time (films and radio) as far as I know. These were the acting stiffs, the very same who schlepped from city to city, performing these same routines over and over again to a new audience every few weeks. These weren't recreations or parodies of routines that we'd see years later on television; this was the real thing, baby. This was vaudeville! God, it was fascinating!

There are a few groups that are dedicated to restoring the Vitaphone shorts, some of which are available online if you know where to look, and I suggest you do. If only to see the lady with the cello suddenly stop her song and, with a crazed comic look on her face, frantically pound a maniacal boom-tiddy-boom-tiddy-boom-tiddy-boom beat on the darn thing with her bow, then continue on as if nothing had happened. She must've been a gas to hang out with on the train.
spatch: (RKO Radio Pictures)
"Be careful, Roxy, [the] Shuberts will want to build a theater there."
Producer and playwright Arthur Hopkins, upon viewing the cavernous orchestra pit at the Roxy

MOTION PICTURES WERE FIRST EXHIBITED IN THE UNITED STATES as acts on a vaudeville bill, in the midst of acrobats, balladeers, and ethnic comedians. The first theater devoted entirely to movies opened on Canal Street in New Orleans in 1896. Rothafel enjoyed a mixture of both, and in his first theater outside Scranton, Pennsylvania, incorporated both moving pictures and live entertainment into a full show. Along with other showmen, he elevated the movies beyond mere vaudeville novelty status, giving them equal billing with live acts or sometimes even better. While he was a stage showman first and foremost, with grand visions of orchestras, dance corps and elaborate production numbers filling his head, he was also a shameless sentimentalist, and knew that while his bally could bring the audience in, what really counted was the human connection. These melodramatic films, fraught with human emotion and displayed on a giant screen, could tell a story to those in the balcony in a far more intimate fashion than a hundred dancers or actors could ever hope to accomplish onstage -- but still, those dancers and all their hoopla couldn't hurt.

So it was with the Roxy Theatre. Cathedral of the Motion Picture it may be, its main attraction would always be heralded by spectacle. Take, for example, the opening night on March 11, 1927. The house lights were already down; Roxy's ushers had led the audience to their seats in almost total darkness.

Those filling the house that night included Charlie Chaplin, Irving Berlin, Harold Lloyd, Will Hays (whose notorious code of morality would dictate Hollywood's content from 1930 until the adoption of the MPAA Ratings system in 1965) and New York's favorite speakeasy owner and hostess extraordinare, Texas Guinan. The program began with a single spot focused on a lone figure center stage. It was not Roxy, it was not Gloria Swanson, it was not a tuxedoed emcee. It was a robed monk with a scroll, who intoned a florid, extravagant benediction:

Ye portals bright, high and majestic,
open to our gaze the path to Wonderland,
and show us the realm
where fantasy reigns,
where romance and adventure flourish.

Let every day's toil be forgotten
under thy sheltering roof:
O glorious, mighty hall,
thy magic and thy charm unite us all
To worship at Beauty's throne.


Then, after an undoubtedly dramatic pause, one final phrase: "Let there be light."

And there was light, and the audience saw it, and it was good. )

Next: The Boys and the Girls of the Roxy
spatch: (RKO Radio Pictures)
Picture 'bout a Minnesota man so in love with a Mississippi girl that he sacrifices everything and moves to Biloxi...
IN THE EARLY WINTER OF 1927, silent film star Gloria Swanson travelled to West 50th and 7th Avenue in New York City to visit Samuel L. Rothafel, powerhouse showman, tireless promoter, and theater manager since "the days when pianists trebled 'Hearts and Flowers' whenever a Sousa march didn't fit."

It was there that Roxy, as he was known to his friends ("...and you may call me that, too, when you write," he would later advise his radio audience) eagerly gave Swanson a tour of his nearly-completed prize: an enormous, outlandishly rococo movie palace capable of seating almost 6000 people. The actual auditorium number was around 5900, but in Roxy's inimitable fashion, he upped it to 6200 in the press by counting all the chairs in the offices, lounges, and even the maintenance rooms.

Gloria walked with Roxy up to the upper balcony, where workmen were busy plastering the ceiling. Impetuously, she grabbed a trowel and inscribed "ROXY - I LOVE YOU - GLORIA" in one corner. Roxy ordered that it stay on the ceiling forever. The Roxy Theater opened on March 11, 1927 with Gloria Swanson's latest film, "The Love of Sunya", as one of the features and Swanson herself in attendance. The Cathedral of the Motion Picture had arrived.

In 1961, after years of declining attendance, failed revitalization attempts and numerous protests, the Roxy was closed and demolished. Roxy himself was long gone, but Gloria Swanson paid one last visit to W. 50th and 7th, accompanied by a Life Magazine photographer. There, in evening gown and boa, she posed amidst the ruins. Swanson was photographed in several poses -- one echoed the glamour and beauty of the old palace in stark contrast to its reality. But the most enduring image is her pose to the left, arms outstretched in one final gesture of exaltation and praise to the treasure that was; Gloria triumphant.

The corner of W. 50th and 7th in Manhattan is now home to The World's Largest T.G.I. Friday's.

Next: Let There Be Light

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