Thursday, August 27, 2015

Cult Movie Project #19 (of 200) :: Sexing Up the War on Higher Education in Henry Levin's Where the Boys Are (1960)


If someone drew a triangle using the bubble-gum pop of Gidget (1959) and the knee-deep cheese of the Frankie and Annette Beach Party movies (1963-1966) as the base angles, and the steamy melodrama of A Summer Place (1959) as the apex angle, and then after adding a little geometry to this triangulum I think we'd find another coming of age flick set against the backdrop of sand and surf right smack in the middle: Where the Boys Are (1960).


While writing novels about people going on a journey, author Glendon Swarthout had himself quite the career in both print and on the big screen. They Came to Cordura, which focused on a ragtag group splintered off from Pershing's expedition into Mexico to hunt down Poncho Villa, for one example. Another, The Shootist, focused on the end of the journey for aging gunslinger, J.B. Books. But his most famous stories usually added a coming of age factor, with the likes of Bless the Beasts and the Children and his wildly popular Where the Boys Are; a "zany satire on the holiday pursuits of the American teenage girl" which provided the first ever insider-look into the annual Spring Break invasion of Florida.


"Why do (college kids) come to Florida?” asks Merrit Andrews in Swathout’s novel. “Physically to get a tan. Also, they are pooped. Many have mono. Psychologically, to get away. And besides, what else is there to do except go home (for Spring Break) and further foul up the parent-child relationship? Biologically, they come to Florida to check the talent. You've seen those movie travelogues of the beaches on the Pribilof Islands where the seals tool in once a year to pair off and reproduce. The beach at Lauderdale has a similar function. Not that reproduction occurs, of course, but when you attract thousands of kids to one place there is apt to be a smattering of sexual activity."


First published in 1958, MGM quickly turned the novel around and made a tidy sum off their minimum budget. However, one should point out that George Wells' screenplay only covers the first half of the book, as the second gets even zanier with the radicalization of Merrit as she tries to help smuggle guns into Cuba to help Uncle Fidel and the Fuller Brush Beard Brigade's revolution that ends in disaster.


No, the film adaptation is more concerned with another revolution. And while Where the Boys Are definitely has the wholesome late 1950's sheen on the surface (-- beginning with Connie Francis' infectious theme song), down below it makes no bones about poking the taboo of premarital S-E-X right in the eye with a very sharp stick.


From the opening scene, Merritt (Hart) is already duking it out with her uptight college professor over the elder's archaic views on sex and the dating habits of the young American female. But as the film plays out, Merritt has some major issues over the practice of what she's preaching – a far cry from the character in the novel, who lost her virginity long before she headed south. Also of note, in the novel Merrit only travels with one companion who basically disappears, leaving our protagonist to sleep with every male character we’re destined to meet in the film, gets pregnant, refuses all overtures of marriage, drops out of school and moves home to regroup.


But Wells and director Henry Levin had something different in mind, basically splitting Merrit into four different characters, giving us quartet of anxious co-eds from a winter-socked mid-western college ready for their own pilgrimage south, to where the boys outnumber the girls 3 to 1. Good odds for these gals, each with their own goal: too tall Tuggle (Prentiss) is on the hunt for a husband, preferably one she can look in the eye without bending her knees both figuratively and literally; Melanie (Mimieux) also has her sights set high, wanting to notch a couple of Ivy Leaguers on her soon to be discarded chastity belt; and while the pugnacious Angie (Francis) will settle for just about anything, Merritt isn't really sure what she's looking for, if anything at all, really, romantically speaking. Kudos to the casting director for filling those roles out, too. These seemingly mismatched puzzle pieces shouldn't fit but they do and the sense of camaraderie found with these girls is one of the film's strongest points.


And the resulting chemistry with their respective beaus-to-come is just as wonderful as the film follows them through the entire week of Spring Break, where the girls move from one bizarre locale to the next, taking in the sun, the suds and the scenery. Along the way, Tuggle falls for the lanky TV Thompson (Hutton), and Angie finds romance with Basil, a myopic bass player (Gorshin), whose experimental combo-band pays the audience to listen to them, dig? The brainy Merrit also finds her match with Ryder Smith (an eerily untanned Hamilton), as they hurl intellectual barbs at one another over the "Stud / Slut Dichotomy" to keep him at arm’s length, allowing the reluctant Merritt to ease into the relationship.


And as TV's police-band radio constantly updates us on the collegiate shenanigans erupting around them (-- a favorite being a live shark reported in a hotel swimming pool), the couples schmooze, snog, bicker over commitments, fight, break-up, make-up, snog some more, culminating in climactic calamity at a fancy dinner at a fancy seafood restaurant, where the whole gang winds up in a giant aquarium with the showcase aqua-bat, leading to a mass arrest.




To make matters worse, the overly naive Melanie has taken her best friend's Kinsey-backed advice to heart. And while the film's overall tone is comedic, it can also be downright brutal at times, with poor Melanie usually taking the brunt of it, serving as an abject lesson for the others when she's suckered to a private motel party by a couple of no-goodniks posing as Yale students. When she finally susses out the ruse and tries to leave, it's too late. What happens next is only implied, but there is no mistaking the devastating final result once the motel door slams shut.


The other girl's relationship problems pale in comparison, but they are the bumps along the way just the same. TV wants to knock-boots with Tuggle but she's determined to wait until she's married. TV takes the hint, and the specter of a long term commitment frightens him off. And knowing that once Spring Break is over means the probable end of their relationship, a conflicted Merritt's hot and cold act is wearing awfully thin with Ryder, resulting in a similar nasty spat. And then things get really twisted when everyone's relationships are saved or cemented as a direct result of Melanie's sexual assault.


And this is why I'm just as conflicted about my feelings for Where the Boys Are. On the surface, it's beautifully shot, filled with adorable characters, who we openly root for to make it work, and so immersive in the chaos of one raucous week I could almost enjoy it unconditionally -- almost. Because underneath, it's mixed message of saying sex is OK but the only one who actively engages in it winds up raped, brutalized and in the hospital is a pretty twisted way to moralize away it's all fun and games until somebody gets hurt. And, well, I kinda have a problem making all of that compute while trying to laugh at an aquarium full of goofballs.
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“I don’t want to give the impression that Where the Boys Are should be taken all that seriously. After all, any picture about the students who migrate to Spring Break in Fort Lauderdale is bound to be somewhat stupid and junky, even if it cost a lofty $2 million, was made on location, and was filmed in CinemaScope … But I do think it is above being enjoyed only on a camp level. There is much to appreciate … George Wells’ script may be about sophomores but it never becomes sophomoric like most college sex comedies; it is surprisingly intelligent, contains unexpected insights into the coed condition, smoothly blends serious moments into the comedic framework, strives for the offbeat, and features a lot of clever dialogue.”
 
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXxxxxxxxxxXXXXXXX-- Danny Peary 

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The Fine Print: Where the Boys Are was watched via a digital rental through Amazon Prime's streaming package. What's the Cult Movie Project? That's 19 down, with 181 to go.


Where the Boys Are (1960) Euterpe :: MGM / P: Joe Pasternak / D: Henry Levin / W: George Wells, Glendon Swarthout (Novel) / C: Robert Bronner / E: Fredric Steinkamp / M: George Stoll / S: Dolores Hart, Paula Prentiss, Yvette Mimieux, Connie Francis, George Hamilton, Jim Hutton, Frank Gorshin, Chill Wills

Monday, August 24, 2015

YouTube Finds :: Viewer Seeking Grief Counselling After Blindly Walking into Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies (1988)


I've been struggling the past few days over exactly whose idea it was to watch Grave of the Fireflies (1988) before going to bed late Friday night heading into early Saturday morning. The evening had begun with a successful excursion to the local brick 'n' mortar video store that didn't have the film I was looking for but yielded two used Miyazaki DVDs instead, which were happily plugged into the usual buy one get one for a buck deal before heading home for a delightful evening of anime, starting with a first time viewing of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and a second viewing of My Neighbor Totoro (1988). And on such a high I was after I didn't want that sense of wonder to end. And what began with a desire to experience Spirited Away (2001) again, which failed because it wasn't streaming anywhere, and a last ditch effort to see if someone had uploaded it to YouTube also went for naught, ended there, in the search results, with a link to a subtitled print for Grave of the Fireflies.


Now, Grave of the Fireflies is a Studio Ghibli film but was directed not by Hayao Miyazaki but by Isao Takahata. And while I was aware of it and its somber reputation I had yet to experience it. And so, as the digital clock readout blipped ever closer to 3am, still riding high, I decided to give it a whirl. In the end, I do not regret this decision but ... yeah. As critic Roger Ebert put it, while other animated films connect with the viewer on some emotional level "they inspire tears, but not grief." I mean, it's not like I wanted to cry myself to sleep the other night. And do you all realize how hard that is to do with a mudhole stomped into your heart?



The story itself is fairly simple but gets more complicated when you stew on the dire consequences. It begins with an air raid on Kobe, Japan, as World War II entered its final act. Here, it focuses on teen-aged Seita (Tatsumi) and his four year old sister, Setsuko (Shiraishi), who lose their mother and their home in the fire-bombing. No. Wait. Check that. It doesn't begin there. No, it begins with Seita's death, alone, starving and abandoned in a subway station after the war has ended. When he passes, his ghost is reunited with Setsuko's, and these two spirits bare witness to what transpired that led us all here via flashback, which brings us back to that air raid and the slow but steady tragedy that follows.


Thus and so, from the very beginning, you know this is all going to end badly for all involved. But even though you know what is coming, the inevitability of it only made things worse. The film was based on the semi-autobiographical novella Hotaru no Haka (1967) by Akiyuki Nosaka, who lost most of his family to the firebombings, except for his little step-sister. In the film, Takahata, another air-raid survivor, follows Nosaka's narrative very closely as Seita and Setsuko try to get by. 



Things go relatively well at first, finding refuge with relatives, but this quickly falls apart when a vile and manipulative aunt siphons their rations and runs the children off. And though their meager existence in an abandoned bomb shelter that follows has a certain fairy-tale quality to it this fails to negate the fact that these two are suffering terribly from the effects of malnutrition and slowly starving to death. And met with indifference or hostility at every turn, both finally succumb. First Setsuko, which was so devastating I am honestly tearing up as I type this, and then, wracked with guilt over his failure, Seito.


According to several interviews Nosaka wrote the story to exorcise his own demons for failing his sister, who also starved to death during the war. For this he blamed himself. Seems while scrounging for food, he would often feed himself first and his sister second. In his tale, Nosaka's surrogate is the person he failed to be in his eyes. Others have noted how Grave of the Fireflies can be traced to the Japanese tradition of double-suicide plays. For "it is not that Seita and Setsuko commit suicide overtly, but that life wears away their will to live." And as things unravel, the viewer falls apart right along with them.



I honestly haven't had that severe of a five-alarm meltdown caused by any form of media in a long, long time. To be fair, Grave of the Fireflies is a truly beautiful film -- a beautiful film about ugly things. The quieter moments, the intimate moments, are what really get to you (the scene at the beach, Setsuko in general), giving the harrowing moments that much more impact (burying the dead fireflies). It is so beautiful and so ugly I am torn on whether to ever watch it and get wrought through that kind of emotional wringer again. I honestly don't know. It's also a hard film to recommend. But I will, here, and now, because after reading this you will know what you are truly in for -- unlike I was.


Who knows, in a couple of days, a week, a month, I might even turn on the film a little for being too calculated, too manipulative -- which I think it is, but the emotions are honest and not maudlin. But right now my own emotions are too raw, my reaction too volatile, to contemplate further. Begrudging kudos to all involved, especially to the voice actors. Gonna be a long time before I get Setsuko's joyous laughter and pitiable pleas scrubbed from my ear filters.


Grave of the Fireflies (1988) Shinchosha Company :: Studio Ghibli :: Toho Studios / P: Ryôichi Satô, Eiichi Takahashi / D: Isao Takahata / W: Isao Takahata, Akiyuki Nosaka (novel) / C: Nobuo Koyama / E: Takeshi Seyama / M: Michio Mamiya / S: Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Akemi Yamaguchi, Yoshiko Shinohara

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Movie Poster Spotlight :: Look! Up in the Sky! Is it a Bird? Is it a Plane? No! It's a Super Serial! Sam Katzman's Superman (1948)














It's Superman vs. the Spider Lady in this rip-snorting serial from Columbia Pictures courtesy of Sam Katzman, Spencer Bennet and Thomas Carr. And despite the somewhat crude animation to make the Man of Steel fly, Superman was one of the best serials ever made.


Superman (1948) Columbia Pictures Corporation / P: Sam Katzman / D: Spencer Gordon Bennet, Thomas Carr / W: George H. Plympton, Joseph F. Poland, Arthur Hoerl,Lewis Clay, Royal K. Cole, Joe Shuster (comics), Jerry Siegel (comics) / C: Ira H. Morgan / E: Earl Turner / M: Mischa Bakaleinikoff / S: Kirk Alyn, Noel Neill, Tommy Bond, Carol Forman, Pierre Watkin

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Cult Movie Project #18 (of 200) :: Rising Up, and Pushing Everything Up with Them as They Go in Herbert J. Biberman's Salt of the Earth (1954)


On December 3, 1947, after ten screenwriters and directors were cited for contempt of Congress, all taking the Fifth and refusing to answer questions for the House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) as they tried to root-out communistic influences in popular media, a group of Hollywood executives (-- including Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, Samuel Goldwyn and Albert Warner), backed by the MPAA, issued what would come to be known as the Waldorf Statement, which essentially terminated the offenders and barred them from any industry jobs "until such time as he is acquitted or has purged himself of contempt and declares under oath that he is not a Communist." But they didn't stop there, adding, "We will not knowingly employ a Communist or a member of any party or group which advocates the overthrow of the government of the United States by force or by any illegal or unconstitutional methods ... To this end we will invite the Hollywood talent guilds to work with us to eliminate any subversives: to protect the innocent; and to safeguard free speech and a free screen wherever threatened."


Thus, the Blacklist was born; and in June, 1950, after a pamphlet called Red Channels was circulated around Hollywood, fingering "Red Fascists and their sympathizers", an additional 150 names were added to the list, who found themselves out of a job and barred from any form of employment in the entertainment field.


Herbert Biberman was one of the original Hollywood Ten, and while some of his contemporaries fled to Europe (Ring Lardner Jr., Albert Maltz), or kept working in Hollywood, ghost-writing through the use of fronts (Dalton Trumbo), or eventually caved and started naming names (Edward Dmytryk), Biberman stayed true to the cause, citing his constitutional rights. After serving his time in Federal prison, Biberman was determined to keep working and, perhaps, in a blatant show of defiance, decided to actually make the kind of film he and the others were being unjustly persecuted for: “a crime to fit the punishment.” Thus, scratching together funds from several other Blacklistees and sympathizers, Biberman founded Independent Productions Corporation. Now all he needed was a story to produce.



Meantime, Paul Jarrico, one of those later casualties of the Blacklist, fled with his family to the deserts of New Mexico to escape the public eye. There, he met Clint and Virginia Jencks, a couple of labor organizers who were trying to unionize a group of exploited mine workers, currently mired in an interminable strike near the Mexican border. The Jarricos visited the miners, and even spent some time on the picket lines. They were also well aware of Biberman’s ambitions and felt they had found the perfect story for him to film.


Biberman agreed, and contracted Michael Wilson, another victim of the Blacklist, to write the screenplay for what would eventually become, after several harrowing twists and turns, with resistance from nearly every front, Salt of the Earth (1954). Wilson was another one of those ghost-writers, who would secretly pen the scripts for epics like The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and seemed an odd choice for this kind of intimate and well-grounded tale. But he accepted the challenge and, like Jarrico, spent time with the miners and their families, mostly Mexican-Americans, who were striking over equal wages and safety concerns.



As for the film itself, I think its true spirit animal is John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940), subbing in minority miners for displaced Okies. But lensed with a documentarian flare, what it really feels like is one of those vintage anti-drug / horrors of sex / road safety screeds -- at least to the eye. But the film is a lot more complicated than that. For on one hand you have the miners fighting tooth and nail to unionize against the faceless mining company, which plays the Anglos against the Chicanos, because that song will ALWAYS remain the same, but these very same men refuse to let their wives get involved, preferring a more traditional role for the womenfolk, or add their list of demands for better living conditions to the manifesto; at least initially.


For as the film progresses and the strike drags on indefinitely, the company counters every move made with injunction after injunction, forcing the wives and children to take over the picket lines when the husbands were forced to stand aside or face real jail time for defying that stack of court orders. And for over a year, these families faced severe food-rationing, forced evictions, a biased police force, and the constant threat of “scabs” and strike-breakers taking over the mine. And despite turning the heat up a little too high on a few melodramatic moments to make sure everyone gets this, it is this gender-reversal that gives Salt of the Earth its true power, making it an extremely empowering feminist picture.



To add even more verisimilitude to the proceedings, Biberman quickly abandoned the idea of having his wife, Gale Sondergaard, whose lost film career was collateral damage for Biberman’s Blacklisting, play the female lead and narratrix, Esperanza Quintero. Feeling this miscasting would “undermine the social justice aspects” of the film, the producers recruited Rosura Revueltas, a Mexican actress, who had grown up in similar circumstances in a similar mining town. To play her husband, they cast non-actor, Juan Chacón, who was the president of the fledgling union that had won the strike just months before filming began. And playing the organizers who rallied the miners were the Jencks themselves. In fact, Biberman only cast five professional actors for the whole film, filling out the vast majority of the roles with locals found in Grant County, New Mexico, many of which had actively participated in the inspirational strike. Thus, the only familiar face is Will Geer, who plays the vile and bigoted Sheriff. A long time liberal (and later star of The Waltons TV series), Geer had also made the Blacklist. In return, he founded the Theatricum Botanicum in Los Angeles to give his fellow victims an outlet for their creativity and agreed to be in Biberman’s film, feeling it was an important tale to tell.


And it was a tale that almost didn’t get told. As the film was being shot near Silver Springs, a concerned school teacher sent a letter to Walter Pidgeon, then president of the Screen Actors Guild, about what a bunch of godless Commies were up to in her hometown. Pidgeon then forwarded the letter on to the FBI, who immediately dug into the financing of the film and eventually deported Revueltas back to Mexico for her involvement, and the HUAC commission, who immediately denounced the proposed film for its communistic sympathies just as The Hollywood Reporter charged it was made "under direct orders of the Kremlin."



With the public now stirred up over content that didn’t even exist, several rounds of gunfire riddled the sets, equipment was constantly sabotaged, and a small airplane would occasionally buzz the location and disrupt several shots. And it didn’t end once Salt of the Earth wrapped. Through threats and machinations of several studio heads, no lab would develop the film; and even when that was finally managed on the sly the editing process was done in secret and in several rotating locations (including the women’s restroom in an abandoned movie theater) to prevent the footage from being seized and destroyed before it could be finished.



Despite a call by the American Legion for a nation-wide boycott, Salt of the Earth did manage a premiere in New York City, but that was about it because no one else would dare show it for fear of repercussions. After that, the film languished for almost a decade until its rediscovery in the more liberal minded 1960s, where a once reviled film was now championed as a bold statement on ethnic and gender equality. And finally, in what can be best described as an irony of ironies, Salt of the Earth was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 1992. And so, just like the strikers, Biberman and company eventually won the day.


Officially, the Blacklist ended in 1960 when Dalton Trumbo received full screen credit for his work on Spartacus (1960). Unofficially, its effect still lingers to this very day. Don’t believe me? YouTube Elia Kazan’s life-time Academy Award presentation in 2008 and check out the audience’s cool reaction to it. Sadly, back in 1954, after she was detained by immigration before voluntarily agreeing to be deported back to Mexico, Revueltas' part still wasn’t completely filmed. But with the use of stand-ins and some secret clandestine filmmaking south of the border, several needed inserts were finished. When word of this leaked, Revueltas was a victim of a severe backlash and was never allowed to work as an actress again on either side of the border. This is too bad because if her outstanding performance, here, is any indication of her talent, her loss was also ours.



As conceived, Salt of the Earth was intended to be a primal scream in the wilderness against the hypocrisy of the conspiring forces who wrought this ruin and who sought to censure and censor in the name of freedom. Something unglamorous and a subject matter Hollywood would never touch. Those few critics who did see it in 1954 couldn’t understand what all the frothing hub-bub was about, finding a film that wasn’t “anti-American but pro-human.” And though small in scale, focusing on several individuals and their constant struggle to be recognized as something more than cogs in a machine, Salt of the Earth shows that when enough people stand together for what is right, no matter what the odds, they can accomplish something truly heroic.


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“Today Salt of the Earth has lost none of its impact; Norma Rae (1979), with similar themes, may be commendable, provocative progressive film, highly controversial by Hollywood standards, but by comparison to Salt of the Earth it is timid and gimmicky; the emphasis is on performance rather than themes; it is a celebration of the individual rather than the people; it is targeted for a liberal middle-class audience. The striking people in Salt of the Earth advocate reform (as did their real life counterparts) rather than a revolutionary takeover of a mine – a bone of contention for some radicals – but for most moviegoers with political orientation no American narrative film is more inspiring and emotionally satisfying than this remarkable 1954 film."
 
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXxxxxxxxxxXXXXXXX-- Danny Peary 

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The Fine Print: Salt of the Earth was watched via Alpha Video's DVD. What's the Cult Movie Project? That's 18 down, with 182 to go.


Salt of the Earth (1954) Independent Production Company (IPC) / P: Paul Jarrico / AP: Jules Schwerin / D: Herbert J. Biberman / W: Michael Wilson / C: Stanley Meredith, Leonard Stark / E: Joan Laird, Ed Spiegel / M: Sol Kaplan / S: Juan Chacón, Rosaura Revueltas, Will Geer, Henrietta Williams, Mervin Williams
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