Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The (Red) Apes Have Taken Over :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Edward and Mildred Dein's Shack Out on 101 (1955)


At a small ocean-side greasy-spoon well off the beaten path, the owner of this eatery barely ekes out a living. Minimally staffed by a world-weary waitress and a cantankerous short-order cook, what few customers George (Wynn) does get consists of an occasional long haul trucker and the staff of a government research center nestled somewhere up the road a piece. Well, wherever they come from, all these customers agree on two things: one, they'd all like a fling with the saucy Kotty (Moore), and two, Slob's cooking is awful.


But the thick-headed Slob (Marvin) couldn't care less what others think, and Kotty turns them all down flat. See, she's currently attached and swapping spit with one of those research scientists; a Professor Sam Baniston (Lovejoy), who's also trying to help her ditch this dead-end occupation and shepherd her into a cushier government job through the Civil Service exam.


And as we meet a few more kooky denizens of this diner, including a daffy salesmen named Eddie (Bissell) and a shifty-eyed fishermen (Lesser), things seem normal enough on the surface, but underneath something far more sinister is happening once the sun goes down and the kitchen closes for the night.


Seems several of those government researchers have up and disappeared without a trace, and they were all last seen eating at this very establishment. And not only that, but there are other transactions going on at the diner. Transactions that are off the menu and take place strictly under the table. And what are these clandestine transactions all about? Secrets. Secrets bought and sold that could bring about the end of the world as we know it...


In August of 1950, after the FBI ferreted out their spy ring, a Federal grand jury indicted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on 11 counts of conspiracy and espionage for allegedly passing on the secrets of the A-Bomb to the Russians. Later convicted on these charges in March of 1951, despite the couple's protests of innocence, the Rosenberg's, admitted Communists, were sentenced to death for this act of treason; a sentence that was eventually carried out in June, 1953. But this was not the end of it. No. Far from it.


History would show this notorious incident only added fuel to Senator Joe McCarthy's Stomp-A-Commie-Crusade; and Hollywood, already stinging from the whipping it took from the House Un-American Activities hearings in 1947, which resulted in the Black List, where countless artists and craftsmen suddenly became persona non grata to the studios, were eager to make nice with a series of Anti-Communist films --  I Married a Communist /The Woman on Pier 13 (1949), I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951), Big Jim McClain (1952), and assorted shorts -- What is Communism? (1952), Red Nightmare (1957), to bolster the perception of Tinsel Town's unwavering patriotism to avert anymore governmental grievances. Even second tier studios like Allied Artists got in on the act; and Shack Out on 101 (1955) is a prime example of this type of output.



An Atomic-Paranoia-Sleaze-Noir, the separate ingredients of Patriotism and Red Scares in Shack out on 101 are clearly definable to your viewing palate as the film digests, but these morsels are essentially overwhelmed by a few more spicier ingredients thrown in with the best of intentions to make it all go down a little easier. For, not only did the married screen-writing tandem of Edward and Mildred Dein throw the kitchen sink into this seamy little potboiler (-- Edward also directed), but added the stove, the fridge, the cupboards, and all the above's contents into the mix as they tried to subvert this central theme under several layers of steamy romantic intrigue, oddball characters, and laugh-out-loud comedy.


Strangely, each element on its own works fairly well but kinda curdles when baked together. Sticking with the culinary metaphor, then, admittedly, the end results tastes kinda funny. Not bad, mind you. Just funny -- a bit off, maybe -- with each bite either too salty or too sweet or too bland that never reaches any sort of satisfying equilibrium. (Note to self: You are so talking out of your "You Don't Even like to Cook" ass right now.) Anyways...




Yeah, the soapy melodrama just never jives properly with the cloak and dagger stuff. The comedic elements work best, especially a few throwaway bits with George and Slob working out, and the resulting pissing contest over whose legs are in better shape -- a contest Kotty eventually has the last word on, and George and Eddie (Whit Bissell in a rare comedy relief stint) swapping tales and testing out some new fishing equipment.


Frankly, the whole plot feels like a hyper-condensed season of your garden variety soap opera, where said soap latches onto the latest headlines or hot-topic and folds it into one of its many subplots, with the viewer plopped down right into the middle of it, beginning with Slob's initial molestation of Kotty on the beach, whose tired reaction says this kinda crap happens all the time, and who only gets indignant when the grab-fanny cook spoils her latest batch of laundry.


Now, with a soap, you would have months and months to work this storyline -- hell, in some cases, years; here, we barely have an hour as a frustrated Kotty moves from man to man, looking and longing for love or some kind of stability, eventually sniffing out the nefarious truth behind Bastion and Slob's secret sea-shell swapping sessions down by the sea shore but doesn't quite grasp the stakes until it is far too late. For, unlike the Rosenbergs, here, not only are those Commie bastards stealing classified information from the research center through several stooges, they're actually kidnapping scientists and engineers and smuggling them out of the country through Mexico, destination Moscow, to unlock more Atomic secrets for Uncle Nikita.


Discovering her beau (and ticket out of this shack) is one of these stoolies, in perhaps not the wisest of moves, knowing they've killed several people already, Kotty's self-righteous snit-fueled tirade nearly gets everyone else killed as the mysterious Mr. Gregory, the man behind this nest of vipers, finally reveals himself, who decides it's time to cut bait on this operation and leave all the witnesses at the bottom of the Pacific.


Now, since everything that brought us to this point, and the climax itself, to the pat happy ending, is all carried out six and half miles somewhere above “over the top” an argument could be made that Shack Out on 101 should be considered a farce, which kinda makes sense, making it a nice subversive foil for this particular genre that was already fizzling out. And despite all these complaints and snarky observations, I'm happy to report the cast overachieves and makes all of these disjointed plot elements work.


As the Tomato, whom everyone wants to *ahem* sample, Terry Moore is a million miles away from her big screen break as the young ingénue in Mighty Joe Young (1949). She brings a solid “been there, done that, screw the lousy t-shirt” weariness to Kotty, who once more sees a way out of this funk only to have the door seemingly slammed in her face. The constantly blustering Keenan Wynn is great, too, as always, and plays well off the bumbling Bissell. But Lee Marvin steals the movie as the slovenly Slob, who isn't as slovenly and thick-headed as he lets on.


It also helps the film itself looks fantastic. Credit to cinematographer Floyd Crosby, who used the limited sets brilliantly, keeping things nice and dingy and sleazy, and who used the cramped and limited space in the diner to his advantage by having the camera ridiculously close to the action at all times, resulting in a seedy documentary feel that's about [--this--] close to crossing the threshold of cinéma vérité. Seriously. You can almost smell some Pine Sol wafting from the toilets and hear the grease popping on the griddle.


This would be one of Crosby's last stops before he hooked up with Roger Corman and the boys from American International Pictures, starting with Fast and the Furious (1954), and whose skills are kinda underappreciated in the success of both. One also cannot discount the efforts of editor George White, who also stitched together the similar docu-noir, The Phenix City Story (1955), and the noir to end all noir, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). And then there’s the music of Paul Dunlop, whose horn-heavy spazz-jazz riffs only amp up the proceedings even more.


After finishing Shack Out on 101, the Deins latched onto the wrong bandwagon with Calypso Joe (1957) -- yup, there was a time when most people predicted calypso music would have more staying power than rock ‘n’ roll, but then the couple were roped in by Universal and scripted the strangest, but surprisingly effective entry in that studio's resurgent monster movie movement with Curse of the Undead (1959), which throws a vampire into a western, making him an indestructible hired gun set loose on a range war. You wouldn't think that would work but, believe me, it does.


Thus, despite its haphazard structure and kitchen-sink narrative, Shack Out on 101 will surprise you when it's over and done. It shouldn't work either, but it does. Apparently, the film's original title was Shack Up on 101 but some muckety-muck at the studio didn't like the euphemistic connotation of "shack up" (-- some sources claim the objection came from Moore), and so producer Mort Millman made the change. Whatever the title, more folks probably need to see this gritty and dirty and highly idiosyncratic film.


Shack Out on 101 (1955) Allied Artists / EP: William F. Broidy / P Mort Millman / D: Edward Dein / W: Edward Dein, Mildred Dein / C: Floyd Crosby / E: George White / M: Paul Dunlap / S: Terry Moore, Frank Lovejoy, Keenan Wynn, Lee Marvin, Whit Bissell, Len Lesser, Frank De Kova

Monday, June 10, 2019

Sonny and Cher and the Beat that Went On a Little Too Long :: A 25 Vid-Cap Review of William Friedkin's Good Times (1967)


After scoring several pop hits, the husband and wife singing duo, Sonny and Cher (Bono, Sarkisian), are suddenly red-hot commodities in Hollywood circles as several studios trip over themselves in order to strike while things are molten and get them onto the big screen first despite the couple’s grand indifference on such things. Well, turns out Sonny is a little less indifferent than Cher, and he signs on when a mega-producer named Mordicus (Sanders), who won’t take no for an answer, makes an offer they can’t refuse, giving the potential stars carte blanche to write the script for their own movie in any genre they choose. But now, with a deadline looming, and shooting scheduled to begin in just a couple of days, the procrastinating Sonny’s imagination soon gets the better of him as he runs several movie scenarios past his partner to see if something, anything, finally sticks...


























A high school dropout with dreams of being a songwriter, Sonny Bono worked several odd jobs while trying to break into the music business in Los Angeles, including a waiter, construction worker, truck driver, and a butcher's delivery man, which left a lasting impression on several music execs when he would constantly drop by while making deliveries, to submit new songs, still wearing his bloodstained apron. He finally caught on at Speciality Records, where Sam Cooke recorded one of his compositions, "The Things You Do to Me.” Bono then went to work for Phil Spector in 1962, where he co-wrote “Needles and Pins” with Jack Nitzsche for The Searchers. And it was around this same time Bono hired himself a new housekeeper he’d met in a coffee shop by the name of Cherilyn “Cher” Sarkisian.


Like Bono, Cher had also dropped out of high school and moved to Los Angeles when she was just 16, where she worked as a dancer in several clubs along the fabled Sunset Strip, using these venues to introduce herself to managers and agents, looking for an “in.” She found one in November, 1962, when she met Bono, who introduced her to Spector, who in turn used her as a backup vocalist for the Wall of Sound on several pop hits, including the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" and the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin.” Liking the way she sounded, Spector produced her first single, “Ringo, I Love You,” recorded under the name of Bonnie Jo Mason, which completely fizzled.


Meantime, a romantic relationship soon blossomed between Bono and Cher, culminating in an “unofficial” wedding ceremony in Tijuana, Mexico, in late 1964. All the while, Sonny kept pushing Cher as a solo act but she kept begging for him to perform with her due to some crippling stage fright. And as the duo began harmonizing together onstage as Caesar and Cleo, Cher would focus on Bono to relax, later claiming she always sang to the people through him. Still, as single after single continued to fizzle, the couple hadn’t quite found their sonic signature yet. 


But that all changed in 1965 with the three-punch combo of a name change to Sonny and Cher, the release of the Bono penned “I Got You Babe,” and an incident in England when they were both evicted from the London Hilton over the way they were dressed in fur vests and striped bell-bottoms, making them instant counter-culture sensations overnight; and by the end of the year, after the release of their first album, Look at Us, the couple had five songs in the Billboard Top 20.


Musically speaking, with Sonny’s high and nasally voice mixed with Cher’s rich contralto, this shouldn’t have worked at all and yet it did; two highly mismatched puzzle pieces that somehow clicked and locked together. Amazingly so. And all the while, Sonny kept pushing Cher to the front, writing “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” and “You Better Sit Down Kids” for her solo album, The Sonny Side of Cher, which also went through the roof. Then, in 1967, with the release of the follow up Sonny and Cher album, In Case You’re in Love, anchored by the hit single, “The Beat Goes On,” and their popularity at an all-time high, Bono approached his agent, Abe Lastfogel, about the possibility of making a Sonny and Cher movie.


Lastfogel then introduced Bono to a fellow William Morris Agency client, William Friedkin -- a young documentary filmmaker, who was ready to break into features. The two hit it off and started looking for a script. At some point, they got a spec letter from Nicholas Hyams, which suggested they go meta and make a movie about Sonny and Cher making a movie. They both loved the idea and Friedkin hired the novice screenwriter to flesh out his idea. But, this collaboration did not last very long because, according to a later interview with Friedkin, “Hyams was condescending to Sonny and disdainful of me." Thus, the script was eventually hammered out by Friedkin and Bono and then polished up by Tony Barrett.


Meanwhile, Lastfogel secured financing through Steve Broidy and his newly minted Motion Pictures International. Broidy had been in the movie business since the 1920s, bouncing around between Universal and Warner Bros. He then hired on at Monogram Pictures in 1933, and steadily moved up the management chain until he was named director of operations in 1945 and steered them through the Poverty Row studios’ massive upgrade to Allied Artists in 1953, where he remained president until 1965 when he left to form his own company.


Apparently, Broidy had wanted to call the film I Got You Babe to cash in on the hit single but Bono preferred Good Times (1967), based on a newly penned song he wanted to incorporate into the film. And while the production itself was a bit of a runaway, with the budget ballooning from $500,000 to $800,000 as Friedkin went a little nuts, Broidy would sell the completed film to an eager Columbia for $1.2 million, making himself a tidy profit. Columbia, however, took a bath, as the film floundered at the box-office and failed to find an audience -- any audience. And the reason for that is twofold:


One, the film isn’t particularly all that good. The whole thing comes off as a pastiche of a half-dozen, half-baked scenarios haphazardly thrown together that both look and read like rejected coconut-cranial-trauma-induced dream sequences from the old Gilligan’s Island TV show as Sonny gets to star and be the hero in a musical western, a hard boiled murder mystery, and a jungle adventure, with Cher playing a different character in each, and George Sanders and his goons playing the villains, while Bono tries and fails to drum up some enthusiasm in his partner, who really doesn’t want any part in this nonsense. And then Sonny decides he really doesn’t either. And that’s about it.


If one wanted to be generous, you could call Good Times a farce, I guess. Props to Friedkin for giving us a few interesting things to look at, but his burgeoning style constantly clashes with cinematographer Robert Wyckoff’s ingrained TV sensibilities that keeps the film way, way, way too grounded as it struggles to be hip and kooky. Apparently, Friedkin shot half the film with a different cinematographer and a three man, non-union crew, guerilla style, and it's very easy to tell one half from the other. Alas, this clashing of styles only adds to the film's problems. Which brings us to the second reason the film flopped.


By the time Good Times came out in May, 1967, the kind of mellow folk music Sonny and Cher were peddling was being pushed off the charts by the likes of Jefferson Airplane and Led Zeppelin. The times, as the song goes, were a changing. And following Bono’s conservative lead, they refused to adapt to these changing times. Now couple that with the duo’s well-publicized stance against the notion of “free love” and being staunchly anti-drug, Sonny and Cher were flaming out and on a fast train to Squaresville. Bono had hoped the film would shore things up, but this, of course, backfired.


However, these same stances made the duo very standards and practices friendly, explaining why these “safe hippies” spent almost the entirety of the 1970s on TV in some form of variety show, which appealed to a more geriatric audience, starting with The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour (1971-1974), which got a lot of mileage out of Sonny’s self-depreciation and Cher’s bold fashion statements. And as the couple’s marriage fell apart, so did their act, leading to their own separate series, The Sonny Comedy Revue (1974) and Cher (1975-1976) before they reunited one last time for The Sonny and Cher Show (1976-1977), which always ended with their signature song, “I Got You Babe."




As Bono moved into the 1980s and Cher left him in the dust never to look back, he sort of became his own punchline. And while he still showed up in a few movies and TV serials from time to time, he apparently started shying away from showbusiness after a guest stint on Fantasy Island where he witnessed Hervé Villechaize have a complete meltdown over some slight affront and washed his hands of the whole business. 


But in the end, he just left one media circus for another when he got into politics, getting himself elected mayor of Palm Springs in 1988 -- basically so he could change a city code so he could put up a bigger sign up on his restaurant. He was then elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican on his second try in 1994, and served in that capacity until his untimely death in 1998 due to a skiing accident. Cher would deliver his eulogy, and his headstone reads, “And the Beat Goes On."


Thus, Bono left behind a very strange and unique legacy. And that might be the best way to sum up Good Times, too. Strange, and unique. Also, pretty forgettable, which is too bad. I’ve always liked the duo, dug their music, and their schtick. In that same interview referenced earlier, Friedkin stated "I've made better films than Good Times but I've never had so much fun." For me, I just wish a little more of that fun had made it into the actual film.


Good Times (1967) Motion Pictures International :: American Broadcasting Company (ABC) :: Columbia Pictures / EP: Steve Broidy / P: Lindsley Parsons / D: William Friedkin / W: Tony Barrett, Nicholas Hyams / C: Robert Wyckoff / E: Melvin Shapiro / M: Sonny Bono / S: Sonny Bono, Cher, George Sanders, Norman Alden, Larry Duran, Hank Worden
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