Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Hello, I Must Be Going...

I had hoped to squeeze out one more post before officially calling it, but, eh, to hell with it. That's right, folks. Time for my annual sabbatical from the Blogosphere for the entire month of September to recharge the old mental batteries and let the scabs on my knuckles heal over from all that typing. However, between returning to Pittsburgh for another bout with The Drive-In Super Monster Rama, I will be popping my head back up like a certain cinematic varmint, if ever so briefly, to participate in She Blogged By Night's Camp and Cult Blogathon with a film that represents what the world might have looked like today if Marty McFly had only borked things up when he went back in time to 1955. As for the film's true identity, well, you'll just have to tune in and see.

I'm participating. Are you?

Beyond that, see ya'll in October, and now I'll let The Other Ones play me out. Adios, Boils and Ghouls.

Friday, August 24, 2012

YouTube Finds :: The Thing that Came from Outer Hell! :: Lester Berke's The Lost Missile (1958)

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"You men know what to do in

situation red -- this is situation red!"
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Our film begins with the impending outbreak of World War III when the Russians detect an unidentified missile invading their airspace. Wasting no time, counter-rockets are launched to intercept. And though they score a direct hit, the missile is not destroyed but knocked off course. Also of note, before launching a counter-strike against the U.S., the Russians realize their target came not from over the North Pole but from outer space and abort. Meanwhile, that rogue missile -- we assume it's unmanned or the alien crew died from that initial bombardment -- has achieved a sustained orbit some five miles above the surface, is traveling at nearly 4,200 miles an hour, and is generating enough radioactive heat to leave a ten mile swath of utter destruction in it's wake!

What follows next is a standard commercial for America's early warning network, who soon pick up on this missile, determine its origin, and calculate its path, finding the runaway is making a bee-line for New York City, home of one of America's premier atomic research centers. Ordered to evacuate when all conventional weapons prove impotent against this extraterrestrial invader, lead scientist David Loring (Loggia) puts his matrimonial hiccups on hold to try and speed up the design and manufacturing of his own pet project, a baby nuke, that will hopefully stop the seemingly unstoppable...

After giving The Lost Missile the hard sell to a friend on Facebook a couple days ago, this conversation had me itching to watch it again to see if my glowing endorsement was as legitimate as I had insinuated, or, more than likely, found me completely talking out of my ass again. Well, I did, watch it, and found that I still enjoyed it quite a bit; even though the film's basic components are 40% stock military footage, 30% stock Civil Defense training films, 20% over-reaching melodrama, 5% Why we fight propaganda, and 5% SCIENCE! as the runaway radioactive rocket circles the Earth. But coming in at a brief 70 minutes, despite all of that filler, the film still feels like it's even shorter than that thanks to the impending doom that greases the narrative.

What the film really reminded me of was Curt Siodmak's The Magnetic Monster, which also featured a sobering tale of hard-working men of science facing a plausible threat with extinction-levels of global ramifications if they fail to rein in a rampaging isotope. (The films do share the same F/X team, led by Jack Glass, and was co-sripted by Jerome Bixby, who wrote IT! The Terror from Beyond Space and Fantastic Voyage.) And despite it's patchwork origins, The Lost Missile works due to the over-achieving efforts of the players, led by Robert Loggia as the lead scientist, who's ably supported by love-interest, Ellen Parker, and B-Movie vets like Robert Shayne and John MacNamara, who all help this heaping helping of schlock go down a lot easier.

One of the last films to be produced by William Berke, who, according to legend, died two days into filming, with his son, Lester, stepping into the director's chair to finish, The Lost Missile does rely way too much on stock-footage and a dour narrator to link it all together -- and several sudsy subplots could easily have been left on the editing room floor. However, there are some fairly effective scenes of the missile's approach and what's left after it has passed. Mentioned should also be made of a staggering montage of the eventual end of the world as the narrator tics off which eventual orbit will lay waste to certain cities around the globe until there is nothing left but ash. And even though most of Canada is lost, the city of New York is saved *whew* when the massacring missile is finally destroyed by good old American (destructive) ingenuity -- but not without great, personal loss to our protagonists and a bitter pill ending, which direly reemphasizes the old Cold War screed of everyone pitching in and sacrificing -- and paying the ultimate price if need be, to keep the world safe for Democracy.


The Lost Missile is readily available for viewing on many streaming services, including YouTube, VEOH, Amazon Instant, and Hulu.

The Lost Missile (1958) William Berke Productions Inc. :: United Artists / P: William Berke / P: Lee Gordon / D: Lester Wm. Berke / W: John McPartland, Jerome Bixby / C: Kenneth Peach / E: Everett Sutherland / M: George Brand, Gerald Fried / S: Robert Loggia, Ellen Parker, Phillip Pine, Larry Kerr, Robert Shayne, John McNamara

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Repost :: Utopia + Tedium / Square Root of Apathy = Sean Connery in a Wedding Dress :: A Beer Gut Reaction to John Boorman's Zardoz (1974)

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"The gun is good. The penis is bad. Go forth and kill!"

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Even the most seasoned B-movie veterans have embarrassing gaps, oversights, and the occasional Haven't quite gotten to that one yet blemishing their resumes. Me included. And that's where I found myself a couple nights ago while scanning my Cable TV guide and saw Zardoz was due up on the Fox Movie Channel.

You know, that movie with the giant, floating stone head that looks like something straight out of a Jack Kirby nightmare. Yeah, the one where Sean Connery, fresh off of quitting Bond for the second time, goes all Heston on us to bring down a future Utopia that's curdled over time and crippled by ennui -- due mostly to the fact that aside from some hive-mind brain-screwing, nobody's getting any old-fashioned nookie. 100% Cheese-O-Rama guaranteed, am I right? Oh, yeah. And then there's also the added bonus of Charlotte Rampling getting naked ... *sigh*

*ahem* Anyways ... We open with said giant Head floating above a tribe of Exterminators; and while Zardoz (-- the Head --) bellows on an on about how guns are good and penises are bad, it belches out some guns and ammo so his acolytes can keep the Brutals in line. (I think they're shooting for Zero Population Growth.) But Zed (Connery) stows away on the giant monolith as it lifts off to return from whence it came. Once airborne, Zed -- who kinda looks like the Frito Bandito in his bandoliers and a big old red diaper, and not much else -- proceeds to shoot the first person he sees. And as the body falls out of the mouth and plummets to terra-firma, all I could think was, "Man, I hope that wasn't the pilot."

Luckily, Zardoz is on auto-pilot and returns to the Vortex, where we find that after some calamitous global event, the meek and perpetually giddy have inherited the Earth. These Immortals are immortal, and after being stuck for an eternity in an ersatz Renaissance Festival, a few of them have gone off their spools. As Zed goes exploring, he, along with the audience, doesn't really understand the workings of the Vortex and what went wrong (-- so I'll just help out and say it was explained a whole lot better and a lot more coherently a few years later in Logan's Run.) Seems some Immortals have gone Renegade and slipped into senility and refuse to regenerate, just wanting to die; others have grown Apathetic to the point of catatonia, while still others just want to eat and prance and share communal experiences by wiggling their fingers at each other and going "wooga-wooga-wooga."

And while the audience still struggles to get it's bearings, the plot goes completely off the rails when Zed is captured by the Immortals. Led by Consuella (Rampling), they tap into his brain and watch him rape and pillage on their giant projecto-vision screens. Then, after much harrumphing, Zed is tabled for further study. Seems some Immortals see Zed as a threat and want him exterminated, while others feel that the end is nigh and sense Zed is some kind of mutant hybrid that is the Immortal's last hope of survival as their society slowly disintegrates from the inside out.

Over the years, director John Boorman has traumatized many a moviegoer with visuals that will never be cleansed from their retinas. John Vernon, buck-naked, plummeting to his death in Point Blank; Richard Burton and Linda Blair, both bombed out of their skulls, bellowing out Pazuzu in The Excorcist II, and worst of all, poor Ned Beatty's unfortunate off-river encounter in Deliverance; and frankly, after seeing Mr. Connery in his diaper/cod piece for over an hour that wedding dress scene was a welcomed relief.

The biggest problem with Zardoz is, thanks to it's narrative structure, the audience never really does get it's bearings. As with all sci-fi fables from the 1970's there's an ironic twist. And the problem with Zardoz is the twist on the origins of the Vortex comes way, way too soon. Imagine, if you will, if Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes, looking around his cage in Ape City after first being captured, had seen the Statue of Liberty through a barred window. Shocking, sure, but it wouldn't have had the same dramatic punch. After that, the remainder of Boorman's plot is a slacker-Poli/Sci-major-in-desperate-need-of-a-thesis dream come true. Boorman makes things look pretty enough, but the script counts on you connecting a lot of dots that I'm sure were clear to a "botanically enhanced" Boorman, but, to the audience, maybe not so much. There's an interesting message here, but it's lost almost completely in the execution.

Speaking of executions, turns out Zed's got his own ideas to bring the Vortex down, or something. In the end, Utopia isn't all it's cracked up to be. And when the revolution finally hits and the Vortex is overrun by the Brutals, the Immortals actually let themselves be slaughtered. All except for the ones Zed impregnated, making way for the next generation of ... what exactly, I don't know. Apparently, the studio agreed with this conclusion, forcing Boorman to tack on an opening disclaimer by a floating head proclaiming the entire movie is basically a goof, officially torpedoing any inkling of the films lofty pretensions.

The ending is supposed to be hopeful, but at that point, having been unable to make a connection to any character -- frankly, they're all prudes and turds and don't deserve it, I'm not sure why we should care. And so, the only real reason I can recommend seeing Zardoz can be summed up thusly:

Boorman: Boorish, but scenic.

Connery: Diaper? Yikes!

Rampling: Naked? Yes, please!


Zardoz (1974) John Boorman Productions :: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation / P: John Boorman / AP: Charles Orme / D: John Boorman / W: John Boorman / C: Geoffrey Unsworth / E: John Merritt / M: David Munrow / S: Sean Connery, Charlotte Rampling, Sara Kestelman, John Alderton, Sally Anne Newton, Niall Buggy

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Me and Elvis. Elvis and I...

Deborah Walley and Elvis crank it up for Spinout.

Yeah, the Brewery has been neglected this past week due to the massive, four-walling effort of Elvis movie posts over at the Morgue, where we chart his film career from its meteoric rise to it's inevitable cratering. If you haven't gandered yet, check it out. Also looking forward to FINALLY seeing both Spinout and Live a Little, Love a Little tonight on TCM. Hail to the King, my Boobies.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Favorites :: Ensemble Casts :: Leave Your Name and Number after the Beep and I'll Get Back to You...

James Luisi

Gretchen Corbett

Stuart Margolin

Joe Santos

Noah Beery Jr.

The Trailer

The Firebird

The Answering Machine

And James Garner

And, together, they made an offbeat,
neo-noir detective show called...

There a ton of other regular reoccurring characters, too, with Tom Atkins, Joey Tata, Pat Finley, Bo Hopkins, Isaac Hayes, James Whitmore Jr., and Rita Moreno that only make me love this show even more. Also, save your arguments, but, this is the greatest instance of character and theme music fusion the boob tube has ever produced.

Video courtesy of Constantine Chernabog.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Shameless Plugs :: How Does that Old Joke Go...

... If I ever placed third in a contest of any kind I'd hate to see who or what got fourth. Yeah, well, screw that noise 'cuz it doesn't apply here, at all, because all the entries were worthy. And so, I'd like to thank everyone who voted for my entry in The My First Movie Blogathon. It is much appreciated and I am grateful to post among you.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Favorites :: Comic Book Covers :: Something Dire this Way Comes!

ROM: Spaceknight :: Issue #47
Artist: Bill Sienkiwicz

I'm sure the licensing rights for this character are long gone, and even though it kind of went in the tank once the Dire Wraiths were wiped out, leaving it to stumble around for another ten to fifteen issues too many, I would love to see this series get one of those Essentials Omnibus treatments. And while I'm wishing, how about The Micronauts, too, while we're at it.

Friday, August 3, 2012

My First Movie Blogathon :: Ghostly Pirates, Spring-Loaded Gnomes, and Save Me a Seat in the Balcony!

Back in the days of yore, meaning well before my time (-- I be old, but I ain't that old), a traveling projectionist would tour the local whistle-stop towns in my patch of rural Nebraska, and, in my particular hometown, he would often set up outside, under the stars, and play his movies on the brick and mortar of the local saloon. And it was under these very same circumstances that my folks had one of their first dates, when my dad took my mom to road-show of The Blob. (Explains a lot, don't it.) But by the time those two made it official, got hitched, and hatched out a family of five, those days of the movies coming to your town were long gone, and if a person wanted to see a picture, they had to head to the nearest micropolitan center to find a proper viewing venue.

That's me in the back, there, trying
to devour my older sister.

And by the dawn of the 1970's, since most of the small town stores had long since shuttered up, too, these larger cities also served as major commerce hubs for their surrounding communities. And judging by the look of that rowdy brood above, can you really blame my folks for not wanting us constantly underfoot? Explaining why on any innumerable weekend excursions for groceries and whatever other ephemera was needed we five wound up being babysat by whatever matinee marathon the local theater entrepreneurs had cooked up. And in this particular town of Hastings, NE, there were two choices: The Strand or The Rivoli.

The Strand.
(Images Courtesy of the Adams Co. Historical Society)

The Strand Theatre was originally built in 1916 by a William Brach. "The exterior was finished in white enameled terra cotta, and the lobby exuded a luminescent white emanating from beautifully tiled floors and richly veined marble walls. The spacious interior was highlighted in old ivory and French gray. The adornment of blue velvet stage curtains and carpeting accented the warm oak woodwork." (The Adams Co. Historical Society.) The theater, which sat at the intersection of Burlington Ave. and 2nd Street, the town's two major arteries, also sported second floor office space and a bowling alley in the basement. The Rivoli Theater was just down the street, about six blocks over on 2nd. Built by Homer Garvin and George Monroe, this movie palace opened in 1927 as part of a Hotel complex. The Rivoli, unlike The Strand, also sported a balcony and box-seating and "was known for its ornate beauty; the outer lobby featured Terrazzo floor, mahogany display cases, and a dark wood beamed ceiling, over Travertine marble walls. The auditorium seated 1,100. The fully equipped stage with orchestra pit, pipe organ, and dressing rooms was used for vaudeville performances." (The Adams Co. Historical Society.)

The Rivoli
(Images Courtesy of the Adams Co. Historical Society)

By the time I started going to the movies all of that described opulence of both movie-houses had gone to seed pretty badly, buried under some psychedelic carpet and fugly wallpaper and several layers of paint that had been in and out of style at least twice before I became a regular (--not to mention the layers of stratum consisting of petrified soda pop, smushed candy, ground in butter, and who knows what else coating the floor). At the Rivoli, the orchestra pit had long since been filled in and paved over for more seating, the box-seats had been walled-up and sealed off, but the balcony was still in play, which is why I always preferred it. With the Strand, I remember, when you walked in, past the ticket booth, you were immediately met by the snack-bar and had to peel either to the left or right to gain the theater proper. In the Rivoli, the entrance gave way to a long hallway, with the snack-bar to the right, then three or four entrances/exits to the theater proper. To the left, the stairs leading up to the coveted balcony and the restrooms, with their spring-loaded doors that would whump you good in the ass if you weren't careful coming out or give you a nice face-burger going in -- if you weren't armed with any snacks; and I was personally witness to the total destruction of at least three popcorn containers by these devious doors, slamming into an unsuspecting customer, innocently clutching their bucket of goodies to their breasts, with the resultant explosive detonation spraying popcorn shrapnel everywhere. Beyond that, the only real selling points of each theater were the dazzling marquees; the Strand with it's hyperactive running lights under the sign, making you feel like you were walking along the midway and into the maw of the Funhouse; and the Rivoli with it's dual neon rockets, launching from the apex, with most nights finding it malfunctioning and skipping a few stages, but, eh ...

It's strange, really, but when I first stumbled upon the My First Movie Blogathon banners and decided to participate my first thought was less about what I saw but where I saw it and with whom. Now, these were usually family affairs, sure, but this often included extended families, with cousins and aunts and uncles tagging along. (I was part of one of those large generational families, where my mom had a niece who was several years her senior.) I also remember a lot of instances after baseball practice, or if a game got over early enough, the entire team plus their families would head to the theater, en masse, some thirty to forty people, all going to watch the same feature together. Good times, and I appreciate you all humoring me through this pre-ambling reminiscence before we get to the meat of the post; the meat being the first movie I ever remember seeing. And that particular honor goes to some pretty fuzzy memories of a Disney double-feature of Blackbeard's Ghost and The Gnome-Mobile. And judging by the angle and trajectory of these vague recollections, I saw them at the Rivoli and was sitting right about...


We watched a lot of Disney fare under similar circumstances. Not all the time, as I have fond recollections of Bud Spencer and Terence Hill's Trinity movies, a cracked and kooky underwater adventure, and a particularly awe-inspiring and formative encounter with a certain William Castle flick. But most of my early memories were Disney films, and most of them were the studio's live-action output, especially The Love Bug series, Kurt Russell's Dexter Reilly adventures, and I can't even begin to noodle how many times I saw The Apple Dumplin' Gang or The Shaggy D.A. I said it before, and I'll keep on saying it, but, man, back then, Dean Jones was like a second father to me.

That's Jones, there, on the right.

Walt Disney began producing non-animated features with 1950's Treasure Island. As the story goes, the only reason Disney took this plunge and made the film at all was due to post-war restrictions that wouldn't allow him to bring the majority of the profits his animated features were making in England home anymore. And since that money had to be spent locally, after sitting on it for almost five years, Disney finally decided to use these profits to produce an adventure film in and for England, with RKO eventually giving it a theatrical run Stateside. Liking the box-office results on both sides of the Atlantic, Uncle Walt was soon gearing up for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and never looked back. Obviously, aside from the high adventure, historical and fantasy films (Swiss Family Robinson, Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier) a lot of Disney's live-action films were geared for a certain demographic, cannibalistically formulaic, with a gooey moral center, and were seldom great, sometimes north of good, and a lot times nigh inexplicable. For every Bedknobs and Broomsticks there was a Boatniks. And for every Absent-Minded Professor there was an Island at the Top of the World. There were sentient Volkswagens, rogue felines -- both terrestrial and extraterrestrial, precious metal-pooping water fowl, and field-goal kicking mules; they were the type of insipid movies critic Gene Siskel often walked out on (-- but he always was a bit of grump). E'yup. It was strictly Pork and Beans cinema folks; nothing real fancy, sometimes charming, more often quaint, but you were always full when the meal was done and the end credits rolled. And if you were anything like me back then, you always came back for second and third helpings. Which, FINALLY, brings us back to our featured double-feature.

Now, those films were initially released in 1968 and 1967, respectively, but it wasn't uncommon in those days for features to be recycled and thrown back out again, for years and years, where theater owners would snatch them up for weekend matinee bookings and make a killing on concessions, which is where and how I caught up with them, probably around the age of four. Things are fuzzy, and I might have seen them separately, but, as I continually hammered this patch of stubborn neurons, what splintered off were overlapping memories of both. I had actually revisited Blackbeard's Ghost not all that long ago but it had been nearly forty years since I took a look at The Gnome-Mobile -- and the instant depression felt over being able to quantify things in my lifetime in terms of four decades almost brought this whole enterprise to crashing halt. *sigh* BUT! We're here, we're already dirty, so let's keep playing. Honestly, the only thing I recalled from this outing was the creepy opening credits of Blackbeard and bits and pieces of the climax, especially when the ghostly pirate returns to the sea. As for The Gnome-Mobile, the only thing remembered clearly was all the little people jumping around like their britches were on fire and it's hideously infectious theme song; so infectious I can still do the chorus by rote: "Oh, the Gnome-Mobile, the Gnome-Mobile, we're rolling along in the Gnome-Mobile, oh what a wonderful way to feel, when rolling along in the -- eh, urhm..." *ahem* Anyways, about Blackbeard's Ghost...

Before the opening credits roll, superimposed over an ominous, howling wind and an unsettled sea, a scrolling narrative supposes that Edward Teach, the notorious scourge of the Atlantic better known as Blackbeard, didn't die in the waters off Oracoke Island after all back in 1718. And maybe, just maybe, his last wife, Aldeitha, a witch, whom the notorious no-goodnik ratted out (-- cheaper than a divorce, right?), while being burned at the stake, put a curse on Teach, banishing him to an eternity in limbo unless he showed some spark of human goodness. And judging by Blackbeard's notoriously bloody and cutthroat reputation as a privateer, it should come as a surprise to no one that this spark never happened before he died. Thus, an eternity in limbo it is.

Meanwhile, two and a half centuries later, Steve Walker (Jones) has his own set of problems. Recently arrived in the coastal town of Godolphin, Walker is the new men's track coach at the local college, whose team of misfits and boobs couldn't even finish fourth in a three man event. And it's kinda hard to restore the school's faith in the team when the hard-nosed Dean had no faith to begin with. Worse yet, seems his choice of living accommodations has landed him in the middle of a nasty dispute between the Daughters of the Buccaneers, actual descendants of the late pirate's crew, who live in a ramshackle inn built by Blackbeard, himself, and the local gangster, Silky Seymour (Baker, who's trying really, really hard to be Ernie Kovacs), over the land on which it sits. Seems Seymour is set to pounce on the island property so he can move his gambling operations offshore and out of the backroom of his restaurant. And this will happen unless the DotB can raise $40000 in the next few days to fend off foreclosure. Now, this wily band of women, led by the batty Emily Stowecroft (Lancaster), have managed to raise part of the payment, but with Seymour's goons strong-arming and sabotaging all efforts to accrue anymore, alas, it appears they'll never reach their goal in time. With a strong aversion to bullies, a thing for lost causes, and a desire to impress a certain lady professor (Pleshette), who, for reasons that will soon be made clear, thinks he's cracked in the head, Walker steps in to help. But all noble intentions aside, I think it's p'rolly gonna take a good deed of a highest supernatural order to straighten this mess out ... And you all see where I'm going with this, right?

If you've yet to take the plunge into these old live-action Disney flicks one could do a lot worse than trying Blackbeard's Ghost first. Sure, they basically just swiped the plot from The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini but any movie that allows Peter Ustinov to cut loose and run amok like this is all aces in my book. It should also be noted that Blackbeard's Ghost was one of the last film's Walt Disney had a hand in before he passed away in 1966. Seems noted magazine illustrator Ben Stahl and Disney were friends, and one evening, over dinner, Stahl showed Disney some of the concept paintings for a book project he was working on about two boys resurrecting the ghost of Blackbeard and the ensuing treasure hunt that follows. Disney loved the idea and encouraged his friend to finish the book and to contact him immediately when it was done.

Obviously, Disney optioned the film rights for Stahl's novel -- before it was even published, and you'd think this kind of Hardy Boys-esque action would be right up his alley, but, instead, Disney basically chucked out everything except the ghost to once more indulge in his obsession with dismantling a sporting event by injecting a buffonery-triggering X-factor, be it Flubber, farm animals, or, in this case, an invisible ghost.

See, after a calamitous chain of events, Walker comes into possession of Aldeitha's book of spells and inadvertently invokes the spirit of Blackbeard (Ustinov), who turns out to be less of a dastardly bastard and more of a besotted blowhard. The catch is, only Walker can see him, which soon lands him in the clink when a traffic stop goes staggeringly awry and he's unable to explain away the reek of rum and all of the violent poltergeist-like activity as Blackbeard shivers his timbers and shakes off his jet-lag. But while cooling his heels, Walker remembers the curse of Blackbeard and realizes the only way to get rid of him is if the rum-guzzling roustabout pulls off a good deed. And maybe they can kill two birds with one stone by helping the little old ladies keep their land if the pirate will reveal where his lost treasure is hidden. The only problem? There isn't any treasure, since Teach blew it all on a wild weekend of booze and hookers. No. Seriously. He did. Really.

Stuck with his new pet patch of ectoplasm, then, while Walker tries to keep it together and romance Jo Anne, who, again, fears for his mental health, Blackbeard, wanting to help, manages to steal the DotB's stash of money and clandestinely makes a bet with Seymour. Now, with so little to bet it will take some long odds to make the scratch to pay off the bank. And the odds won't get any bigger than for someone foolish enough to bet on Godolphin's track team to win their next meet. And despite some initial reservations from Walker, he quickly chucks his principles aside and *gasp* cheats to win, by allowing Blackbeard to do his invisible tinkering; and through supernatural sabotage and several other-worldly assists, Godolphin wins. But! Seymour welches on the bet, leading to one of my favorite scenes in the movie when Walker and Blackbeard, arm and arm, defiantly march into the bad guy's den to make the gambler pay up while belting out a rousing chorus of "Heart of Oak." And thinking he's finally cracked up for good, Jo Anne won't let Walker face Seymour "alone." To show he's not such a bad guy, Seymour refunds the amount of the bet and suggests these troublemakers try their hand at the roulette wheel. Who knows, he says, maybe they'll get lucky. Knowing he has an ace in the hole, despite the lady's protests, Walker takes the offer, and while the ball "magically" lands on every number they pick, despite every effort to cheat by the bad guys, the good guys quickly win enough to cover the mortgage. Again, there's a problem: they're still inside Seymour's, surrounded by his goon squad, with only fifteen minutes left before the midnight mortgage deadline. But with Blackbeard's help, the couple manages to shoot their way out of the casino -- don't ask how, you're just gonna have to watch it. But here's a hint: it's fantastic.

Back at the Inn, Walker leads the DotB in a rousing chorus of the proper incantation so they can finally meet their mysterious benefactor -- and prove once and for all that he isn't crazy. Once Blackbeard materializes, he's allowed the honor of burning the mortgage papers. And with the good deed done, the curse is lifted, and after a tearful goodbye, Blackbeard returns to the sea to join his old shipmates before sailing off to parts unknown. And here, I'll quote Walker, as the ghostly pirate ship disappears into the fog, "You know, I think I'm gonna miss that old scoundrel."

Yeah. Me, too.

Egad, but I do love this movie. A lot. Ustinov was a true renaissance man. This is his movie, and he runs away with it, cackling like a maniac the whole way. I knew he could be this bombastic and blustery, but the physicality he brings to this role, as I'm pretty sure that's him doing a lot of the stunts, for being such a big man, will surprise a lot of folks. (The part where he gets in step with the Godolphin cheerleaders floors me every time.) And it won't take a sharp ear to realize this role was kind of a dry run for his later turn as the sniveling Prince John in Disney's animated version of Robin Hood. And I'll give some props to Jones, here, too. This guy gets a lot of grief for these seemingly vanilla roles and playing second banana to whoever or whatever the hell Disney teamed him up with. I just love to watch the guy work, especially here, when he's called upon to act a scene with someone who, technically, isn't there. Being a straight man isn't easy (-- try doing it with a car, a monkey or duck and see how you make out), and Jones is kinda under-appreciated as such and should be championed as one of the best. Here, with Ustinov's penchant for improvising, there are several instances where he visibly catches Jones off guard or steps on his lines but the actor just adjust and rolls with it and the resulting chemistry between these two is outstanding. Watching those two play off each other is a privilege, and when you throw in that supporting cast, with Pleshette, Elsa Lancaster, Richard Deacon, and Michael Conrad, that's just gravy to go with all that ham. Yeah, Blackbeard's Ghost wasn't Disney's fist pirate movie or it's last, but I'll take Ustinov over Depp and this mess of mirth and mayhem over the bloat of Pirates of the Caribbean every time.

As for our second feature, we begin with California timber magnate D.J. Mulrooney (Brennan) heading to the airport in his trusty old "jaunting car" to pick up his two grandkids. Apparently, Mulrooney is due at a meeting in Seattle in a couple of days and plans to drive there with his heirs via the scenic route -- namely through the Redwood National Forest; a good chunk of which he apparently owns and set aside for future generations to enjoy. Stopping for a picnic along the way, while Rodney (Gardner) digs into the bottomless picnic basket for an elusive peanut-butter and jelly sandwich, Elizabeth succumbs to an all-natural version of the Stendahl Syndrome and wanders off into the woods, where she's spotted by a lone and lonely gnome. Deciding to take a chance, little Jasper introduces himself and weaves his tale of woe. Seems he and his grandfather are the last of his kind in this neck of the woods, but they still hold out hope that more gnomes can be found elsewhere.

A completely enchanted Elizabeth immediately offers to help and quickly recruits her grandfather and brother to the cause, who don't believe her at first, as a reluctant Jasper (Lowell) doesn't help matters, but, despite a warning from the other (poorly animated animatronic) forest animals, the gnome decides to trust these "doodeens" and takes them to see his grandfather, Knobby (Brennan again). Alas, Knobby has lost the will to live and is slowly fading away; and the only way to cure this is to find Jasper a mate to continue the family line. Here, Mulrooney discovers all the other gnomes disappeared due to his logging operations but is bound and determined to not let that fact be known before making things right. And soon enough, everyone is packed into the newly re-christened Gnome-Mobile to head further north, singing the whole way (-- second verse, same as the first), where Mulrooney promises plenty of virgin forestland will produce some more gnomes. However, our happy travelers find trouble along the way, when a freak-show entrepreneur named Horatio Quaxton (McClory) sniffs out what the Mulrooneys have hidden in their picnic basket while they check into a hotel. Matters are compounded when Knobby finds out who Mulrooney really is, and, after a nasty dust-up, makes it even easier for Quaxton to split them all up and make his move, which is why, when the Mulrooney's return to their hotel room, the gnomes have seemingly vanished without a trace!

Whether by intent and purpose or a hope we just wouldn't notice, The Gnome-Mobile is nothing more than a kinder, gentler version of Darby O'Gill and the Little People. The film was also based and hews pretty close to a kinder, gentler novel of the same name penned by a kinder and gentler intending Upton Sinclair. A crusading rabble-rouser of the highest order with books like the meat-packing horrorshow of The Jungle, where the author was aiming for our collective social conscience but scored a direct bulls-eye on our collective upset stomachs instead, here, Sinclair lightened up, just this once, for a "Gnice Gnew Gnarrative with Gnonesense, but Gnothing Gnaughty." And if the film has any moral, outside of its eco-friendly tone, it's to don't trifle with an antique; be it man, gnome, tree, or car, or you're liable to get your ass handed to you.

For the cast, Disney recycled Garber and Dotrice from Mary Poppins, and they basically play the exact same kids again, which is fine, as the two provide a perfect balance of "dour-whatever" (Garber) and "awe-wonder" (Dotrice) for each other. And I think Disney might have been involved in some dubious genetic experiments with the evidence being a cross-pollination of Russ Tamblyn and Jim Hutton that resulted in Tom Lowell. But the rock on which the film is built is Walter Brennan. As the legend goes, since his career began back in the 1920's, the veteran actor always approached each part with teeth or no teeth (-- or coherent and not so coherent). Here, he gets it both ways, and has a ball, with Super-Grandpa Mulrooney and the Super-Cranky Knobby. And one of the many highlights of the film is watching Brennan come unglued and go at against himself. And believe me, you haven't heard Brennan do one of his patented irascible old coot rants until you've heard it through a helium filter.

And though Brennan gets top-billing, and is fantastic in this dual role, the real star of the show is the nearly indestructible Gnome-Mobile itself, a Rolls-Royce Phantom II, which, I understand, is still in one piece and available to the viewing public, along with its over-sized interior companion piece, at the Gilmore Museum in Hickory Corners, Michigan. Yeah, the car kinda had to the carry the movie in spots, especially when the gnomes enigmatically disappear for the middle third of the story for an ill-advised sidetrack, where the grandkids must first spring Mulrooney from a sanitarium before finding their new friends again. Seems the old man wanted to bring in his private security team to help find the missing gnomes, but, of course, his chief of security (Deacon) fears for his boss's sanity upon hearing his tale of little forest people and gets him committed. However, without this interlude, we would have been denied the scene where Brennan covers his escape with some end-of-Akira-level snoring and that fantastic, over-cranked and skip-framed enhanced car chase near the end, when the pursuing Cadillac Fleetwood falls apart, piece by piece, is menaced by those very same dismembered parts, namely the back axle, before becoming the top pancake for a stack of cars in a junkyard ... And that wild and wacky chase probably should have been the climax, but, instead, we get another one as we keep on going because, as far as I can tell, somebody saw the L'il Abner musical and really liked the Sadie Hawkins number. And that's just what this movie needed; an extended stalk and chase sequence with Jasper all greased up with soap pursued by a horde of hot and horny gnomettes, teeth bared and claws out, all desperate to land this eligible bachelor -- and the first to nab him for eight seconds, wins. Why? It's Gnome Law. And who are we to question Gnome Law, right? Right. Okay, then...

Still, this post-climax denouement does allow us a cameo by the great Ed Wynn as the Gnome King, his last feature, and lets him and Brennan crack each other over the head for awhile. In the end, Jasper's true love manages to catch him and hold on long enough. And as a wedding present, Mulrooney promises to set aside a large chunk of forestland for the gnomes to live in peace for all perpetuity. He even offers them all lift to their new digs, giving us one more reprise of that hideous song before the end credits finally roll ... Like Sinclair's source novel, there are no real bad guys, here, just an over-zealous chief of security, who honestly wants what's best for his boss when he tricks him into the loony bin for conversing with gnomes, and not for some insidious power grab to seize the company and lay waste to the forest. Mulrooney, himself, is a corporate stooge but is less of an evil capitalist and more of an active environmentalist, setting aside thousands of acres of trees for people to enjoy for generations to come before he even met a gnome. Even Quaxton is played off as a bumbling buffoon; and if I have one major beef with the film it's that we never get a proper look inside his Academy of Fantastic Freaks but a mere drive by that can only make one wonder what kind of nightmare fuel Disney could've cooked up for us in there.


Both Blackbeard's Ghost and The Gnome-Mobile have that slick, Disney surrealism going for them, where things are never quite real and normal, the engaged environment not natural but artificial, sanitized and cartoon-ized, like with his own personal playgrounds. And after viewing them both again, my love of Blackbeard's Ghost hasn't faltered one iota but I was kind of amazed at how well The Gnome-Mobile showed off it's age. And while Blackbeard's Ghost is a whole can of irreverent stoopidity, and should be celebrated as such, The Gnome-Mobile is a good-natured romp that can still charm the socks off any viewer, young or old. And if nothing else, both feature extended cameos by Norm Grabowski and that is a whole six-pack of awesome all by itself.

For those heathens out there who don't know
who Grabowski is, let me educate you.

Checking over the credit lists of these two features shows Disney re-used more than just Norman, as they share the same director, Robert Stevenson, cinematographer, Edward Colman, production manager, Edward L. McVeety (-- who was about to branch off into writing and directing to blaze his own trail at Disney with those aforementioned Dexter Reilly movies), set-decorators, art directors, production designers and F/X men. And the Disney studio was always a pioneer in the art of special-effects (-- and drawing stellar casts because, apparently, they had the best commissary in Hollywood, and the best way to get an actor is through his stomach, right?), and once again, in both films, they excel, especially another batch of matte-paintings, modeling, and forced-perspective magic from Peter Ellenshaw:

As far as the direction and camerawork go, they're serviceable enough but you get the sense that Stevenson was over-relying on his actors and showed more concern over the technical aspects of the mounting slapstick and sight-gags, stunts and wire-work that dominate both pictures. His only direction appears to be "OK, go for it" before "Roll the camera" and that's it. It's also hard to judge the cinematography in these films, and perhaps we could appreciate the efforts of those behind the camera more if Disney's DVD releases for the vast majority of their live-action films weren't so abominable. I can forgive a lack of extras. I can forgive even the lack of a trailer. But both features featured here aren't available in their original aspect ratios, which really screws the pooch in a lot of scenes. And to make matters worse, these films aren't even pan-n-scanned properly, either blown-out or cropped down by just chopping off both ends until made to fit for the Wonderful World of Disney on the old boob-tube.

I mean, c'mon, seriously...

And that's just a shame. For in this horrific format, these fantastic fantasy films are denied the ability to show off their greatest assets: those being the F/X, stunts, and production design. I do know enough folks raised a big enough stink to get some of Disney's later DVD output an upgrade, as I know The Love Bug, Old Yeller and The Ugly Dachsund have all been released or re-released in letterbox with even a few extras to boot. Hopefully, the folks at Disney will do better if these films ever find their way onto BluRay.

Make it so, Magic Gnomes.

Contrary to popular belief, but, Disney Studios never stopped making live action movies, they just kinda met a turning point with The Black Hole (1979), Midnight Madness (1980), and Watcher in the Woods (1980), when the studio finally went PG, leaving the likes of No Deposit, No Return and The North Avenue Irregulars well and far behind. Most blame the insurgence of cable TV and the advent home video for killing off the need for these kinds of matinee features, but I'm here to tell ya it was already rapidly circling the drain long before that -- and I had a front row seat for it, too. For you see, for one particular matinee back in the fall of 1975, the folks weren't paying close enough attention to what was playing when we got dumped off at the theater. We didn't know either, and really didn't care all that much as we got our popcorn and found a seat. And what was this mystery feature? Oh, just this...

And that, my friends, is another tale for another day.

Yeah, and with the likes of Star Wars, Grease, and Raiders of the Lost Ark right around the corner, this coming glut of summer blockbusters overrode any notion of a special matinee showing of anything else but first run product. There were still a few exceptions, as I fondly recall a few ventures to catch Jason and the Argonauts, Infra-Man and Godzilla vs. the Cosmic Monster, but these were growing rarer with each passing year as I grew up. And by the time I hit junior high a multi-plex had opened up on the other side of town, leaving these old theaters to wither and die, with both turning off those marquee lights in 1984. And though the Strand was gone for good, now an office complex, after a couple of failed attempts, the Rivoli re-opened permanently a decade later as part of a new, three-screen cineplex. Thankfully, the old theater wasn't carved up in this renovation but left as is; although the neon rocket was a casualty and the balcony appears to be closed indefinitely. BOO! And, oddly enough, the last feature I saw there was during a family reunion, with several nieces and nephews in tow for a matinee screening of Disney's Lilo & Stitch. Circle of life, and all that. And I like to think that perhaps somewhere, deep in the bowels of Disneyland, the cryogenically frozen head of Uncle Walt cracked a smile that day.

This massive post -- that nearly got away from me, wow, is part of The Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear's My First Movie Blogathon, where folks were asked to recollect and recount their first theatrical experiences. A huge thanks and a round of applause for Nathaniel Hood, who once again threw out a wide net for contributions. As for now, with this thing finally done and posted, *whew*, I'm gonna finally go check out the other entries -- and encourage you to do the same. Thanks!

Blackbeard's Ghost (1968) Walt Disney Productions :: Buena Vista / P: Walt Disney / AP: Bill Walsh / D: Robert Stevenson / W: Bill Walsh, Don DaGradi, Ben Stahl (novel) / C: Edward Colman / E: Robert Stafford / M: Robert F. Brunner / S: Peter Ustinov, Dean Jones, Suzanne Pleshette, Elsa Lanchester, Joby Baker, Richard Deacon, Michael Conrad

The Gnome-Mobile (1967) Walt Disney Productions :: Buena Vista / P: Walt Disney / AP: James Algar / D: Robert Stevenson / W: Ellis Kadison, Upton Sinclair (novel) / C: Edward Colman / E: Norman R. Palmer / M: Buddy Baker / S: Walter Brennan, Matthew Garber, Karen Dotrice, Tom Lowell, Richard Deacon, Sean McClory, Ed Wynn
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