Friday, August 12, 2022

Roger Corman: The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes Strikes Again

Early in the 21st century a writer and editor named Tim Lucas—a fan of my Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers--slipped me a copy of a script he had written, along with his pal, Charlie Largent. It was a clever dramatization of an incident known to all Corman enthusiasts: the 1966 jaunt that Roger took to Big Sur, California, in preparation for shooting the movie that became The Trip. The straight-arrow Corman, getting ready to film Hollywood’s first flick exploring the allure of LSD, had been persuaded by both screenwriter Jack Nicholson (yes, that Jack Nicholson) and star Peter Fonda that he couldn’t film an acid-trip story without having first dropped acid himself. And so he did.

 The Lucas/Largent script found its way into the hands of Corman protégé Joe Dante, who signed on to direct and produce. Eventually two more screenwriters got involved—Michael Almereyda and  James Robinson—and the title evolved from Sunshine Boulevard  into The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes. At one point Oscar-winner Colin Firth committed to playing Roger. But, like so many Hollywood projects, this one never got funded. Its biggest hurrah was a live script reading at a local L.A. theatre, with Roger himself participating, and Bill Hader in the Corman role.

 Nothing daunted, Tim Lucas has now turned The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes into a novel that pop culture fans will cherish. Having done his research, Lucas revels in the minutiae of Roger Corman’s lifestyle (the fancy cars and austere Metrecal lunches; the obsessive punctuality and zeal for problem-solving). He also paints vivid portraits of such Corman cronies as Fonda, Nicholson, resident hippie Chuck Griffith, and director-in-the-making Peter Bogdanovich, who liked to present himself as something of a dandy (“His ascot was the color of the velvet curtains in a roadshow cinema”).  Then there’s Roger’s plucky Oxford-schooled assistant, Frances Doel, who seems prescient in her ability to anticipate her boss’s every need. (Frances, a close friend of mine, finds her own portrayal hugely annoying, but I chalk that up to her intrinsic modesty.)

 Lucas has a ball depicting the commercial stretch of Sunset Blvd. in its flashy, trashy heyday. As he wittily puts it, “Contrary to its name, Sunset was actually where the sun rose—on the American dream.”  He revels in the oversized billboards that dotted the street, promoting such cinematic fare as Born Free, The Endless Summer, and Corman’s own unlikely 1966 hit, The Wild Angels. It’s all part of what he calls “the phantasmagorical bazaar that was the Sunset Strip on a Friday night in the summer of 1966—the Summer of Foreplay before the Summer of Love.”

 He also finds ways to work into his narrative tidbits of Corman’s personal and professional life, finding a place for Roger’s first creative breakthrough (The Day the World Ended) and his all-time gutsiest stab at social commentary (The Intruder). There’s playful quoting from The Little Shop of Horrors (“Novocaine . . . it dulls the senses”) and, in an eerier vein, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (“I can still see!”) As a tribute to Nicholson’s eventual star role in The Shining, he slips in a reference to how “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”  My favorite insider gag: a highly fictitious account of how the scruffy LSD supplier is promised, in return for a serious discount, an associate producer credit.

 Lucas’s determination to add a romantic thread involving the future Mrs. Corman may be a stretch, but it gives the ending of this book a surprising sweetness. Well done, sir!     

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

The World According to Busby Berkeley: “Garp” and “Footlight Parade”

I don’t ever walk out on movies in theatres, even when they fail to fulfill my expectations. But there are times when, sitting on my couch at home, I realize it’s just not worth my time to continue watching something I find dreary. Such was the case with The World According to Garp, George Roy Hill’s 1982 adaptation of John Irving’s bestselling saga about eccentric people and random acts of violence. Never having read the novel, I can’t comment on the film’s fidelity to its source. But such actors as Robin Williams in the title role, Glenn Close (in her screen debut) as his gutsy mother, and John Lithgow as a star-football-player-turned-transsexual are always fun to watch—until they aren’t. When the opening scene introduced a charming cameo by stage greats Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy as Close’s parents, horrified by her flouting of social convention to the point of fainting dead away, I was ready to buy into the whole megillah. But approaching the two-hour mark, I’d had enough.

 Which is why I turned to something reliably amiable: the 1933 Warner Bros. pre-code classic, Footlight Parade. Like other Warner Bros. musicals of this era—including 42nd Street and Golddiggers of 1933Footlight Parade features clunky tap-dancing by Ruby Keeler and gags galore by other members of the WB stock company. Story? There’s always a bit of romance and a bit of back-stage drama. But what’s important is that these films, reveling in the opportunity presented by the coming of sound to the motion picture industry, lean heavily on exotic musical numbers choreographed by the P.T. Barnum of Hollywood musicals, the man with the unlikely moniker of Busby Berkeley. This is especially true of Footlight Parade, in which the three most audacious numbers are presented, one after another, to form the film’s climax.

 As always, there isn’t much plot. James Cagney, calling upon his naturally authoritative presence as well as his past career as a song-and-dance man, is a producer/director of Broadway musicals. Because they’re being replaced in the public’s mind with motion-picture talkies, his business is on the rocks . . . until he realizes he can produce the live-action “prologues” then popular on the motion picture circuit, as lead-ins to the feature films. His wife has left him; his smart, sassy secretary (Joan Blondell) quietly pines for his love. Meanwhile an upstart young tenor (Dick Powell) gets his big break, and discovers he’ll be playing opposite another office staffer (Ruby Keeler), who downplays the fact that she’s an ace musical performer. But what’s really urgent is Cagney proving his mettle by staging three elaborate prologues for a wealthy would-be backer on one New York evening.

 The three production numbers presented back-to-back-to-back are pure Busby Berkeley. The first, “Honeymoon Hotel,” is a naughty little fantasy about two just-marrieds capering through a hotel full of knowing lovers, all of whom have registered as Mr. and Mrs. Smith. The last, in which Cagney shows off his terpsichorean talents as a sailor looking for his Shanghai Lil, features Keeler impersonating a cute China doll in ways that today would seem appalling. The most classic Berkeley of the bunch is “By a Waterfall,” showcasing scores of beautiful blondes in skimpy attire. They cascade joyfully into a pool, and then reassemble for a kaleidoscopic water ballet. What we see on screen—the crane shots, the underwater filming—would of course be impossible in an actual theatre. This movie may be a salute to live entertainment, but only motion pictures could bring these dazzling moments to life.




Friday, August 5, 2022

Heil, Myself! Ernst Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not to Be”

Old-school comedian Jack Benny playing Hamlet? That seems about as unlikely as a Polish theatre troupe, circa 1939, successfully impersonating Hitler and his goons to fool the Gestapo. But both of these things happen in a remarkable (and remarkably serious) comedy that emerged from Hollywood in 1942, while war raged in Europe.

 Benny, mostly known for the radio (and eventually TV) show that spoofed his tightwad image, wears tights for real as he stars as the hammiest of ham actors. His biggest concerns, as actor Joseph Tura, seem to be the adoration of his fans and the possibly roving eye of his beautiful wife, played by Carole Lombard in her final role. (Alas, Lombard died ina a plane crash at age 33, shortly before the film opened, while returning from a war bonds tour.)  But while the company is rehearsing an anti-German drama, Gestapo, the Nazis march into Warsaw and swiftly take over. Suddenly patriotism comes to the fore, and all the members of the company unite to thwart the will of  their new German overlords.

 Theatre troupes make for strange bedfellows, but in this crisis everyone pitches in wholeheartedly. The glamorous Maria Tura (Lombard) strategically cozies up to a turncoat, insinuating she’d be glad to spy for the Nazis as a way of allying herself with the winning team. The obviously Jewish spear carrier who longs to play Shylock gets his chance at a critical juncture to recite his big speech and be a key diversion—and a hero. The Polish flyboy (Robert Stack) who yearns to take Maria away from her husband uses his aviation connections to save everyone’s neck. And Jack Benny’s Joseph Tura dives into a trunkful of fake mustaches and beards to impersonate prominent Nazi leaders, befuddling the pompous Sig Ruman, who hilariously plays the local Gestapo commandant .

 It's all uproariously funny, except that the movie never forgets what the stakes are for these people, who are human beings first, actors second. With death and destruction all around them, they balance on a knife-edge between triumph and disaster. Call it the comedy of desperation. The Berlin-born Lubitsch may have been known for the worldly elegance of so many of his films (like Trouble in Paradise), but he remained at heart an immigrant, the son of a Jewish tailor who had moved to Germany from the outskirts of the Russian Empire.  In other words, Lubitsch was not entirely at home in a world where borders kept changing and tribal identities were key.  Commentators have pointed out that the one character in the film who is by no means ever comic is the Polish-born scholar with a prominent academic post in Britain but a secret commitment to the Third Reich.

 As the plot continues to thicken, it’s pretty much impossible to follow the ins and outs of a story in which the good guys impersonate the bad. My advice: just relax and enjoy the chaos, knowing that, thankfully, it will come out all right in the end.  The title phrase, To Be or Not to Be, is of course from Hamlet’s great soliloquy, but it takes on several alternative meanings in the course of the film, even signaling an upcoming assignation. There’s no question that funnyman Mel Brooks enjoyed the joke (as he did the phrase, “Heil, myself!” which later shows up in Brooks’ The Producers). In 1983, four decades after the original, Brooks shot his own version, with wife Anne Bancroft as the glamorous Maria, Charles Durning assuming a highly-ersatz German accent as the commandant, and himself chewing the scenery in the Jack Benny part.