Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Z is for Samuel Z. Arkoff, Who Gave Roger Corman’s Early Films a Home

[On this, the last day of the A to Z Challenge, I’d like to thank everyone who visited Movieland. A special tip of the hat to birthday boy Craig Edwards, blogger extraordinaire, who started me on this alphabetical journey. If you’re craving more insider Roger Corman stories, I’m announcing that today’s the start of a five-day sale of my thoroughly updated and unexpurgated “Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers” Kindle ebook. And if you’d like to be notified when the new paperback is available, do drop me a line at beverly@beverlygray.com 
       Cormanically yours, Beverly]

Years ago, someone was telling me she’d seen Roger Corman in person at a film festival. What surprised her the most is that, on stage in a crowded auditorium, Roger kept nonchalantly puffing away on a big cigar. To me, this made no sense. I’ve never seen Roger smoke, and public rudeness of this sort is not his style. It suddenly dawned on me that she had the wrong man. She’d been in the presence of Sam Arkoff, co-founder of American International Pictures.

Like Roger Corman, Sam Arkoff inspired stories, and I’ve heard many. One of the nicest: he was a total family man, who bragged about shutting the door to the business world when he went home to his family each evening. The house he went home to, though, created a few hard feelings. It was an up-to-the-minute ranch house, built by Arkoff and his wife Slim on a Studio City hillside. One evening when the house was new the Arkoffs invited a longtime employee, Charles Clement, and his wife Shirley to come visit. They gave the Clements a full tour, showing off closets full of clothes and many state-of-the-art design features. Then Arkoff let Charles know that his salary was being trimmed. After all, new houses are expensive.

Another great story involving Arkoff was told to me by Barbara Boyle, who became Roger’s attorney and then his CFO before entering the ranks of Hollywood producers. When she graduated from UCLA Law School, the dean in charge of placement was hard-pressed to find a suitable spot for someone who was female and extremely feisty. One day he informed her of a last-minute interview with a motion picture company looking for a labor negotiator. She was in jeans and sandals with long loose hair, and there was no time to change clothes. At the old Chaplin studio, big gates swung open to admit her. In the waiting room sat three beautiful young women, dressed to the nines, whom she assumed were from east coast law schools. She was very impressed that this company was seeking out a female attorney: “I thought, this is real affirmative action!”

Then she was summoned into the presence of a man with a big cigar, an open shirt, and his feet up on his desk. First thing he said: “Take off your jeans.” Barbara recalls, “I completely flipped out. I’m talkative now. You can imagine how I was when I was twenty-four.” When Arkoff got a word in edgewise, he asked, “Do you ever think you’re wrong about anything? I’m actually auditioning for a beach party picture, and you’re supposed to have a bathing suit on. Who are you supposed to see?”

Somehow she ended up with Arkoff’s respect—and a job that introduced her to the motion picture business and Roger Corman. Roger had Sam Arkoff’s respect too, though not always his friendship. No room here to detail their testy relationship over the years, but at a tribute event, Arkoff praised Roger as “a cautious man with a buck—which made him very good for us because we didn’t have many bucks in those days.” Arkoff then added, “But sometimes he was too cheap, even for AIP.”

Monday, April 29, 2013

Y is for the Youth Market, Where Roger Corman Found his Audience

It’s funny how the letter Y has offered me only slim pickings, when it comes to the Wonderful World of Roger Corman. I can’t think of any colorful Corman alumni, or ageing stars, or slightly slimy overseas entrepreneurs whose names start with today’s letter. So I’ll talk about a word that has always been an important part of the Roger Corman lexicon: YOUNG

Look back at Roger’s early film output, and you’ll see The Young Racers. In my New World days, over my desk was a poster of one of Julie Corman’s first productions, The Young Nurses. This was the usual slick combo of comedy, action, and hospital cuties who looked attractive both in and out of uniform. I scan the cast list now and see some distinguished veterans of the acting profession, including Allan Arbus, Nan Martin, Dick Miller, even the celebrated indie director Sam Fuller (The Big Red One), who enjoyed taking an acting role now and again. I’m told this was also the very last film of Mantan Moreland, the black comic actor who survived literally hundreds of movie roles as scaredy-cat butlers and Pullman porters and shoeshine boys. But the point of The Young Nurses, of course, was to appeal to youthful moviegoers much more interested in hot chicks than in cinema history. Those stories of Quentin Tarantino sneaking out of his mother’s house at night to go see New World movies? He was the ideal Corman audience.

Roger, when I first met him in 1973, was in his mid-forties. So he was no youngster, even though he was newly married and not yet a father. But he had forged his career, starting in the mid-fifties, when he was not long out of college. At that time it didn’t make sense to him that the studios were casting as romantic leads actors nearly twice his own age. Look at Audrey Hepburn’s co-stars at the beginning of her screen career. In 1953’s Roman Holiday, she was a pixie-ish twenty-four, but she played opposite Gregory Peck, who was thirty-seven. The following year, she starred as Sabrina, who had to choose between William Holden (thirty-six) and Humphrey Bogart (fifty-five). One year later, in Funny Face, she romanced Fred Astaire (fifty-eight). And in each case the unfolding romance had something to do with wealthy people and picturesque European capitals. I’m choosing examples from the field of romantic comedy, which happens to be a favorite of mine. But in action films too the stars were getting long in the tooth.   

Roger’s gut feelings about the burgeoning power of the youth market were shared by the owners of American International Pictures, Jim Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff.  AIP was formed to take full-advantage of the so-called Consent Decree, a Supreme Court anti-trust ruling that upended the major studios’ tactic of booking only their own films into motion picture theatre chains they controlled. Suddenly there were movie houses – particularly drive-ins – that needed product. AIP was happy to supply it, figuring that young post-war kids with money in their jeans would like spending their cash on flicks that featured monsters and girls in bikinis.

It worked. Soon AIP and other small independent film companies were grinding out genre films – horror, sci-fi, beach party romps -- with youthful casts. (Exactly the kind of movies that Bill Dever’s lively B-Movie Nation site salutes today.) Ten years later, as American kids became bolder, the movies took on a harder edge, featuring bikers and the drug scene and social rebellion. Like Roger Corman’s seminal The Wild Angels and The Trip. And Dick Clark’s Psych-Out, featuring a long-haired Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern. And Sam Katzman’s cheesy Riot on Sunset Strip. Yup, the good, the bad, and the ugly.  

Saturday, April 27, 2013

X is for F.X. Feeney, Maker of Monsters

Roger Corman fans will naturally assume that for the letter X in the A to Z Challenge I would choose Roger’s wonderfully inventive horror film, X: The Man with the X-ray Eyes. Fooled you! Instead, I’m going to write about a filmmaker and film critic to whom I have good reason to be grateful.

My story begins in 1989, when a former Cormanite named Thom Mount approached Roger with an offer he couldn’t refuse. Mount, having won his spurs in Hollywood producing Bull Durham and Tequila Sunrise, offered Roger the big bucks to return to directing, after a twenty-year hiatus. What Mount was proposing was a Roger Cormanized-version of the Frankenstein legend, which would call upon the same creative energies Roger had once put toward his Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Mount later told me, “The reason I went after Frankenstein, frankly, is that I  thought this was relatively unexploited at that time, [that it was] classic material that would fit Roger’s directorial style and allow him to make something that was interesting and odd.”  The budget allotted was in the vicinity of $11.5 million, a fortune by Corman’s own standards,  and Mount promised Roger “the best script we can get, the best cast we can get, the best music we can get, and the best advertising campaign we can get.” Roger, then over sixty, was hesitant to get back into directing, but not for long: “They’re going to pay me a million dollars. . . .How can I say no?”

Part of Roger’s obligation was to provide a workable script. Typically, he first asked an unpaid office intern to crank out a draft. Then, rising to the occasion, he solicited screenplays from big-name writers like Wes Craven and Floyd Mutrux. At length he optioned a British novel, Frankenstein Unbound (1973), by Brian Aldiss, which added a time-travel element and some hazy metaphysical musings to Mary Shelley’s familiar story. That’s when F.X. Feeney was brought in to make something filmable out of Aldiss’s book.

Feeney was then the respected film critic of the L.A. Weekly. A CalArts graduate, he was also a creative consultant at the Z Channel, an early pay-TV service that catered to serious cinéastes. Years later he’d co-produce a documentary called Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (2004), which recounted the channel’s brief and ultimately tragic history. He would also earn a writing credit for helping to resurrect an unfilmed Orson Welles screenplay, The Big Brass Ring (1999). Frankenstein Unbound, though, was his first experience as a professional screenwriter. As Concorde-New Horizons story editor, I attended several meetings with F.X. and Roger, who was deeply involved in the writing process. I honestly didn’t care for the Aldiss novel, and had little faith that moviegoers would like it either. F.X.’s script contributed some vivid scenes (like the encounter between time-traveler Joe Buchanan and nineteenth-century literary superstars Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron). But the finished film, which I’ll talk about some other day, couldn’t overcome various problems, including what Mount feels was Roger’s innate sense of being overmatched by this big-budget extravaganza. I hear Frankenstein Unbound is now considered a cult classic. Personally, I’d rather not watch it again.

After my Corman bio was published, F.X. surprised me with a marvelous review: “Speaking as one who has both worked with Roger Corman and observed Beverly Gray in action during her years at Roger's right hand, I was particularly pleased and impressed by this thorough, independent-minded biography. Gray's sensitive combination of scholarly detachment and firsthand observation have made Roger come alive in all his wily brilliance.” Thanks, F.X.!
(By the way, big five-day sale on my updated Roger Corman ebook begins on April 30, and pre-sale is on NOW! Do drop by Amazon Kindle for big savings.)

Friday, April 26, 2013

W is for Jim Wynorski: Thanks for the Mammaries

There’s a wagon-load of Ws in the Roger Corman world.  Think of portly actor Mel Welles (Little Shop of Horrors), rising star-trekker William Shatner (The Intruder), and Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler (pseudonymously shooting Stakeout on Dope Street). In my day, there was Concorde studio chief Jonathan Winfrey, and of course Don “The Dragon” Wilson.

But none of them compares to the one and only Jim Wynorski. Elsewhere during this A to Z Challenge there have been tributes to Jim, explaining how he won Roger Corman’s heart through a trailer selling the “fact” that the movie Screamers (actually a tepid Italian import) would feature a man turned inside out. Instead of going back over that well-trod territory, I’ll concentrate here on my own experiences with Jim, in the era when I was Roger’s story editor. Jim was a writer-director, and also Concorde’s resident bad boy, one who often cast scantily-clad lovelies by thumbing through the pages of his little black book.
Jim Wynorski -- tall, well-stuffed, and shaggy – is a large teddy-bear of a man, with the tastes of a perennial adolescent. He’s still fourteen years old at heart, which explains how he can make soft-core porn, monster movies, and PG-rated kiddie fare with perfect conviction. Take the case of Munchie, not to be confused with 1987’s far more hectic Munchies. Munchie (1992), shot during Corman’s brief detour into family films, is a gentle comedy about a supernatural critter (voiced by Dom DeLuise) who helps a lonely young boy find happiness. Still, Jim being Jim, it is stocked with gorgeous women. Gage Dobson’s single-parent mom is played by the voluptuous Loni Anderson, and the role of his sympathetic teacher went to a former Wynorski squeeze, Monique Gabriel. When it came time to cast the cute youngster who catches Gage’s eye, Jim found someone he considered suitable eye-candy for the prepubescents out there. Her name: Jennifer Love Hewitt. She was innocence personified, but her smile, in those long-ago days, lit up the set.

That was the era when TV actor Andrew Stevens (best known for Dallas and for being the ex-husband of one of Charlie’s Angels, Kate Jackson) was moving into producing and directing. Along the way, he played a number of roles for Roger Corman, both heroic leads and comic parts like that of the pompous suitor in Munchie. I’ll write more about Andrew some other day, but I’ll focus here on his instant connection with Jim Wynorski, with whom he collaborated on several Concorde projects. I’m thinking specifically of Body Chemistry 3: Point of Seduction, directed by Jim and produced (under Roger’s auspices) by Andrew, at the same time that he played the macho but vulnerable victim of Claire Archer’s sexual wiles. Jim and Andrew look absolutely nothing alike. Andrew back then was still leading-man handsome, while Jim reminded me of an overgrown satyr. (Jim occasionally showed up with his hair and beard dyed blond, which certainly added to that impression). Still, their boyish shenanigans in my office were right in sync, and I took to calling them “twins separated at birth.” Ah, those were the days!

Nor did Jim and Roger Corman seem to be birds of a feather. After all, Roger resembles nothing so much as a hip minister or a college professor, one who’d theoretically look down on Jim’s adolescent style. But they share the same aesthetic -- what Jim calls “a big chase and a big chest.” Joe Dante probably said it best: “Jim Wynorski is the side of Roger that he may have inside, but he never lets anybody see.”   

Thursday, April 25, 2013

V is for Jan-Michael Vincent, Going to Seed on Roger Corman’s Dime

If you’re thinking about the Roger Corman world, the letter V could stand for Virginia Nugent. Ginny, one of the nicest and most capable assistants I remember from Concorde-New Horizons, parlayed her Corman experience into a series of studio line-producer jobs, then was named Vice-President of  West Coast Production at HBO. I also want to salute the feisty Pamm Vlastas, a Corman distribution ace who eventually moved out on her own.

But instead I’m going to talk about Jan-Michael Vincent. If you look at Vincent’s IMDB page, you’ll see a photo of a Golden Boy, a shirtless hunk who starred in Seventies films like the surfing flick, Big Wednesday. I paid little heed to him until 1992, when he was sent to the Philippines to star in a Vietnam picture I had a hand in writing. In that era, with America’s involvement in Vietnam long over, we at Concorde took advantage of warfare’s dramatic possibilities to produce a whole slew of battlefield epics. Fortunately, some of our writers -- like Tom Cleaver -- had actually done combat in ‘Nam, once upon a time. The rest of us just faked it as best we could: there was hardly an opportunity for detailed research. And in a Concorde movie, realism didn’t much matter, as long as the script had plenty of blood and guts and derring-do.

Here’s the official Concorde description of Beyond the Call of Duty, as posted on IMDB: “While leading a maverick band of warriors behind enemy lines, a U.S. Army Commander is forced to lead a beautiful American journalist through the treacherous Mekong River Delta aboard a high speed gun boat while being pursued by a cunning Vietnamese enemy.” The cunning Vietnamese enemy forces were  of course portrayed by devil-may-care Philippine stuntmen, who specialized in remarkable flips and somersaults when hit with prop bullets. And the tough but tender U.S. Army Commander was played by Jan-Michael Vincent, who was in a downward career spiral but still had enough of a name to be useful for Roger Corman purposes.

Director Cirio Santiago had seen a lot of shenanigans on his sets, but Vincent apparently took the cake. His drinking was a constant problem for cast and crew. For one particular scene, his feet were so swollen that he couldn’t pull on his boots, so he was photographed from the knees up to mask the fact he was barefoot. His situation on our film wasn’t unique. When Clark and Isabel Henderson were working on a non-Corman picture in the Philippines, they remember something of the same. In medium shots there’d be two guys out of camera range holding up Vincent, who was simply too drunk to stand. Said Henderson, “I’ve never seen a guy so totally bombed and out of it in my life.” 

Such is life in a low-budget company. Your cast is usually filled with newbies (not to mention, if you’re shooting abroad, foreign nationals with shaky English skills), but there’s often a role for a headliner who used to be something of a box-office draw, ‘way back when. And many of those veterans are much the worse for wear. It’s sadly ironic how he-man looks and acting talent don’t last, while Roger Corman goes on and on.