Friday, October 29, 2021

Food for Fright-Night: The B-Movie Cookbook

It’s almost Halloween, and time to ask What’s Cooking? My experts, of course, are Fiona Young-Brown and her hubby, Nic Brown. I first met Fiona at a serious writers’ conference in New York City; little did I know then that I’d eventually end up as a guest on Nic’s long-running B-Movie Cast, talking about Roger Corman flicks like Big Bad Mama and Grand Theft Auto.     

   Fiona is from England, and Nic hails from Kentucky, so of course they met while teaching English in Japan, before eventually  making their home in the  Bluegrass State. Fiona’s writing specialties include food and travel (she’s the author of Wicked Lexington) as well as science, and Nic devotes as much time as he can to his passion for vintage horror movies and other cheapie cinematic delights. Which is why he was a natural to join with the late Vince Rotolo in hosting a B-movie podcast that’s been on the air since 2006. (Vince’s wife Mary now joins Nic in capably anchoring new broadcasts.)

 Given Nic and Fiona’s varied enthusiasms, it’s no surprise that they have launched a series of B-movie cookbooks. Their first celebrated the Fifties, pairing drive-in favorites like Godzilla and Creature from the Black Lagoon with appropriate recipes. I’ve just finished reading the sequel, which is titled The B-Movie Cookbook: The Sixties. This slim, colorfully illustrated volume features 12 B-movie classics from the decade, everything from The Brain that Wouldn’t Die to Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Nic engagingly summarizes the plot of each film and adds quirky production details, after which Fiona comes up with simple but enticing recipes guaranteed to make your home film screening complete. Halloween, of course, is one of the Browns’ best-loved holidays, which is why creepy films suitable for October 31 inspire some of their finest efforts. For George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead, Fiona salutes the Polish community of Pittsburgh, where the film was famously made, with a serious recipe for Pierogies. But she also gets creative in suggesting the blood-and-guts aspect of this zombie classic. Apparently the actors playing the zombies in fact feasted on-screen not on actual human flesh but on a concoction of roast ham and chocolate syrup. Fiona takes mercy on her readers, sharing with them instead a Mexican-inspired recipe for Pulled Pork with Chocolate Mole (delicious but decidedly scary-looking). And for dessert she offers White Chocolate Mousse Brain with Strawberry Sauce. If yours comes out looking like the photos in the book, it will definitely give a shiver to your partygoing friends.

 Much space is devoted to Spider Baby, the 1967 creep-fest by Roger Corman alumnus Jack Hill about a family with weird inclinations. That’s partly because Fiona and Nic have located the film’s star, Beverly Washburn, who shares her on-set memories as well as some of her own family taste treats. But I particularly like Fiona’s culinary suggestions for this vastly bizarre film. The book informs us “there is a memorable dining scene in the movie featuring weeds, mushrooms, and an unfortunate cat. Sparing those, we’ve instead opted for some spider novelties and mushroom cookies.”  I love the photo of the Spider Leg Breadsticks perched eerily on a bowl of queso dip. And Spider Cupcakes are wonderfully cute. Serve those alongside your White Chocolate Mousse Brain for an unforgettable Halloween treat.

 But, hey – why are no Roger Corman movies included by the Browns?  I’d love to see recipe suggestions for such Sixties classics as  X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes and The Masque of the Red Death. Perchance there’s a Corman cookbook in the offing?

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

An Autumnal Tribute to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Anita Louise as Titania, the Fairy Queen

As a long-time theatre buff, I’ve been suffering serious withdrawal symptoms during the pandemic. The few opportunities I’ve had to see actors on stage have been outdoor performances, sometimes awkwardly staged in parking lots. But I did celebrate the end of summer with a Midsummer Night’s Dream in the most magical locale you can imagine. Topanga Canyon’s Theatricum Botanicum was founded in 1973 by the actor Will Geer (Grandpa on TV’s The Waltons). Blacklisted during the McCarthy era, Geer had moved his family to the wilds of Topanga to live off the land. Eventually, their domain became an artist’s colony, and the site of an annual repertory season. The playing area is entirely outdoors, and it’s no wonder that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a standard annual offering. Ensconced in surprisingly comfortable seats in a beautifully woodsy glen, you truly feel as though you too are in the middle of a vast forest, communing with fairy creatures.

 (My pleasure in this particular performance was enhanced by the fact that a neighbor’s son, Steven Taub Gordon, had risen from the ranks of the understudies to play one of show’s quartet of lovers, the charmingly addled Lysander.)

 Back when talkies were something new and exciting, Hollywood’s big studios went out of their way to launch prestige projects, including elaborate screen versions of Shakespeare’s best-loved plays. MGM, for instance, staged a 1936 production of Romeo and Juliet, starring members of the studio’s prized acting stable: John Barrymore as Mercutio, Basil Rathbone as Tybalt, Edna May Oliver as Juliet’s nurse. The two young lovers were played by long-in-the-tooth Leslie Howard (age 43) and Norma Shearer (the 34-year-old wife of producer Irving Thalberg). It’s a well-spoken production, but also one that’s stiff and unconvincing in its portrayal of youthful passion.

 Up until now I’d never managed to see the Warner Bros. contribution to the Shakespeare derby. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which had been staged as an early silent film back in 1905, was filmed in 1935 by Austrian stage and screen director Max Reinhardt, who had just fled rising anti-Semitism in Europe. Reinhardt adored spectacle, and the film spends much of its length on musical interludes, featuring woodland creatures (fairies, nymphs, trolls) frolicking in the moonlight to the lush strains of Felix Mendelssohn. Today all those supernatural beings, photographed in shimmering black & white, can get a bit tiresome, with the oodles of fairies (all with long silvery tresses and filmy gowns) seeming not far removed from the stylized routines that made Busby Berkeley famous. Still, Victor Jory (wearing what looks like a crown of twisted twigs) makes a stalwart Oberon, and Anita Louise is a lovely Titania.

 Among the mortal lovers, perennial juvenile Dick Powell plays Lysander as a ready-for-anything college boy, in a performance that has always been much scorned, even by Powell himself. Opposite him is the very young Olivia De Havilland, making her screen debut. They and the two additional star-crossed lovers, Ross Alexander and Jean Muir, are pretty silly, in roles that always require a certain amount of silliness.

 Naturally, it’s the most earth-bound characters who come out best, particularly James Cagney as Bottom the Weaver and the wide-mouthed Joe E. Brown as Flute, who must don a dress to play opposite Bottom in the world’s wackiest performance of the tragic “Pyramus and Thisbe.” Young Mickey Rooney’s antic Puck sounds like a good idea: he was a small, energetic fifteen-year-old who was talented and ready for anything. But Rooney’s hyperactive performance should only be sampled in small doses. After seeing it, you’ll be ready for a Midsummer Night’s snooze.