Embracing the Melodrama Part II #57: Saturday Night Fever (dir by John Badham)


Saturday_night_fever_movie_posterHere’s a little bit of trivia about the iconic 1977 film Saturday Night Fever.

First off, according to the imdb, Saturday Night Fever was the first mainstream Hollywood film to ever use the term “blow job.”  That actually took me by surprise.  I mean, with all of the risks that the major studios took in the 70s, it still took them until 1977 to have someone say “blow job” in a movie?  But somehow, it seems appropriate that it would turn up in Saturday Night Fever.  We tend to think of Saturday Night Fever as being a movie where the soundtrack is nonstop disco and John Travolta dances in that iconic white suit.  But actually, Saturday Night Fever is a film about four guys who neither understand nor respect women.

When Tony (John Travolta), Joey (Joseph Cali), Double J (Paul Pape), and Bobby (Barry Miller) go down to that disco, it’s because they want to get laid.   Joey and Double J take turns having sex with insecure Annette (Donna Pescow) and, afterwards, Tony scornfully ask her if she‘s proud of herself.  When Bobby discovers that his girlfriend is pregnant, he is so terrified of having to be a father that he becomes suicidal.  As for Tony, he looks down on the women who are so eager to dance with him.  When he enters a dance contest with Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), he can’t handle the fact that she wants more out of her life than just being his latest partner.

So, it makes sense that this would be the first mainstream movie to feature someone talking about a blow job because that’s what these boys are obsessed with.  Sexually primitive, hypocritically puritanical, and emotionally repressed, a blow job is all the intimacy that these boys can handle.

Another piece of trivia: while John Travolta was always the first choice for Tony Manero, several actors were seen for the roles of Joey and Double J.  At one point, both Ray Liotta and David Caruso were nearly cast in the role of Tony’s friends.  Imagine this: in some alternative universe, while white-suited John Travolta rules over the dance floor, Ray Liotta and David Caruso are standing in the background and cheering him on.

Of course, if Liotta and Caruso had been cast, it would be a totally different movie.  Whenever you watch Saturday Night Fever, you’re surprised by how much John Travolta totally dominates the film.  Even though the film devotes a good deal of time to Annette, Stephanie, Bobby and to Tony’s brother who has recently left the priesthood, Tony Manero is the only character that you remember.  That’s largely because Travolta is the only one of them who gives a truly memorable performance.

In theory, it’s easy to laugh at the thought of Travolta in that white suit, striking a dramatic pose on that cheap-looking dance floor.  But then you watch the film and you realize that Travolta truly did give a great performance.  And, to your surprise, you don’t laugh at Tony with his white suit because you know that the only time Tony has any control over his life is when he’s dancing.  He may work in a paint store.  He may regularly get slapped around by his family.  He may not be very smart or sensitive.  But when Tony’s dancing, he’s a king and you’re happy that he at least has one thing in his life that he can feel good about.

Even if he is kind of a jerk.

Of course, it helps that Tony is a really good dancer.  There’s actually a lot more going on in Saturday Night Fever than you might think but ultimately, it’s a dance movie and it’s one of the best.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #56: Walking Tall: Final Chapter (dir by Jack Starrett)


sq_final_chapter_walking_tallFor one last time, Buford Pusser is back!  The 1977 film Walking Tall: Final Chapter ends the story that was begun in Walking Tall and continued in Walking Tall Part II.  And it turns out that the final chapter is pretty much just like the previous two chapters.  In fact, I’m tempted to just tell you go reread my review of Walking Tall Part II because that review works just as well for most of the Final Chapter.

Final Chapter starts with footage from the first Walking Tall, with Bo Svenson awkwardly inserted in place of Joe Don Baker.  Once again, we watch as Elizabeth Hartman is shot in the back of the head and Svenson — in the role of Buford Pusser — is shot in the face.  Oh my God, we think, how many times can the exact same thing happen to the exact same character!?

Oh wait — it turns out that Buford is just remembering the death of his wife.  Buford is still haunted by that day and he’s still out for vengeance.  For the next hour or so, we follow Buford as he and his deputies blow up moonshiners across Tennessee.  After each arrest, an attorney shows up and yells at Buford for violating everyone’s civil rights.  In response, Buford smirks until the attorney gets so mad that he decides to run for sheriff himself.

Buford doesn’t give his opponent much of a chance.  As one of his deputies puts it, this guy is just a “bleeding heart liberal.”  (But if he’s so liberal, what’s he doing in Tennessee?  Off with you, sir — return to Vermont!)  Instead of campaigning, Buford spends his time hunting down more moonshiners.  When he discovers that one moonshiner is also an abusive father, he personally drives the man’s son down to the local orphanage.  Oddly enough, Buford does not offer to adopt the kid himself.

Anyway, to the shock of everyone, Buford is not reelected.  No longer sheriff, he struggles to find a full-time job and makes plans to run in the next election.  One of the moonshiners shows up and taunts Buford until Buford is forced to beat him up in the middle of the street.  The new sheriff show up and demands to know what happened.  None of the townspeople are willing to snitch on Buford.  Good for them!

After about an hour and a half of this, something interesting actually happens.  A film producer drives up to the Pusser Farm and tells Buford that he wants to make a movie out of his life.  “We’re going to tell the story exactly how it happened!” the producer assures him.  In the next scene, Buford is advising the director of Walking Tall on how to properly film a car chase.

And you know what?  These scenes of Buford watching his life story be filmed are actually rather charming.  For the only time in the series, Bo Svenson actually appears to be having fun in these scenes.  And, when Buford runs from a theater while watching the recreation of his wife’s murder, it’s actually a very effective moment.

Anyway, there’s not much running time left after all of that.  We see Buford sign a contract to play himself in the sequel and, by this point, we all know what happened afterward.  Buford was killed in a mysterious car accident.  But fear not!  The film opens with a heavenly choir and Svenson’s voice booming from the heavens so we all know that Buford Pusser is arresting moonshiners in Heaven.

And good for him!

Peace be with you, Buford Pusser.

 

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #55: The Tenth Level (dir by Charles S. Dubin)


10thlevelI first found out about the 1976 made-for-tv movie The Tenth Level while I was doing some research on the Milgram experiment.  The Milgram experiment was a psychological experiment that was conducted, under the direction of Prof. Stanley Milgram, in 1961.  Two test subjects were placed in two separate room.  One test subject was known as the “Learner” and he was hooked up to a machine that could deliver electric shocks.  The other subject was the “Teacher.”  His job was to ask the Lerner questions and, whenever the Learner gave an incorrect answer, the Teacher was supposed to correct the error by pushing a button and delivering the electric shock.  With each incorrect answer, the shock would get worse.

Of course, what the Teacher did not know was that the Lerner was an associate of Prof. Milgram’s and that pushing the button did not actually deliver a shock.  The Lerner would intentionally give wrong answers and, after the Teacher pushed each subsequent button, the Lerner would groan in pain and eventually beg the Teacher to stop.  The test was to see how long the Teacher would continue to push the buttons.

The study found that 65% of the Teachers, even when the Lerner stopped responding, continued to push the buttons until delivering the experiment’s final 450-volt shock.  It was a surprising result, one that is often cited as proof that ordinary people will do terrible things if they’re ordered to do so by an authority figure.

The Tenth Level is loosely based on the Milgram experiment.  Prof. Stephen Turner (William Shatner) is a psychology professor who conducts a similar experiment.  Turner claims that he’s looking for insight into the nature of blind obedience but some of his colleagues are skeptical.  His best friend (Ossie Davis) thinks that Turner is mostly trying to deal with the guilt of being a WASP who has never had to deal with discrimination.  His ex-wife, Barbara (Lynn Carlin), thinks that the experiment is cruel and could potentially traumatize anyone who takes part in it.  Turner, meanwhile, is fascinated by how random people react to being ordered to essentially murder someone.

Eventually, a good-natured carpenter/grad student, Dahlquist (Stephen Macht), volunteers.  At first, Turner refuses to allow Dahlquist to take part because he’s previously met Dahlquist and Dahlquist is a friend of one of Tuner’s assistants.  However, Dahlquist literally begs to be allowed to take part in the experiment and Turner relents.

Unfortunately, the pressure of administering shocks proves to be too much for Dahlquist and he has a 70s style freak-out, which essentially means that the screen changes colors and everything moves in slow motion as he smashes up the room.  As a result of Dalquist’s violent reaction, Turner is called before a disciplinary committee and basically put on trial.

The Tenth Level is an interesting film.  On the one hand, the subject matter is fascinating and, if nothing else, the film deserves some credit for trying to seriously explore the ethics of psychological experimentation.  On the other hand, this is a film from 1976 that features William Shatner giving numerous monologues about the nature of man.  And, let us not forget, this is William Shatner before he apparently developed a sense of humor about himself.  That means that, in this film, we get the Shatner that inspired a thousand impersonations.  We get the Shatner who speaks precisely and who enunciates every single syllable.  And let’s not forget that Shatner is paired up with Ossie Davis, an actor who was never exactly subtle himself.

The end result is a film that is both thought-provoking and undeniably silly.  This is a film that will make you think even while it inspires you to be totally snarky.

(Also of note, John Travolta supposedly makes his film debut in the Tenth Level.  Apparently, he plays a student.  I have yet to spot him.)

You can watch it below!

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #54: Mandingo (dir by Richard Fleischer)


Mandingo_movie_posterUp until last night, I was under the impression that James Mason never gave a single bad performance over the course of his long career.  Oh sure, I knew that Mason had probably appeared in his share of bad films.  But I figured he was one of those actors who was always better than his material.  Just watch Lolita, The Verdict, Julius Caesar, Odd Man Out, Bigger Than Life, or Murder By Decree and you’ll see that James Mason was a great actor.

But then, last night, I finally got around to watching the 1975 film, Mandingo.

I’ve actually owned Mandingo on DVD for a few years.  I bought it on a whim, the result of having seen it listed as one of the worst films of all time in several different reference guides.  But I have to admit that I did not have any great desire to actually sit through the film.  Instead, it was one of those films that you buy just so your very ownership of it can be a conversation piece.

(“Oh my God, Lisa, what’s this?”  “Oh, that little old thing?  That’s my copy of Mandingo…”)

However, when I decided to do Embracing the Melodrama, Part II, I realized that this would be the perfect time to actually watch and review Mandingo.

Mandingo deals with life on a sordid plantation in pre-Civil War Alabama.  Warren Maxwell (James Mason) owns the plantation and he spends most of his time sweating and complaining about his rheumatism.  When a Satanic slave trader named Brownlee (Paul Benedict) suggests that Warren can cure his rheumatism by always resting his feet on the backs of two little slave children, Warren proceeds to do just that.  Seriously, this is a 127 minute film and, nearly every time that Mason appears on screen, he’s got his feet propped up on the children.

Warren’s got a son named Hammond (Perry King).  Hammond walks with a limp, the result of a childhood pony accident.  Warren expects Hammond to sire an heir to Maxwell family legacy but Hammond is only comfortable having sex with slaves.  Finally, during a business trip with his decadent friend Charles (Ben Masters), Hammond meets and marries Blanche (Susan George).  Blanche assures Hammond that she’s a virgin and, on their wedding night, she asks Hammond how to have sex.  “We take off our clothes…” Hammond begins.

However, the morning after, Hammond is convinced that Blanche lied about being virgin because she enjoyed having sex.  Once they return to the plantation, Hammond refuses to touch Blanche and instead ends up falling in love with a slave named Ellen (Brenda Sykes).  When Ellen gets pregnant, Blanche beats her until she miscarries.

And meanwhile, James Mason keeps popping up with two little kids resting underneath his feet…

But that’s not all!  Hammond has purchased a slave named Mede (Ken Norton).  Mede is a boxer and wins Hammond a lot of money.  In order to “toughen up” his skin, Mede is also forced to bathe in a cauldron of very hot water.  “Shuck down those pants!” Hammond shouts before Mede gets in the cauldron.

Blanche, who is now an alcoholic, gets her revenge on Hammond by having sex with the the legendarily endowed Mede.  Soon, Blanche is pregnant and Hammond and Warren are both excited.  Then the baby is born and all Hell breaks loose.

And, meanwhile, James Mason rests his feet on the back of two little kids…

Mandingo is one of those films that you watch in wide-eyed amazement, shocked that not only was this movie made but it was also apparently made by a major film studio and directed by a professional director.  (Before he directed Mandingo, Richard Fleischer directed everything from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea to Doctor Dolittle to Soylent Green.)  I know that some would argue that Mandingo used the conventions of exploitation cinema to expose the sickening inhumanity of American slavery but let’s be honest here.  Mandingo is not Django Unchained.  Instead, it’s a slow-moving soap opera that is occasionally redeemed by some over-the-top dialogue and histrionic performances.

And it’s also proof that James Mason was capable of giving a bad performance.  According to the imdb, James Mason described Mandingo as a film that he did solely for the paycheck.  From his terrible Southern accent to the way that he always seems to be trying to hide his face from the camera, Mason gives perhaps one of the worst performances ever given by a legitimately great actor.

But really, can you blame him?

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #53: Someone I Touched (dir by Lou Antonio)


someoneitouch_225In the 1975 made-for-TV venereal disease epic Someone I Touched, there’s a scene of children’s author Cloris Leachman at work.  She’s sitting in her office, typing away on a manual typewriter.  Directly behind her is a crude drawing of a clown.  And to the right of her, there’s a statue of the same creepy clown.  Eventually, her husband (played by James Olson) comes into the office and, after a very long argument, finally forces himself to confess that, as the result of a one-night stand with a grocery store cashier (Glynnis O’Connor), he has syphilis.  And it’s possible that Cloris now has syphilis herself.  And, since Cloris is pregnant, it’s also possible that their baby may be born with syphilis.

And it’s all very serious and very dramatic and certainly, it’s nothing to laugh at.

But, I have to admit, that I could not stop thinking about that creepy clown.  And I have to admit that as Cloris was stumbling back in shock, I started to giggle because I just couldn’t stop thinking about what it must be like to work in an office surrounded by creepy clowns.  It made me think about The Sims and how, if your sims ended up getting depressed, the tragic clown would arrive and just makes things worse.

That’s the thing with Someone I Touched.  It’s a very serious film and yet it’s almost impossible to take that seriously.  Whenever a helpful health worker (Andy Robinson, the Scorpio Killer from Dirty Harry) shows up to dispense statistics or the cashier attempts to track down everyone that she’s ever had sex with or Cloris and Olson start to argue about the sad state of their marriage, you’re very aware that the film is dealing with some serious subject matter.  And yet, you can’t take it seriously because of all the little details.  You find yourself fixated on how ugly 70s interior design truly was.  You watch this tiny vein in Olson’s forehead and you worry if it’s going to explode during some of his more dramatic scenes.  You listen to dialogue like, “It (syphilis) can be a real drag if you don’t take care of it” and “Tramps get Syphilis!”  You realize that Leachman is supposed to be playing someone in her mid-30s, even though she was 49 when the film was made.  You listen as Olson explains his recent one night stand by saying, “I was looking down the barrel of my 40th birthday,” despite the fact that Olson looks like he’s in his mid-50s.  And let’s not forget those creepy clowns…

And you just can’t take the movie seriously.  You know that you should but you just can’t.  How could one well-intentioned film produce so many involuntary giggles?

Now, I know you’re probably thinking to yourself, “I would never watch a movie like that!”  But, if you change your mind, Someone I Touched is currently available on Netflix streaming.