Film Review: Palm Springs Weekend (dir by Norman Taurog)


The 1963 film Palm Springs Weekend asks the question, “When is a beach film not a beach film?”

When it takes place in the freaking desert!

That’s right, Palm Springs Weekend takes place in the middle of the California desert.  There’s no ocean in sight nor are there any beaches on which to frolic.  Instead, there’s just a cheap motel and a swimming pool.  That said, Palm Springs Weekend pretty much follows the same formula as all of the beach films that were released in the early 60s.  A group of college students hop on a bus and head off for the weekend.  One student is wacky.  One student is rich, wild, and dangerous to know.  And, of course, one student is clean-cut, responsible, boring, asexual, and studious and all about doing the right thing.

Troy Donahue, the blandest teen idol of all time, plays the clean-cut student.  His name is Jim and he’s a college basketball star.  Even when he’s on the bus traveling to Palm Springs, he’s still got a book to study.  Jim’s the type who wears a suit and a tie to the pool.  He ends up falling in love with Bunny Dixon (Stefanie Powers) and the two of them spend a lot of time talking about sex in the most chaste way possible.  Bunny’s father (played by Andrew Duggan) is the chief of police and he doesn’t want any crazy college kids causing trouble in his town!  Well, it’s a pretty good thing that all he has to worry about is Troy Donaue asking his daughter if she wants to take a moonlight stroll in the middle of the desert.

(Trust me.  I’ve spent enough time in the desert to know that the last thing you want to do when you live near rattlesnakes is take a moonlight stroll.)

Jim’s best friend is Biff (Jerry Van Dyke).  Biff is the wacky college student, which means that he plays the ukulele and he gets all the comedic moments.  In this film, that amounts to getting babysitting an annoying boy and, at one point, falling into an extremely sudsy pool.  Luckily, Jim’s there to deliver CPR, which leads to soap bubbles floating out of Biff’s mouth and …. you know what?  I’m tired of writing about Biff.

Anyway, Biff and Jim really aren’t that important.  The entire film pretty much belongs to Robert Conrad and Connie Stevens, largely because they’re the only two actors who are allowed to break out of the trap of always either being bumbling and innocent or dramatic and self-righteous.  Robert Conrad plays Eric Dean, who is a spoiled rich kid who owns an expensive and fast car and who is basically a fun-loving sociopath.  Meanwhile, Connie Stevens plays Gail, who is a high senior and who is pretending to be a college student.  And while the film insists that we should somehow be disappointed in Gail because she’s acting wild and breaking curfew and doing more than just talking about whether or not it’s appropriate to kiss on the first date, she’s actually the most compelling character in the film because, at the very least, she’s actually setting her own rules and making her own decisions.  Since Palm Springs Weekend was made in 1963, it ultimately feels the need to try to punish Gail for thinking for herself but that doesn’t change the fact that she’s still a far more interesting character than the blandly innocent Bunny.  Gail’s a rebel.  Gail’s the future.  All hail Gail!

Anyway, Palm Springs Weekend is pretty forgettable and it’s never as much fun as any of AIP’s old Beach Party films.  That said, I’d still recommend it if you’re a history nerd like me.  It’s definitely a film of its time, a time capsule of an era.

Film Review: Firehouse (1973, directed by Alex March)


Firefighter Shelly Forsythe (Richard Roundtree) has just been assigned to a new firehouse and, from the minute he shows up, it’s trouble.  Not only is he resented for taking the place of a popular (if now dead) firefighter but he’s also the first black to have ever been assigned to that firehouse.  Led by angry racist Skip Ryerson (Vince Edwards), the other firemen immediately distrust Forsythe and subject him to a grueling hazing.  However, Forsythe is determined to prove that he’s just as good as any white firefighter and refuses to be driven out.  While the firehouse simmers with racial tensions, a gang of arsonists is setting buildings on fire.

Firehouse does not have much of a plot but what little it does have, it deals with in a brisk 72 minutes.  Forsythe shows up for his first day.  Everyone hazes him.  Forsythe gets mad.  There’s a big fire.  And then the movie ends, without resolving much.  Ryerson is still a racist and Forsythe is still mad at almost everyone in the firehouse.  The characters are all paper thin and most of the fire fighting scenes are made up of grainy stock footage.  What does make the film interesting is the way that it handles the causal racism of almost every white character.  Ryerson, for instance, comes across as being an unrepentant racist but the film suggests that this is mostly due to him being too stubborn to change his ways and that Ryerson’s not that bad once you get to know him.  When Andrew Duggan’s fire chief instructs Forsythe not to take any of the constant racial remarks personally, Firehouse portrays it as if Duggan is giving good and reasonable advice.  The mentality was typical for 1973 but wouldn’t fly today.

One reason why Firehouse ends so abruptly is because it was a pilot for a television series.  At the time Firehouse aired, it had been only two years since Roundtree starred as John Shaft and NBC hoped that to recapture that magic on a weekly basis.  However, it would take another year before the Firehouse television series went into production and, by that time, Roundtree had left the project.  In fact, with the exception of Richard Jaeckel, no one who appeared in the pilot went on to appear in the short-lived TV series.

The DVD of Firehouse is infamous for featuring a picture of Fred Williamson on the cover, in which Williamson is smoking a cigar and wearing a fireman’s helmet.  Williamson does not appear anywhere in Firehouse and I can only imagine how many people have sat through Firehouse expecting to see a Fred Williamson blaxploitation film, just to discover that it was actually a Richard Roundtree television pilot.  Firehouse probably would have been better if it had starred Fred Williamson.  Roundtree’s good but sometimes, you just need The Hammer.

A Blast From The Past: Red Nightmare (directed by George Waggner)


Hi there!  Happy Labor Day!

Now, I have to be honest.  I’m not really sure what the point of Labor Day is.  I have no idea what we’re supposed to be celebrating today.  I’ve got the day off, which seems kind of unfair when you consider that people who have far worse jobs than me — i.e., the actual laborers — are having to work.

Like many Americans, I spent this weekend hanging out with my extended family.  On Sunday, I did a poll of every cousin, aunt, uncle, sister, niece, and nephew that I could find and almost every single one of them agreed with me that Labor Day sounded like something tedious that Jesse Myerson would come up with and then demand that everyone celebrate.  In short, it sounded communistic.

So, with that in mind, I think the best way to start out Labor Day would be by watching this educational film from 1962.  In Red Nightmare, Jerry Donavon (Jack Kelly) takes his freedom for granted.  So, Jack Webb shows up and casts a magic spell, which causes Jerry to have a dream about what it would be like to live in a communist society.  In fact, you could even say that Jack Webb gives Jerry a red nightmare!

So, there’s two ways to review a film like Red Nightmare.  We can either debate the film’s politics and get into a big discussion about economics and policy and all that crap and OH MY GOD, doesn’t that just sound perfectly tedious?  Or, we can simply enjoy Red Nightmare for what it is, a histrionic but sincere time capsule of what was going on in the psyche of 1962 America.

Red Nightmare!  Watch it before getting brainwashed by Labor Day!

44 Days Of Paranoia #20: Seven Days In May (dir by John Frankenheimer)


For today’s entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, let’s take a look at the 1964 political thriller, Seven Days In May.

Directed by John Frankenheimer (who also directed the conspiracy classic, The Manchurian Candidate), Seven Days In May opens with unpopular President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) on the verge of signing a treaty with the Russians.  The chairman of the joint chiefs-of-staff, Gen. James Scott (Burt Lancaster), is opposed to the treaty and feels that Lyman’s actions will lead to the collapse of the U.S.  When Scott’s aide, Jiggs Casey (Kirk Douglas), thinks that he’s come across evidence that Scott is planning a military coup, he takes his suspicions to the White House.  Working with an alcoholic Senator (Edmond O’Brien) and a cynical political aide (Martin Balsam), the President launches his own investigation into Scott’s activities.

When it was first released, Seven Days In May was very successful with both critics and audiences.  Edmond O’Brien even received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.  When viewed today, however, Seven Days In May feels rather quaint.  A good deal of the film’s suspense was meant to be generated by the question of whether or not Gen. Scott is actually planning a coup.  However, for the modern viewer, it’s really not a question worth asking.  For us, it’s easy to watch this film and shout, “Of course he’s planning on overthrowing the government!  He’s the most obviously villainous character in the entire film!”  The idea of a military conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government was perhaps shocking back in 1964 but today, we take the existence of such conspiracies for granted.

Seven Days In May is definitely a product of its time.  Unlike John Frankenheimer’s other well-known conspiracy film, The Manchurian Candidate, there’s no sly undercurrent of satire or subversion running through Seven Days In May.  Instead, Seven Days In May epitomizes everything that we think of when we think about the early 60s.  The film’s politics are liberal but not radically so.  The President is such an honorable leader that he won’t resort to the politics of personal destruction and reveal that Scott has a mistress.  Casey explains that he disagrees with the President’s politics but that he is bound by duty to reveal Gen. Scott’s subversion.  Indeed, by the end of the film, it’s obvious that we’re meant to condemn Scott not because he might overthrow the President but because he would subvert the democratic process to do so.  Seven Days In May is a film that tells viewers to support and respect their elected leaders, whether they be good or evil and whether they’re played by Fredric March or Burt Lancaster.

When I listened to Casey explain why he was informing on a man who he claimed to admire and agree with, I was reminded of some of the recent political debates that we’ve had deal with her in America.  All of those debates can pretty much be summed up by whether we, as citizens, are obligated to support a law even if we personally don’t agree with it or to respect a leader even if we do not agree with him.  The answer, according to Seven Days In May, would appear to be yes.

While Seven Days In May is often a bit too ponderous for its own good, it’s still a well-made and watchable film.  If you’re a history nerd like me, you’ll enjoy the film as a portrait of its time.  John Frankenheimer directs as if the movie is a film noir and the film’s shadowy black-and-white cinematography looks great.  Finally, if you’re a fan of the old school movie stars, how can you not enjoy a film that features Kirk Douglas, Fredric March, and Burt Lancaster?

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One