Hollywood Babylon: TOO MUCH, TOO SOON (Warner Brothers 1958)


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Hollywood biopics are by and large more about their entertainment value than historical accuracy. TOO MUCH TOO SOON is no exception. It tells the story of actress Diana Barrymore, daughter of “The Great Profile” John, based on her 1957 best-selling tell-all, and though it pretty much sticks to the facts, many of them have been sanitized for audience consumption. Dorothy Malone , fresh off her Oscar-winning role in WRITTEN ON THE WIND, is very good indeed as Diana, whose true life was much more sordid than fiction, and we’ll get to all that later. What makes the film for me was the actor portraying the dissipated John Barrymore – none other than Errol Flynn !

Errol Flynn (1909-1959) as John Barrymore

Don’t expect to see the dashing star of CAPTAIN BLOOD and THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD here. Flynn (who a year later would release his own tell-all book, MY…

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Rockin’ in the Film World #3: BEACH PARTY (AIP 1963)


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Beach Party (USA, 1963) - 01

Finally! The weather here in New England has begun to break, and we’re heading into summer. I even managed to get some beach time in today. TCM beat me to the punch when they aired BEACH PARTY as part of their month-long salute to American International Pictures, a blast from the past filled with sand, surf, teenage sex, and plenty of good ol’ rock’n’roll! BEACH PARTY spawned a series of films and a whole slew of imitators , but AIP did ’em first and best.

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Teen idol Frankie Avalon and ex-Mouseketeer Annette Funicello starred in most of the AIP’s, using the same plot over and over. Frankie wants sex, but Annette wants to wait for marriage. They fight, and try to make each other jealous by dating someone new, but wind up together by film’s end. Simple, and rehashed using gimmicks like bodybuilding, drag racing, sky diving, and skiing to make things seem fresh…

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Life Is A Beach #1: Beach Party (dir by William Asher)


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It seems a little bit strange that today was, for many people, the first day of Spring Break.

First off, it was cold and rainy today and, whenever I found myself glancing out a window and being confronted by the gray weather, it was very hard for me to imagine having any fun on a beach.

Secondly, for reasons that I never quite understood, the University of North Texas’s Spring Break was always a week after everyone else’s.  As a result, I’ve been conditioned to think of Spring Break as starting during the third week of March.

I always looked forward to Spring Break, despite the fact that we always got out a week late.  In fact, it was kind of nice to know that, when my friends and I got down to that year’s beach, the most obnoxious of the alcoholic frat boys would already be back in Oklahoma.  I’ve always loved the beach, which is odd because I’m scared of drowning.  Fortunately, you don’t have to swim to look good in a bikini.

Now, of course, I’m an adult and I don’t get a Spring Break.  But that doesn’t mean that I can’t relive the fun of it all by spending the next few days watching and reviewing beach movies!

For instance, earlier today, I discovered that the 1963 film Beach Party was available on Netflix.   I watched the first 40 minutes during my lunch and then, as the day progressed, I watched the rest of it in bits and pieces until finally, nearly 8 hours after starting the film, I finished it.  Needless to say, this is absolutely the worst way to watch a film like Beach Party.  Beach Party was designed to be a film to be enjoyed but not thought about.  It’s the cinematic equivalent of fast food.  Watching Beach Party in increments of 2 or 3 minutes at a time is a bit like buying a Wendy’s bacon cheeseburger and not eating it until the next day.

(Or so I assume.  I would never do that because, seriously, Wendy’s makes the best bacon cheeseburgers!)

It feels kind of silly to try to describe the plot of something like Beach Party but here goes: Frankie (Frankie Avalon) and Delores (Annette Funicello) are two teenagers in love.  Or, at the very least, Delores is in love.  Frankie, however, has a hard time saying it.  Frankie and Delores are planning on spending the weekend at a beach house where, Frankie tells her, it will be just like they’re married.  Though it’s never explicitly stated (like many films from the early 60s, Beach Party is all about the euphemisms), Frankie is obviously expecting that he and Delores will finally be having sex in that beach house.  However, Delores had the same idea so she invited all of their friends to stay at the beach house as well, specifically to keep her from giving in during a moment of weakness.

Meanwhile, Prof. Robert Sutwell (Robert Cummings) is also hanging out on the beach.  He’s an anthropologist who has a rather prominent beard.  He’s studying the sex lives of teenagers.  Since they’re adults, Robert and his assistant Marianne (Dorothy Malone) are actually allowed to say the word “sex.”

Speaking of which, that’s one thing that nobody on the beach seems to be doing.  Robert is too obsessed with his work, Marianne is too frustrated with his lack of interest, Frankie is too busy surfing and singing, and Delores says she’s not interesting in “being a woman” until she’s married.  There’s constant flirting going on, of course but, for the most part, these teenagers make the spring breakers from From Justin To Kelly look wild.  (One can only guess what would happen if any of them ever ran into the spring breakers from Spring Breakers….)

That said, I do think that I did spot Frankie and his friends passing around a joint during one scene.  According to some comments at the imdb, it was probably meant to be a cigarette that Frankie was sharing with his friends Ken (John Ashley) and Deadhead (Jody McCrea) but it sure looked like a joint to me.  Plus, Frankie was listening to beatnik poetry at the time and we all know those crazy kids loved the poetry and loved the marijuana.

Oh!  And did I mention that there’s a motorcycle gang in this film?  Because there so totally is.  The Rat Pack is led by a guy named Erich Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck) and they pretty much show up whenever the film starts to run out of ideas…

Now, it may sound like I’m being pretty critical of Beach Party but actually, I thought it was fun in a time capsule sort of way.  This is one of those films that is so obviously a product of the time in which it was made that watching it is a bit like getting to take a ride in a time machine.  Everything about this film — from the dialogue to the cultural attitudes to the clean-cut teenagers to the music to the bizarrely modest bikinis — practically screams 1963.  As a secret history nerd, I loved the part of Beach Party.

Add to that, Vincent Price has a cameo!  That’s always fun.

Anyway, Beach Party is currently available to be watched on Netflix and Hulu.  If you can’t get to the beach this year, you can always watch Frankie Avalon getting high in Beach Party.

44 Days of Paranoia #3: Winter Kills (dir by William Richert)


MPW-39279Yesterday, I took a look at Executive Action, a 1973 docudrama about the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  Today, I want to take a look at another film inspired by the Kennedys, the 1979 satire Winter Kills.

As the film opens, it’s been 16 years since a popular and dynamic President named Tim Kegan was assassinated in Philadelphia.  Despite constant rumors of conspiracy, the official story is that Kegan was killed by a lone gunman and that gunman was subsequently killed by another lone assassin.  The President’s half-brother, Nick (played by Jeff Bridges, who looks so impossibly young and handsome in this film), has disappointed his father (John Huston) by declining to follow his brother into politics.  Instead, he spends most of his time sailing on corporate oil tankers and dating fashion editor Yvette (Belinda Bauer).  This all changes when a dying man named Fletcher (and played, underneath a lot of bandages, by Joe Spinell) asks for a chance to speak to Nick.  Fletcher reveals that he was the 2nd gunman and that he was hired by to kill President Kegan.  Before dying, Fletcher tells Nick where he can find the rifle that was used to kill the President.

Following Fletcher’s directions, Nick finds both the rifle and proof that his brother’s death was the result of a conspiracy.  Determined to find out who was truly behind the conspiracy, Nick goes to see his father, the flamboyant tycoon Pa Kegan (John Huston) who, we discover, is only alive because he frequently gets blood transfusions from young women.  With Pa’s encouragement, Nick is sent on an increasingly bizarre odyssey into the darkest shadows of America, a world that is populated by militaristic businessmen, sinister gangsters, and an unemotional man named John Cerutti (Anthony Perkins) who very well may be the most powerful man in the world.

The martyred President might be named Tim Kegan, his accused assassin might be named Willie Abbott, and the man who shot Abbott might be named Joe Diamond (and might be played by Eli Wallach) but make no mistake about it — Winter Kills is a thinly disguised look at both the Kennedy assassination and the Kennedy family.  Based on a novel by Richard Condon (who also wrote the conspiracy classic, The Manchurian Candidate), Winter Kills takes all of the various Kennedy conspiracy theories and intentionally pushes them to their most ludicrous extremes.  The end result is a film that tries (and occasionally manages) to be both absurd and sincere, a portrait of a world where paranoia is the only logical reaction.

As I discovered from listening to director William Richert’s commentary on the Anchor Bay DVD, Winter Kills had a long and complicated production history.  The film was produced by two marijuana dealers, one of whom was murdered by the Mafia shortly after the film premiered while the other would later be sentenced to 40 years in prison on federal drug charges.  The production actually went bankrupt more than a few times, which led to Richert, Bridges, and Bauer making and releasing another film specifically so they could raise the money to finish Winter Kills.

When Winter Kills was finally released, it got a good deal of attention because of its spectacular cast.  Along with Bridges, Huston, Perkins, and Wallach, the film also features cameo appearances by Tomas Milian, Elizabeth Taylor, Ralph Meeker, Richard Boone, Sterling Hayden, Dorothy Malone, Toshiro Mifune, and a host of other actors who will be familiar to those of us who enjoy watching old movies on TCM.  And yet, according to Richert, the film itself was barely released in to theaters, the implication being that Winter Kills was a film about conspiracies that fell victim to a conspiracy itself.

Given the film’s history and the subject matter, I was really hoping that Winter Kills would turn out to be a great movie.  Unfortunately, it really doesn’t work.  The film struggles to maintain a balance between suspense and satire and, as a result, the suspense is never convincing and the satire is ultimately so obvious that it ends up being more annoying than thought-provoking.  The cast may be impressive but they’re used in such a way that film ultimately feels like it’s just a collection of showy celebrity cameos as opposed to being an actual story.

That said, Winter Kills remains an interesting misfire.  Jeff Bridges is a likable and compelling lead (and he gives the film much-needed focus) and, playing a role that has a lot in common with his better known work in Chinatown, John Huston is a always watchable if not necessaily likable.  Best of all is Anthony Perkins, who plays a role that, in light of what we now know about the NSA, seems oddly prophetic.

Finally, best of all, Winter Kills remains an interesting time capsule.  If nothing else, it reminds us that mistrust and paranoia are not unique to this century.

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The Daily Grindhouse: Abduction (dir. by Joseph Zito)


Before I went on vacation, I searched through my film collection and I found a banged-up VHS tape that I had ordered off of Amazon a while back.  I had been inspired to order the tape because it contained a movie based on a true crime case that I was oddly obsessed with at that time.  However, as is typical with my obsessions, I had pretty much lost interest by the time the movie actually showed up on my doorstep.  Hence, that tape sat unwatched until last week when I finally curled up on my couch and watched it.

Released in 1975, Abduction is an example of the “Ripped-From-The-Headlines” genre of grindhouse filmmaking.  These films specialized in taking sordid true stories and giving them an even more sordid cinematic interpretation.  They were often advertised as the film that would tell you “the shocking true story!” or “the story that they don’t want you to know.”  Despite a disclaimer at the beginning of the film that informs us that any resemblance to anyone living or dead is “purely coincidental,” Abducted tells us “the shocking true story!” behind the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst.

In 1974, newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was a 19 year-old student at Berkeley who was kidnapped from her apartment by a group of left-wing revolutionaries known as the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA).  The SLA was led by a charismatic escaped prisoner who called himself Field Marshal Cinque and who announced — via a messages that Hearst read into a tape recorder — that Hearst was being held hostage in the name of social justice.  The police and FBI spent several months unsuccessfully searching for Hearst until one day, the SLA released an audio tape in which Hearst announced that she had now joined the SLA and wanted to be known as Tania.  Hearst was soon robbing banks and went from being a hostage to a wanted criminal.  When she was arrested in 1975, Hearst claimed to have been brainwashed by the SLA and people still debate whether she was a sincere revolutionary, a calculating criminal, or just a weak-willed victim.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the Hearst case is that, a year before Hearst was kidnapped, a book called The Black Abductor  was released.  The Black Abductor tells the story of an heiress named Patricia who is kidnapped by a group of left-wing revolutionaries led by a charismatic escaped prisoner and who eventually decides to join with her violent captors.  No one was sure who actually wrote the book (though it was credited to a “Harrison Chase”) and the FBI apparently investigated whether or not the book had been used as a blue print for the actual kidnapping.

(I actually have a copy of the Black Abductor.  I found it in the nostalgia section of Half-Price Books, mixed in with the usual collection of detective novels, westerns, and tv novelizations.  I squealed a little when I recognized the title and wow, did I ever get the strangest look at the front register when I paid for it.  The book itself is actually pretty boring.)

Abduction, probably in order to avoid a lawsuit from the Hearst family, is officially based on the novel Black Abduction and not the kidnapping of Patty Hearst.  That said, the movie (which was released after Hearst had robbed her first bank but before she was arrested) is totally about the kidnapping of Patty Hearst.

In Abduction, Hearst is called Patricia Prescott and her father is no longer in the newspaper business.  Instead, he’s a real estate developer who is planning to destroy the ghetto and replace it with high-income housing.  Patricia (played by Judith-Marie Beragan) is kidnapped and her older boyfriend is beaten up by a group of revolutionaries.  Patricia is held prisoner in a barren apartment and, in a disturbingly clinical scene, is raped (and filmed) by both the group’s leader (an escaped prisoner, of course) and a female member of the group.  Scenes of Patricia being slowly brainwashed are intercut with scenes of a brutal FBI agent beating up liberal grad students and Patricia’s parents (played by Hollywood veterans Leif Erickson and Dorothy Malone) obsessively watching video tapes of their daughter being sexually assaulted.

Abduction is one of those low-budget, relentlessly sordid films that really can’t stand on its own as a work of art but, never the less, remains a fascinating portrait of the time that it was made.  In true exploitation fashion, the film is deliberately made to appeal to both sides of the cultural divide.  When the FBI agent played by Lawrence Tierney is seen smirking as his partner smacks around a smug leftist, the filmmakers are both appealing to the paranoia of the liberals and providing wish fulfilment for the right.  By the same token, when Patricia stands in a doorway with a smoking shotgun in her hands, it’s an image that’s calculated to be empowering, erotic, and frightening all at the same time.   Like many grindhouse film, Abduction might not be a great (or even good) film but as a reflection of the psyche of the times that produced it, it’s an invaluable document.