Film Review: Tobor The Great (dir by Lee Sholem)


Last week, along with my friends and fellow members of the Late Night Movie Gang, I watched the 1954 sci-fi film, Tobor The Great.

As you can probably tell by looking at the top of this review, Tobor came with a really great poster.  It’s a poster that promises all sorts of sci-fi thrills and chills.  It screams, “B-movie masterpiece!”  You look at that poster and you think to yourself, This film is probably extremely silly but I absolutely have to watch it!

Of course, if you know anything about the B-movie aesthetic of the 50s and 60s, you won’t be shocked to learn that the poster has next to nothing to do with the actual film.  True, there is a robot is featured in the film.  The poster is honest about that.  And Tobor actually looks just as good in the movie as he does on the poster.  And there is a subplot about space travel but, at no point, do we see Tobor walking across the surface of Neptune or Jupiter or wherever it is that Tobor is supposed to be in this poster.  Maybe he’s on one of the moons of Saturn.  Who knows?

Also, at no point, does Tobor carry around a woman.  In fact, Tobor is pretty much a film for kids.  The main character, other than Tobor, is an 11 year-old boy named Gadge (Billy Chapin).  I can only imagine how audiences reacted when they went into the film expecting to see the scene in the poster and instead, they were confronted with a movie about a little boy and his robot.

Tobor is one of those films that opens with several minutes of stock footage.  Rockets take off.  The stars shine in the sky.  Scientists and engineers do stuff.  It all looks pretty impressive but, of course, none of it was actually shot for this film.  In fact, the use of all that stock footage mostly serves to highlight how cheap the rest of the movie looks.

As for the film’s plot, it has apparently been determined that it’s too dangerous to send humans into space.  So, Professor Nordstrom (Taylor Holmes) and Dr. Harrison (Charles Drake) build a robot that is specifically designed to fly an interstellar craft.  They name their creation Tobor, because that’s robot spelled backwards.  (Tobor even points out that his name is robot spelled backwards.)  In order to help Tobor explore the universe, they design him to be able to simulate human emotions.  In fact, they’re so successful at it that Tobor ends up befriending Nordstrom’s grandson, the aforementioned Gadge.

The press and the military are all very impressed with Tobor.  Unfortunately, it’s the 1950s and that means that the communists are impressed by Tobor as well!  Can the scientists and their families keep Tobor from getting abducted by a bunch of Russian agents!?  Let’s hope so because there’s a lot of space that needs to be explored….

Anyway, Tobor The Great is silly but kind of fun.  It has its slow spots but it also has a really cool robot and it’s always fun to watch the commies get thwarted.  It’s a real time capsule film, one that not only reflects the decade in which it was made but which also has a somewhat charming innocence to it.  If nothing else, it’s nice to think that, in the days before CGI, the filmmakers actually had to make a Tobor of their own.  Apparently, Tobor is currently in a private collection and I hope whoever has him is treating him well.

The TSL’s Grindhouse: A Boy And His Dog (dir by L.Q. Jones)


(Nearly every Saturday night, the Late Night Movie Gang and I watch a movie.  On January 20th, we watched the 1975 science fiction satire, A Boy and His Dog.)

A Boy and His Dog begins, quite literally, with a bang.  A bang followed by a mushroom cloud.  And then a second mushroom cloud.  And then another.  And another.  When the explosions finally stop, we are informed that World War IV only lasted five days.  Of course, it destroyed most of society.  The year is now 2024 and … well, things aren’t great.

(For those of you keeping track, that means we’ve got another six years left.  Enjoy them!)

The world is now a barren wasteland, an endless stretch of desert.  There are a handful of survivors but they’re not exactly the types who you would want to survive an apocalypse.  Take Vic, for instance.  Vic (played by Don Johnson) is an absolute moron.  He can’t read.  He’s not very good at thinking.  He has no conscience.  He’s someone who kills and rapes without giving it a second thought.  When Vic isn’t scavenging for food and supplies, he’s obsessing on sex.  When we first meet him, the only thing redeeming about Vic is that almost everyone else in the world is even worse than he is.

That Vic has managed to survive for as long as he has is something of a minor miracle.  Vic has been lucky enough to team up with a dog named Blood.  Blood is not only surprisingly intelligent but he’s also telepathic.  Unfortunately, the same experiment that granted him telepathy also caused him to lose his instinct as a hunter.  So, Blood and Vic have an arrangement.  Vic keeps Blood supplied with food and Blood helps Vic track down women.

Blood’s voice is provided by actor Tim McIntire and, from the minute we first hear him, it becomes obvious that Blood may be cute on the outside but, on the inside, it’s a totally different story.  Blood rarely has a good word for anyone or anything.  He delights in annoying Vic, calling him “Albert” while still demanding that Vic get him food.  He’s a surprisingly well-read dog but you wouldn’t necessarily want to get stuck in a kennel with him.  Much as with Vic, Blood’s only redeeming trait is that everyone else is marginally worse than he is.

(Sadly, if there was an apocalypse like the one that starts this movie, most of the survivors probably would be like Vic.  The only people who would survive something like that would be the people who were solely looking out for themselves.)

A Boy and His Dog is a highly episodic film, following Vic and Blood as they wander across the wasteland and bicker.  They fight other scavengers.  They spend a rather depressing night at a makeshift movie theater.  Eventually, they come across a young woman named Quilla June (Suanne Benton).  Blood dislikes her but Vic says he’s in love.  (Mostly, he’s just excited that he’s now having sex regularly.)  Eventually, through a whole series of events, Vic discovers an underground city named Topeka, where everyone wears clown makeup.  The head of the town (Jason Robards) informs Vic that his sperm will be used to impregnate 35 women.  Vic is excited until he finds out that reproduction in Topeka is a matter of artificial insemination.

(Both the wasteland and Topeka are nightmarish in their own different ways.  The wasteland is world without morality or compassion.  Topeka is a world where everyone looks like a mime, there’s always a marching band, and order is maintained by a robot wearing overalls.)

Of course, while Vic is dealing with life underground, Blood waits above ground.  By the end of the film, Vic is forced to make a choice between settling down or remaining loyal to his dog.  It all leads to a final comment from Blood that will either make you laugh or throw a shoe at your TV.  I did both.

A Boy and His Dog is a strange movie.  It definitely isn’t for everyone.  It’s a comedy but the humor is pitch black.  Still, that strangeness — along with the talent of the dog playing Blood and Tim McIntire’s savagely sarcastic voice work — is what makes the film watchable.  There’s literally no other film like A Boy and His Dog.  By the time Vic ends up in Topeka, the film has become almost a fever dream of apocalyptic paranoia and satire.  The ultimate message of the film appears to be that the apocalypse would really suck so let’s try to not blow each other up.

Who can’t get behind that?

 

A Movie A Day #185: Emperor of the North Pole (1973, directed by Robert Aldrich)


Emperor of the North Pole is the story of depression-era hobos and one man who is determined to kill them.

The year is 1933 and Shack (Ernest Borgnine) is one of the toughest conductors around.  At a time when destitute and desperate men are riding the rails in search of work and food, Shack has declared that no one will ride his train for free.  When Shack is first introduced, the sadistic conductor is seen shoving a hobo off of his train and onto the tracks.  Shack smiles with satisfaction when the man is chopped in half under the train’s wheels.

A-No.1 (Lee Marvin) is a legend, the unofficial king of the hobos.  A grizzled veteran, A-No. 1 has been riding the rails for most of his life.  (The title comes from the hobo saying that great hobos, like A-No. 1, are like the Emperor of the North Pole, the ruler of a vast wasteland).  A-No. 1 is determined to do what no hobo has ever done, successfully hitch a ride on Shack’s train.  He even tags a water tower, announcing to everyone that he intends to take Shack’s train all the way to Portland.

If A-No. 1 did not have enough to worry about with Shack determined to get him, he is also being tailed by Cigaret (Keith Carradine), a young and cocky hobo who is determined to become as big a legend as A-No. 1.  Cigaret and A. No. 1 may work together but they never trust each other.

Like many of Robert Aldrich’s later films, Emperor of the North Pole is too long and the rambling narrative often promises more than it can deliver.  Like almost all movies that were released at the time, Emperor of North Pole attempts to turn its story into a contemporary allegory, with Shack standing in for the establishment, A-No. 1 representing the liberal anti-establishment, and, most problematically, Cigaret serving as a symbol for the callow counter culture, eager to take credit for A-No. 1’s accomplishments but not willing to put in any hard work himself.

As an allegory, Emperor of the North Pole is too heavy-handed but, as a gritty adventure film, it works wonderfully.  Lee Marvin is perfectly cast as the wise, no-nonsense A-No. 1.  This was the sixth film in which Marvin and Borgnine co-starred and the two old pros both go at each other with gusto.  Carradine does the best he can with an underwritten part but this is Borgnine and Marvin’s film all the way.  Marvin’s trademark underacting meshes perfectly with Borgnine’s trademark overacting, with the movie making perfect use of both men’s distinctive screen personas.  As staged by Aldrich, the final fight between Shack and A-No. 1 is a classic.

Even at a time when almost every anti-establishment film of the early 70s is being rediscovered, Emperor of the North Pole remains unjustly obscure.  When it was first released, it struggled at the box office.  Unsure of how to sell a movie about hobos and worrying that audiences were staying away because they thought it might be a Christmas film, 20th Century Fox pulled the movie from circulation and then rereleased it under a slightly altered name: Emperor of the North.  As far as titles go, Emperor of the North makes even less sense than Emperor of the North Pole.  Even with the title change, Emperor of the North Pole flopped at the box office but, fortunately for him, Aldrich was already working on what would become his biggest hit: The Longest Yard.

Keep an eye out for Lance Henriksen, in one of his earliest roles.  Supposedly, he plays a railroad worker.  If you spot him, let me know because I have watched Emperor of the North Pole three times and I still can’t find him.

 

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #36: WUSA (dir by Stuart Rosenberg)


wusaI recently saw the 1970 film WUSA on Movies TV.  After I watched it, I looked Joanne Woodward up on Wikipedia specifically to see where she was born.  I was surprised to discover that she was born and raised in Georgia and that she attended college in Louisiana.

Why was I so shocked?  Because WUSA was set in New Orleans and it featured Joanne Woodward speaking in one of the most worst Southern accents that I had ever heard.  A little over an hour into the film, Woodward’s character says, “What’s all the rhubarb?”  And while “What’s all the rhu…” sounds properly Southern, the “…barb” was pronounced with the type of harshly unpleasant overemphasis on “ar” that has given away many Northern actors trying to sound Southern.  Hence, I was shocked to discover that Joanne Woodward actually was Southern.

That said, her pronunciation of the word rhubarb pretty much summed up every problem that I had with WUSA.  Actually, the real problem was that she said “rhubarb” in the first place.  It came across as being the type of thing that a Northerner who has never actually been down South would think was regularly uttered down here.  And I will admit that WUSA was made 16 years before I was born and so, it’s entirely possible that maybe — way back then — people down South regularly did use the word rhubarb.  But, for some reason, I doubt it.  I know plenty of old Southern people and I’ve never heard a single one of them say anything about rhubarb.

As for WUSA, it’s a long and slow film.  A drifter named Reinhardt (Paul Newman) drifts into New Orleans and, with the help of an old friend who is now pretending to be a priest (Laurence Harvey), Reinhardt gets a job as an announcer at a right-wing radio station.  He reads extremist editorials that he doesn’t agree with and whenever anyone challenges him, he explains that he’s just doing his job and nothing matters anyway.

Reinhardt also gets himself an apartment and spends most of his time smoking weed with long-haired musician types, the exact same people that WUSA regularly denounces as being a threat to the American way.  Living in the same complex is Geraldine (Joanne Woodward), a former prostitute who has a scar on her face and who says stuff like, “What’s all the rhubarb?”  She falls in love with Reinhardt but finds it difficult to ignore what he does for a living.

Meanwhile, Geraldine has another admirer.  Rainey (Anthony Perkins) is an idealistic and neurotic social worker who is regularly frustrated by his efforts to do good in the world.  Reinhardt makes fun of him.  The local crime boss (Moses Gunn) manipulates him.  And WUSA infuriates him.  When Rainey realizes that WUSA is a part of a plot to elect an extremist governor, Rainey dresses up like a priest and starts carrying around a rifle.

Meanwhile, Reinhardt has been assigned to serve as emcee at a huge patriotic rally.  With Geraldine watching from the audience and Rainey wandering around the rafters with his rifle, Reinhardt is finally forced to take a stand about the people that he works for.

Or maybe he isn’t.

To be honest, WUSA is such a mess of a film that, even after the end credits roll, it’s difficult to figure out whether Reinhardt took a stand or not.

Anyway, WUSA is not a lost masterpiece and I really wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.  The film’s too long, there’s too many scenes of characters repeating the same thing over and over again, and neither Newman nor Woodward are particularly memorable.  (You know a movie is boring when even Paul Newman seems like a dullard.)  On the plus side, Anthony Perkins gives such a good performance that I didn’t once think about the Psycho shower scene while watching him.

As boring as WUSA is, I have to admit that I’m a little bit surprised that it hasn’t been rediscovered.  Considering that it’s about a right-wing radio station, I’m surprised that there haven’t been hundreds of pretentious think pieces trying to make the connection between WUSA and Fox News.  But, honestly, even if those think pieces were out there, it probably wouldn’t do much for WUSA‘s repuation.  According to the film’s Wikipedia page, Paul Newman called it, “the most significant film I’ve ever made and the best.”  Paul Newman’s opinion aside, WUSA is pretty dire.