Film Review: L.A. 2017 (dir by Steven Spielberg)


L.A. 2017 is the Steven Spielberg film about which you’ve probably never heard.

To a certain extent, that’s understandable.  Spielberg was only 24 when, in 1971, he directed L.A. 2017.  It was a film that he directed for television.  In fact, it was only his third directorial assignment.  As opposed to the huge budgets that we tend to associate with a typical Spielberg production, L.A. 2017 was made for about $300,000.  The entire film was shot in about 12 days.  In fact, with a running time of only a scant 69 minutes, L.A. 2017 hardly qualifies as a feature-length film.  L.A. 2017 has never been released on DVD or Blu-ray, making it a true oddity in Spielberg’s filmography.  Despite the fact that Spielberg has credited L.A. 2017 with opening a lot of doors for him, it’s an almost totally forgotten film.

Of course, some of that is because L.A. 2017 really isn’t a film at all.  Instead, it was an episode of a television show called The Name of the Game.  The show was about Glenn Howard (Gene Barry), a magazine publisher, and the reporters who worked for him.  L.A. 2017 was unique in that it was the show’s only excursion into science fiction.  In fact, from everything that I’ve read about the show, it appears that L.A. 2017 was nothing like any of the other episodes of The Name of the Game.  This episode was also unique because Spielberg directed it as if he was making a feature, as opposed to just another installment in a weekly series.  If not for the opening credits (which announce, among other things, that we’re watching a Robert Stack Production), one could easily imagine watching L.A. 2017 in a movie theater, perhaps as a double feature with Beneath The Planet Of The Apes.

L.A. 2017 opens with Glenn driving down a mountain road in California.  He’s heading to a pollution summit and, as he drives along, he awkwardly dictates an editorial into a tape recorder.  Glenn worries that society may have already ruined the environment to such an extent that the Earth cannot be saved.  As if to prove his point, Glenn starts to cough as he’s overcome by all of the smog in the air.  His car swerves into a ditch and Glenn is knocked unconscious.

Welcome to the future

When he wakes up, he finds himself being rescued by men wearing wearing protective suits and masks.  The sky is a sickly orange and an ominous wind howls in the background.  Glenn’s rescuers take him to an underground city where he discovers that, somehow, he has traveled through time.  The year is now 2017, which in this film looks a lot like the 70s except that everyone’s now underground and the landline phones are extra bulky.  (Needless to say, watching 1971’s version of 2017 in 2019 is an interesting experience.)  It turns out that the pollution got so bad that the surface of the planet became uninhabitable.  The U.S. is now run by a corporation that is headquartered in Detroit.  (Presumably, the Corporation is a former car company.)  The U.S. is also at war with England, for some reason.  No mention is made about what’s happened to Canada but, if Detroit’s still around, I assume at least some of Canada managed to survive as well.

The …. uh, Future.

Everyone in the future drinks a lot of milk and, when they’re not listening to cheerful announcements, they’re listening to the soothing music that the Corporation provides for them.  Everyone in the future is also very friendly.  We know this because everyone keeps assuring Glenn that he’s surrounded by friends.  In fact, everyone in the future refers to one another by their first name because “it’s friendlier.”  It’s also the law.  It turns out that there’s a lot of laws in the future.  In fact, the underground cities are pretty fascist in the way that they handle things.  There are constant announcements encouraging people to pursue a career in law enforcement and anyone who disagrees with the Corporation ends up in a straight jacket.  Glenn feels that maybe he’s been brought to the future so he can start a new magazine and challenge the status quo.  The Corporation disagrees….

This is what happens when you don’t go underground in the future.

Okay, so there’s nothing subtle about L.A. 2017.  From the villainous corporation to the heavy-handed environmental message, there’s nothing here that you haven’t seen in dozens of other sci-fi films.  But the lack of subtlety doesn’t matter, largely because Spielberg directs with so much energy and with such an eye to detail that it’s impossible not to get sucked into the story.  As opposed to the somewhat complacent Spielberg who has recently given us rather bland and safe blockbusters like Lincoln, The BFG, and The Post, the Spielberg who directed L.A. 2017 was young and obviously eager to show off what he could do with even a low budget and that enthusiasm is present in every frame, from the wide-angle shots of Glenn driving his car to the scenes of Glenn looking up at the shadowy executives and scientists who are staring down at him when he’s first brought to the underground city.  As opposed to the sterile vision of so many other future-set films, Spielberg’s future feels as if it’s actually been lived in.  When Glenn finds himself in a new world, it comes across as being a real world as opposed to just a narrative contrivance.

Of course, because L.A. 2017 was just one episode in a weekly series, Glenn couldn’t remain in the future and L.A. 2017 returns Glenn to the present in the most contrived and predictable way possible.  Still, L.A. 2017 remains an entertaining example of what a young and talented director can do when he’s determined to be recognized.  Watching the film, it’s easy to draw a straight line from Spielberg doing L.A. 2017 to doing Duel and then subsequently being hired for Jaws.

Incidentally, Joan Crawford is somewhere in this film.  Crawford worked with Spielberg when he directed her in the pilot for Night Gallery and she was one of his first major supporters in Hollywood.  Apparently, in L.A. 2017, she plays one of the people staring down at Glenn when he’s first brought into the underground city.  I haven’t found her yet but she’s apparently there somewhere.

Unfortunately, L.A. 2017 has never been released on DVD or Blu-ray but it is currently available on YouTube.

Grandma Guignol: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE (Warner Bros 1962)


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Joan Crawford  and Bette Davis had been Hollywood stars forever by the time they filmed WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?. Davis was now 54 years old, Crawford 58, and both stars were definitely on the wane when they teamed for this bizarre Robert Aldrich movie, the first (and arguably best) of what has become know as the “Grand Dame Guignol” (or “psycho-biddy”) genre.

Bette is Baby Jane Hudson, a washed-up former vaudeville child star with a fondness for booze, while Joan plays her sister Blanche, a movie star of the 30’s permanently paralyzed in a car accident allegedly caused by Jane. The two live together in a run-down old house, both virtual prisoners trapped in time and their own minds. Blanche wants to sell the old homestead and send Jane away for treatment, but Jane, jealous of her sister’s new-found popularity via her televised old films, descends further into alcoholism…

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Repent, Ye Sinners!: STRANGE CARGO (MGM 1940)


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Any film condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency can’t be all bad!  STRANGE CARGO depicts a bunch of hardened, unrepentant criminals escaping a brutal French Guiana prison, with a prostitute in tow to boot, and is laced with plenty of lascivious sex and brutal violence. But that wasn’t all the self-appointed guardians of morality objected to… there was the character of Cambreau who, though the film doesn’t come right out and say it, supposedly represents none other than Jesus Christ himself!

One more time: Clark & Joan

Clark Gable and Joan Crawford , in their eighth and final film together, lead this pack of sinners through a sweltering jungle of lust, murder, and ultimately redemption. He’s a con named Verne, “a thief by profession”, whose several attempts at escape have proved unsuccessful. She’s Julie, a two-bit hooker plying her trade on the island. The pair, as always, crackle like…

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Halloween Havoc!: Joan Crawford in STRAIT-JACKET! (Columbia 1964)


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It’s time once again to revisit Joan Crawford’s later-day career as a horror star, and this one’s a pretty good shocker. STRAIT-JACKET! was Joan’s follow-up to WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, the first in the “Older Women Do Horror” genre (better known by the detestable moniker “Psycho-Biddy Movies”). Here she teams for the first time with veteran producer/director William Castle , starring as an axe murderess released after twenty years in an insane asylum, becoming the prime suspect when people begin to get hacked to bits again.

The film itself begins with a 1940’s prolog depicting the gruesome events that occurred when Lucy Harbin (Joan) catches her husband (Lee Majors in his uncredited film debut) in bed with another woman. Joan, all dolled up to resemble her MILDRED PIERCE-era self, grabs the nearest axe and CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! goes hubby and his squeeze into itsy-bitsy pieces. The act is witnessed…

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Pre Code Confidential #12: Joan Crawford in DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE (MGM 1931)


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MGM co-starred Joan Crawford and Clark Gable for the first time with their 1931 gangland saga DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE. Well, not exactly co-starring; 27-year-old Joan was already a screen veteran and a star, while 30-year-old newcomer Gable was billed sixth in this, his third picture (not counting his extra work). Regardless of billing, the pair had a definite sexual dynamic between them onscreen (and offscreen as well, if you know your Hollywood history), and the studio would team them again in seven more films.

Joan is carefree Chicago socialite Bonnie Jordan, with a twit of a boyfriend (Lester Vail) and a wastrel brother named Roddy (William Bakewell) who’s got a penchant for booze. When the stock market crashes and their Pop croaks on the exchange floor, the kids are left with neither money or marketable skills. Bonnie’s upper-crust boyfriend Bob offers to do the honorable thing and marry her, but that horrified look on her face says it all! Rejecting the twit, Bonnie’s determined…

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Halloween Havoc!: Joan Crawford in BERSERK (Columbia 1967)


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Last year I looked at Joan Crawford’s final film  TROG  during “Halloween Havoc” month, where she played an anthropologist.  This time around, Joan stars in her first movie for schlockmeister Herman Cohen, BERSERK, in which she’s in a more believable role as a circus owner/ringmaster whose big top is plagued by a series of gruesome murders.

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The film starts off with the grisly death of high wire artist Gaspar the Great, whose tightrope breaks, causing him to die from hanging. Frank Hawkins, better known as The Magnificent Hawkins, arrives soon after and replaces Gaspar with his own death-defying act, walking the tightrope while blindfolded over a row of steel spikes. Circus owner Monica Rivers loves the publicity from Gaspar’s demise, which turns off her lover/business partner Durando. Soon Monica takes up with Frank, and Durando winds up with a spike driven through his head!

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The circus acts think there’s a madman among them…

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee and It’s Damn Important: The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (dir by Charles Reisner)


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Last night, I really needed a break from thinking about this stupid, asinine presidential election that we have coming up here in the U.S.  Fortunately, TCM provided me with one by showing The Hollywood Revue of 1929!

The Hollywood Revue of 1929 is probably one of the most obscure film to ever be nominated for best picture.  It’s a plotless collection of songs and comedy bits, all performed by actors who were under contract to MGM.  In fact, the movie might be best described as a two-hour commercial for MGM.  The message of the film seems to be: “Now that movies have sound, look what MGM can do!”

With the exception of Greta Garbo and Lon Chaney, every MGM star makes an appearance in Hollywood Revue.  Everyone sings a song and does a dance, even if some of them are better singers and dancers than others.  The revue is hosted by Conrad Nagel (who looks very dapper in a tux but still seems to be strangely uncomfortable with his hosting duties) and Jack Benny (who plays his violin and gets annoyed every time he’s interrupted by an MGM stock player).  Joan Crawford (who Nagal describes as being “one of my favorites”) sings, “Got A Feeling For You,” and she may be off-key but you can’t help but appreciate the fact that she’s doing her best.  Buster Keaton does a dance.  Laurel and Hardy perform a magic act that doesn’t go very well.  Marion Davies does a tribute to the military and I’m sure that, somewhere, William Randolph Hearst was smiling.  Chorus girls sit in the background and smile at the camera and, as someone who knows what it’s like to be in the chorus, I enjoyed watching as a few of the smarter and braver ones attempted to steal the audience’s attention away from the headliners.

At one point, Jack Benny reached into his suit jacket and revealed that a miniature version of actress Bessie Love was apparently living in the pocket.  He held Bessie in the palm of his hand and proceeded to have a conversation with her and all I could think about was the end of Mulholland Drive, when that tiny old couple cornered Naomi Watts in her apartment.  When Benny placed Bessie on the ground, she grew to normal height and sang a song.

During the second half of the film, silent screen star John Gilbert plays the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, opposite Norma Shearer.  First he does it in Shakespeare’s words and then he does it again in 1929 language.  Lionel Barrymore directs them.  Interestingly enough, Shearer (who was married to The Hollywood Revue‘s producer, Irving Thalberg) would later play Juliet in 1936’s Romeo and Juliet.  Barrymore, though best remembered as Mr. Potter from It’s A Wonderful Life, actually was a prominent film director in 1929 and would even invent the boom mic.  As for Gilbert, legend has it that the Hollywood Revue was the first time that audiences actually heard him speak and they were so unimpressed with his voice that his career ended.  Having now seen Gilbert speak — well, he didn’t have the greatest or sexiest voice but he still sounded better than Jean Hagen did in Singin’ In The Rain.

Speaking of Singin’ In the Rain, that song was specifically written for Hollywood Revue!  The entire cast sings it at the end of the film.

Seen today, there’s something charming about how old-fashioned and corny The Hollywood Revue is.  I imagine that some people will laugh at it but, honestly, it’s still more entertaining than that stupid live version of The Sound of Music that they put on TV two years ago.  The Hollywood Revue is basically the classic film equivalent of a high school talent show, where everyone does their best and a good deal of the charm comes from seeing how silly it all is.  If you love TCM, you’ll enjoy seeing all the Golden Age performers trying to do their best.  If you don’t love TCM, then go to Hell.

The Hollywood Revue is usually listed as being a nominee for best picture.  Actually, the truth is a little bit more complicated.  For the 2nd annual Academy Awards, there were no nominees.  Instead, the awards were determined by a select committee and only the winners were announced.  Much like the Cannes Film Festival, no film received more than one award.  Broadway Melody (which starred Hollywood Revue‘s Bessie Love) was named best picture.

However, notes were kept of the committee’s meeting and those notes indicate that Hollywood Revue was considered as a possible pick for best picture.  Hence, Hollywood Revue is considered to be a best picture nominee even though there were no official nominees that year.

Anyway, if you’re a classic film lover, keep an eye out for Hollywood Revue the next time that it shows up on TCM!