This week on TCM Underground: The Born Losers (1967) and The Glory Stompers (1967)

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Turner Classic Movies comes roaring back into town this weekend after an absence of 400 weeks (well, feels like) with a rip-snortin’ double feature of 60s biker films that will make you want to hit the open road or hit somebody in the face while wearing dirty jeans and a Devil-may-care grin. Inspired by a pair of high profile 1964 news items — the slaying of New York bar manager Kitty Genovese and the Hells Angels intimidation of teen rape victims in Monterey — THE BORN LOSERS was the first movie to feature the character of Native American ass-kicker Billy Jack. Conceived and self-financed by actor Tom Laughlin (who would reprise the character in three more films, most notably 1971′s BILLY JACK) and his wife Delores Taylor, THE BORN LOSERS ran through its $150,000 budget mid-production and was rescued only through the intercession of Samuel Arkoff of American International Pictures, who put up $300,000 in finishing funds. THE BORN LOSERS would be AIP’s biggest moneymaker until THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979) but its box office success cuts the film little slack with cult film fans for whom BILLY JACK, THE TRIAL OF BILLY JACK (1974) and BILLY JACK GOES TO WASHINGTON  (1977) err on the side of preachy bloviation and subpar martial arts. Assessed on its own merits, however, THE BORN LOSERS has aged remarkably well at the distance of nearly 50 years. A central concern with the value of family haunts the script, which opens not with the eponymous outlaw biker gang riding into a strange town to wreak havoc but rather returning to the hometown of leader Danny Carmody (Jeremy Slate), with whom ex-Green Beret Billy has some past history of unnamed grievances. Although he is the villain of the piece, Danny is nicely shaded as a charismatic group leader, surprisingly slow to retaliate against a teen driver whose VW bug bumps his bike until the idiot unwisely lips off; later, Danny saves his kid brother from a beating by their brutish father and is also shown to keep a wife and son in a conventional (and seemingly happy) suburban home. However sociopathic to a man, the Losers represent the film’s only functional family while Billy Jack and sardonic heroine Vicky Barrington (Elizabeth James, spending half the film in an Ursula Andress white bikini) are depicted as alienated, disenfranchised, going it alone and suffering for it. However heroically etched, Billy has given up on life and it takes the Born Losers to draw him out.

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Dennis Hopper was well on his way to becoming a New Hollywood auteur when he signed on to play the leader of an outlaw biker gang in THE GLORY STOMPERS (1967), shot two years before his breakthrough as the writer-director of EASY RIDER (1969). By Hopper’s own account, his micromanagement of what should have been an easy two-week shoot, his insistence as the film’s star on multiple retakes, and his need to oversee every aspect of his performance drove first-time director Anthony Lanza to a nervous breakdown… resulting in Hopper taking it upon himself to finish the film. Made on the heels of Roger Corman’s THE WILD ANGELS(1966) – which had featured Hopper’s EASY RIDER costar Peter Fonda - THE GLORY STOMPERS is little more than a western retrofit for Harleys, with Hopper and his MC crew kidnapping another biker’s girl and the requisite pursuit of the bad guys (The Black Souls) by the good guys (the eponymous Stompers, fronted by Jody McCrea and former movie Tarzan Jock Mahoney) stretching out over hundreds of miles of Southern California blacktop into the Mexican high desert. Writing in The New York Times in March 1968, critic Howard Thompson derided THE GLORY STOMPERS as “just about rock bottom, with two groups of filthy, lecherous young animals… warring against each other, with time out for orgies.” Thompson’s condemnation was a veritable welcome mat for the drive-in and grindhouse trade, who turned the grimy little $100,000 programmer into a $3.5 million succes.

Don’t be a square… tune in to TCM Underground at 11pm PST/2am EST Saturday night.

Past Lives: The She-Creature (1956)

she_creature_poster_02In 1956 the hip new fad was past life regression, thanks to the story of Bridey Murphy. In Colorado, amateur hypnotist Morey Bernstein had been experimenting his craft with Virginia Mae Morrow, who claimed to have died in Ireland in 1864, when she was known as Bridey Murphy. The story was reported in the Denver Post, and then published as a best-selling book authored by Bernstein in 1956, The Search for Bridey Murphy. It was briefly on everybody’s lips, with the New York Times reporting, “there were Bridey Murphy parties (‘come as you were’) and Bridey Murphy jokes (parents greeting newborns with ‘Welcome back’).”  Hollywood wanted to cash-in on the craze while it was still relevant, so Paramount rushed their official adaptation of The Search for Bridey Murphy, starring Teresa Wright, into production. It was released on October 1st of 1956. American International Pictures worked a little quicker, cranking their past life regression monster movie The She-Creature (1956) out in nine days, and getting it into theaters on July 25th. Though beset by casting troubles and budget restrictions, The She-Creature manages to create an atmosphere of voluptuous dread, aided by Paul Blaisdell’s insectoid creature design and efficient direction from bargain basement king Edward L. Cahn.

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What I Learned from Summer Under the Stars

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Summer Under the Stars concludes today with the entire day devoted to the films of Shelley Winters. I thought I would look back on this month’s programming and ruminate on what I have learned as well as to make note of my favorite films. I invite readers to comment on their favorite moments from Summer Under the Stars and note any disappointments. Perhaps, TCM will take the feedback into consideration when programming next year’s August schedule. I am curious about which stars, films, and details appealed to regular TCM viewers, and if there are suggestions for the future; I am always impressed with the knowledge and perspectives of the TCM readers.

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The Ten Year Star Block

Recently, I was having a conversation online about the curious way that people tend to listen to musicians in ten year blocks.  Bob Dylan has done continuous and extensive composing from the early sixties through to today.  Paul McCartney, the same.  Springsteen, same, except up by one decade.  And yet most people, even their fans, know most of what they did in the first decade and little after.  It’s not that what they did after isn’t known, it is, but that the first ten years kind of set the mold for what was to follow, fair or not.  Shift to any other art and you’ll pretty much find the same thing, including the movies, and within them, movie actors or, as we call them around here, stars.  Stars are defined, whether they like it or not, by their first ten years of popularity (that popularity may begin five years into their career, ten years, or in the first year).  Today’s day on TCM belongs to Gary Cooper.  He won two Oscars for Best Actor, for the years 1941 and 1952 and made movies from the silents all the way into the sixties (just barely) and yet, if you asked me to reduce Cooper’s career to a ten year block, I’d choose 1933 to 1943.  All the signals tell me that’s the decade for him.  Whether he did good work in other years doesn’t really matter: That’s the ten year block that defines his career.

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August 29, 2015
David Kalat
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Go, Miss Mend, Go!

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but in TCM’s program descriptions, every single silent film shown is described with “In this silent film, …” as a sort of talismanic warning: Abandon All Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.

The presumption is clear: silent films are slow, they’re old, they’re in B&W, they’re silent.  Better warn people so no one turns in unsuspecting.

Of course, the bias is absurd.  Practically everything TCM shows is old and B&W, and most of it is slow–by modern standards, surely.  If you’re watching this channel, you’ve already signed up for a different pace and style to contemporary filmmaking.  So why the fear of silents?  Especially when there are such mad gems as the 1926 Soviet Russian serial Miss Mend, a cliffhanger-driven pulp adventure in the Fantomas vein.  Last week we talked about Arsene Lupin–if you enjoy that, this is up your alley too.

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Mundane Action: Vital, Important, Captivating

Today on TCM, a celebration of Ingrid Bergman will bring us many of the cinematic legend’s greatest films as well as some lesser known ones.  Early in the day, her first film after exiting Hollywood, Stromboli, airs and it contains one of my favorite scenes in any movie of the decade.  That scene comes when the fishermen of the island of Stromboli gather to net tuna for the village.  The scene actually is of them catching tuna using a centuries old method of corralling tuna into a central area where a net at the bottom is raised up from underneath the tuna and they are hooked and dragged into a long boat.  Simply watching this five minute sequence, apart from the rest of the film, is something I can and have done on multiple occasions.  It’s a fascinating detail about the lives of the islanders and the fact that it is shown in long, uninterrupted detail is a part of what fascinates me.  As I grow older, I find myself drawn into moments and scenes in movies where something detailed but undramatic plays out.  Actually more than undramatic, mundane.  Mundane action, done right, can be the most captivating part of any cinematic experience.

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Closing Act: Shelley Winters

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TCM’s Summer Under the Stars programming ends on August 31st with a bang featuring a batch of movies starring Shelley Winters. The blond, boozy, ballsy and brash starlet is one of my favorite actresses and on Monday you can watch her ignite the small screen in a number of notable roles, including her Oscar winning turn as a bigoted and abusive mother in A PATCH OF BLUE (1965).

To celebrate Winters’s reign as Summer Under Stars closing act I thought I’d share some of the glamorous vintage advertisements she modeled for early in her career featuring the powerhouse performer selling everything from lipstick to beer. Shelley Winters may have been one of the greatest actors of her generation but much like her costar Barbara Stanwyck in EXECUTIVE SUITE (1954)also airing on TCM this coming Sunday!the streetwise dame wasn’t ashamed to pitch products to her adoring public if it put money in the bank.

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Some days it all comes down to a single picture

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I can’t tell you how happy this picture makes me… but damned if I won’t try.

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Dreamlife: Shattered Image (1998)

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It has been four years since the Chilean director/mesmerist Raul Ruiz left this mortal coil, but it will take eternities to assess his work, comprising over one hundred features and shorts of labyrinthine, shape-shifting narratives. Of all of his oddball projects Shattered Image (1998) might be the oddest. It was his first film made with American producers, a dreamlike erotic thriller starring William Baldwin and Anne Parillaud (playing off her La Femme Nikita image). The production, which shot in Vancouver and Jamaica, was reportedly fraught, with Ruiz and DP Robby Muller clashing with the rest of the crew, who were used to the formula of TV movie productions. The resulting film is a curious mix of Ruiz-ian reverie and the gauzy softcore sleaze you’d find on late night Cinemax. Though not a movie with the same oneiric pull as Ruiz’s City of Pirates (1983), it remains stubbornly representative of his work, combining as it does the pulp narratives he loved as a child with the dream logic central to all of his films. As J. Hoberman wrote upon its opening in the prestige picture season of 1998 (against A Bug’s Life and the Psycho remake), “part of the movie’s pleasure is imagining an entire multiplex audience looking around at each other and wondering, “What the f**k?”

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Grab Your Tux and Let’s Go Clubbing

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Between Capitolfest and TCM’s focus on stars from the 1930s, I have discovered a newfound love for films from the Depression era. Among the many reasons for this recent interest is the imaginative, almost dream-like quality to some of the production design. I don’t know a lot about Golden Age production designers beyond recognizable names such as Cedric Gibbons and Hans Dreier, but I am beginning to understand the connection between their set designs and the overall tone or ambiance in films from this time frame.

Some of my favorite set designs are of nightclubs. Nightclubs and speakeasies boomed in America during the late 1920s, boosted by Prohibition and the liberation of women after securing the right to vote. Though clubs were regularly raided, many survived the end of Prohibition to become successful in the 1930s. Famous clubs like the Rainbow Room or the Park Avenue Club boasted elegant interiors by well-known designers, but the majority merely adopted gimmicky decorative styles to help them stand out from other clubs.

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