Horror nigh…

“I’d rather sit on the couch all day and watch Turner Classic Movies.” – George Romero, as quoted by Nathan Lee in his article “Videocam of the Dead” in the September 19-25, 2007, Village Voice)

It’s Halloween today. My favorite “holiday” (in quotes because “work” doesn’t let me take the day off). I’m half-tempted to call in sick just to try to catch up on all the recent horror films that I haven’t had a chance to see. Much like George, I wouldn’t mind spending my day on the couch watching movies. Since I’m fortunate enough to program my own venue as part of my job, I’m able to top off whatever I can squeeze in on dvd at home with a field-trip excursion to see Ingmar Bergman’s only horror film, The Hour of the Wolf (1968), in 35mm later tonight at 9pm. But before that I want to be around for the early evening to take in the early parade of costumes and trick-or-treaters as I make myself comfortable at home with friends watching something appropriate for the night.

Hour of the Wolf

So this afternoon I’m left with the question: when I leave from work today, what should I get for my friends coming over tonight? Since we’re already topping things off with a classic by Ingmar Bergman, I’ll want to balance that off with something recent for our first feature.

Perhaps Black Sheep (2006) the wacky film about killer lambs from New Zealand? Or… I’ve always had a soft spot for John Cusack, and still haven’t seen 1408 (2007) – but I tend to feel cheated by PG-13 horror films. I’m a big fan of director David Fincher and my attempt at seeing Zodiac (2007) in the theater was torpedoed by technical difficulties at the multi-plex. On a more literary front, I was so taken by Patrick Süskind’s book, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, that I even tried to read it in its original German language (Das Parfum: Die Geschichte eines Mörders) – a noble effort cut short by my own limitations with the language. When the movie version came out in 2006, directed by Tom Tykwer, the man behind Run, Lola, Run (1998), I was convinced it would be a big hit. But, no, it sank so fast at the box office that it never saw the light of day in some areas, including my own. I also thought Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever (2002) was a hoot and, as a big Youth Hostel-hopping man in my early days, was interested in seeing Hostel: Part II (2007). And the list of recent and now-available-on-dvd titles goes on and on.

Black Sheep

Speaking of Eli Roth, I read his recent recommendations for horror films in the latest Onion. It’s a decent excursion into the pantheon of relatively recent horror films that mattered to him. They are: The Thing (1982), Zombie (1979), The Vanishing (1988), Pieces (1982), The Wicker Man (1973), Who Can Kill A Child (1976), Eraserhead (1977), Suspiria (1977), Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Toby Dammit (1968), Evil Dead (1981), Audition (1999), and Torso (1973). For the full interview (which includes YouTube clips), go to:

http://www.avclub.com/content/feature/24_hours_of_horror_with_eli/3

Torso

Speaking of horror-film lists, one of my favorites is from a book I’ve referenced before: Horror Writers on Horror Film: Cut! These are listed, specifically, in a chapter by Stanley Wiater called “Disturbo 13: The Most Disturbing Horror Films Ever Made.” On his list: 1) Salo, the 120 Days of Sodom (1977), 2) Man Behind the Sun (1988), 3) I Spit on Your Grave (1980), 4) Bloodsucking Freaks (1977), 5) Last House on the Left (1972), 6) Maniac (1980), 7) Cannibal Holocaust (1979), 8) Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), 9) In a Glass Cage (1986), 10) Nekromantik (1988), 11) Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1975), 12) Combat Shock (1986), and 13) Eraserhead (1978).

Combat Shock

Aside for two titles, there’s no overlap between these two lists. I have to say that Wiater’s list makes Roth’s choices look like a Disneyland ride by comparison, which makes sense since the key word in his list is “disturbing.” Wiater gets special kudos for mentioning Combat Shock, a completely overlooked and forgotten film that has a combination of relentless misery and no-budget sincerity that strips it of any artifice that might make warfare (or its after-effects) look cool in any way. This is hard to do, because warfare is, by nature, visually gripping to passive viewers. Apocalypse Now (1979) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) are both undeniably powerful works of art. But they’re both so good at what they do that they can’t help but add to the iconic nature of that which they are criticizing, and thereby romanticize it somewhat. Not so with Combat Shock. Nope. It’s all one bad ride that just keeps getting worse, and it makes even the most passive viewer understand how a grim end might seem like the only alternative when faced with a life of trauma. Speaking of trauma, any cat lovers out there are warned: never see Man Behind the Sun. You know that little disclaimer at the end of most American films letting you know that no animals were harmed? That will not pop up at the end of this horrific bit of Chinese celluloid to comfort you.

Twitch of the Death Nerve

My own Halloween list? It would have the usual suspects, seen in countless other lists, starting with the classics that I saw as a kid as well as stuff I got into in high school, college, and beyond. To rattle off but a few that are a tad off the beaten track: Five Million Years to Earth (1967), Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971), The Hatchet Murders (1975), Tetsuo (1989), and Memento (2000). And, yes, I know the last one usually gets shuffled under a different genre, but it really got under my skin and rattled my nerves. Come to think of it, so did The Age of Innocence (1993) – no joke. The way lives were ruined by gossip and stiff decorum in that film was as unsettling to me as the idea of living among the pod people in The Body Snatchers (any version). The last two films provide, to my mind, examples of why the horror genre is much maligned, since horror can be found in many great works of art and in many different forms. The fact that the horror genre is generally aimed at “the masses” is simply an added bonus that gives it the potential to deliver its message to a younger and sometimes wider audience. Or not. Certainly most of the aforementioned titles are pretty niche. But the box office leader last weekend was Saw IV, so it can cut both ways. (I have not seen Saw IV yet so can lay no claims as to whether it does anything intelligent. If it alerts people to the loss of Habeaus Corpus or provides parallels to government torture well, all power to it.)

Tetsuo

I’ll end with the image that gave me my first nightmare. I was four years old. I remember it clearly. I was trapped in a flooded basement. The walls were made of stone, so it was clearly a very old house. I was on a step-ladder and pressed up against a swinging latch-door in the ceiling – the only exit. It was stuck. The cold water was at my ankles and rising. There was only one light bulb – not very bright – casting shadows in the space around me. I knew I wasn’t alone and repeated my efforts at opening the stuck door above my head. Suddenly I saw something rise out of the water. It was a long and black stove-pipe hat. And then I saw the face under the hat: it was as white as a corpse with bulging eyes and shark-like teeth twisted into a skull-like grin. It haunted me for years until I finally saw what it belonged to in an old movie book with full-page stills. It was Lon Chaney from London After Midnight (1927).

London After Midnight

A Member of the Club: Henry Daniell Part I

The following is an imagined occasion involving a purely fictionalized rendering of certain very familiar classic movie actors. No offense or disrespect is implied or intended. On the contrary, this article is meant to convey some fraction of the respectful affection engendered in audiences since these hardworking gentlemen first stepped before a camera.

The setting: The exterior of a London street in Autumn, shrouded in fog.
The outside of formal townhouse, not unlike 221b Baker Street, is barely visible through the mist.

The Time: Oct. 31st.
Fade in: An interior, wood-paneled room in the house, with a long rectangular mahogany table and several Chippendale chairs surrounding it. At the head of the table is a gavel and an hourglass filled with sand. Next to that is mounted a large Oxford English Dictionary. The table is covered in green baize and has pens, paper, and a crystal decanter filled with brandy on a tray with several glasses surrounding it. A flickering fire in the hearth provides a minimum of illumination in the dark room and warms the reception as the guests begin to file in.

The invitations had gone out. The RSVPs had been received and the acceptances came in from Professor Moriarty, the Baron de Varville, Lord Wolfingham, the infamous and fatuous Hynkel’s right hand man, Garbitsch, Minister Von Ribbentrop, Henry Brocklehurst, and Dr. Wolfe ‘Toddy’ MacFarlane. One would think that such a multitudinous—and sinister—bunch would fill the room and all the chairs. Yet at this Halloween party, only one man would have to arrive to bring this distinguished if rather forbidding bunch together: Henry Daniell. [...MORE]

The Cape (and How to Use It)

The Caped CrusaderWhen I was 5 or 6, I went through a brief superhero period. Inspired by the TV series Batman, I clothes-pinned a bath towel to my neck, donned a red baseball cap (for some reason that eludes me now) and “flew” around our cottage on the shores of Connecticut’s Lake Alexander, looking for good to do. That Christmas, I got a generic superhero costume, which consisted of a plastic face mask/cowl and a plastic cape, an ensemble to which I added a pair of red mittens. At some point thereafter, maybe during the long winter, I lost the mask and the mittens but I kept the cape for some time and, when said cape wore out (as capes will through overuse) replaced it. You still see me wearing one cape or another in family pictures. By then, Batman was off the air and our family had moved to our own house in a less populated rural area. Lots of trees and shadows, nobody around and lots of time for brooding. In a cape, of course.

The Caped Grue-saderI hadn’t yet found horror but there was something latent there, no doubt part of my Polish bloodline. A couple of years later, I discovered issue 84 of Famous Monsters of Filmland on the racks of Dowe’s Stationery Store – a creaky old (at that point just over a century) stationers on Main Street in Danielson, Connecticut. That was the spark that started my fire. Famous Monsters carried me from late night broadcasts of Classic Horror and Simon’s Sanctorum to a lifelong obsession with all things monsterish, right up to the present day, in which I pitch my horror screenplays to companies like Lionsgate, Fox Atomic and Fangoria, and I dress my children up as ghouls. My Mother, who visited us over the past week, just shakes her head.

Vayda de la nocheI don’t know if my kids will like monsters as much as I do and it’s okay if they don’t, but they see so many of them in their own home that they’re not scared by them. Fangs, talons and neck bolts don’t throw them. I would never show my kids anything too rough but they’ve seen a few Universal monster rallies and Val Lewton chillers. At The Descanso Gardens “Pumpkinpalooza” this past weekend, an older kid in a nicely detailed werewolf costume scared some of the littler children to tears but my 2-year-old daughter (in her faerie wings) wasn’t at all fazed and may even have said hello. At night, if you go into her room to check on her and she’s still awake, Vayda is likely to poke her head out of the covers and say “Boo!” Saying “Boo!” to my son Victor makes him laugh. We like to keep the fear up in this family, as a way of readying our kids to face the world. They will grow up with the understanding that a black cape is good for dodging angry mobs and, if necessary, taking wing across the night sky. Plus, a black cape goes with everything, we’ve found.

Monsters have a place in our home and in our hearts. Tomorrow is Halloween. Treat the monsters who come calling like you’d treat your own and we’ll all get through this horrorshow we call life.

Carry On!

Frankenstein's Daughter Carrying a WomanSeveral of my fellow Morlocks have recently related some of their favorite spooky movies and related topics to commemorate Halloween.  I stumbled upon this particular subject while researching something else, but it’s just too good to ignore.  Did you ever think much about scenes in movies where monsters — here’s our Halloween connection — carry beautiful (of course!) women around?  Well, maybe YOU haven’t, but lots of fellas have, and though it’s no doubt a genuine fetish of sorts, it’s completely fascinating and an intriguing sociological study.  And the images are amazing!

If you’re at all a fan of B-Movies, then you’ve probably seen so many of these images that you hardly notice them anymore.  However, take a gander at posters for the genre and you’ll realize how imbued with the monsters-carrying-women theme it is.  A lot of this obsession with babes-in-arms is strictly damsel in King Kong poster with Kong carrying Ann Darrowdistress-ville, a literary and artistic trope that appeals on countless levels, not the least of which is the basic man+woman relationship.  And if big man carries helpless/overcome woman, then all the better for the hero to feel heroic about it and the woman to feel well and truly saved. 

With B-Movies, if it’s a monster who’s doing the carrying the whole hero thing gets tossed on its head, and it’s Detail from Day the Earth Stood Still Posterdoubly scary and effective, isn’t it?  The classic rescue pose gets perverted into a monstrous abduction — and possibly worse! — scenario, all the better to get movie audiences, especially impressionable teens and thrill-seekers, into the seats.  Beautiful women apparently were in constant danger from a steady stream of robots, aliens, mummies, and the occasional mutant human who were ready to snatch these lovelies up, once they had fainted dead away, of course. 

As a robot and monster fan, I really love this stuff.  I will recommend one marvelous fan website called In My Arms, maintained by Lord Of the Carry, featuring countless poster images, video Invasion of the Saucer Men poster detailcaptures, pulp fiction book covers, comic book illustrations and much more.  It’s a delightful compendium of the genre and if you are at all amused by the theme, you will love it.  There’s also a nice page of images at this site that you might Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet in a carrycare to check out.  This is truly a visual experience.  Either you look at this stuff and get why it’s great, or you’ll think it’s silly.  If I were a beautiful woman prone to fainting — and I’m neither! — and if it were the 1950s, I’d be looking over my shoulder waiting impatiently for some beast to come along and carry me off!  It would sure beat life in the post-war suburbs, now wouldn’t it?  (And come to think of it, what do these images say about the post-war men who created most of them?  Whose fantasies were these, anyway?  Calling all shrinks…!) 

Happy Halloween, everybody!  

The Spunky Kid Sister

Given the many more famous child actors and actresses from the classic era, Virginia Weidler is a name you may not know unless you watch a lot of B movies on TCM. While playing overly inquisitive and sometimes too well informed siblings or daughters of John Barrymore, Warren William, Norma Shearer, Mickey Rooney, Charles Boyer, Katharine Hepburn, Frank Morgan, Ann Rutherford, Henry O’Neill, and Richard Carlson (among others), she often energized her roles with rambunctious tomboy behavior or a sharp-tongued knowing sarcasm.

Virginia Weidler

In one of her first credited roles as 'Little Sister' in director George Stevens’ Laddie (1935), Weidler is said to have stolen the picture from its leads (John Beal in the title role, and Gloria Stuart) by RKO Studios historian Richard B. Jewell, who called her "a disarming elf capable of evoking pathos or humour with equal dexterity." Born March 21, 1926 (or 1927, depending on the source), Weidler first worked for RKO and then Paramount Studios before she was signed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1938. Perhaps the most notable film she appeared in for Paramount was Peter Ibbetson (1935) in which she and Dickie Moore played the fated lovers (Ann Harding and Gary Cooper) as children. But Weidler’s career didn’t really catch wind until she was at MGM, which continued to loan her out to RKO (a handful of times), and even once to Warner Bros. (for the Bette Davis nanny vehicle All This, and Heaven Too (1940); Weidler played one of Boyer’s and Barbara O'Neil’s daughters). In director Garson Kanin’s comedy drama The Great Man Votes (1939), Weidler plays Barrymore’s smart beyond her years daughter (Peter Holden plays his son), whom he’s taught to suffer no fools, which gets the former Harvard professor now drunken widower in trouble with the local political party demagogue (hilariously played by Donald MacBride). However, his children and their teacher (Katharine Alexander) help him to find himself again, and he sobers up in time to learn that he wields newfound power per his vote in the upcoming election.

Weidler then played the prankster daughter of William’s reformed jewel thief in The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt (1939), the newly orphaned daughter of a high-wire circus artist for Lee Tracy’s Fixer Dugan (1939), the next door neighbor kid that wants to be like Tim Holt’s Rookie Cop (1939), featuring Ace the Wonder Dog (German Shepherd), Shearer’s namesake daughter in the all female cast of the original The Women (1939), and Morgan’s brother’s wannabe niece in the B comedy Henry Goes Arizona (1939), among three other films in that very busy year.

Young Tom Edison (1940)The following year, after playing the sassy but helpful and supportive sister of Rooney’s Young Tom Edison (1940), Weidler reached the pinnacle of her career as Hepburn’s busybody wise-cracking sister in The Philadelphia Story (1940), which for many moviegoers served as their introduction to the child actress. Unfortunately, the studio failed to capitalize on her success in that film, in part because it had signed Shirley Temple (whose only MGM film was Kathleen (1941)), and Weidler was relegated to providing comic relief by playing Rutherford’s meddling sibling in an unsuccessful B series (Keeping Company (1940) and This Time for Keeps (1942)). The Philadelphia Story (1940)In the former, she plays a preteen obsessed with figuring out ways to get pistachio ice cream; in the latter, her character proves her father (the delightful Guy Kibbee) wrong every time he says "you'll never catch a child of mine doing something like that" and even wins a trivia contest, but is disappointed to receive the sponsor’s soap products instead of the $10 that an adult would have won (and that she needs). Weidler also played Carlson’s nosy kid sister in the B comedy The Affairs of Martha (1942) and appeared in black-face as O’Neill’s talented daughter in the Bowery Boys-ish B musical Born to Sing (1942), among few other roles, before she retired from making movies as an awkward (too old and too tall) teen after a 10+ year movie career. After a brief and unremarkable stage career, the actress retired, married and had two sons. Weidler is said to have politely refused all subsequent requests for interviews; she died (too young) of a heart ailment in 1968.

I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE: The Reason I Don’t Eat Applesauce

I Married a Monster film posterFor my Halloween selection this year I thought I would return to the film that turned my stomach as a seven year old. I saw I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE with my older brother on a double feature with THE BLOB in Harrisburg, Pennyslvania. THE BLOB was scary enough, featuring a title creature that absorbed humans, bones and all, into its oozing red gelantinous shape. It could get you no matter where you hid, pouring through cracks, under doors, through keyholes….UNLESS it was a deep freeze storage room. But I MARRIED A MONSTER was far scarier with its shape-shifting aliens sporting the ugliest bodies you’ve ever seen – a mass of exposed veins with two main arteries protruding from their face with crisscrossing lanes of bulbous tissue. And their skin, if you could call it that, looked moist and pulpy like a peeled piece of fruit or a skinned animal (a special thank-you to the cinematographer for that disgusting close-up when a bullet penetrates one of the aliens).

publicity still from I Married a Monster 

Even worse then their appearance, however, was the gruesome demise of these invaders. [SPOILER ALERT] At the climax two German Shepherd police dogs are set loose on the monsters and the canines go at them, biting and tearing at the exposed veins until they rip them apart and alien blood squirts out. The creatures then dissolve into a putrefying, runny mass that looks like….chunky applesauce! I’m gonna heave just thinking about it.

Photo montage from I Married a Monster 

Of course by today’s standards I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE is not gruesome at all. The special effects are rather primitive and the black and white cinematography insures that no disturbing colors will prompt your gag reflex. Despite the absurd title (one of my favorites) and the slow pace, however, this B-movie quickie by Gene Fowler, Jr. (I Was a Teenage Werewolf) is much better than you’d ever expect. Imagine a feminist sci-fi version of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS where all of the men in town are slowly replaced by these hideous imposters (they drop their “human” disguises occasionally, especially during electrical storms). And whenever the alien “guys” get together to talk about their secret mission on Earth, it’s like a reunion of some old college fraternity brothers who’ve lost all traces of a personality over the years. Pretending to smoke and drink so they won’t look suspicious, they make brilliant observations like “They’re improved the methane reservoirs in these bodies!” or “Our scientists are working on a way right now to mutate human female chromosomes so we can have children with them.” No wonder our heroine, the sexy Gloria Talbott, is afraid. But not to worry. She doesn’t get impregnated by an alien. In fact, the film skirts the issue of whether Talbott and her husband Tom Tryon (the future horror novelist of “The Other” & “Harvest Home”) ever actually have sex but from the enormous sexual tension between them – and the fact that they begin sleeping in separate rooms – you’re led to believe that the honeymoon was never consummated. In 1999 New Line cinema released THE ASTRONAUT’S WIFE by director/screenwriter Rand Ravich which is virtually an uncredited remake of I MARRIED A MONSTER. Despite the presence of Johnny Depp, Charlize Theron, Joe Morton and a lot of other talented folks in front of and behind the camera, it is an unbelievably stupid and lifeless film, not even bad enough to be unintentionally funny!  But back to my first counter with I MARRIED A MONSTER back in Harrisburg.

Tom Tryon in I Married a Monster 

That night for supper my mom served Swanson TV dinners…I think the entrée was Salisbury steak… and in the center of the compartmentalized tray was a substance that looked like a melted alien. I wouldn’t taste it but my brother confirmed it was applesauce and ate his right up. But just looking at everything on the tray made me sick to my stomach…the gooey gravy over the steak and the mashed potatoes and that lumpy applesauce. It was like a flashback to the climax of I MARRIED A MONSTER all over again. I managed to escape dinner without eating anything except the green peas but never admitted why I wasn’t hungry. If I had, my parents would have prohibited me from going to any more scary movies and that just wasn’t gonna happen.

Swanson TV dinner 

Flash forward to the present. I hardly have any food issues these days and eat almost everything. I even like almost any kind of apple as a snack….but please don’t ever serve me applesauce.

Beware the Blog(s)!

Before I became a blogger a little over a year ago I resisted the siren call of many weblogs that had been recommended to me over the past couple of years. I didn’t doubt that they were great, I just didn’t have the time. Also, reading off of a computer screen has never been my favorite way to absorb information. I prefer to curl up on a chaise with something bound in my hands. I must be part French.

Yet here I am, a blogger. Since becoming part of this fast-growing cyber-community, I’ve found a wealth of information, insight and opinion out there that I now can’t do without. There are several blogs that I visit daily; sometimes twice daily. I appreciate every new post and resent every missed day. Sudden passion is a bitch… but in the spirit of information-sharing and the spirit of Halloween, I’d like to direct you to some of my favorite sites, and their thoughts on the looming All Hallows.

Frankensteinia banner

Make your first stop Frankensteinia … a blog devoted exclusively to Frankenstein’s monster. Mary Shelley’s pitiful man-made-man has had such a lasting influence on Western society that a tony cultural analysis has just hit the shelves explaining how our adoption of this patchwork creature has not only changed but transformed our collective consciousness. Frankensteinia discusses the F-word in film, literature, comic books, breakfast cereal, toy collectibles and everything else you can think of. It’s not only fascinating and funny stuff… it’s aliiiiiiiiiiiiive!

Final Girl

Final Girl is the work of one Stacie Ponder (and if there were two Stacie Ponders, the world would be a better place). Not exclusively devoted to the slasher movies from which the phrase “final girl” was derived (to represent the virginal naïf who always seems to triumph in those gnarly psychothrillers) but leaning heavily in that direction, Final Girl is a great read and one of the more interactive blogs, with contests, chats and film club roundtables. Warning: Stacie buys her snark in bulk.

Old Dark House banner

A new kid on the block is Craig Blamer’s Old Dark House, whose banner is just about my favorite to look at. Craig’s got a fine mind and not just because he writes what I think. He just needs to update a little more often. October 16?! Craig… I’m getting angry!

Cinema Styles banner

Jonathan Lapper’s Cinema Styles is another movie blog going all-out for Halloween, with lots of seasonal cheer. Any impression that starchy blog name might give you up front is instantly dispelled upon arrival by seeing the words written in blood! Up today is a list of 10 movies that sound misleadingly like horror movies but aren’t. (Boo on you, Monsters Ball!) Also up in the last week are some gorgeous promotional materials from The Most Dangerous Game. Go now!

The Horror Blog banner

At The Horror Blog, various Internet wags (not me, sniff-sniff) were asked to contribute “depressing tales of lousy Halloweens past.” If I had been asked to participate (which I wasn’t), I would have told the sad story of the time my parents dressed me as a hobo. I didn’t cry, I just bit down hard on my corn cob pipe and soldiered through the night. But that’s another story (that I wasn’t asked to contribute).

Specifically for Halloween, Todd Franklin's candy store of a blog, Neato Coolville, has been renamed Neato Ghoulville. Check out those vintage Halloween photos and the shot of the marquee boasting a Boris Karloff double feature.

Also worth your while with tons o'reviews to help you decide what to watch on October 31st:

The Bleeding Tree (on Dracula remakes!)

Cinebeats (William Beaudine double creature feature!)

Arbogast on Film (obscure 60s and 70s horror!)

The Blood Spattered Scribe (from Raw Meat to Hostel II!)

Shoot the Projectionist (the "31 Flicks That Gave You The Willies!" finalists)

Now off you go! You've got reading to do!

Billy Barty Remembered

The Great Billy BartyOne of my favorite celebrity sightings ever was the time, many years ago, probably at least twenty-five, when I still lived in Los Angeles and worked in Hollywood, when I saw Billy Barty driving his enormous fancy car.  It was on the freeway, and it was in downtown L.A., as I recall now, and I was thrilled.  I always loved Billy Barty, and today would have been his 83rd birthday.  The incredibly talented performer was born on October 25, 1924, and so we remember him fondly today.

Most people are probably not familiar with the vast show business legacy that Billy Barty created over his long career, starting from the time his father moved Billy and the rest of the family out to Hollywood, partly for Billy’s health.  In the days before L.A. smog, the air was so clear that it was particularly good for Barty’s bad hay fever.  The opportunities that came up from living close to the movie studios were nothing to sneeze at, however.  (I know…I had to work it in somehow, sorry about Billy in Golddiggers of 1933 as a babythat!)  While milling around a location shoot, a director spotted the personable young Billy and gave him a part, and Billy Barty, Hollywood character actor, was born.  He became a regular on the two-reel comedy short circuit, including a long stint playing opposite Mickey McGuire aka Rooney in a series of comedies, along with making many appearances in full-length pictures, including many directed or choreographed by Busby Berkeley, for whom Billy was almost a part of his stock company.  Roles in Gold Diggers of 1933 (as a baby) and Footlight Parade, as well as Roman Scandals (look for Billy as a mini-Eddie Cantor in this musical number), Bride of Frankenstein, Alice in Wonderland (the weird 1933 version with Cary Grant, and Gary Cooper and a whole bunch of Paramount stars, quite fascinating, really!), A Midsummer Night’s Dream and others, some of them uncredited, kept Billy busy, along with constant touring with his successful vaudeville act. 

When vaudeville started to wane, Barty went back to school in Los Angeles and studied journalism, also participating in college sports including football.  He decided against a full-time journalism career and drifted back into show business, starting out slowly and then in the early 1950s he teamed up with Billy Barty on the setcomedy bandleader sensation Spike Jones and the City Slicker and spend the next decade touring with Spike as an all-around entertainer, and also appearing with Jones on many TV programs of the period, including Spike Jones’ own network series.  After his tenure with Spike Jones came to an end in the early 1960s, Billy Barty continued on his own in a variety of movies and TV, including a weekday afternoon kid show on local L.A. station KTTV called Billy Barty’s Big Show where he entertained and ran Three Stooges shorts.  (This was one of the ways I became fond of Barty during my childhood; he was marvelous and how can you not love the Stooges?). 

Younger folks than I might know Barty better from hisBilly Barty in Masters of the Universe roles on several Sid and Marty Krofft productions like The Bugaloos and Sigmund and the Sea Monsters.  He still made lots of interesting movie appearances, like W.C. Fields and Me, The Day of the Locust, Rabbit Test, Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood, Foul Play, Hardly Working, Under the Rainbow, as well Billy Barty in Willowas more prestigious titles like Legend, Masters of the Universe, Tough Guys, and of course as the High Aldwin in Willow.  Barty also was a constant guest star on TV, with great roles in Little House on the Prairie, Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, Hart to Hart, Trapper John M.D. and almost every other iconic series of the 1970s and 1980s. 

Probably Billy Barty’s proudest accomplishment was his founding of The LittleBilly Barty in Foul Play Billy Barty gets his Star in 1981People of America, the organization he created in 1957 to promote the interests of the short statured.  He was a tireless worker and fundraiser for his causes, and in 1981 he got his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  Billy Barty was constantly in the public eye, adored by fans all over the world and respected by all who benefited from his philanthropic work and the important contributions made to society by the LPA.  Billy Barty died on December 23, 2000, but anytime his name is mentioned, we all remember his huge smile, his distinctive voice, and all the great times he gave us.  He was an unforgettable performer.      

Terry Jones’ (Part II) – Q&A for Life of Brian

As promised from last week, transcribed below are some excerpts from a question-and-answer that Terry Jones held after a free screening of Life of Brian, held in Boulder, Colorado, on September 30th, 2007:

TJ: (Referring to the end of the film where everyone is singing “Always Look on the Bright Side Of Life” on the crucifixes:) Looking at the end scene I just remembered that it was freezing cold. (Laughter.) We all thought we were going to die of sunstroke but instead… And I don’t know if anyone noticed but John Cleese was wrapped in a blanket despite me telling him “John, you can’t do that…”

Terry Jones

Q: Could you tell us about the appearance on the talk show Friday Night, Saturday Morning. (Editor’s note: this was a BBC2 chat show that ran from 1979 – 1982)… And as director of this film what were your feelings toward that when Michael and John had to defend Life of Brian against the Church. (Editor’s note: for more on this, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friday_Night,_Saturday_Morning)

TJ: This was a TV show, a chat show, when Life of Brian just came out and John Cleese and Michael Palin went on it. And they were up against the Bishop of Southwark (Mervyn Stockwood) and Malcolm Muggeridge, who in his early days was an atheist, then he edited Punch magazine, a humor magazine in England, and then he became a born-again Christian… It was very curious. Douglas Adams who wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy actually recorded the program and kept on showing it to me every time I saw him saying “You have to look at it again!” Michael Palin is really one of the nicest people in the world, and you could see Michael getting annoyed. (Laughter.) … They’d say, “Brian wasn’t Christ.” And the Bishop would say “C’mon, c’mon. Of course he was. It’s so obvious.” And they’d say “No, no! He wasn’t. You see that at the beginning of the film.” And it turned out, after the show, that the Bishop and Malcolm had been having a nice lunch and they’d missed the first 15 minutes of the film. (Laughter.) So how these guys had the gall to sit there and pontificate like that… Anyway, it was very interesting watching the audience, they were virtually cheering Mike and John. I think when the Bishop of Southwark eventually says “Oh well, I guess you can go and thirty pieces of silver” the audience actually booed him.

Q: Could you tell us more about Otto?

TJ: Ah, yes, the scene at the end there where these strange people come in and commit suicide. It was the only scene that Eric Idle had written, as a matter of fact, and it was about this Jewish suicide squad. It’s a scene that I’d eventually cut. (Editor’s note: referring now to an earlier scene that establishes the suicide squad.) It was actually quite a funny scene. Otto (played by Eric Idle) was showing how his men could commit suicide and he says to Brian (Graham Chapman) “there’s only three trained suicide squads, look, see, I’ll demonstrate: ‘Men, commit suicide!’” and they all open these trap doors (gestures to his chest as if opening a flap and plunging a knife) and commit suicide. And then he says “There you are. See? A really good squad.” (Laughter.) And then he goes around and realizes that they’re not really dead, just pretending. And the idea was that they were going to set up a Jewish state that would last a thousand years. (Laughter.) But when Brian says “But what about the Palestinians?” He says “Oh, we can put them into little camps, you know.” (Laughter.) There was a little bit of pressure from our producer to lose that scene, for political reasons, and I wanted to keep it in, for political reasons. In the end I decided it interrupted the story, so we cut it… The one good thing about the scene is that when they reappeared at the end it got a big recognition laugh. But when I cut it I realized that I couldn’t cut the suicide squad at the end because.. they’re there! You see them (lying on the ground) in front of you. So we had to put on other voices and explain who they were and it’s not very good, really…

Q: In what countries was the movie banned in and what was the popular reaction when it first came out?

TJ: It was banned in various countries. It was banned in Ireland. Meaning of Life was banned in Ireland. Then I made a film called Personal Services and it was also banned in Ireland. At that point they’d only ever banned four films and I’d made three of them. (Laughter and applause.)… It was banned in Norway and the joke in Sweden is that the Norwegians have no sense of humor so when Norwegians banned it the Swedes advertised it in Sweden as “The film that was so funny it was banned in Norway.” (Laughter.)…

Q: What have you been doing with your talents lately?

TJ: I’ve just written an opera, as a matter of fact.

Q: In Portuguese?

TJ: It’s not in Portuguese but it’s going to be in Portugal. It’s called Evil Machines and it’s a lot of dishwashers, and tumble driers, and motorcars, and motorbikes, on stage singing. (Laughter.)…

Q: What was your favorite Monty Python skit to write?

TJ: To write? Well I suppose.. I don’t know really. My favorite, in a way, was Sviastoslav Richter playing the Warsaw Concerto while escaping from six padlocks in a straight-jacket. (Laughter.) (Editor’s note: the episode was Mr. and Mrs. Brian Norris’ Ford Popular, 1972.) It just worked so well. Ian MacNaughton, who was our TV director, lit it really well with a shaft of light coming onto this piano. And you know the Warsaw Concerto when the orchestra starts in, and you have to get to the dom-dom-dom-dom…, and then this sack rolls in. And I… (at this point Terry Jones starts rolling on the floor to crowd laughter and applause.) …then I get a hand out (gestures for hitting piano keys, and then starts getting back up) and it was great because you don’t have to literally hit the right notes you just have to hit the piano at the right time and it looked pretty good.

Terry Jones

Terry Jones

Terry Jones

Q: What was your favorite character in this movie?

TJ: I quite liked playing the hermit in the hole. I liked the makeup for that. It was really early in the morning and I had this really nice makeup lady affix this large beard onto my John Thomas (laughter) – it was quite a wake-up call.

Q: Tell us about how the script was written, and about the title.

TJ: What had happened about the title was that I wasn’t there, so it had nothing to do with me. (Laughter.) They’d been doing publicity for Holy Grail and Eric came up with the idea of Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory, which Eric thought was a good idea. (Laughter.) And we all came back and started reading The Bible again, and reading the gospel stories, and it’s jolly interesting stuff. But it seemed to us that the humor wasn’t in what Christ, or Jesus, was talking about but it was in the way the church… I mean, you have somebody talking about peace and love and then for 2,000 years you have a history of people torturing and burning and killing each other and fighting… because they can’t quite agree on exactly how he said it. (Laughter.)… The trouble with religion is not the beliefs but the way people use them. And I have to say that the more I read about the Middle Ages and see what was going on in the church then, the crosser I get, really, because usually it’s not to do with people’s beliefs, it’s to do with power, and people using power.

(Terry Jones full talk lasted about an hour. Topics included his work on a book of squashed fairies, initial reactions to The Holy Grail, his favorable reaction to Borat, but disappointment in many other contemporary comedies, a possible re-union project for surviving Pythons where they vent their “spleen about what’s happening in the world today,” regrets about falling out with Terry Gilliam over Life of Brian, and more.)

Terry Jones

Joan Fontaine: You Don’t Know Me

Since Joan Fontaine turned 90 last Monday, on October 22, 2007, perhaps this is an appropriate moment to re-evaluate some of her work. I find her to be a truly interesting actress in a few films, some of which are little seen now.

Despite a shaky career start, (compared to that of her sister Olivia de Havilland, at least), as the monotonously sweet heroine in B movies at RKO in the ’30s, and a marked tendency to rely on her considerable ladylike hauteur in later roles, Joan Fontaine appeared to exceptional effect in a handful of films in the 1940s.

When Fontaine had the opportunity to work with imaginative directors with a distinctive point of view, she had a run of movies that captured something poetic and yet fiercely determined in her characters. Few other actresses had quite her luck, or her ability to communicate the foolhardy romanticism and vulnerability that can live inside a young woman, teetering on the brink of maturity and self-knowledge.

Mention the name of Joan Fontaine today, and you’ll most likely evoke an extreme reaction from classic movie spectators. [...MORE]

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