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Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Bad and the Bankable (originally published 6/93)

Between "Basic Instinct," "Body of Evidence," and "Indecent Proposal," you have to wonder what in the name of Caligula the folks in Hollywood can be thinking of. Do they think of the ticket buying public as nothing more than walking glands?

Well, maybe. But more likely they are simply following a principle that has held true from the silent cinema right down to today: shocking people's sensibilities is good for the box office. Back in the silent days, 1915 audiences were invited to cluck their tongues disapprovingly at a picture called "A Fool There Was," starring an actress named Theda Bara as the fallen woman who leads men astray. Theda Bara was carefully publicized as a mystery woman, possibly the love child of a French artist and his Egyptian mistress. Studio PR people pointed out knowingly that her name was an anagram of "Arab death." In point of fact, she was a Cincinnati tailor's daughter named Theodosia Goodman. The air of mystery and intrigue about her was just that -- air. Sort of like Madonna. But, like Madonna, she sold tickets.

Prints of "A Fool There Was" still exist, but as far as I know it isn't available on video. [2009 NOTE: This is no longer true. You can get it on DVD from Kino Video.] Not to worry, though. If you don't yet feel sufficiently debauched by the recent spate of racy movies, here are a few of the scandalous films of yesteryear that are available on home video.

"The Outlaw" (1943). Howard Hughes's notorious sexy Western is pretty tame stuff by today's standards, but in its day it caused quite a stir. It doesn't take long to realize that the camera is paying more attention to Jane Russell's anatomy than to the story line. It's just as well, really; it isn't much of a story. The film remains worthwhile mostly because its remarkably strong supporting cast included Walter Huston and Thomas Mitchell, two of the best in the business, as Doc Holliday and Pat Garrett, respectively.

"Baby Doll" (1956). Elia Kazan's adaptation of a Tennessee Williams script was guaranteed to offend almost everyone. No major studio release had ever portrayed the seduction of virginal youth with such frankness. Carroll Baker plays the child bride of a Mississippi cotton gin operator (Karl Malden). His dirty business practices catch up with him when a competitor (Eli Wallach) uses his wife to get the goods on him. "Baby Doll" was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency and denounced from virtually every pulpit in the country. Reviewers jumped on the bandwagon as well. Time magazine, for example, offered this encomium: "Just possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited." Money in the bank. You can't buy that kind of promotion for a million dollars. Reproduced below is the film's original promotional trailer, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"Last Tango in Paris" (1973). Bernardo Bertolucci, whose more recent films include "The Last Emperor" and "The Sheltering Sky," shook some people up with this occasionally brutal mixture of physical love and emotional aridity. Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider play a pair of lovers who regularly meet in an empty apartment to carry on the ultimate casual affair, not even bothering to tell each other their names.

"Carnal Knowledge" (1971). Playwright and cartoonist Jules Feiffer wrote this story of two sex-obsessed college roommates (Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel) who never seem to outgrow their adolescent sexual hang-ups. Although we follow them well into middle age, their attitudes about sex remain those of a couple of teenagers with raging hormones. Although the film contains very little nudity or (to borrow a euphemism from cable TV) strong sexual content, the guardians of public morality went ballistic. There were even some attempts at outright censorship, including a few obscenity arrests, none of which could ultimately stand up in court.

But the people who raised the public outcry against "Carnal Knowledge," and all the others, for that matter, were misguided. No, I don't mean that they were necessarily wrong about the objectionable nature of the films. That's obviously open to debate in each individual case. I'm saying that they were misguided in thinking that they were doing any damage to the films and their producers by protesting.

You may remember a film a few years back called "Monty Python's Life of Brian," which was perceived by some as blasphemous. When asked how he felt about those who were denouncing the film, Python member John Cleese replied that he'd like to be able to send them all a thank you note. They had, after all, made him wealthy.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Huckster Extraordinaire (originally published 2/94)

The pioneers of the American motion picture industry were, by and large, not highly educated people. In fact, most were immigrants who stumbled into the fledgling film business from other pursuits like the garment trade. They were an uncouth and unsophisticated bunch, and yet they managed in little more than a decade to build a film industry that was the envy of the world.

How did they do it? Not by hiring marketing research firms to run focus groups, I assure you. Even if such things had existed back then, these guys wouldn't have had a clue how to interpret the data. Instead, the movie pioneers relied on two important qualities that they did possess.

First, they had an instinct for what the common, everyday moviegoer wanted to see, in part because they were common, everyday folks themselves. Second, and probably most important, the ones who succeeded had a natural talent for showmanship.

Sometime during the last 20 or 30 years the movies gave up the last traces of true showmanship. Even the little touch of theaters opening a curtain to reveal the picture after the projector is started has almost entirely vanished. (Anyone remember when all theaters closed the curtain after the coming attractions trailers, then opened it again for the main feature? If so, you're no spring chicken.)

I was delighted, therefore, to read of the release of a film called "Matinee," starring John Goodman as a 1950s producer who specializes in selling his low budget movies by means of outlandish promotional gimmicks. If you've seen "Matinee," you should know that Goodman's character was not created from whole cloth, but rather was based on an actual movie producer/director. His name was William Castle and he was the last of the big time showmen in Hollywood.

For instance, when his murder mystery "Macabre" was released in 1958 Castle issued life insurance policies for the audience members, payable if the faint of heart should die of fright during the movie.

But perhaps the apex of his career was 1959's "The Tingler," for which selected theater seats were wired to deliver a mild electric shock to the occupant. Following an announcement that the tingler was loose in the theater, the patrons who had chosen the prepared seats would be jolted to their feet. Of course, only a couple of actually wired seats were needed. Thereafter, anyone who felt anything at all, down to and including a pants cuff brushing against their leg, would jump up just to be safe.

Castle's gimmick films are not widely available on video. [2009 NOTE: Happily, this is no longer the case. A recently released Castle box set largely redresses this omission. See] I suppose this is understandable; after all, if you watch them in your living room you don't get the benefit of the gimmicks. Still, a couple of them are available. While they are by no means great films, they are entertaining. Castle's sense of showmanship informs the content of his films just as surely as it informed his promotions.

"House on Haunted Hill" (1958). Vincent Price stars as a wealthy eccentric who offers a group of people $50,000 each if they will spend a night in a haunted house. The gimmick here was what Castle called "Emergo." At a certain point in the film, theaters would send a skeleton clattering over the audience's heads from the front of the auditorium to the back, giving the impression (they hoped) that it had emerged from the screen.

"13 Ghosts" (1960). A kind of lighthearted forerunner to "The Amityville Horror," this film tells the story of a family that buys and moves into a house only to discover that it is haunted. In fact, it is haunted by no less than 12 ghosts, who are anxious to add another to their ranks so that they will number a good, proper, ghostly 13.

Castle's gimmick for "13 Ghosts" was called "Illusion-O." Audience members received "ghost viewers" upon entering the theater. These were color filters mounted in a small cardboard frame. Thus equipped, the audience members could either look through the viewers or not, depending on whether they wanted to see the ghosts or not. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer touting the "Illusion-O" gimmick.

As shameless as his promotions were, and despite the fact that many of them were more than a little on the dumb side, I can't help missing William Castle just a bit. When the crackerbox multiplex folks act like they are doing me a big favor just to focus the picture, I sometimes wish that Castle's ghost would come screaming out of their screen, rattling his skeleton over the audience, just to show them what real showmanship was like once upon a time.