Monday, December 16, 2013

Parachute Jumper (1933, Alfred E. Green)

Warner Bros. pre-Code stalwart Alfred E. Green directed four films released by the studio in 1933 (six, if you include a short film and uncredited work on Central Airport).  1933 was not only the year of Green's Baby Face, perhaps the quintessential pre-Code, but also this brisk programmer starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Leo Carrillo, Frank McHugh, and a pre-stardom Bette Davis.  "Parachute jumping" only accounts for a few minutes of the film's 72 minute running time, but I guess that title was deemed most box office-friendly by the powers that be.  So, I went in expecting a Hawksian drama about the perils of a professional parachute jumper, however, in it's hour plus running time, Fairbanks plays not only the titular daredevil, but also a Marine pilot, chauffeur to a horny and rich Claire Dodd, gunsel for smuggler Carrillo, and, finally, pilot (carrying narcotics) for Carrillo.  Such were the days of the Depression when I guy would do just about anything and everything to squeak by...and all in what seems to be only a matter of days.

Davis, as an out-of-work, Southern-accented stenographer whom Fairbanks dubs "Alabama," is still a ways off from her scenery-chewing screen dominance; at this point in her career, she was playing second banana to the men: Fairbanks, Cagney, Pat O'Brien, Tracy, Charles Farrell, etc.  So, it's unsurprising that she held Parachute Jumper in rather low esteem (apparently her least favorite of all her roles), but it is a kick to see her and the always reliable McHugh starving and waiting impatiently for chauffeur / handyman Fairbanks to come down from Dodd's tony apartment.  As is typical of the majority of Warner Bros. films of this era, the players move through a good many situations and scenarios--most directly inspired by the Depression and the day's related headlines--on un-flashy, minimalist sets.  The narcotics that Carrillo hires Fairbanks to fly in from Canada would, of course, be verboten in Code-enforced Hollywood, as would Fairbanks' essentially unveiled assumption that Davis is a prostitute in their first meeting, as would the lingering extreme close-up on the derriere of a drunken Nicaraguan prostitute doing a dance for a soused Fairbanks and McHugh at the start of the film.

Toodles (Frank McHugh) appears to be flipping off a truck that passes him by, but upon closer inspection, it appears to be his index finger sticking straight up.
In addition to house all-star McHugh, Nat Pendleton makes one of his almost mandatory uncredited appearances as a cop, uncredited Walter Brennan is a diner counterman, and in the most expansive of the uncredited roles, we have Leon Ames as a pilot amused by Davis' concern for aerial stuntman / parachuter Fairbanks.

The most fun McHugh had on screen?  Maybe.
The Warner Archive DVD is clean, with no major, distracting damage that I could detect.  There's a trailer as a bonus.  The disc menu artwork (seen at the top of this page in the form of the film's title lobby card), incidentally, is much more striking than the poster WA used for the cover.  I'm guessing the title card artwork may not have been used for the cover because of its horizontal orientation.
Ms. Dodd's appearance in the film is all too brief.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Tony Musante

Tony Musante, the fine character player and sometime leading man, passed away just before Thanksgiving.  As a belated tribute, I've extracted this excerpt from Dirty Old New York Subway, entirely devoted to Larry Peerce's overwrought, though not uninteresting post-Kitty Genovese drama The Incident, which marked Musante's first starring role in a feature film.

Musante later headlined the tv series Toma, which was reworked into Baretta, starring Bobby Blake. Some of his subsequent feature roles included starring in Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Fleischer's sublime The Last Run, Corbucci's The Mercenary, Stuart Rosenberg's The Pope of Greenwich Village, and Aldrich's The Grissom Gang.  He slowed down in the '80s and '90s, but was quite memorable as Nino Schibetta in the first season of Oz and later appeared in James Gray's much-admired We Own the Night.  

I had the good fortune to see Musante at Anthology Film Archives in the last year or so, on hand to discuss his work in Bird with the Crystal Plumage following a 35mm screening.  

From the pre-PG-13 days, when a GP (later PG) often indicated a film made by and for adults.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


I'm no ad man, so I guess I used this creative pitch concerning Death Waltz's new Assault on Precinct 13 LP (U.S. folks should order Death Waltz product here) as an excuse to pay tribute in video form to one of my favorite films and soundtracks.  Now that I know I did not win and was not even a finalist, I feel OK sharing my attempt publicly.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Wayward Cloud

The good bloke who runs the Wayward Cloud, a German blog, has been kind enough to mention me in the same breath as Robin Wood (I'll take it, even if I'm not in that league!) and actually seems to have read and watched just about everything I've published here. Herr or Frau Wayward Cloud, please drop me a line and thanks again for the extremely generous coverage!

Dan Hedaya in broad daylight in Night of the Juggler.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Hey Good Lookin' (1982, Ralph Bakshi)

Given the start and stop and start nature of its production and the compromises its creator was forced to make in the process, it's fortunate that Ralph Bakshi's Hey Good Lookin' succeeds as much as it does.  With that said, due to the aforementioned production complications, Hey Good Lookin' isn't entirely successful and often has the feel of an only partially realized vision.  Long absent on DVD, the Warner Archive has filled that void with its recent 16x9 DVD-R and it was a treat to be able to revisit the film after 20 years or so when I viewed it the first time--and was underwhelmed--via a VHS rental, in the classic WB clamshell box style.

Bakshi's autobiographical 1973 picture Heavy Traffic has been favorably compared to Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets of the same year, and Scorsese's 2nd unit on Taxi Driver later captured footage of a theater showing Bakshi's Coonskin being firebombed, so it's somewhat appropriate that Bakshi used Mean Streets co-stars Richard Romanus and David Proval in leading (voice) roles in 1977's Wizards and in Hey Good Lookin'. The latter takes place in the type of ethnic, working-class New York milieu that both filmmakers so often traffic in.   

Vinnie, in a Coney Island scene that I don't recall in the finished film.
Hey Good Lookin' began production in the mid-'70s, but wasn't completed and released until 1982.  As with Heavy Traffic, Bakshi drew on his formative years in 1940s and '50s Brownsville Brooklyn for Hey Good Lookin', which centers on the friendship of Vinnie (Romanus), ladies man and leader of the Stompers, and his best pal Crazy Shapiro (Proval).  There are a number of parallels with Philip Kaufman's The Wanderers, which though set in the Bronx in 1963, deals with a lot of the same issues: gangs and how they inform masculine codes, racial tensions, awkward teenage sex, dysfunctional father - son relationships, and the push / pull relationship the characters have with their home turf.

Part of a 1974 Warner Bros. trade ad announcing the production of Hey Good Lookin'.
Bakshi's original version of the film was split between live action and animation--which the studio objected to--and featured original music and performances by the New York Dolls.  It's a real missed opportunity that WB did not provide any historical context in the form of retrospective interviews / commentary and did not resurrect any or all of Bakshi's original footage (which supposedly survives in the studio vaults).  This Wax Poetics interview with Bakshi goes into great detail about the troubled history of Hey Good Lookin' and how its handling by Warner Bros. was affected by the fallout from Bakshi's misunderstood masterpiece Coonskin

For its first half, Bakshi's film is consistently entertaining and funny, as it introduces its main characters and their environment, while also including some uniquely Bakshi-an moments, as when a pile of trash converses with the trashcan next to it before the trash is happily whisked off to its final resting place by a garbage truck.  Running under 80 minutes (not so uncommon for an animated film, of course), the film's last act is rushed and not as emotionally satisfying as it should be, as the Stompers become involved in a conflict with a black gang, the Chaplins, and Crazy goes off the deep end.  Even without having the various scripts or seeing Bakshi's original version of the film, it seems clear that much of the problematic aspects of the film are due to the restraints, in terms of time and money, imposed on Bakshi as he set out to finish the project.  But even when the narrative frustrates, the visuals are beautiful throughout, and for that alone it's thrilling to have the film available in a quality widescreen print...a Blu-ray would be so much better, but I'll take what I can get.

Music consistently plays a strong role in Bakshi's films and the filmmaker has always been intimately involved with the selection and placement of tracks, even if the studios were sometimes infuriatingly short-sighted, as was the case with Columbia and American Pop.  I recall being quite disappointed in the retro '50s-by-way-of '80s score by John Madara and Ric Sandler.  It's a better than I remembered, but after reading the above-linked interview, I can't help but think of how much better this film and its soundtrack could be, particularly with the original tunes by the New York Dolls and classic doo-wop that Bakshi describes.

Crazy, Eva, Vinnie, and Roz cruising.
Warner did not release Hey Good Lookin' widely or heavily promote it and that is evident in the fact that Bakshi recalls almost nothing of the film's release, and in the theatrical trailer (included on the DVD), which is essentially just the scene of Vinnie combing his hair at the beginning of film with the film's billing block attached to it, along with a weak voiceover, which poorly sells the film and Bakshi.

Coming on the heels of Heavy Metal and Bakshi's own American Pop, Hey Good Lookin' represents one of the final examples of adult-oriented animation produced by a major studio; it's the last of Bakshi's "street trilogy," following Heavy Traffic and Coonskin.  His next film, the 1983 PG-rated fantasy Fire and Ice, would be his last until 1992's Cool World, a film bowdlerized by its studio, Paramount.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

More Warner Pre-Certs

I love the uniformity of these first generation big box WB releases from the U.K. and other European countries almost as much as I love their U.S. counterparts.  Many of these are UA titles that WB held video rights to in non-U.S. territories.  I found many of these images at this comprehensive, well-organized U.K. site.

Some UAs, a number of which were never released on VHS in the U.S., or which only came out on VHS years after the European counterpart:
Nowadays, this would probably be released with the same title in all English-speaking territories.  In fact, the film probably has not been issued under the Violent Streets name in many years.
AKA Hickey and Boggs, a film never released on home video in the U.S. until this MGM MOD disc.
In the U.S., Warner Bros. did not gain video rights until the release of the "Director's Cut" in the early '90s.  This U.K. cassette dates from the early '80s and is what's known over there as a "pre-cert" video.

Some striking alternate art:

It's strange to see UA's biggest franchises under the WB seal:
Utilizing an image from Rocky II for the cover.
It's also odd to see these genre stalwarts released by the WB, reminding one that Friday the 13th, for instance, was an independent production that was a negative pickup for Paramount in the U.S. and that different deals were struck for different parts of the world:

Known in the U.S. as The Sea Gypsies, I recall seeing this as a young child on HBO under the international Shipwreck! moniker and being captivated:

Don't know if this one had a U.S. counterpart.  I'd like to see it: