Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Classic Movie Stars on THE MUPPET SHOW

Thanks to Disney Plus, viewers can finally enjoy all five seasons of The Muppet Show, and at my house we've been delighted to have access to the long-awaited fourth and fifth seasons, which were never available on DVD. The release has created some controversy about Disney's decision to include content warnings on a handful of episodes (which are, in some cases, painfully necessary), but for Muppet fans the more pressing questions often involve trying to figure out who the guest star is, since some of these folks might have been famous in the 1970s but are truly obscure now. Luckily for classic movie fans, the guest list also includes some fantastic stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood, and their appearances on the show offer a delightful snapshot of these stars as they appeared in the late 1970s. 

For many viewers who were kids in the 70s, these guest spots might well have been their first introduction to entertainers from their parents' or grandparents' eras, which means that Gen Xers in particular might have been meeting Milton Berle, Edgar Bergen, Danny Kaye, and Gene Kelly for the first time. Other stars were much more familiar to the average 10 year old of 1978, including Mark Hamill, Don Knotts, and Rich Little, while many of the British guests would have baffled American children and adults alike (the show was filmed in London, so British guests were much easier to acquire). Of course, today even the "current" stars of 1978 look like classic ones, but every season of the show mixed classic stars, current American celebrities, and British talents to provide a weirdly educational cultural smorgasbord for unsuspecting child viewers. Singers and dancers had obvious appeal, as did comedians, but that didn't stop the show from featuring action stars like James Coburn and Roger Moore or magician Doug Henning. The classic movie stars were just part of the mix.

Each season has at least one classic star, although some were better known in the 70s than others thanks to musical careers, television roles, or later film roles. In Season One, you can see Rita Moreno, Lena Horne, Peter Ustinov, Vincent Price, and Ethel Merman. Season Two offers Don Knotts, Milton Berle, Edgar Bergen, George Burns, Julie Andrews, Peter Sellers, and Bob Hope. Showing up in Season Three are Danny Kaye, Harry Belafonte, and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Season Four is comparatively light on classic movie stars but includes Liza Minnelli, while Season Five ends the series with James Coburn, Tony Randall, and Gene Kelly. Each of these is worth watching, but the episodes with Moreno, Price, Andrews, and Belafonte are particularly good, so start there if you're a classic film fan but not someone with a lot of previous experience with The Muppet Show

A handful of the classic film stars who appear on the series also have cameos in the original 1979 film, The Muppet Movie, where you can spot Bob Hope, Milton Berle, and James Coburn along with Orson Welles, Telly Savalas, and many younger stars who also appeared as guests on the show. Many of the Muppet films are also streaming on Disney Plus, so if the classic stars on The Muppet Show whet your appetite for more of Kermit and the gang, there's plenty of content available. 


Want to know everything there is to know about The Muppets? Head on over to my friends at Tough Pigs to find news, articles, podcasts, and commentary! You can also check out the essay anthology, Kermit Culture, that Anissa Graham and I edited; it's available in paperback and Kindle editions at Amazon. Our second anthology, The Wider Worlds of Jim Henson, looks at films and other productions like The Dark Crystal, Fraggle Rock, and Labyrinth.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Classic Films in Focus: THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL (1934)

Adapted from the thrilling tales penned by Baroness Orczy in the first years of the twentieth century, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) is an essential part of the swashbuckler genre even though it's not exactly an action picture. Instead, Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon, its stars, are primarily involved in the romantic difficulties that arise when couples keep secrets from each other, but their rocky relationship provides plenty of melodrama to make up for the missing fight scenes. The original novel's themes would become ingrained in later swashbucklers and super hero stories, but the 1934 version of The Scarlet Pimpernel is enjoyable for its own merits as well as its influence, and Leslie Howard is particularly fun to watch in his duplicitous role as the daring Pimpernel hiding behind the persona of a superficial fop.

Howard stars as the English gentleman Sir Percy Blakeney, who rescues French aristocrats from the guillotine in the bloodiest days of the French Revolution. To protect his mission, Percy presents himself as a vain, foolish lightweight in London, where French spies are doggedly trying to unmask the hero and his band. Even Percy's beautiful French wife, Marguerite (Merle Oberon), doesn't know the truth, which leaves her unhappy with her seemingly shallow husband. When the villainous Chauvelin (Raymond Massey) offers to trade Marguerite's captured brother for the Pimpernel, she doesn't know that her husband's life is on the line. Percy, meanwhile, launches his own effort to rescue his brother-in-law and other prisoners of Robespierre's merciless regime.

He might not be engaging in any sword fights, but Leslie Howard is very much the star of this picture, and he gives a delightful performance as both daring, brilliant hero and outrageously refined fop. The playboy act that hides a secret identity is, of course, well-known to fans of Zorro and Batman, but Howard's Percy takes pains to be as vapid and useless as possible. He abandons any interest in preserving his dignity or reputation, even to his own wife, mainly because he believes that she exposed a French family to arrest and execution before her departure from France. The tension between Howard and Oberon crackles as they alternately long for and distrust one another; they duel with sharp glances and burning hearts rather than swords, but they're really the chief combatants in this tale. Merle Oberon is perfectly cast as the passionate, fascinating Marguerite; we understand why Percy loves her even when he thinks the worst of her, and she carries the third act in truly heroic fashion. Sir Percy fights with his disguises and schemes rather than weapons, which makes him a more cerebral hero than some of his swashbuckling brethren, but his penchant for dressing up connects him with Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, Zorro, and other clever tricksters, and the intellectual nature of the Pimpernel's heroism suits Howard really well.

While it eschews the violence of duels, The Scarlet Pimpernel endeavors to convey the horrors of the French Revolution as poignantly as possible, especially in the opening scenes of the film. You won't actually see heads chopped off and held high for the cheering crowds, but you might think you did because of the careful way the shots are constructed. The most powerful scene unfolds in the prison where the former aristocrats await their fate; the camera lingers especially on women and young children, some innocently playing or passing the time, others posed like martyrs with their eyes turned toward Heaven. Here we are introduced to Suzanne de Tournay (Joan Gardner) and her parents, whom the Pimpernel risks his own life to save. They help us invest in the plight of the overthrown aristocrats and sympathize with Sir Percy's cause even if we know the gross inequality and lofty ideals that first set the Revolution in motion. The movie ends with the Revolution still underway, but most people know that the mastermind, Robespierre, who in the film gives the fictional Chauvelin his orders, would meet the guillotine himself in 1794. By the end of the Reign of Terror, almost 17,000 people had been executed. 

A TV movie adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel appeared in 1982 and is beloved by many Gen Xers; it's well worth tracking down if you want a different take on the story. If you enjoy seeing Leslie Howard in quirkier roles, see It's Love I'm After (1937) and Pygmalion (1938). Howard returned to a Pimpernel inspired role in Pimpernel Smith (1941), this time rescuing victims of the Nazis in Germany. Don't miss Merle Oberon in The Dark Angel (1935), Wuthering Heights (1939), and The Lodger (1944). Harold Young, who directed The Scarlet Pimpernel, is not particularly well known today, but his career includes some minor horror entries like The Mummy's Tomb (1942), The Frozen Ghost (1945), and The Jungle Captive (1945). 

 

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Classic Films in Focus: THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS (1960)

The notorious Edinburgh murderers Burke and Hare supplied the insatiable cadaver market with "made to order" corpses in the early 19th century, and they've been nightmare fuel for popular culture ever since, with multiple horror films revisiting their crimes. Among these is The Flesh and the Fiends (1960), which benefits from the presence of Peter Cushing as the cadaver purchaser, Dr. Knox, and Donald Pleasence as the relentlessly amoral William Hare. Although the title is ultimately more lurid than the actual film, the continental cut of The Flesh and the Fiends justifies its X rating with plenty of topless female flesh and a couple of extended murder scenes that emphasize the victims' plight. It's not as glossy as some of the better Hammer horrors where Cushing became a genre icon, but this Triad version of a Hammer picture is worth watching if you're interested in historical horror or enjoy the particular appeal of a really devilish Donald Pleasence villain.

Cushing plays the real life receiver of the corpses, Dr. Knox, who doesn't much care how he gets the cadavers that supply his medical students with "subjects" for study. Knox's constant demand for fresh bodies keeps the local grave robbers busy, but Burke (George Rose) and Hare (Pleasence) stumble into the trade when one of Burke's lodgers dies still owing the rent, and Hare realizes that there's an easy way to turn the loss into a gain. Soon the pair are dispatching lodgers and locals at a brisk pace and lining their pockets with Knox's guineas, even as Knox's assistant, Dr. Mitchell (Dermot Walsh) begins to suspect the cadavers' origins. Meanwhile, Knox's troubled student, Chris (John Cairney), discovers a different part of Edinburgh's underbelly when he begins a romance with prostitute Mary (Billie Whitelaw), but the lovers prove to be too close to the murderers' orbit for their own good.

The performances of the main characters drive the interest here, with Rose and Pleasence like a comedy duo from hell as the opportunistic killers. They're almost cartoonish in their exaggerated appearance and mannerisms, but once they start knocking off their neighbors they become really unnerving. The attacks on Mary and Daft Jamie (both real victims of the historical killers) drive home the violence of the acts but also highlight the differences between the two murderers, with Hare feverishly unhinged and Burke brutally cruel. Both men are monsters without any humanity in them, but they're fascinating monsters nonetheless. Cushing provides some contrast to the pair as the erudite but ethically questionable doctor, with the actor as reliable as ever in his role. Still, the film pulls its punches with Knox, trying to invest him with some redeeming qualities through the devotion of his niece (June Laverick), his assistant, and his many students. Neither the situation presented in the picture nor the historical record justify Knox's escape from punishment for his part in the crimes, and the scenes of Knox's domestic life do nothing to advance the plot. Of the secondary characters, Mary is the most interesting and tragic, even though every viewer starts the picture knowing that a hard-drinking prostitute has very little life expectancy in this kind of story.

The Flesh and the Fiends would be a better picture without the niece's romantic subplot and with more emphasis on the other characters who aid or fall victim to the killers' schemes, and its artificial studio atmosphere doesn't do the sublime creepiness of period Edinburgh justice. The nudity of the continental cut was provocative for 1960 but pretty tame even by the standards of the 1970s and thus not a real concern for a modern audience. The horror of the murders and the sad fate awaiting the victims are the compelling elements of the story, although the rough justice meted out to the killers provides some satisfaction while also highlighting the extreme privilege that protects men like Knox. In short, this isn't the best Burke and Hare picture of the lot, and it's certainly not the best of Cushing's horror roles, but there's enough here to warrant a viewing for fans of the genre and its primary players. Pleasence alone is worth the time and effort required.

John Gilling, who wrote and directed The Flesh and the Fiends, also made The Gamma People (1956), Fury at Smuggler's Bay (1962), and The Mummy's Shroud (1967). If you're interested in more horror inspired by Burke and Hare, try The Body Snatcher (1945), Horror Maniacs (1948), Burke & Hare (1972), or Burke and Hare (2010). A visit to modern Edinburgh reveals the enduring appeal of the gruesome history of Burke and Hare, where you can find their crimes recreated at The Edinburgh Dungeon or see the actual skeleton of William Burke on display at the Anatomical Museum. You can also find walking tours devoted to tracing the steps of the murderers and their victims.

 

As of February 2021, The Flesh and the Fiends is available for streaming on the horror subscription service, Shudder.

Friday, January 29, 2021

2020 Movie Log in Review

As we all know, 2020 was a year unlike any other. With the pandemic raging and constant political crises unfolding, we needed movies to comfort us more than ever but couldn't leave the house to enjoy them. My 2020 movie log reflects the fact that I usually had company on the couch and that our collective tastes leaned toward movies that took our minds off the overwhelming problems of the day. With that in mind, here's the log for 2020.

 

January 

The Black Cauldron (1985)

But I'm a Cheerleader! (1999)

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017)

Troop Zero (2019)

MIB International (2019)

Blinded by the Light (2019)

Master of Dark Shadows (2019)

Payment on Demand (1951)

The Strawberry Blonde (1941)

Old Acquaintance (1943)


February

Big Business (1988)

How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)

The Spiral Staircase (1946)

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

Night of the Comet (1984)

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

To All the Boys: PS I Still Love You (2020)

Birds of Prey (2020)

The Fog (1980)

Shaun the Sheep: Farmaggedon (2019)

Tremors (1990)


March

Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

Casablanca (1942)

Onward (2020)

Galaxy Quest (1999)

Tremors (1990) - yes, again

Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

The Mask of Zorro (1998)

Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears (2020)


April

Smoke Signals (1998)

Jaws (1975)

The Rescuers Down Under (1990)

The More the Merrier (1943)

Willow (1988)

Rashomon (1950)

The Women (1939)

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Star Trek Beyond (2016)


May

The Half of It (2020)

Tangled (2010)

Star Trek Nemesis (2002)

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Star Trek: Generations (1994)

Escape from New York (1981)

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Emma (2020)

Soap Dish (1991)


June

Rocketman (2019)

The Vast of Night (2019)

Batman Forever (1995)

The Princess and the Frog (2009)

Heartbreakers (2001)

Marty (1955)


July 

Knives Out (2019)

The Haunted Mansion (2003)

The Invisible Man (1933)

Hamilton (2020)

Clash of the Titans (1981)

Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

The Creeping Flesh (1973)

Madam Satan (1930)

Mortal Kombat (1995)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

The Avengers (2012)

Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic World (2015)


August

Extra Ordinary (2020)

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Feel the Beat (2020)

Steel Magnolias (1989)

Jumanji: The Next Level (2020)

Emo - The Musical (2016)

Bill and Ted Face the Music (2020)


September

Countess Dracula (1971)

Twins of Evil (1971)

Stage Mother (2020)

Wonder Man (1945)

The Sons of Tennessee Williams (2010)

Fade to Black (1980)

Poltergeist (1982)

Disclosure (2020)

Valley Girl (1983)

Suburban Gothic (2014)

Kung Fu Hustle (2004)


October

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Paris is Burning (1990)

Theater of Blood (1973)

The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)

The Monster Club (1981)

Vampires vs. the Bronx (2020)

Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (1989)

The Addams Family (2019)

The Selling (2011)

How to Survive a Plague (2012)

The Petrified Forest (1936)

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

The Red House (1947)

Tremors: Shrieker Island (2020)

Paranorman (2012)

The Babysitter's Guide to Monster Hunting (2020)


November

Now, Voyager (1942)

The Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010)

The Late Edwina Black (1951)

Holidate (2020)

Sabrina (1954)

Hello, Dolly! (1969)

That Touch of Mink (1962)

Return of the Jedi (1983)

White Christmas (1954)

 

December

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Jingle Jangle (2020)

Barbarella (1968)

Rogue One (2016)

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Mank (2020)

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009)

A Christmas Carol (1938)

The Prom (2020)

Scrooged (1988)

Christmas Chronicles 2 (2020)

A Christmas Story (1983)

Die Hard (1988)

Soul (2020)

The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

The Two Towers (2002)

(And the first movie of 2021 was, of course, The Return of the King!)


Total movies watched in 2020: 128

Side note on 2020 viewing: We also watched all four seasons of Star Wars: Rebels this year, which was time well spent. Other TV series for 2020 included Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Lower Decks, The Mandalorian, Bridgerton, and the British comedy/quiz series, QI, which became a favorite bedtime show for the whole family.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

2020, The Year Without Movies

2020 - a year of masks, not movies.
The last movie I saw in a theater was Onward back in March of 2020. It was spring break for my college freshman, who had brought a friend home for the holiday, and that week we were also finally closing on the sale of our old house, six months after moving into our new one across town. It should have been a celebratory week, but instead the pandemic loomed over us. The small talk at the closing was all about the virus, but in vague terms; nobody had really grasped what was about to happen. We had been to our usual theater earlier that week to see Onward with the kids, but it was never crowded there, and I didn't really think about it. By March 12th, when we closed on the sale and went out to dinner to mark the occasion, I was suddenly terribly aware of how crowded the restaurant was and for the first time felt a sense of panic about other people that has now become all too familiar. By the end of the week we were making a headlong rush back to the college in Florida to clear out the kids' dorms because the school was shutting down.

I haven't been inside a movie theater or a restaurant since then, and I don't know when I'll be back. The restaurant is still there - we've enjoyed their curbside service several times - but the movie theater is gone. I haven't driven by the spot where they're now demolishing it, but I feel its absence. I wonder what the friendly ticket seller we always chatted with is doing now. I hope she found another job before they officially closed the place and sold it. There are other theaters in town, farther from our house and more expensive, but I have no idea when I'll consider going to one of them. Vaccination is probably still months away for me, and by then, who knows what will be happening with all these new variants of the virus?

One of the last movie days with the retirement community.

2020 was a long year for a lot of reasons, but among the things we've lost are the movies. I don't mean streaming, of course. The streaming services had a banner year, and right now they're betting on another one. What we lost was the communal experience of movies that happens in a theater when people who might have nothing else in common gather to laugh, cry, scream, and shout at flickering images on a big screen. Somehow that seems even more precious when I consider the broken, divided state of our nation. We had movies in the Great Depression and World War II to see us through the dark days. They lifted spirits, brought people together, and showed us how to be resilient and brave. In 2020, when we really needed that experience more than most of us could remember, we couldn't have it. All of my film programs with lifetime learners and retirement communities were suspended indefinitely as the virus locked us down. The movie theaters closed, some forever. We had to watch our movies by ourselves, at home, and it isn't the same. 

Some of the new releases have been delayed again and again, waiting for the expected return to normalcy. Others were dropped to streaming services instead, either to lure new subscribers or to get some return on the investment through premiere access fees. Many movies that were in development had to shut down, which means the impact of the pandemic will be felt for years to come. Right now, as we complete the first month of 2021, we really don't know when movies or moviegoers will return. We don't actually know IF they will return, either. It's possible that the future will always be different from the past we've left behind. Perhaps I'll look at this blog post a year from now and feel relief. Perhaps I'll read it and laugh ironically at my naivete. Only time will tell.

I've missed the movies this last year. I've missed the people I shared classic movies with at the library and the retirement community. I've missed being able to think about movies and write about them, but the pandemic and the upheaval in the country have fractured my attention into sharp bits of crisis all coming down like glass. I'll post my 2020 review of films watched soon, but my comforts this last year were more cinematic popcorn than brain food. We'll see if 2021 restores our collective sanity.

 

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Classic Films in Focus: A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1938)

 

I'm generally a fan of adaptations of Charles Dickens' holiday standard, even the loose and the weird ones, but the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol from MGM strikes me as a bowdlerized, lightweight entry into the category, pleasant enough but not really willing to get to the heart of the story lest it dampen the audience's Yuletide cheer. The desire to keep things merry leads the film to make big changes to the source material, expanding the roles of the likable Fred and Bob and downplaying the darkness of Scrooge's journey. If you're looking for a spooky, thoughtful, or faithful adaptation of A Christmas Carol, look elsewhere; this one is more punch and pudding than poltergeists and poverty. That said, classic movie fans will enjoy the presence of stars like Reginald Owen and the Lockhart family, and I'm sure this gentle, condensed version has its ardent admirers.

Owen leads the cast as the cranky old miser, Scrooge, who berates his cheerful nephew, Fred (Barry MacKay), for enjoying the season and then fires his mild-mannered clerk, Bob Cratchit (Gene Lockhart), for accidentally hitting him with a snowball on Christmas Eve. Throwing economy to the wind, Bob then surprises his family with a lavish holiday feast and makes the best of the celebration while Scrooge endures his encounters with the various spirits, starting with his deceased partner, Jacob Marley (Leo G. Carroll). Scrooge's ghostly guides repeatedly take him to spy on the domestic lives of Fred and Bob, which inspires Scrooge to become invested in their welfare and wish to be included in their happiness. After his supernatural adventure, Scrooge makes Fred a partner in his firm and rehires Bob at double his old salary, thus forming around himself a happy circle of families who will benefit from his newfound generosity.

I genuinely enjoy inventive revisions of the Dickens story, but I like for them to be transparent about it. You know The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) is going to take liberties with the story because most of the characters are Muppets, and even then it ends up being a surprisingly faithful version that leans into some of the darker elements of the narrative. The 1938 film, directed by Edwin L. Marin and with a screenplay by Hugo Butler, plays fast and loose with its source but keeps the atmosphere, the setting, and the most familiar bits of dialogue, making it seem like a faithful retelling even though it's not. For me the worst problem with this kind of adaptation of the Dickens text is its pandering to an audience that wants to identify with the sympathetic characters and not confront the uncomfortable truth that is central to the original story - WE ARE SCROOGE. Dickens didn't want or need to change the hearts of the Tiny Tims and Bobs and Freds; he wanted to confront the financially comfortable, the people who begrudgingly pay taxes and don't see "the poor" as their problem. If audiences don't feel called out by A Christmas Carol, then that version of the story is doing it wrong. Vastly enlarging the parts of Bob and Fred, diminishing Scrooge's meanness, and cutting out or radically altering whole chunks of the narrative lets the audience off the hook. We're left with a feel good story that won't even for a second consider the ruinous financial consequences of Bob's shopping spree. In Dickens' time the Cratchits would have been out on the street before New Year and the brood of children dispersed to the workhouses, as Dickens himself was when he was a child. The specter of real poverty haunted Dickens and haunts his stories, and it ought to be lurking under the robe of every Christmas Carol adaptation if one is going to do right by the story and its author, even if that particular scene about Ignorance and Want gets left out of most film versions.

I won't lay the blame for these shortcomings at the feet of the film's actors, for each of them embodies the watered-down versions of their characters as well as they can. Reginald Owen's Scrooge is pinched but never very terrible, and he melts like a snowball when confronted with his own childhood. He's a cranky, fussy, little old man, and Owen gives him lively feeling in his more childish moments. Barry MacKay's Fred is a handsome if conventional romantic lead, the first character we meet in the opening scene and thus more central to the story than is typical, while Gene Lockhart plays Bob Cratchit as genial, round, and playful. One of the more interesting tidbits of this picture is the presence of the gathered Lockhart family, including Gene's wife, Kathleen, as Mrs. Cratchit, and introducing classic TV favorite June Lockhart in an uncredited role as the Cratchits' daughter, Belinda. Of the ghosts I think the most convincing is character actor Leo G. Carroll as Marley, but Ann Rutherford makes an attractive Ghost of Christmas Past, even if she looks nothing like the apparition imagined by Dickens. Terry Kilburn's Tiny Tim doesn't seem particularly frail aside from his obligatory crutch; he's downright hearty as Tiny Tims go, but that decision is entirely in keeping with the rest of this picture, and thus it's no surprise that the end of the movie feels no need to reassure us about his continued existence.

As one of the most popular texts for adaptation, there's a Christmas Carol movie for every fan's taste, but the 1938 picture doesn't suit mine. Those who love it are welcome to it, but if it isn't for you, either, try the 1951 adaptation starring Alistair Sim, which is considered by many to be the gold standard of Christmas Carol movies, or the more recent live action versions starring George C. Scott (1984) or Patrick Stewart (1999). I'm deeply fond of the Muppet treatment, mainly for Michael Caine's dead serious performance as Scrooge and the fantastic puppetry that brings the Christmas Ghosts to life, but I also love the modernized Bill Murray version in Scrooged (1988) because it brings the themes of Dickens' story into the 20th century in a thoughtful, funny, and provocative way. There's also the fictionalized account of Dickens' experience writing the story in The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017), which takes its own liberties with Dickens' biography but works beautifully as a commentary on the heart of his story and the personal history that inspired it.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Classic Films in Focus: BARBARELLA (1968)

I have frequently declared my affection for movies that are more entertaining than they are good, so it shouldn't surprise anyone that I enjoy the bizarre spectacle of Barbarella (1968) even if it makes no effort to make any sense. Produced by Dino De Laurentiis and directed by Roger Vadim, this adaptation of a French comic book is very much of its era, with sex on its mind and shag carpet covering every inch of its hedonistic heart. It doesn't take itself seriously, and the viewer shouldn't take it seriously, either, but its silliness is part of its appeal, along with the undeniable charms of the very lovely Jane Fonda as its eponymous heroine.

Fonda plays the enlightened space navigatrix who ventures onto a barbaric planet in search of the missing scientist, Durand-Durand (Milo O'Shea). Startled at first by the primitive sexual practices of the locals, she soon develops an appreciation for old-fashioned coitus and proceeds to enjoy encounters with a hairy child catcher (Ugo Tognazzi) and a beautiful blind angel (John Phillip Law) before reverting to her own culture's use of pills for a mind melding tryst with the freedom fighter Dildano (David Hemmings). She eventually makes her way to a city of pure evil where both Durand-Durand and the sadistic ruler, known as The Great Tyrant (Anita Pallenberg), attempt to destroy her and her new friends.

That's pretty much it for the plot, but along the way there are delightfully mad scenes that one only finds in truly weird science fiction films, like the opening spacesuit strip tease, the feral children and their toothy, flesh-eating dolls, the sled pulled by a giant manta ray, the BDSM city where dissipated locals have orgies and smoke "essence of man" from huge hookahs, and the seriously kinky looking pink spaceship that Barbarella pilots. You also get Marcel Marceau in a speaking role as Professor Ping, a casting choice that perfectly sums up the movie's illogical logic. Try to analyze it too much and the whole thing collapses like a house of cards, which makes it difficult to argue whether Barbarella is sexist for Fonda's objectification or feminist for liberating its heroine from mid-century ideals about female chastity and monogamy. It's most likely both at the same time, just like it's both a really bad movie and a really fun one for the right sort of audience, which is true about most pictures that achieve cult status. 

Whatever one's critical opinion of Barbarella, its title as a cult classic cannot be disputed, thanks to its own wacky but memorable images and its influence on the iconic 80s band, Duran Duran, who named their group for its villain and even doubled down on the connection with the 1997 single, "Electric Barbarella." The picture provides an intriguing alternative to the male dominated science fiction adventures that preceded it in both comics and film, including Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, but it also draws from a deep well of influence in the literary and cinematic history of women's sexual escapades, whether that be a pornographic classic like Fanny Hill (1748) or a Pre-Code picture like Madam Satan (1930). Jane Fonda would go on to earn seven Oscar nominations for Best Actress with two wins, which better fit with her legacy as the daughter of Henry Fonda, but her performance as Barbarella is no less entertaining for being out of line with the rest of her career, though it does overlap in several ways with her work in Cat Ballou (1965), another genre comedy that never takes itself seriously. 

If Barbarella is your idea of a good time, revel in the weird charms of other cult sci-fi classics like The Blob (1958), Fiend Without a Face (1958), The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1962), or The Horror of Party Beach (1964). Terry Southern, who wrote the screenplay for Barbarella, earned Oscar nominations for his work on Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Easy Rider (1969), and he wrote the original novel that was adapted into the sex-fueled 1968 film, Candy, where you'll find a host of familiar stars and Anita Pallenberg. Roger Vadim, who was married to Fonda when they made Barbarella, also directed the 1960 vampire picture, Blood and Roses, which I recommend if you're a fan of variations on Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla.