Monday, April 30, 2012

15 Greatest TV Characters of the 1960s: Mister Ed

Name: Mister Ed

Portrayed by: Bamboo Harvester; voiced by Allan Lane

TV series: Mister Ed (1961-66)

Occupation: Horse

Family and Friends: Wilbur Post was not only Ed's owner, but also his best friend (Ed affectionately calls him "Buddy Boy"). Ed's mother, Betsy, was a plough horse. Ed tried to adopt a son, Snuffy, in the episode "My Son, My Son."  Ed was quite the ladies' horse. He had many girlfriends, including Princess Helen (he gave her a heart-shaped bundle of hay), Daphne (an equine film star), Sabrina, and Lady Linda. Friends who attended his nine-year-old birthday party included Domino, Flossie, and Frenchie.

Talents:  Well, Ed could talk!  He was also a musician (played the accordion, wrote a song called "Empty Feedbag Blues"); painter; athlete (played baseball, surfed, etc.); college mascot; and interior decorator.

Trademarks: Feigned illness to garner sympathy (e.g., used apples in his cheeks for "Ed Gets the Mumps"); left detailed notes on his whereabouts when he ran away from home.

Classic quotes: "I love Christmas. Wilbur is so full of the spirit of giving and I'm so full of the spirit of receiving" and "You know, I only talk to you, Wilbur."

Celebrities Who Met Ed:  Zsa Zsa Gabor, Mae West, Leo Durocher, George Burns, and Clint Eastwood.

Classic episodes: "Ed the Stowaway" (Ed goes to Hawaii and surfs); "The Horsetronaut" (Ed volunteers to be the first horse in space); and "Ed Goes to College" (to become a Ph.D.--Palomino Horse Doctor).

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Taste of Spaghetti...Westerns

The long dusters. The dirty towns. Extreme close-ups. Lengthy stares. Dubbed dialogue. And, of course, the Morricone music. I love a good Spaghetti Western! Here are my top 10 films in this popular genre from the 1960s and 1970s.

Bronson as Harmonica.
1. Once Upon a Time in the West - I never cared for the slang term "horse opera," but "operatic" definitely describes what I consider to be Sergio Leone's masterpiece. This sprawling saga of a dying West boasts interlocking stories, some marvelous set pieces, a terrific Ennio Morricone score (with unique themes for each of the four leads), and memorable characters (which both support and defy Western film stereotypes). My favorite parts are the opening (it's a long wait but I love the payoff) and the almost over-the-top showdown between Charles Bronson's mysterious Harmonica and Henry Fonda's vile villain Frank.

Lee Van Cleef.
2. For a Few Dollars More - My favorite of the Leone-Eastwood collaborations is almost a rehearsal for Once Upon a Time in the West. In the latter film, Charles Bronson wears a harmonica around his neck--and we learn why in the flashblack that explains his need for revenge against Henry Fonda's character. In For a Few Dollars More, Lee Van Cleef carries a watch that serves the same purpose. Eastwood's sarcastic humor and Van Cleef's steely resolve make them a great pair.

It's hard to see Hill's "Paul Newman"
blue eyes in this photo.
3. Trinity Is Still My Name - The sequel to They Call Me Trinity is funnier than the original, with Terence Hill and Bud Spencer back as the West's most unlikely--and filthiest--brothers. Hill became a big European star, but his success never translated in the U.S. (though he tried in movies like March or Die with Gene Hackman). His oddball humor works very well in the Trinity Westerns, especially playing against the gruff, burly Spencer. Hill (real name Mario Girotti) and Spencer (Carlo Pedersoli) appeared as a team in numerous films, including other Spaghetti Westerns and contemporary action comedies.

There are five...count 'em!
4. The Five Man Army - I'll admit upfront that I'm a sucker for movies where someone assembles a team to accomplish a mission (e.g. The Adventures of Robin HoodTheMagnificent SevenThe Dirty Dozen). So, here we have Peter Graves--who knows something about impossible missions--assembling a team of specialists to rob a moving train. Horror film maestro Dario Argento co-wrote it (he and Bertolucci also worked on Once Upon a Time) and Morricone contributed yet another memorable score. Plus, where else can you find James Daly and Bud Spencer in the same film?

5. Red Sun - OK, it may not technically be a Spaghetti Westernsince it was made in Spain with an international cast. Also, I confess there's not much of a plot (a valuable Japanese sword is stolen and everyone goes after it). But Charles Bronson and Tohiro Mifune make a fine odd couple, Alain Delon does his patented good/bad guy, and Ursula Andress...well, she's just there. Still, it's surprisingly entertaining and holds up well.

6. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly - Most Spaghetti Western buffs probably list this in the No. 1 or No. 2 spot. I might have, too, until I watched it recently. Certainly, the cast is excellent (especially Eli Wallach) and Morricone's score is his most famous. Many critics highlight how the plot plays out against an elaborate backdrop of the Civil War. Actually, that's the part I don't like; it lengthens the film for me and detracts somewhat from the interplay between the three stars. Still, many of the battle scenes are impressive. And, yes, I know I'll take some heat for placing a classic at No. 6...

Franco Nero as Django. Note the
crosses in the background.
7. Django - The plot recalls A Fistful of Dollars (see #10), with a mysterious stranger coming between two warring factions in a small town--but the similarities end there. Religious images abound, starting with the film's protagonist dragging a coffin through the mud and ending with Django, both hands crushed, trying to balance his pistol on a cross as he awaits a graveyard showdown with a band of bad guys. It's an uneven, violent picture (banned in some countries), but the climax may be surpassed only by Once Upon a Time among Spaghetti Westerns. 

8. My Name is Nobody - Another unlikely Leone teaming: this time between Henry Fonda as a veteran gunslinger and Terrence Hill as an up-and-coming one. (Techincally, Leone did not make this film, but his influence is all over it and some sources claim he directed some scenes). More an essay on celebrity than a Western, it benefits from an offbeat sense of humor.

9. Sabata - Van Cleef made other Spaghetti Westerns (including Death Rides a Horse, which I haven't seen), but this one probably confirmed him as Eastwood's successor as a solo star. It also helped popularize the "trick weaponry" used in other Westerns (e.g., Sabata carries a pistol that fires from the handle).

10. A Fistful of Dollars Obviously, it's my least favorite of the Leon-Eastwood films, even though it was inspired by Kurosawa's Yojimbo. Still, it's historically significant and the final shootout is a classic.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Black Belt Jones Lacks Punch, Needs More Kicks

The popularity of Blaxploitation films had already begun to wane by 1974, just three brief years after Shaft made a box office splash. The genre needed a kick and producer Fred Weintraub hoped to provide that--literally--with his urban martial arts film Black Belt Jones. Weintraub and director Robert Clouse were responsible for the previous year's international hit Enter the Dragon, which sealed Bruce Lee's superstardom. Their idea to blend Blaxploitation and kung fu must have seemed like a natural fusion. To ensure a smooth transition, they cast American African karate champion Jim Kelly, who appeared in Enter the Dragon, in Black Belt Jones.

Kelly plays the title character, a streetwise kung fu master, who comes to the aid of his mentor Pop Byrd (Scatman Crothers). Pop's inner city Black Bird Karate School has attracted the attention of a local Mafioso with inside knowledge of the real estate's future value. When Pop refuses to sell, Don Steffano sends some thugs (led by Pinky...nice name!) over to rough him up. During the fight, Pop has a heart attack and dies. Belt Belt is determined to avenge Pop, save the school, and help out the Feds--with some unexpected help from Pop's black black belt daughter Sydney (Gloria Hendry).

Kelly in fight mode as Black Belt Jones.
There are numerous excellent action films--Enter the Dragon and Where Eagles Dare spring to mind--that cast credibility aside. If the action scenes are well-staged and frequent enough, the viewer won't have time to dwell on plot flaws. It helps, too, if the performers are charismatic. Unfortunately, Black Belt Jones falls flat in these areas. The title sequence, consisting of freeze frames that interrupt Kelly's swift punches and powerful kicks, is indicative of the film's problems. It robs a potentially exciting fight scene of its speed and rhythm. As the film progresses, the pacing problem worsens and the more time we have to dwell on its plot, the more incredulous Black Belt Jones becomes. A toupeed Scatman Crothers as a kung fu master?

With John Saxon in Enter the Dragon.
Kelly was fine as a supporting player in Enter the Dragon (especially considering he was a last minute replacement for Rockne Tarrington). It helped, of course, that the screenwriters gave him many of the film's memorable quips ("Man, you're right out of a comic book!"). Also, if you add up his screen time, Kelly wasn't in much of Enter the Dragon, which was designed as a star vehicle for Lee. In Black Belt Jones, Kelly is expected to carry much of the load. He manages well in the fight scenes (though, even there, his martial arts style is not as fluidly cinematic as Lee's). In his "acting" scenes, he tries to exude cool--though his cool quotient  is relatively low compared to charismatic actors such as Richard Roundtree in Shaft.

Surprisingly, Black Belt Jones has its admirers, which I attribute to its karate scenes and camp factor. I suppose one could argue that it was always intended as camp, making my criticisms pointless. My belief is Weintraub and Clouse wanted to make a mindless genre film mixing action and humor. Achieving that right amount of balance (as Jackie Chan did in many of his films) can be challenging and that's where Black Belt Jones fails for me. Still, it did well enough at the box office to garner a sequel, 1976's Hot Potato, which sends Black Belt to an Asian country to rescue a senator's daughter.

Kelly worked steadily throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, with lead roles in films like Black Samurai. He also appeared in three films with Jim Brown and Fred Williamson: Three the Hard Way; the unusual Blaxploitation-Spaghetti Western Take a Hard Ride; and One Down, Two to Go (also with Richard Roundtree). Except for occasional film appearances, he retired from acting in 1982. He subsequently became a professional tennis player and appeared on the USTA Senior Men's Circuit.

It doesn't even look like a
Jackie Chan movie.
Filmmakers Fred Weintraub and Robert Clouse continued to make occasional martial arts films with splashes of humor. They introduced Jackie Chan to American audiences with The Big Brawl in 1980. Unfortunately, it veered too much from Jackie's natural persona and never found an audience. Jackie Chan wouldn't hit it big in the U.S. until 15 years later when Rumble in the Bronx became a sleeper hit.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Some Like It Cold in "Ski Party"

Technically, I suppose that Ski Party doesn't qualify as part of AIP's Beach Party series. There's no Annette (except for a cameo), no beach (except for a scene at the climax), no Eric Von Zipper, and no aging classic film star. And yet...it features many Beach Party regulars (including the stars), the trademark bouncy tunes, a rock'n'roll legend (James Brown!), a pop chanteuse (Lesley Gore!), and--despite all the snow--plenty of bikinis. Okay, maybe it is a Beach Party movie!

Frankie Avalon and Dwayne Hickman.
Frankie Avalon and Dwayne Hickman star as Tod and Craig, two college chums trying to connect with a couple of curvy co-eds. Despite being a self-described "nice clean-cut American boy with a C+ average," Tod can't get even get a kiss from girlfriend Linda (Deborah Walley). Even worse, when Tod and Linda double-date at a drive-in with Craig and Barbara (Yvonne Craig), the girls giggle together in the convertible's backseat--leaving the guys to console one another in the front seat. Later, when Tod mentions Freddie, the campus's resident chick-magnet, Linda melts dreamily ("Ooh, ahh, Freddie..." she sighs).

Dwayne and Frankie as girls.
When the girls join Freddie and "the gang" on a trip to a ski resort, Tod and Craig tag along, too--even though neither can ski. After blundering through their first ski lesson with the guys, Tod decides they might have better luck in the girls' class. To earn admittance, he and Craig disguise themselves (none too well) as English exchange students Jane and  Nora. They soon become the most popular guests at the ski lodge! The other girls invite them to a pajama party and Freddie decides that Nora/Craig is his soul-mate. Yes, my friends, Ski Party is the Beach Party-equivalent of Some Like It Hot!

The most enjoyable aspect of Ski Party is Frankie Avalon's role reversal. In the Beach Party films pairing him with Annette, Frankie's character cringes at the mention of marriage and flirts openly with other females (though he ultimately remains faithful to Annette). In Ski Party, Tod desperately chases Linda, even though she essentially admits there's spark between them. He's a much more sympathetic character than any of Avalon's prior Beach Party protagonists.

The Swedish ski instructor fends off an amorous Frankie.
Freed of the romantic lead responsibility, Avalon turns in a surprisingly funny performance. His best scene has Tod, who has broken his leg ski jumping, hobbling several miles on crutches through a blizzard to reach the home of Nita, the pretty Swedish ski instructor (Bobbi Shaw). His expectation is that Nita will be "easier" because she's Swedish. However, Nita has learned a few things from the other girls at the ski lodge:

Nita:  I want you should talk to me and treat me like you would the American girls.

Tod:  The American...Nita, I that we were going to...

Nita:  No, no, no. First, we talk. And then candy. Then more talk. Then we can hold hands. Then you ask for the kiss on the cheek. Then maybe the kiss on the cheek. Then...then what comes next?

Tod:  (utterly crushed) I don't know. That's as far as I ever got.

As Avalon's co-star, Dwayne Hickman channels Jack Lemmon from Some Like It Hot, pulling off a nice homage with some amusing scenes as Nora. As Craig, he effectively reprises his unlucky-at-love Dobie Gillis persona (he starred in the TV series for four years). Alas, the normally charming Deborah Walley and Yvonne Craig do not fare as well, primarily because their characters just aren't very likable.

James Brown doing his moves.
Musician Marshall Crenshaw, author of Hollywood Rock: A Guide to Rock'n'Roll in the Movies, considers the Ski Party soundtrack to be "the best in an any AIP beacher." It's hard to argue. Lesley Gore sings one of her biggest hits "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows" (written by Marvin Hamlisch). The Hondells play "The Gasser" and the title tune. And, best of all, James Brown and the Fabulous Flames deliver a dynamic performance of "I Got You (I Feel Good)."


Annette cameos as a college
professor in Ski Party.
Yet, while Ski Party features good music and pleasant performances, I must admit that I miss Annette Funicello and Harvey Lembeck. Her sweetness and his silliness were essential elements of the best Beach Party movies and, for that reason alone, I've decided that Ski Party is almost part of the BP series--but not quite.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Buff Guys, Bikini Babes, and Rockin' Surf Music Abound in "Muscle Beach Party"

Julie, the Contessa, watches
as Flex flexes his muscles.
Contessa: You’re so strong. Flex: I’m the strongest.
Contessa: And so handsome.
Flex: I’m the handsomest.
Contessa: And so big.
Flex: Yes, ma’m.
Contessa: I want to be alone with you.
Flex: Did you see this tricep?
Contessa: I want to take you away with me.
Flex: The way I can make it ripple?
Contessa: Right now.
Flex: I haven’t had my lunch.

Jack Fanny (Don Rickles) motivates his bodybuilders,
led by Peter Lupus on the far right.
I have something in common with a Contessa. No, it’s not the wealth, nor the beauty. But we both think Peter Lupus, billed under the stage name Rock Stevens, is cute and fun. Muscle Beach Party gives Lupus’s character Flex Martian, also known as Mr. Galaxy, a chance to really show off his award-winning physique. Lupus became regular Willie Armitage on Mission: Impossible two years after this classic entry in the Beach Party series. Flex proudly wears a shiny purple bathing suit with a gold cape and is surrounded by seven shorter muscular men in shiny pink bathing trunks and pink capes (named Biff, Rock, Tug, Riff, Hulk, Sulk, and Clod) and their manager Jack Fanny, perfectly portrayed by Don Rickles.

Frankie explains to Dee Dee, a bit
condescendingly, that "girls don't fly."
Series regulars Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello are back in this second Beach Party entry as Frankie and Dee Dee, along with Jody McCrea as their friend Deadhead and shimmying Candy Johnson as Candy. The film opens with Frankie beginning to feel pressured by Dee Dee to make a commitment to settle down when he just wants to keep having fun with his beach friends.

Luciana Paluzzi before Thunderball.
Meanwhile, the Contessa Julie, played by the luminous Luciana Paluzzi (best known as Fiona Volpe in Thunderball), arrives in her luxury ocean liner. She proves to be indecisive, thinking she is in love first with Flex and then with Frankie, when she comes across him wistfully singing “A Boy Needs a Girl (He Can Count On)” on a moonlit beach. She decides she likes Frankie’s voice and boyish charms even more than the buff strongman’s--to the disgust of Dee Dee, who calls her the Bride of Godzilla at one point.

Annette surfing in her cute suit...
in front of a rear screen wave.
Annette plays the lovely girl next door and wears one of her prettiest two piece swimsuits, with a net draped across the top. We hear her sing “A Girl Needs a Boy (She Can Count On)” with an echo effect that came to be known as the "Annette sound." Part of the fun of Muscle Beach Party is hearing songs performed enthusiastically by Donna Loren, Little Stevie Wonder (who was 14 at the time), and Dick Dale and the Del-Tones.

Morey Amsterdam mugging
as Cappy.
Entertaining supporting performances abound, including Morey Amsterdam reprising the role of proprietor Cappy from Beach Party, Buddy Hackett as the Contessa's business manager, Peter Turgeon as Julie’s lawyer, and even a turn by Peter Lorre as the strong yet silent partner of Jack Fanny. Yet, despite the presence of such veteran funnymen, Harvey Lembeck is sorely missed as motorcycle gang leader Eric Von Zipper. Muscle Beach Party is the only one of the seven Beach Party movies without Lembeck.

The ending is not a surprise but viewers watch Beach Party films for the fun in the sun and the singing and dancing. There are lots of shots of surfing and even a “walls of Jericho” to separate the young women from the young men in their cramped lodging. It's a perfect movie for light summer viewing, with or without a beach.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Who's Singing That 1960s Movie Song? It's Matt Monro, the "British Frank Sinatra"!

Although I know it's intended as a compliment, I've never cared that pop singer Matt Monro was once labeled the "British Frank Sinatra." I've always preferred him over Sinatra! Sadly, Monro never achieved lasting fame in the U.S., peaking with a couple of Top 40 hits in the 1960s. But I suspect many of you have heard his voice in films such as From Russia With Love, The Quiller Memorandum, The Italian Job (1969), and Born Free.

Monro, whose real name was Terry Parsons, was born in London in 1930. After a stint in the Army and working as a bus driver (one of his later nicknames was "The Singing Bus Driver"), Monro attracted the attention of popular pianist Winifred Atwell. She helped him secure a contract with Decca Records, where he first recorded as Matt Monro (it's often misspelled as Munro or Monroe).

His big break came in 1959, when George Martin (who would later produce the Beatles) asked for his assistance. Martin was working with Peter Sellers on a satirical album called Songs for Swingin' Sellers. To help Sellers master a Frank Sinatra imitation for the song "You Keep Me Swingin'," Martin asked Monro to sing a "guide track." When Sellers heard it, he decided he couldn't improve on it, so Monro's version of the song appears on the album (although he's billed as Fred Flange).

Monro and George Martin teamed up again on "Portrait of My Love," a 1960 ballad that hit No. 3 in the United Kingdom. Monro's follow-up, "My Kind of Girl," peaked at No. 5 in the UK, but also hit No. 18 on the Billboard Top 40 chart in the U.S. His biggest success, and only other Top 40 record in the U.S., was "Walk Away" (No. 4 in UK, No. 23 in the U.S.).

Concurrently, Monro began recording songs for films, working frequently with composer John Barry and lyricist Don Black (who co-wrote "Walk Away"). Monro was the first singer to croon a James Bond song when he sang the title tune over the closing credits of From Russia With Love (1963). He sang Barry's haunting song "Wednesday's Child" in the spy thriller The Quiller Memorandum (1966). However, the most famous Barry-Monro collaboration was the Oscar-winning 1966 title song from Born Free. Although Monro's vocal version is widely known, it was eclipsed on the pop charts by pianist Roger Williams' instrumental cover.

Matt Monro's sole venture into acting was in a supporting role in Satan's Harvest, a 1970 action film about drug smuggling in South Africa. It was written and directed by Monro's friend George Montgomery. It starred Tippi Hedren and Montogomery and included Monro singing "Two People."

Matt Monro died in 1985 at age 54 of liver cancer. There aren't many video clips of Matt Monro, but my favorite is the incredible medley below from the 1964 TV series Shindig featuring this amazing assembly of talent: The Righteous Brothers, Donna Loren, Chad and Jeremy, Matt, Tina Turner, and Neil Sedaka.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Foxy Brown: "She's a whole lotta woman!"

Pam Grier as Foxy Brown.
Coffy or Foxy Brown? I've been debating which Pam Grier movie to review this month (I quickly ruled out less stellar efforts like Sheba, Baby). I finally concluded that Coffy may be the better-made film, but Foxy Brown has had a greater impact on pop culture. After all, Quentin Tarantino renamed the title charactor in Jackie Brown as a tribute to Foxy. Pam Grier titled her autobiography Foxy: A Life in Three Acts. Foxy Brown has been referenced in everything from the TV show Bones (with Pam as a guest star) to an Austin Powers movie to a rapper who changed her name to...Foxy Brown.

Foxy again? No, this is
Pam as Coffy.
So who is Foxy Brown? Well, it's not clear from the 1974 film--perhaps because it was originally intended as a Coffy sequel called Burn, Coffy, Burn! (which makes no sense...because who likes burned coffee?). However, American-International Pictures decided against a Coffy follow-up at the last minute, leaving little time to revamp the screenplay. As a result, while we knew Coffy was a nurse, Foxy's occupation is never mentioned. (She earns a sizable income through some means, though, judging from her extensive, flashy wardrobe).

The film's plot hinges around the two men in her life: her inept, drug-dealing brother Link and her boyfriend, Michael, a former undercover narc who just had plastic surgery so he and Foxy can lead a normal life together. Drug dealer and narc--yes, Foxy's life is filled with irony.

Link owes $20,000 to Miss Katherine (Kathryn Loder), who operates a successful drug and prostitution business with assistance from her stylishly-dressed boyfriend Steve (Peter Brown from Ride the Wild Surf). Foxy rescues Link from Miss Katherine's thugs and lets him hide out in her house. At this point, I started to question Foxy's judgment.

Meanwhile, Michael gets released from the hospital. When he shows up at Foxy's house, Link thinks Michael looks familiar. Later, Link spots a newspaper clipping with a pre-plastic surgery photo of Michael (one has to wonder why Foxy left it out with her brother in the house). Somehow, Link--who is none too bright--figures out Michael's identity and sells that info to Miss Katherine for the $20,000 he owes. Then, Link tells his girlfriend that he's staying at Foxy's home. The thugs find out Michael's location from Link's girl and promptly gun down the former narcotics agent. When Foxy learns of Michael's demise, she barely sheds a tear before swearing to bring down those who killed him.

While one could say there's not a lot of logic in director Jack Hill's script, I could argue that there are indeed stupid people in the world. My only issue is with the plastic surgeon. If Link could recognize Michael's new face that quickly, then that plastic surgeon should have been sued for malpractice and barred from his profession. (Of course, who could sue him? His patient was dead.)

There's a gun in that Afro! Really.
The fact that Foxy Brown succeeds as solid entertainment, despite its narrative deficiencies, can be attributed wholly to Pam Grier. She dominates every scene she's in, whether she's modeling a form-fitting evening gown, pulling a gun out of her Afro after being frisked, or pummeling people that get in her way. In one of my favorite scenes, she confronts an angry lesbian bar patron trying to hit on a female friend:

Woman: Listen, skinny, before you start talking tough, I'd better warn you I have a black belt in karate. So why don't you get out of here quietly while you still got some teeth left in that ugly face?

Foxy: (knocking down a bar stool) And I've got my black belt in bar stools!

It's worthwhile to mention that Foxy Brown was one of the action films with a female hero and villain (though I wish Miss Katherine would have been a stronger character). Yet, despite all the female empowerment, there's a scene in which a captured Foxy gets victimized by two bad guys. If the intent was to add further motivation for Foxy's extreme actions at the climax, I don't buy it. Her grief over Michael's murder (which could been emphasized more) should have been adequate grounds for her actions.

Foxy Brown is a flawed film, to be sure, but an important one for its star, the promotion of strong female characters, and the Blaxploitation genre. It also created one of the great characters of the 1970s. As Link explains to his girlfriend after Foxy roughs him up: "That's my sister, baby. And she's a whole lotta woman!"

Thursday, April 5, 2012

As James Brown Sings: It's Hard to be the Boss in "Black Caesar"

Versatile directors always intrigue me. Michael Curtiz excelled at contemporary drama (Casablanca), costume adventures (The Adventures of Robin Hood), and musicals (White Christmas). Robert Wise gave us The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, and The Haunting. This prelude brings us to Larry Cohen, the creative force behind It's Alive, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, Phone Booth (writer only)...and Black Caesar. A low-budget auteur, Cohen proved adept at injecting a fresh point of view into traditional genres. Black Caesar, his Blaxploitation riff on the 1930s gangster film, is a perfect example--and a surprisingly well-made film.

Fred Williamson as Tommy Gibbs.
Loosely based on the Edward G. Robinson classic Little Caesar (1931), Black Caesar chronicles the rise of Tommy Gibbs (Fred Williamson) from teenage hoodlum to Mafia-backed kingpin. Gibbs' story begins in the mid-1960s with a run-in with a crooked cop. That experience lands Gibbs in prison, but provides him with knowledge that he'll exploit years later--when he steals account ledgers incriminating powerful men in New York City.

On release from prison, Gibbs assassinates a Mafia target for "free" to gain an introduction to Cardoza, a local mob leader. Gibbs convinces Cardoza to let run him run a small unprofitable neighborhood in Harlem--which Gibbs quickly transforms into a money-making empire. From there, the nouveau gangster expands his business to the West Coast and sets his sites on replacing Cardoza. Concurrently, the Mafia and the city's crooked district attorney begin to realize that Gibbs is a threat that must be eliminated.

There's nothing new about the plot to Black Caesar. However, Cohen freshens it by creating a three-dimensional anti-hero and infusing interesting touches throughout the film. There is no doubt that Gibbs is a ruthless killer, but he greatly values friends and family. He takes his marriage vows seriously, staying faithful to his wife (at least, until after she cheats on him). I found that to be a refreshing change from many movie gangsters who think nothing of keeping a mistress while posing as a caring husband and father. Furthermore, Gibbs' love of his wife and best friend causes him to spare their lives when he learns that the rumors of their affair are true. Gibbs realizes his decision will cause him to lose face, but he weighs the alternatives and allows his genuine affection for the two to drive his actions.

Of course, a well-written character means nothing without the right actor to inhabit the role. For me, the biggest surprise in Black Caesar is the excellent performance by Fred Williamson. A former football player for the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs, Williamson had only appeared in four movies and an episode of the TV series M*A*S*H. Yet, he captures the swagger, intensity, and anger that propel his character. He makes sure we know Gibbs isn't interested in just making money--he wants to be at the top of the world looking down at the people that looked down on him as a youth. In Williamson's best scene, Gibbs informs his mother that he has bought her the high-rise apartment where she works as a maid. He's totally unprepared for her less-than-enthusiastic reaction and his face changes from joy to disappointment to repressed anger in a matter of seconds.

The James Brown soundtrack.
Cohen gives Black Caesar a smooth urban feel by visually capturing life on the streets. Theater marquees, pawn shops, and street people seem to inhabit every frame. (As a result, the film goes flat when it shifts briefly to the West Coast scenes.) James Brown's funk-driven soundtrack--especially his song "The Boss"--contributes significantly to the hip vibe.

When Black Caesar chalked up solid box office numbers in 1973, American International Pictures pushed Cohen to make a sequel. The challenge was that Cohen had begun work on his horror thriller It's Alive and Williamson was making That Man Bolt. Still, the ever-innovative Cohen shot footage on weekends and used a stand-in for Williamson where possible. The result was Hell Up in Harlem (also 1973), a follow-up that starts with the final five minutes of Black Caesar. It lacks the spark of the original, but Williamson is still good as Gibbs. Cohen rejected James Brown's sequel soundtrack and hired Edwin Starr, best known for his hit song "War." Starr's score, like Hell Up in Harlem as a whole, is perfunctory at best.

Williamson at age 74.
Almost four decades after their collaborations, Cohen and Williamson remain active in the entertainment industry. In 2009, Cohen wrote the Canadian thriller Messages Deleted and Williamson appeared in Zombie Apocalypse: Redemption. And just this evening, I saw Fred Williamson in a TV spot for the Wounded Warriors Project. Apparently, it's true...old (movie) gangsters never die.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Blaxploitation Films: An Overview of the African American Urban Action Genre of the 1970s

Richard Roundtree as Shaft.
The term “Blaxploitation" was coined in the early 1970s to describe a genre of low-budget, action pictures that featured mostly American African actors and typically played in urban neighborhood theaters.  Some critics considered these movies offensive, charging that their African Americans protagonists were poorly-developed stereotypes. Indeed, Blaxplotation "heroes" were often private eyes, gangsters, and drug dealers that were violent, sexually insatiable, and defiant of authority. Those traits were certainly nothing new in 1970s cinema--Dirty Harry's Inspector Callahan was more violent than the private eye hero in Shaft and James Bond was more promiscuous. What made Shaft unique was that its protagonist was a black man and--at a time when the only African American movie star was Sidney Poitier--that was a game-changer.

The mainstream success of Blaxploitation pictures like Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) and Shaft (1971) spawned dozens of urban action films from 1971 to 1976. Richard Roundtree, who exuded cool as John Shaft in three films, became the genre's first star, but others quickly followed: former football player Fred Williamson; feisty Pam Grier; and, to a lesser degree, Tamara Dobson (Cleopatra Jones), karate champion Jim Kelly (Black Belt Jones), and Bernie Casey (Hit Man).

The majority of Blaxploitation films were aimed to simply entertain. They were, after all, "exploitation films," defined in The Film Encyclopedia as movies "made with little or no attention to quality or artistic merit but with an eye to a quick profit, usually via high-pressure sales and promotion techniques emphasizing some sensational aspect of the product." Still, the Blaxploitation genre made a lasting impact on the film industry by spotlighting African American actors, indirectly promoting female empowerment, and producing memorable film soundtracks.  

Williamson in Black Caesar.
Actors like Richard Pryor, Godfrey Cambridge, and William Marshall had established solid credentials in the entertainment industry well before the start of Blaxploitation films. However, their careers got a substantial boost when they landed starring roles in The Mack (Pryor), Cotton Comes to Harlem (Cambridge), and Blacula (Marshall). Jim Brown was already a leading man, but the box office hits Slaughter, Black Gunn, and Three the Hard Way made him a bona fide genre superstar. And, as mentioned earlier, the Blaxploitation genre created its own stars in Richard Roundtree, Fred Williamson, Bernie Casey, and Pam Grier--all of whom went on to long careers in film and television.

Pam Grier as Foxy Brown.
Quentin Tarantino has suggested that Pam Grier was Hollywood's first female action star. It's hard to disagree, given her body of work in action films like Coffy, Foxy Brown, and Friday Foster. Combining toughness, sexuality, and female empowerment, Grier dominated the male characters in her films. Even when she became their victim briefly, as in Foxy Brown, she retaliated with a vengeance.

When The Washington Times compiled a list of the Top 10 Female Action Stars earlier this year, Pam Grier ranked #9. Except for Linda Hamilton in Terminator (1991) and Sigourney Weaver in Alien (1979), every other actress listed is from a film made in 2001 or later. Thus, Grier was breaking ground for female action stars that wouldn't be plowed for two more decades--an impressive achievement.

Blaxploitation films also broke ground with urban soundtracks composed by well-known musicians such as Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, and James Brown. Hayes scored a No. 1 Billboard hit with "Theme from Shaft," which also earned an Academy Award for Best Song. His Shaft soundtrack was so popular that Hayes was cast in the lead role in his own Blaxploitation film, Truck Turner (he also composed its soundtrack). Still, music critics generally regard Curtis Mayfield's Superfly soundtrack as the best for a Blaxploitation film. In fact, the success of Mayfield's No. 4 single, "Freddie's Dead"--which was released before Superfly--may have contributed to the film's success. James Brown's soundtrack for Black Caesar is considered one of his strongest albums.

William Marshall in Blacula.
Speaking of Black Caesar, it's one of several Blaxploitation films with interesting origins. Writer-director Larry Cohen (It's Alive) based Black Caesar  loosely on the 1931 gangster film Little Caesar. The 1972 film Hit Man was a remake of the Michael Caine thriller Get Carter. Black Mama, White Mama appears to be a loose remake of The Defiant Ones. The mainstream success of Blacula (which featured a fine lead performance from William Marshall) spawned other horror films: Blackenstein; Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde; Sugar Hill (about zombies); and the sequel Scream, Blacula, Scream.

This month, the Classic Film & TV Cafe pays homage to the Blaxploitation films--the African American urban action films of the 1970s. Yes, they were violent exploitation films and lasted for just a few years. Yet, they remain an important part of American cinema history and warrant a closer look.