Monday, December 30, 2013

MASSACRE MAFIA STYLE (aka THE EXECUTIONER aka LIKE FATHER LIKE SON) (1978)

"Today, we eat. Tomorrow, we shoot!"
   -- Duke Mitchell in Massacre Mafia Style

One of the many low-budget, 1970s Godfather ripoffs, Massacre Mafia Style is an astonishingly entertaining gangster picture with enough little comedic moments to confirm that you're watching a real movie and not some dengue fever-induced delirium. If you ever wondered what kind of stuff Quentin Tarantino viewed during his video store clerk days, this is the place to start. It's a textbook example of the once-obscure, long-reviled "grindhouse" genre.

Writer-director-producer-star Duke Mitchell plays Mimi Miceli, Jr., whose father, Don Mimi, has been exiled to Sicily for his underworld activities. Mimi leaves his son, Mimi III, with the Don in order to take over the Los Angeles underworld activities.  An enterprising kind of guy, Mimi's first order of business to recruit his old pal Vic Caesar in order to kidnap current L.A. crime kingpin Chucky Tripoli for ransom. Not content with merely providing a photo, Mimi and Vic send Chucky's severed pinkie to his family as proof of their deed. Chucky, holding Mimi's father in respect, refuses to take revenge. Now feeling his gangster oats, Mimi makes good on his vow to wipe out all the local "bookies and black pimps," white pimps apparently being off his hit list. Or, as a newspaper headline shrieks, 13 LA BOOKMAKERS AND PROCURERS SLAIN! When was the last time you saw "procurers" in a newspaper? Or anywhere else?

Still maintaining his respect for the exiled Don yet nervous about the trigger-happy son, Chucky gives Mimi $50,000 to get into a "legitimate business" -- which, in 1978, meant porno movies. You'd think this would keep everybody happy, but Mimi discovers that Chucky has put out a contract on him. Unlike their porno employees, Mimi and Vic refuse to take this lying down, and quickly wipe out Chucky and whoever else gets in the way. But Chucky's remaining board of directors kill both Vic and Mimi's girlfriend Liz as a friendly warning. Mimi scrams to Sicily for the first time in 17 years. Having witnessed too much bloodshed, Mimi begs his father to leave the business. Don Mimi and Mimi III, however, teach him a lesson in the most outlandish, shockingly hilarious climax since Dr. Strangelove. Let's just say you'll never look at a loaf of bread the same way again.

Don't worry, it's got a
vegan urinal cake.
Lacking the epic style -- not to mention big budget, great script and legendary cast -- of Coppola's masterpiece, Massacre Mafia Style instead goes for the visceral shoot-'em-up style that non-demanding, grindhouse patrons crave. The opening three-minute scene, in fact, consists of nothing but Mimi and Vic committing a dozen or so murders, with two consisting of death by urinal (one by drowning, the other by electrocution via a wheelchair plugged into an outlet). And that's before the credits, so you know you're in for a ride wilder than anything at Six Flags.

Your average movie fan wouldn't consider Massacre Mafia Style "great" by any accepted definition of the word. Other than Mitchell, I don't think any of the other "actors" ever stepped in front of an camera that wasn't a Polaroid. Chucky's son, for instance, reacts to the sight of his father's severed finger with the horror of having discovered mustard on his chin. Not that someone of the caliber of Marlon Brando could have done anything with the first-draft dialogue. ("That's Chucky's finger alright," one of his cohorts murmurs, "I've seen it a million times.") Too, certain plot twists make little sense. The opening scene killing spree is accomplished with only two revolvers. Mimi and Vic easily kidnap Chucky at church because the L.A. don doesn't have bodyguards. They even get away with murdering someone on a live talk show. And then there are the obvious budgetary restrictions. This actually makes Massacre Mafia Style's violence all the more palatable, since most of the money seems to have gone to a gallon of Red Dye #3 to (barely) replicate blood. Just to give you an idea of what the production was dealing with, Duke Mitchell allegedly cast a wedding scene by sending out real invitations, then sold the guests' gifts to help finance the movie. Speaking as an admirer of anyone who can put a movie onscreen without studio money, that is genius on the scale of Orson Welles.

"No, I wasn't in National Treasure!"
Marginally better than the rest of the cast, Duke Mitchell's presence is distracted by his strong resemblance to Nicholas Cage and a speaking voice identical to Tony Curtis. Yet Mitchell -- billed under his real name Dominico Miceli -- has a genuine point of view when it comes to the story.  Even while partaking in violent crime, Mimi admits that he and his cohorts have brought shame upon the Italian culture and its people. To drive it home further, he tells his father that a recent, unnamed movie -- "the highest-grossing in the history of show business!" -- portrays him in an insulting light. A Godfather ripoff bringing up The Godfather takes plenty of palle, brother.

Sammy Petrillo and Duke Mitchell in 1952.
Any resemblance to another comedy team
is purely deliberate.
This wasn't Duke's first go-round at the ripoff-rodeo. Twenty-six years earlier, he and 18 year-old Sammy Petrillo were a Martin & Lewis-clone duo when they starred in their magnum opus, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. Mitchell & Petrillo then took their act on the road until Jerry Lewis used his muscle to get them banned from every nightclub in America. (Dean, not surprisingly, had no problem with them making a more-or-less honest buck.) Duke went on to a comfortable career as a third-tier lounge singer; his musical contributions to the Massacre Mafia Style soundtrack remind one of Tony Bennett with a heavy cold. It's one of moviedom's great losses that Duke didn't cast Sammy -- a friend even after they split professionally -- as a member of Chucky Tripoli's posse. That would've been a reunion to rival Dean and Jerry's on the MD Telethon two years earlier.

No matter what it was called
in whatever city it played, the title
made sure to rip off the font
used by The Godfather.
Easy as it is to mock, Massacre Mafia Style possesses a sloppy realism that rings the cracked bell of truth. (If nothing else, its location cinematography, flat lighting and bring-your-own-clothes costuming only emphasize just how damned ugly the '70s were.) And it's this truth that separates it from the glossy, $100-million budgets of Quentin Tarantino's "homages." Without realizing it consciously, I somehow felt that much of what was portrayed in Massacre Mafia Style reflected the real-life mobbed-up nightclub world where Duke performed. Duke himself even pulled that wheelchair-plugged-into-a-urinal-outlet stunt -- presumably with less fatal results -- on someone who ticked him off. Then there are the authentic cultural touches in the celebration scenes: A son tossing his father the first slice of steak as a sign of respect. The silly tarantella-style number sung at the wedding reception. A gift hidden inside a freshly-baked loaf of bread. Unlike any Tarantino picture, Massacre Mafia Style, in its own $50,000-budget way, has soul. It's lived-in. If Tarantino wrote a pimp character named Super Spook, it would just be another "outrageous" un-PC move to rile up Spike Lee. When Duke Mitchell does it, you know it comes from real life. Just Mimi's third-act mea culpa regarding his shame of soiling the Italians' reputation gives him more character than all of Tarantino's too-clever-by-half, live-action marionettes combined.


Forget John Wayne --
this is The Duke.
OK, so maybe I'm singing Massacre Mafia Style's praises a mite too much. Contrary to what the newspaper ad says above, it's not one of the greatest gangster pictures ever made. How could it be when the violence is such that even my wife could watch it without flinching? (Although she was briefly distracted by her Candy Crush game to miss the guy who got the meat hook in the back of his head and through his eye.) What it comes down to is rooting for the underdog when the odds are against him. There's something stirring about a guy like Duke Mitchell, at age 52, financing a movie over a quarter-century after his first and last starring role -- a career move more daring than any of his critics will ever experience. As we're reminded more than once in Massacre Mafia Style, "Either you're in, or you're in the way." Duke Mitchell is definitely in.

                                 *************************
If you do nothing else today, watch the unforgettable trailer for Massacre Mafia Style. Keep in mind that all the action in the trailer takes place in the pre-credit opening scene. (If you can't view it, click here. Please.)

 

                                      




Tuesday, December 17, 2013

OVER THE GOAL (1937)

Over the Goal, like the previously-discussed Tear Gas Squad, is another genre-mashup production from Warner Brothers' B-unit. A dizzying hybrid of sports, crime, comedy, drama, music and romance, its 63 minutes fly by with the ease of a quarterback with a broken fibula. 

Ken Thomas, the prized football-player for Carlton University, has sprained his knee. Ken's sweetie, Lucille, has made him promise not to play in the final game of the season against State University, thus making him a pariah among his classmates. (As one of Over the Goal's characters sagely observes, "There's always a woman at the bottom of every man's troubles." Ain't it the truth.) But once she learns that a deceased wealthy alum has left his entire fortune to Carlton if they win that very game, she gives Ken the OK -- money for the school being more important than him risking a crippling injury.

"OK boys, I want you to
go out there and kick
the crap out of the guy who
 wrote this movie."
A lawyer representing the opposing side of the alum's inheritance, getting wind of Ken's return, frames him for car theft. No slouch at criminal behavior himself, Ken bribes a dimwitted law-enforcement official with a seat on the sidelines in order to get to the game. Suiting up with five minutes to spare, Ken's on the field, where he
hurts his knee again and is knocked out. (The well-trained team doctor slaps him back to consciousness.) Hero that he is, Ken still kicks the winning goal, and to hell with his crumbling knee or any future dementia -- the school gets the dead guy's dough.


You have to wonder what Jack Warner thought when viewing Over the
William Hopper, the only
actor who could double as
a marionette.
Goal in his screening room, if he even saw it at all. It's a given that movies, especially in the '30s, were supposed to provide some kind of escape from audiences' humdrum lives. But, damn, this picture really pushes the concept of escape to levels unseen by the Hubble telescope.  My 17 year-old daughter enjoyed Over the Goal's nonsense with me, shaking her head throughout, amused and stunned by its whiplash story turns and inane subplots. Of course, she was most interested in William Hopper, the actor playing Ken Thomas, whom she immediately recognized as Perry Mason's sidekick Paul Drake. (It's astonishing to me that she's as popular as she is in school while being a fan of arcane entertainment that nobody twice her age has even heard of.) Possessing the rugged personality of a hand towel, William Hopper is way too much the pretty-boy to be convincing as a football player, much like me.
Then there's Johnnie Davis as the team's waterboy Tiny Waldron. Obnoxious as a broken
"Hey coach, why is the audience
running away from me when I sing?"
truck horn, Davis doesn't speak one line of dialogue in a normal tone of voice when screeching will do. A running gag involving a bucket of water over a doorway allows him to laugh hysterically every ten minutes or so, further amping the annoyance quota.  A middling psuedo-jazz singer-trumpet player in his day -- he introduced "Hooray for Hollywood" in 1938 -- Davis gets to cram a couple of numbers into Over the Goal to justify his being there. His singing style can best be described as Louis Prima after gargling with Bab-O while getting his cojones caught in a vise. It's a tribute to Warners' marketing department that Davis' first name is spelled "Johnnie" in the posters and credits, but "Johnny (Hot Stuff)" and "Johnny (Scat)" in the trailer. I'd probably lean toward "Johnny (Scat)" because he sounds like shit.

Davis also figures in Over the Goal's primary subplot. Caught in a minor infraction of school rules, the Carlton seniors order Tiny and his beanie-wearing freshman pals to steal State University's mascot, a black bear who's locked up in a cage the size of your average studio apartment bathroom. (Animal abuse = plenty of laffs.) To do so, they need the help of the bear's former keeper, William, who demands a raccoon coat as payment. This entire
Eddie Anderson waits for
Jack Benny's call so he can
get the heck out of movies
like Over the Goal.
segment could have played even stupider than it sounds. Luckily for us, however, William is played by Eddie Anderson, who, that same year, made his debut as Rochester, the hilariously sardonic valet, on Jack Benny's radio program. An excellent character actor, Anderson possesses the rare qualities of timing and delivery that elevates whatever foolishness he's supposed to partake in -- like, say, the resulting production number. Anderson, now wearing a raccoon coat, leads the hind leg-walking, football helmet-wearing bear around the gymnasium on a leash while Johnnie Davis screams the unforgettable "Scattin' with Mr. Bear" in his air-raid siren voice and the freshmen follow in a conga line. One can only hope that Anderson received hazard pay for this number.
Hattie's sincerity didn't
come cheap.
It's fitting that the only other person in Over the Goal who matches Anderson laugh for laugh is Hattie McDaniel as his long-suffering wife. (She's threatened to sue the bear for the "alteration of affection.") Many race-sensitive viewers these days cringe when she or even Eddie Anderson turn up in old movies. What they don't allow themselves to realize is that these two are great character actors who steal every movie they're in. There's a reason Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award for Gone with the Wind and appeared on a postage stamp, you know. She's also responsible for one of the more incisive quotes regarding the movie industry: "We all respect sincerity in our friends, but Hollywood is willing to pay for it."

You'd smile, too, if you got
top-billing for ten lines of
dialogue.
Warners certainly didn't pay much for Over the Goal's budget, that's for sure. Much of the running time is taken up by stock footage of USC football games subbing for Carlton's, and the endless pep rallies held in the miniscule gymnasium. (At no point is anyone within a hundred yards of a classroom.) The dusty backlot town where Ken is briefly jailed seems to have been left over from a Western.  Presumably most of the money went to the inexplicably-top billed June Travis, whose total screentime as Ken's girlfriend Lucille is roughly three minutes. Either Warners was trying desperately to promote her as its next leading lady, or she was awfully friendly with the casting director.

The Carlton cuties pretend to
enjoy Johnnie Davis licking
an ice cream cone.

Culturally, the most fascinating part of Over the Goal is how well-dressed college student extras are. The guys wear jackets, ties and dressy-trousers, the girls are nicely-turned out in blouses and skirts pressed to within an inch of their lives. The only sign of trouble is when the kids hold a well-behaved protest march begging Ken to play in the big game. In fact, most everyone from faculty on down spends their time guilt-tripping Ken even though he risks permanent injury by playing. Real nice bunch of people they got there at Carlton U.  

The idea of mixing college football with crime was done to better effect by the Marx Brothers in Horse Feathers five years earlier, only they were in on the joke. The cast of Over the Goal, on the other hand, takes this goofiness seriously, or at least does a good imitation of it. (Remember Hattie McDaniel's remark about Hollywood sincerity?) I've seen this movie twice and actually disbelieved it even more the second time around. But both my college-bound daughter and I learned some valuable lessons:

 
1) Football is more important than an education. 
2) You play through the pain. 
3) Bears enjoy walking on their hind legs and wearing football helmets. 

I only hope that she makes Carlton University's early decision. She'll have a blast.  
     
                                                   **************** 

To read about Tear Gas Squad, click here.

Here's Over The Goal's original trailer, with a chunk of "Scattin' with Mr. Bear" for your entertainment pleasure. Like the hype says, it's something to blow about. (You may have to endure a brief commercial first):


Thursday, December 5, 2013

THE WOMAN CONDEMNED (1934)

Another masterwork from the oeuvre of director Mrs. Wallace Reid (of Sucker Money fame), The Woman Condemned is a mystery in that it's impossible to figure out not only the story but how anyone involved kept a straight face while making it. Lacking Mrs. Reid's usual "controversial" subject matter, The Woman Condemned settles instead for a rickety murder melodrama that the B-unit at Warner Bros. thrived on -- only the Warners crew knew what they were doing. And yet it wouldn't have been half as entertaining as what Mrs. Reid and her fellow cineastes churned out. Sometimes talent isn't all it's cracked up to be.
 


Guilty for murdering music
in the first degree.
Radio singer Jane Merrick has just finished warbling a forgettable tune for a studio audience resembling a particularly unforgiving jury. This is her final performance for a while; as the unctuous announcer intones to her fans, "I know you join me in wishing her the best vacation ever." This sap must be a graduate of the Diane Sawyer School of Inappropriate Emoting. 

"I'm in The Woman
Condemned
while my
kid does Eugene
O'Neil. Go figure."
But just where Jane's vacationing is a mystery she's keeping from Jim Wallace, the man who doubles as the station manager and her boyfriend. (Call her the Caucasian Julie Chen.) Jim, by the way, is played by Jason Robards, the father of Jason Robards, Jr., despite looking and sounding more like TCM's ubiquitous host Robert Osborne. That's only the beginning of the confusion The Woman Condemned giddily offers.
Time passes, although the way Mrs. Wallace Reid handles things, you don't know if it's a day or three years. After not hearing a word from Jane since she hit the road, Jim drops by her apartment. Getting the "I don't know nothin'" routine from Sally the maid, Jim leaves, only to see Jane staring down from her bedroom. Jane does the only thing anyone would do if they were hiding: close the drapes five seconds too late. Jim, in return, does the only thing someone would do if he knew his fiance was at home: hire a detective to find her. These two maroons were made for each other.

"Simon says put your hands on your hip."
Later that evening (or maybe a week later -- like I said, Mrs. Wallace Reid doesn't have a high regard for time frames) the police chase a mysterious figure away from Jane's fire escape. Five minutes later, a woman named Barbara Hammond is caught on the same fire escape by a cop with a bad Irish accent. Dragged into night court, Barbara is saved only by Jerry Beall, a reporter who claims to be her fiance, just to get her off the hook and in the hay. The judge, a sucker for lovebirds, marries them on the spot. Surely there must be easier ways to pick up women in L.A. 

After a night out on the town, Barbara is smitten with the creep she's suddenly married to. (It took my wife at least a week following our marriage.) However, Barbara needs to leave a while, but promises to return to her life of Mrs. Jerry Beall in a few days. This movie has more women pulling disappearing acts than a Las Vegas lounge show.

"Thank goodness two people can't see
 me peeking through the shades from
five feet away."
Not having learned her lesson the first time, Barbara once again winds up on Jane's fire escape just in time to see Jane in her living room with Dapper Dan, a gigolo so oily he rivals the Exxon Valdez. (Fans of O Brother Where Art Thou may recall Dapper Dan as the brand of hair cream favored by George Clooney.) Jane is apparently in love with Dapper Dan enough to finance his craps game despite his seeming indifference toward her.  A moment after Dapper Dan leaves, Jane is fatally shot. Barbara, pistol in hand, is arrested for the murder. While waiting for the police to arrive, a neighbor keeps Barbara at gunpoint, telling his wife, "I'll keep an eye on this woman," hitting that last word like an insult. For some reason, characters in these old B-movies are utterly contemptuous of women attempting anything other than housework or stenography. How dare these dames do a man's job like murder!



"Did you hear the one about the
electric chair? It'll kill ya!"
Leave it to Jerry Beall, ace reporter, to do the snooping that cops are paid for. After an inappropriately jokey prison visit with Barbara ("I warn you: I'm not going to be made a widower without a struggle." Real funny guy.), Jerry gets into Jane's apartment and finds a note pad with a phone number belonging to a certain Dr. Wagner. Dropping by Wagner's sanatorium (in these old B-movies, they're always sanatoriums because the word "clinic" isn't ominous enough), Jerry can't get past the front door. Luckily for him, Dr. Wagner is the kind of sawbones who performs surgery in the on the first floor with the shades wide open for all to see. And what Jerry sees here looks an awful like the alleged late Jane Merrick getting brain surgery -- or, this being L.A., possibly a face lift with a shot of botox. Dr. Wagner and his assistant have no idea they're being watched until Sally (Jane's maid) casually drops by the o.r. to say hi. (I hope this kind of thing doesn't go on during surgeries anymore). Sally screams upon noticing Jerry, as would anyone hoping to see a good actor playing his role instead. And, reacting with the same genius possessed by Jane, Dr. Wagner closes the shade after he knows he's been seen. 

Now, say you witnessed a mysteriously-missing radio singer going under the scalpel of what appeared to be a psycho doctor -- what would you do? Of course! Call her boyfriend, wait twenty minutes for him to arrive, then decide that it might be a good idea to call the cops. Shades pulled too late, waiting to call the cops -- these people are sloooooow to move.  So slow that they're held captive by Dr. Wagner, who toy with the idea of slicing open their skulls while they're awake. (This guy is clearly an out-of-network provider.) Fortunately, Sally recognizes Jim as Jane's boyfriend. In no time, Dr. Wagner becomes best pals with the two guys he was ready to lobotomize a moment earlier. Wagner explains that it was really Jane's twin sister Joan who was shot, and that Jane herself was only undergoing surgery to remove a birthmark. Oh. I see.


If you didn't know she was getting
the third-degree, you'd have
thought it was a shampoo
commercial.
But wait! Where does that leave Barbara Hammond, the woman condemned? She's undergoing the third degree down at headquarters, while Dapper Dan watches impassively until the room goes dark. A moment later, the lights go on -- and Jane appears where Barbara once stood. A gunshot rings out; Jane drops to the floor. Taking a page from Los Angeles Police manual How to Get a Confession Out of a Suspect by the Most Preposterous Ways Imaginable, Dapper Dan barks in his thick-as-shell steak Argentinian accent, "I told you I'd get you! You thought I had forgiven you, hanh? But I waited five years to pay you off! Five long years in that pen you sent me to!"  A cops slaps the cuffs on him; Jane, unharmed, gets to her feet. Barbara reveals herself as the detective investigating the Merrick shooting, allowing them to make with the honeymoon. Jane agrees to marry Jim now that her pesky birthmark is gone. And the audience is left to make sense of the previous 61 minutes.

Sudden death and murder. OK...
The Woman Condemned was released by Progressive Pictures, "Progressive" meaning the moving images were created by a camera and not cave drawings illuminated by fire. Boasting all the hallmarks of a Mrs. Wallace Reid effort -- woozy theme music, stilted delivery, awkward transitions, mediocre sound, a budget that wouldn't cover the cost of a kitchen makeover -- The Woman Condemned doesn't even attempt to convey even the most rudimentary police procedures that were in place by 1934. Ballistics tests, taking fingerprints, studying clues. The closest a cop comes to examining the corpse is muttering, "Murder, hunh?" There's a promotion just waiting for that flatfoot.

But, as with similar low-budget movies of its time, there are a few interesting location shots, including an all-too brief nighttime car chase through downtown Los Angeles, complete with storefront Christmas decorations. Jerry and Barbara's studio-bound first date is intercut with an authentic (albeit second-rate) nightclub performance featuring glamor girls whose entire act seems to consist of wearing oversize feathers. Historically, these are the most interesting scenes in The Woman Condemned. Artistically, too. 


The doctor will see you now.
As the creepy Dr. Wagner, the always-terrific Mischa Auer is The Woman Condemned's only familiar -- and compelling -- actor. Filming him from Jim's point of view as he (Auer) approaches threateningly with a scalpel is Mrs. Wallace Reid's one inspired moment. For reasons unexplained, Auer's name is spelled "Aver" in the credits. I initially thought they were going for that fancy-shmancy old-school Greek typography. But considering the quality of the rest of the movie, the designer was probably drunk.

Is this the face that launched 25
years of Three Stooges shorts?


Claudia Dell, who plays Barbara Hammond, deserves a mention for reasons having nothing to do with The Woman Condemned. For one thing, she co-starred in Yellow Cargo, another movie discussed on this site. More importantly, Ms. Dell is said to be one of the three women who modeled for the original Columbia Pictures logo. You can bet she got mighty sick of jokers asking, "Hey Claudia, who ya carryin' that torch for, haw haw!"


"Have you heard my husband was
a junkie?"
As those who remembered reading about Sucker Money will attest (very few, I would guess), Mrs. Wallace Reid -- nee Dorothy Davenport -- was the only woman who capitalized on her husband's drug overdose by taking his name professionally. If nothing else, this definitely set her apart from the rest of the crowd even more than being one of the few female directors of her time. Somebody ought to try it now. While I'm not generally a fan of remakes, I would pay good money to see a movie with the following credits:

                      THE CONDEMNED WOMAN
                                   Starring
                           JENNIFER ANISTON 
                                 Directed by 
                             MRS. BRAD PITT 

                         ***********************

One of Mrs. Wallace Reid's other movies, Sucker Money, is discussed here.
Claudia Dell's Yellow Cargo is discussed here.