Thursday, June 5, 2014

POP GEAR (1965) and HAVING A WILD WEEKEND (1965)

Other than two live concert numbers by the Beatles (lifted from the 1963 short The Beatles Come to Town), Pop Gear consists of nothing but lip-synched performances by over a dozen, mostly forgotten musical acts playing their records that charted in the UK. Only a handful were ever released in America, and for very good reason. Most of the music presented here ranges from bland, mainstream, over-produced pop to bland, mainstream, over-produced pop-rock. Not that you can tell the difference. If nothing else, Pop Gear should put to rest the myth that the 1960s British music scene was the swingingest in the world.




God almighty, what an idiot.
Just as every band west of the Rockies wanted to be the next Beach Boys, so did every band within a thousand-mile radius of Liverpool strive to make it big by wearing collarless jackets, skinny ties, and "mod" haircuts. Talent? What's that? And so Pop Gear offers us, without shame, Tommy Quickly singing "Humpty Dumpty" while grinning like a mental ward patient on an all-night masturbation jag. Yes, "Humpty Dumpty" the nursery rhyme. In 1965. The year that the Beatles recorded "Norwegian Wood." Now, to be fair, most of the songs in Pop Gear were originally released in 1964 -- the year the Beatles recorded "Things We Said Today." Get the picture?

Got to get you off the stage.
And speaking of the Beatles, the instrumental band Sounds Incorporated promised to be of mild interest, having provided the backing tracks for "Got to Get You into my Life" and "Savoy Truffle." So they must have some kind of cool factor, right? Sure -- until they play their big number, the "William Tell Overture." Had Rossini heard his piece arranged for three bellowing saxophones, he'd have asked Tell to shoot an arrow through his head.

Perhaps rightly thinking that performers standing in one place could make Pop Gear even more unwatchable, the director wrongly told them to walk around in circles for three minutes, to the obvious embarrassment of those who were more self-aware. Did you ever think Herman's Hermits would ever be described as self-aware? Me neither.


This is rock & roll?
Forgive me for not going into further detail, but I admit to fast-forwarding through most of Pop Gear, the majority the bands being entirely interchangeable and utterly forgettable. American audiences (who saw it under the title Go Go Mania) must have been baffled by the line-up. For every Peter & Gordon, Animals, and Herman's Hermits, there's Billie Davies, the Rockin' Berries, the Fourmost, Four Pennies, the San Remo Four (there must have been a law requiring audiences to know how many people were in the band), and others who were completely unknown over here. Too, what were they to make of dancers "interpreting"  terrible pop instrumentals by artless studio musicians trying desperately to imitate the Mersey sound, or the crooning of Matt Munro, the UK's answer to Vic Damone?

No, there's nothing skeevy about this guy.
The whole shebang is hosted by Jimmy Savile of the UK's legendary music series Top of the Pops. Resembling Marty Feldman after semi-successful corrective eye surgery, Savile was the kind of wacky personality who was popular with all ages. That all came crashing down after his death when an investigation showed him to have been a major player in a pedophile ring that operated out of the BBC for decades. When you're aware of that piece of the story, there's something unsettling about how he anticipates Pop Gear's first number, "Little Children." Seriously.


The Dave Clark 5's pretentious Having a Wild Weekend (released as Catch Us if You Can in its original UK release) must have been a little bizarre to US teens as well. The opening scene promises a combination of A Hard Day's Night (black-and-white cinematography) and Help! (zany friends living together in a zany house). But once Dave Clark is addressed as "Steve," you learn these guys aren't playing themselves, but, rather, stuntmen currently appearing in an ad campaign for the meat council. Steve doesn't dig the job (he's just a piece of meat, get it?), but he seems to fancy the commercial's star, Dinah. She and Steve jump in an MG and escape to the real world, with the other four, and the director of the ad campaign, on their trail.

Unlike the Beatles' movies, Having a Wild Weekend isn't a showcase for a band. No, this is Dave Clark's project all the way. He and Dinah (played by Barbara Ferris) are supposed to be symbols of the freethinking younger generation, but their pseudo-philosophical ramblings are pretty much what you'd expect a couple of budding 23 year-old Rambeaus to babble while on holiday (as the Brits say). Director John Boorman pads out the couple's getaway with endless scenery shots while Dave Clark 5 songs bash away on the soundtrack. It's kind of like playing a record while watching artsy home movies. As I think of it, Having a Wild Weekend is an attempt at what was referred to as a "kitchen sink drama," only after a good scrubbing of Ajax. (Boorman would later polish his C.V. by directing Point Blank and Deliverance.)


As boring as she is pretty.
Likewise.
Ironically for a former actor, Dave Clark himself is the least engaging member of the band, blessed as he is with an acting style consisting of squinting, scowling, and squinting and scowling. The looker of the bunch, Dave is given plenty of soulful James Dean-ish close-ups, but appears to suffering from constipation. His co-star, Barbara Ferris, is cute -- I'm always a sucker for that '60s blonde go-go girl hairdo -- but is appealing as a stick of butter that's been out during a heatwave. These two specious bores are actually perfect for each other, but Dave (or Steve, whatever you want to call him) wants more out of life than ad campaigns for meat; he's looking for the meaning of life by moving to Spain... and becoming a skindiving instructor. What?


Dave Clark leaves Barbara Ferris
to fend for herself.
Written by Dave Clark and bandmate Lenny Davidson, Having a Wild Weekend seems to be deliberately playing to the critics. A subplot featuring the cynical ad agency probably flew right over the heads of the barely-out-of-rompers audience. During their weekend adventure, Steve and Dinah crash a proto-hippie commune, whose equally-turgid denizens are looking for marijuana and heroin. You almost want to applaud when they're all suddenly driven out by army tanks firing live shells at them (Occupy Cotswold!) for no reason other than Dave and Lenny's script wanting to a statement. Whether the statement is anti-military or anti-hippie, well, you'll have to ask them. 

A later segment featuring Steve and Dinah spending an afternoon with a bored suburban couple, Guy and Nan, seems to be lifted from another movie entirely. While the sexually-frustrated Nan puts the moves on Steve, the clueless Guy tries seducing Dinah via his collection of pop culture memorabilia. (That hit a little too close to home for comfort.) Guy is an unhappy man, baffled by the strange world of 1965, wanting nothing more than to escape to an earlier, simpler time, away from the wife who offers him nothing but contempt. It's a strange, biting scene -- the film's best, in fact, thanks to Robin Bailey's exquisitely sad portrayal of Guy -- but one that makes you wonder, What's this doing here?


"Who are these four guys in the car with me?"
Dave's bandmates don't get to indulge in any of this stuff -- they're strictly supporting players, with little individual characterization, other than Rick Huxley trying to eat inedible objects. Although sharing an authentic camaraderie, they lack the Beatles' natural charisma and wit. Too, the muddy audiotrack and their thicker-than-blood-pudding accents often muffle what little dialogue they have. 
 
Having a Wild Weekend actually plays better the second time around, when you know to expect, but its drawbacks persist. The main problem is its dichotomy. It wants to be taken seriously as a message movie -- but it stars the Dave Clark 5! There's talk of drugs and sex -- but it stars the Dave Clark 5! It exposes the media's manipulation of society -- but it stars the Dave Clark 5! The nervous taglines on the movie's American promotional material warned it was "the year's big dramatic surprise! Watch it make the 10-Best lists!" Clearly, Dave and his mates were going for something other than just another teen idol comedy, and are to be commended for their effort.  But did screaming teenyboppers in the audience really give a shit about drama and 10-best lists? Give us "Bits and Pieces!" 

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Monday, June 2, 2014

DANTE'S INFERNO (1935)


OK, so maybe Spencer Tracy shot his classic movies at MGM. Anybody can do that, right? I'm more interested in his apprentice work during his early days at the Fox studio. You can keep those confections he made with Katherine Hepburn. I'll take Tracy as the wisecracking cop in Me and My Gal; the homeless man who knocks up Loretta Young in Man's Castle; and as the ill-fated tycoon in The Power and the Glory (a virtual blueprint for Citizen Kane, made eight years later) -- the kind of pre-code movies from a scrappy studio interested in simply pleasing an audience while occasionally striving for greatness. Tracy's final Fox feature, Dante's Inferno, is the weirdest of Tracy's entire career, and certainly wilder than anything else he made until It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World in 1963.

Don't let the title fool you. Dante's Inferno tells the story of Jim Carter, a sociopathic Walt Disney-wannabe who steps on, swindles or ruins anyone in his path in order to build an unrivaled entertainment empire, starting with the Dante's Inferno amusement park attraction. With the help of his assistant Jonsey, Carter reaches the pinnacle of success with the purchase of a gambling ship, the S.S. Paradise. When a strike threatens to delay the Paradise's maiden voyage, Carter goes against the captain's advice and hires a shipful of inexperienced workers. The formula is complete: Drunk passengers + drunker scabs x a large flambé served too close to the inflammable drapes = inferno on the high seas. Moral: desserts kill.

I'd take my kid to this over "It's a Small World."
Judging by the impressive sets, Fox must have considered Dante's Inferno its big release of 1935. The cost for the construction of the Inferno spook house alone must have equaled that of a short subject. The grand opening of the Inferno, by the way, is spoiled somewhat when one of Carter's swindled victims jumps from the top floor into a shallow man-made lake. Now that's entertainment!


Tracy pays close attention to Pop McWade's
request to call the safety inspector.

The hell motif is present right from the beginning, when we see a ship's boiler room from the perspective of the coal oven, and builds as Carter's star rises (or sinks into a morass, depending on your point of view). And yet Carter himself is actually an excellent husband and father. Well, until his wife feels obliged to commit perjury regarding his bribe of a safety inspector -- a pay-off which led the Inferno to collapse on hundreds of innocent people, including his wife's uncle, Pop McWade. (I guess Uncle McWade was little too wordy.) The safety inspector, realizing the collapse could have been prevented, commits suicide. Doesn't anyone see a pattern emerging in dealing with this Carter guy?


Some entrepreneur could make a fortune if he
built a members-only club that looked like this.
Pop McWade, having somehow survived a five-story building crashing all around him, warns Carter of his descent into immorality by reading aloud Dante's epic poem, setting up the movie's raison d'etre: a bizarre, disturbing (in a way only old movies can be) ten minute recreation of hell, featuring 3,000 of the best looking, near-naked damned souls you've ever seen, climaxing with them jumping into a lake of fire like Olympic champions. It was a trick Cecil B. DeMille mastered in his biblical epics: make the audience feel better about enjoying sin by presenting it as a morality tale. Six hours of footage were shot for Dante's Inferno and I bet half of that went to this scene alone. That's a hell of a lot of hell, equal only to the last three Adam Sandler movies combined. 




Don't mess with Spence.
Even competing with enough melodrama for a dozen movies, there's a naturalism about Spencer Tracy rare for his time. His Jekyll-Hyde portrayal of the good family man/evil entrepreneur makes his Carter that much more complex than it has any right to be. Yet his best moment happens without any dialogue at all. Discovering that his son has been brought on the gambling ship without his permission, Carter shoots Jonsey a look that rivals the entire Inferno scene for sheer intensity.

Tracy warms up for a chorus of
"My Mammy."
It could be Tracy was just angry at starring in Dante's Inferno, believing it one of the worst movie ever made, and going so far as to prevent Fox from using his name on any of the promotional materials, at least in America. (He was most likely appalled, too, by his brief blackface scene early on.) But perhaps there was something else going on. Tracy was never as close to his own son the way Carter is, and his marriage was on its way to being in name only, thanks to, among other things, falling deeply in love with his Man's Castle co-star, 22 year-old Loretta Young. A Jesuit school graduate, Tracy felt that his son being born deaf was God's punishment for his own laundry list of transgressions -- adultery, alcoholism, choosing show business over the priesthood, and his alleged bisexuality, to name a few. 


Today’s audiences would respond to all of that with, “What else you got?” But Tracy himself might have felt he shared all of Carter’s bad traits without any of the good. Had he seen his image in the Spanish release of Dante's Inferno (the title of which translated to Satan's Ship), he might have thought he was staring into a particularly penetrating mirror.  No way is Dante's Inferno the worst movie ever made. But when one looks at it with Tracy's own life in mind, it's probably his most fascinating.

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