Vintage Cable Box: “Vertigo, 1958”

“She’ll be talking to me about something. Suddenly the words fade into silence. A cloud comes into her eyes and they go blank. She’s somewhere else, away from me, someone I don’t know. I call her, she doesn’t even hear me. Then, with a long sigh, she’s back. Looks at me brightly, doesn’t even know she’s been away, can’t tell me where or when.”

Vertigo, 1958 (James Stewart), Paramount Pictures

There’s a story about writer Pierre Boileau, watching a newsreel in a packed movie-house some time post-war in Paris, and swearing he sees an old friend (whom he believed long dead) in the newsreel. His “logic brain” tells him this can’t be his dead friend, but the more irrational brain conjures images of ghosts and beseeches him to do some digging and find his friend. He must be alive! This is the seed of D’entre les morts, the source material for what could, arguably, be Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest movie, Vertigo. Personally, I think Hitch was drawn to the more perverse aspects of the story, but knew a top-notch mystery had to catalyze his effort at unraveling his romanticized fantasy world of San Francisco. Jimmy Stewart is his muse (and alter-ego) in this adventure.

After enduring a personal (and highly publicized) tragedy involving the death of a fellow policeman from a fall, Stewart’s John “Scottie” Ferguson suffers vertigo, a loss of balance and coordination as a result of his fear of heights. His best friend (and former lover obviously still in love with him), “Midge” (Barbara Bel Geddes) tries to help him in his recovery. He has retired from being a cop. He gets a call from an old school chum, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to keep tabs on his neurotic wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), who goes off by herself on long journeys, but seems to suffer a selective amnesia about where she goes each time. Sometimes she goes to a museum and stares at a painting of a woman who bears a striking resemblance to her. Stewart diligently follows her and takes notes.

Stewart becomes attracted to her, and being that he has no real job anymore, he obsesses over her, to “Midge’s” annoyance. “Midge” doesn’t want to hear about the pretty little rich girl with mental problems, and I can say I hardly blame her, but she is kind-of barking up the wrong tree here, and she can’t get a clue. Stewart follows her to the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, where she jumps into San Francisco Bay (ostensibly a suicide attempt). He rescues her, takes her back to his swingin’ bachelor pad, undresses her, and puts her in front of a roaring fire. She wakes, claiming to have no memory of the incident, quickly dresses, and gets the Hell out of there, yet she keeps leaving him a trail of crumbs to continue their developing relationship. As wounded (emotionally and physically) a person as Stewart is, what happens next is not only devastating but cruel.

Madeleine lures him to a Mission, jumps from a bell tower, and this time (we’re led to believe) successfully kills herself. This sends “Scottie” into a spiral of deep depression, catatonia, and self-hatred. He blames himself for Madeleine’s death. With “Midge’s” help, he slowly recovers, but then he begins to notice a woman with fiery red hair who bears a striking resemblance to Madeleine. Her name is Judy Barton (also played by Kim Novak), who’s more of a “common-sense” girl; smart and sarcastic. He tries to pick her up, but she sees right through it, so he takes the more “gentlemanly” approach by courting her. In a scene that nearly derails the movie, “Judy” comes clean to the audience (but not to “Scottie”) by writing him a note, confessing that she truly is Madeleine, and that she was paid off by Elster to pretend to be Madeleine, as Elster concocted a plan to kill his real wife and take her money. After writing the note, she thinks about it and rips it up.

Maybe “Judy” thinks she and “Scottie” can have a life together. Maybe she thinks he’ll overlook the whole murder thing and be her man for all time, but then as convicted assassin Arthur Bremer once said, “How many things go right in this crazy world?” This is where “Scottie” goes nuts, or so we assume. He makes “Judy” over. He has her wardrobe changed. He changes her makeup. He has her hair bleached and dyed blonde, and puts her in those expensive outfits Madeleine wore. When the effect is complete, it’s hideously staggering. “Judy” just wants his love, and he abuses her with his compulsion. All that’s needed to complete the effect is the necklace “Judy” brandishes. It appears to be the same necklace worn by the woman in the painting.

This seals the deal for Stewart so he drives “Judy” to the Mission where he leads her to the bell tower. “Judy” confesses to her crimes, and just when you think these crazy kids could make it work, a nun startles her and she falls to her death. This is the textbook definition of a “downer” ending; a powerful statement in the burgeoning modern film industry, but depressing as all Hell. Defeated by the failure of The Wrong Man, he had many projects in development, but he chose Vertigo, his darkest, most romantic movie (surpassing Rebecca). He was a brave filmmaker. North by Northwest would be his next trick on audiences. Stewart is sympathetic, despite some of his character’s more grotesque choices – he’s unusual here, not the strong voice of moral authority and compassion, but a flawed human. This would be his and Hitchcock’s last collaboration as Hitch had blamed Vertigo’s poor box-office performance on Stewart’s age as a romantic leading man against the much younger Novak (though Novak and Stewart would subsequently appear in the much more successful Bell, Book & Candle). Vertigo is my favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties. 

Monkees Vs. Macheen: “Monkees Get Out More Dirt”

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The Monkees Love Catwoman!

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“Monkees Get Out More Dirt” is one of the episodes I’d put into a “most memorable” category. It’s the one with Julie Newmar, and the one where they all compete with each other instead of working together. The episode first aired April 3, 1967, and the writers were Gerald Gardner and Dee Caruso. Gerald Shepard directed this one. He has very few credits as a director, there’s this and another episode, “Monkees On The Wheel” as well as a film called Heroes Die Young (1960). Most of his credits are as an editor, he edited 11 of the 58 episodes Monkees episodes, 21 episodes of my beloved Addams Family and the Bob Rafelson directed film 5 Easy Pieces. One of the things I appreciate about The Monkees is the editing, which consistently adds personality to each episode.

The Monkees arrive at the laundromat to do their laundry. Each of them in turns goes to get some soap, meets the lovely April Conquest (Julie Newmar) and each in turn comes back to the others, stunned by love and muttering “soap…soap.” There are two separate funny POV shots, from her POV. First, diminutive Davy has to look high up to see her. Next, when Micky meets her he takes an awestruck look at her “rack” (which would really be the camera’s “rack”). The writers have created a variation from the usual plot device of Davy getting love struck; here they’re all love struck.

Before the opening theme, there’s a weird bit where an actor named Wally Cox comes over and uses a box of detergent with a question mark on it, and an arm comes out of the washing machine. These are both spoofs of TV commercials from the times, one for Salvo detergent (the real Salvo ad featured Cox) and one for Action bleach packets by Colgate. More details on Monkees Tripod. Also, the name of the episode sounds like a product slogan for the Monkees as a soap.

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The Monkees return home with their laundry bags. They each make an excuse to leave, so they can go see April. They are now scheming against each other, instead of scheming against a common enemy. Davy’s excuse is that he wants to train to be a boxer, something we saw him do already in “Monkees in the Ring.”

Davy arrives first at the laundromat. April explains to Davy she’s doing post-graduate studies in laundry science. Mike gets there next and jokes that he came to see another commercial, referencing the pre-credits gag. She explains she’s working on her doctor’s thesis and Mike repeats the “Why can’t your doctor work on his own thesis” joke from “The Prince and the Pauper.” Micky arrives next and walks right up to her, touching his nose to hers. April goes on about the great reservoir of untapped dirt. She opens the lid of the washing machine and finds Peter inside. The editors play little bird tweeting music.

I occurs to me that April is not that great. She’s not all that fun, intelligent or interesting. I don’t think she’s supposed to be. As her last name “Conquest” telegraphs, she exists to be just that; an object of desire. The joke is the four of them fighting over a dull girl who’s fascinated by laundry. It says more about the Monkees than it does about her that they’re so into her. Julie Newmar, on the other hand, is amazing. Aside from her obvious stellar physical attributes, she hits the flighty and giddy notes of the character just perfectly and is easily a strong enough presence for the four boys to center around.

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Back at home the Monkees pace around the pad and fret. Mike turns on Davy asking “Don’t you think she’s a little tall for you?” That’s mean, and also, if Mike thinks men are required to be taller than their dates, in heels the 5ft. 11 inch Newmar looms over all of them, even 6 ft. 1 inch Mike.

They sit down and watch Dr. Lorreen Sisters, an allusion to Dr. Joyce Brothers, the “face of American psychology.” Sisters is “bringing the cool light of reason into your messy little lives.” The actress wears tortoiseshell, cat-eyed glasses, identical to the ones April wore at the laundromat. This actress is also very funny with her no-nonsense performance; much sterner than I recall the real Dr. Brothers ever coming off.

Sisters is answering the question, “How do you win the girl you love?” I dig the answer: “The fastest way to a woman’s heart is through her mind.” Davy hilariously notes, “You know, I never would have thought of that route.” Sisters advises them to find out what kind of man she likes, and be that man. They all take off to do that, not even bothering with excuses this time.

Next is the series of scenes of TV parodies/disguises. Davy on the payphone introduces himself to April’s mother as David Armstrong Jones of the BBC (Better Be Clean). He finds out from Mom that April’s into pop art. Mike is at the pad, using a Get Smart model shoe phone to call April. He’s happy to learn that she’s interested in men who ride motorcycles. Peter is on a Green Acres style outdoor phone-on-a-pole from which he calls April’s neighbor and finds out she’s into chamber music. Micky is also in the pad (I guess at a different time than Mike) on the red phone pretending to be from radio station M.O.T. He discovers that April wants her future husband to be into ballet. Thing from The Addams Family pulls Micky’s phone into a box and then tries to pull in Micky! That was a neatly structured, well edited sequence. Story-wise, we find out April does have interests other than laundry, but none of them match the Monkee’s interests, other than Mike. Maybe Peter generally as a musician.

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Each Monkee returns to the laundromat to win April over. First up is Davy, who paints a Pop Art mural on the wall. It’s a red x with a blue arrow. April is comically, adorably turned on by this and the editors help with the stars in the eyes and birds sound effect. Here comes Peter with a harpsichord and three other musicians for a chamber music quartet. Now she has stars for him until Micky comes in and starts pirouetting all over the laundromat as a ballet dancer. He does an impossible leap through the air. Davy wants to know how he did that. Micky’s answer, “A man in love has the strength of thousands” echoes Davy’s own line from “Too Many Girls.” Last, but not least, Mike rolls in on his bike and impresses her with some wheelies. She fantasizes each one in the appropriate costume for the persona they adopted for her. There’s chaos as they all compete for her attention with The Monkees theme playing, ending when Mike crashes into Micky with the bike and they hit the wall.

Of course she loves them all. Me too–how could you not? They way they’re portrayed on the show, Davy is charming, cool, and a great dancer, Peter is handsome, sensitive, and innocent. Micky is funny, quick-witted, and an amazing singer, Mike is thoughtful, intelligent, and resourceful. Between the four of them, they would make the perfect boyfriend.

Back at the pad, Mike points out the obvious: It’s stupid for all four of them to moon over the same girl. They talk about how great she is and leads into the romp to “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” (Nesmith). They all fantasize about hanging out with her at the laundromat. For her bits with Davy, she wears an artist’s smock and no pants, which seems racy for the times! She dances with Micky, listens to Peter play, and rides with Mike.

Back to reality, the Monkees agree not to let April ruin their friendship, but then they end up dividing the pad into four equal pieces of territory. Now only one of them has the bathroom, one has the front door, one has the fridge and one has the TV. Peter turns on the television and Dr. Sisters is on again. Peter has written a letter to her as “Tormented” describing their situation with April and asking how he “can cut the others out?” The letter she reads notes that April is now fond of each of them. Davy says, “That’s right, what of it?” Sisters, “I’ll tell you what of it.” Cute fourth wall within the fourth wall gag. She continues to respond to them like they can hear each other through the television. She also has a letter from Miss Laundromat who is so nervous from being in love with four different men, she’s close to collapse.

The Monkees all rush for the laundromat to check on her and find it closed due to illness. Working together again to help someone out, they realize they should resolve her confusion of being in love with all four of them. The boys choose for it, and Peter wins. The other three go to break up with her while Peter stays to run the mat.

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Bewitched fans may notice that the brief shot of the exterior of April’s mother’s house is actually the exterior of the Bewitched house. Aside from the Screen Gems connection, Newmar later appeared in a 1971 episode of Bewitched called “The Eight Year Itch Witch.” The 1969 episode “Going Ape” used a redecorated Monkees pad set, and featured Lou Antonio of “Hillbilly Honeymoon.” Monkees songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart appeared in the 1970 episode “Serena Stops the Show.”

Mike, Micky, and Davy enter April’s room where she’s posed dramatically on the bed. (I should look so great while having a nervous breakdown.) They each tell her they’ve given up the thing that made her love them and she’s better off with Peter. Cute bit where Mike almost screws up by saying he’s taken up skydiving. She likes that, so he backpedals that he’s afraid of airplanes. She feels instantly better and breaks the fourth wall to ask the viewer, “Where is Peter?”

Pete’s busy destroying her business, as a bunch of angry customers attack him with damaged clothing. The man who had been reading the newspaper (Digby Wolfe, co-creator of Laugh-in) in all the laundry scenes gets up and is shirtless. He takes his shrunken shirt out of the laundry. With the “Monkeemen” theme playing, he joins in the fray. The Monkees come in and rescue Peter. April comes up, embraces him and asks, “How can I ever thank you?” Peter answers, in a manly baritone, “That’ll do for a start.”

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And now, the kicker. At the pad, Peter prepares a romantic dinner for April while the others mope. April comes to the door and introduces Peter to her new fiancé, Freddy Fox III, clearly the 1960’s version of a douche-bag. The couple canoodles and April says she’s never met a singer before. The irony … it hurts. As they leave, April skips. A nearly 6 foot woman skipping in heels is true comedy to behold. Davy lays T.S. Eliot on us, “April is the cruelest month” from “The Waste Land.” Especially cute since this episode debuted in April. Mike starts in with the Shakespeare “To thine ownself be true…” Micky cuts him off with “please, no morals.” Micky baby, I couldn’t agree more. I hate morals. Peter starts to cry that none of them will find any happiness. There’s a knock on the door and four cute girls are there, asking the way to the laundromat. The Monkees do a quick head count and each walks off with his arm around a girl. Speaking of Shakespeare…

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My dear husband and Blissville editor doesn’t like this episode much because the Monkees are working against, rather than with each other. I can see where that could be a deficit, I do think they work better together. As I said, April is not worth fighting over, but that is actually the punch line of the episodes’ main joke. Also, I must admit it’s nice to see a change from the usual structure of them making fools of other people. Like the previous, “Monkees on the Line,” this one is so well put together. (Worth noting that this and “Monkees on the Line” were the last two episodes shot for season one, “Line” being the very last.) There’s a tight structure of the four of them falling for her, finding out her interests, and winning her love. The episode is packed with funny lines and sight gags, and two very funny women in the guest cast. I can’t find anything not to like. It’s a strong episode and it seems that the director, editors, writers, producers and performers really cared about doing a good job. sweet-young-thing

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by Bronwyn Knox

Every couple of weeks, “Monkees vs. Macheen” examines the crazy, spirited, Ben Franks-type world of the Pre-Fab Four: David Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork alias The Monkees.

Vintage Cable Box: Rhinestone, 1984

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“All right, we’ll go to your place and you can show me your organ. But I’m warning you, it’d best be having music coming out of it.”

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Rhinestone, 1984 (Dolly Parton), 20th Century Fox

Sylvester Stallone is a smart guy.  Betraying his brutish looks, muscular physique, and propensity for violence, Stallone understands his incredible history, and his ability to re-invent his image.  He’s played rogue cops, underdog boxers, and disillusioned soldiers.  He’s gone down the road of pristine drama (Cop Land), and screwball comedy (Oscar), but pairing him head-to-head with Dolly Parton proved to be such a misfire from inception that it isn’t hard to see why he stayed away from this kind of culture-clash comedy for the better part of his career.  Given the opportunity to rewrite Phil Alden Robinson’s (Field of Dreams) screenplay, and then turning down Beverly Hills Cop to appear in this movie, Stallone shows he’s not afraid to take ill-advised chances in film.

Like every decent screwball comedy, this one begins with a bet.  Dolly’s Jake Farris is contracted to perform nightly at an admittedly popular tourist trap country bar smack dab in the middle of New York City run by Ron Leibman.  She makes a deal with Leibman to turn the first person he spots into a country music star.  If she succeeds, she can get out of the slave contract with Liebman (who can’t help but be sleazy about the whole thing).  They go out to the street and Liebman picks a dizzy cab driver named Nick for this Pygmalion-like transformation.  Of course, given the multi-cultural climate of New York City, Nick would be the very last person Dolly would agree to tutor in the ways of country music, but Leibman wants to make this as difficult as possible for her.

For a moment there, Nick thinks she’s coming on to him.  He takes her back to his home, where his Mama (playing it to the hilt, constantly circling the table to babble in a foreign language and deposit more food) makes spaghettis and gravy.  See, Dolly’s all skin and bone as we know.  So it’s unusual that in addition to a clash of cultures, we also have a clash of stereotypes.  Stallone is a good-natured meathead and Dolly’s a sassy redneck chick (and hot, to boot!).  Dolly decides to take Nick down to her ancestral home in Tennessee.  It’s funny that I was living in Tennessee at the time this movie premiered on cable television.  There didn’t seem to be much hootin’ and hollerin’ going on when I was living down there.  She teaches him to walk and to talk like a redneck (or “rhinestone”) cowboy-type; chewing tobacco, and developing a John Wayne swagger.

Dolly makes for a charmingly baroque figure in her dusters, cowboy hats, and leather boots, but Stallone, I think, tries too hard to be funny here when playing it straight would have benefited the humorous idea.  The rolling of his eyes and mugging for the camera, along with Travolta-hair style make him more menacing than endearing to me.  You can tell Dolly is really trying to teach him, not only about country music, but the unspoken language of dependency with which actors must relate.  In fact, Dolly is the saving grace of this movie.  Nevermind her looks – this broad is insanely talented; as an actor, as a singer, as an entertainer!  The only time the story doesn’t feel genuine is when the screenplay forces them to be closer.  The way I see it, the movie’s not a love story.  It’s a dare.  A dare to turn a cab driver into a star.  A dare to cast Sylvester Stallone and Dolly Parton in a movie together.

One of these things is not like the other.

It’s here that we get into what makes a bad movie (although I disagree with that notion).  Watching or reviewing and evaluating a movie is, was, and always has been a subjective experience.  For example, you might consider Rhinestone to be a seminal work of art, a masterpiece; it did it’s job, for you.  You come across an imposing cluster of terrible reviews.  You talk to people who say the movie is “terrible”, or worse.  Rotten Tomatoes gives the movie a 15% “tomatometer” rating.  In those days, before the advent of blanket advertising to guarantee good opening weekend numbers, box office was the only indication of a movie’s failure.  This doesn’t mean you’re wrong for loving the movie.  It only means fewer people agree with your opinion, and it doesn’t mean you have bad taste in film.  If, in your view, the movie does it’s job (the outlandish prospect of pairing Parton with Stallone, and the silly screwball narrative), then it succeeds.  Rhinestone succeeds.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: Little Darlings, 1980

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“Do you realize that I am almost the only virgin in camp? Every girl knows this secret life except me. Look at it this way. It’d be a learning experience.”

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Little Darlings, 1980 (Kristy McNichol), Paramount Pictures

On a strange hot summer night, I pop in the old Paramount tape of Little Darlings. I remember the juxtaposition of Kristy McNichol kicking a guy right in the nuts before hopping into a convertible on her way to the summer camp bus, and Tatum O’ Neal going to the same bus in a Rolls Royce. Angel is a kid from the wrong side of the tracks. She’s a jean-jacket-wearing little hottie with a chip on her shoulder. Ferris (Ferris?) is a spoiled little rich girl predisposed to shit-eating grins and compulsive lying, but more on that later.

The two girls hate each other, so you know they’re going to wind up best friends by the end of the movie. They even fight on the bus ride. It’s unusual watching girls display this kind of behavior. They push each other, they mix it up, compare the size of their burgeoning boobies, and talk openly about sex and birth control. Both girls find themselves harrassed (for different reasons) at the camp. Ferris and Angel are very quickly revealed (in ways I can’t quite explain) to be virgins, and one particular brat offers up $100 to the first girl who can lose her virginity before camp ends.

The girls engage in the usual summer camp antics; softball, boating (with dreamy counselor/stud Armand Assante – I keep using that word a lot lately), and hiking. Tatum hits it off with Assante (who seems to be flirting with her) as they discuss France and astrological signs. It’s times like this that I wonder if I have what it takes to be a counselor at an all-girls camp. Yes! Yes, I do! The girls choose their intended targets. Tatum, of course, chooses dreamy Armand, and Kristy has her eyes on young Matt Dillon. Dillon is very much her speed and the kind of guy she would date anyway. While he seems tough with street-born good looks, he is revealed to be sensitive and vulnerable, and the way she sizes him up is fantastic.

This is an unusual film for 1980, coming out (pun!) at the peak of summer camp movies; at least comedies that didn’t involve super-human killers who wear hockey masks.  It’s an interesting reversal of gender motivations, where we have the girls acting as predators in the tribal ritual of lust, and the men are depicted as the prey; essentially clueless as to the intentions of Angel and Ferris.  The filmmakers are careful to not exploit the girls, and the clever scripting (by Kimi Peck and Dalene Young) plays to the strengths of McNichol and O’ Neal (I can understand why girls flocked to this movie when it was released), both utterly adorable in this film.  A very young Cynthia Nixon is hilarious as some kind of a crazy hippie flower girl.  McNichol, in particular, is a brilliant actress.

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“Can two teenage girls go to summer camp together without driving each other crazy?”

In an interesting twist, Tatum, her face glowing, lies that she had sex with Assante (who politely brushes her off in a sweet scene), and Kristy lies that she did not have sex with Dillon.  In reality, Kristy understands all of the consequences of a sexual relationship, while Tatum romanticizes it to the point of losing all touch with her specific actuality.  I think what I learned from the movie is not that girls are objects to be lusted after (they most definitely are, in my view), but that girls are capable of the same kind of behaviors we normally attribute to the male of the species.  The men in this movie are photographed as objects of beauty and game to be conquered, and I find that to be refreshing.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: The Woman in Red, 1984

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“Come and get it, Cowboy.”

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The Woman in Red, 1984 (Gene Wilder), Orion Pictures

I had not planned to cover The Woman in Red until next year, but Gene Wilder’s passing prompted me to look at the movie again. As far as I know, the movie did not premiere on HBO until 1986 when we had already moved back to Philadelphia. We missed our HBO so much we bought a satellite dish (at a cost of $30 a month), and installed it on our rooftop (at a time when Philly did not have cable television below the Broad Street line). What I most remember about the movie was the heavy promotion it received during it’s initial release. The publicity and the advertisements thoroughly peddled Kelly Le Brock and the memorable (if tedious) music of Stevie Wonder.

San Francisco advertising executive Gene Wilder is negotiating a hi-rise ledge and wondering what he had done to find himself in this position.  He recalls that one day four weeks ago, he was sitting in his car in a parking lot when he spotted a woman in a red dress walking down the street.  She passes over a grate, which blows hot air up her dress, revealing her matching red panties.  She turns back, stands over the grate and starts dancing.  From then on, Gene is smitten.  He is immediately infatuated with her, and tries to set up a date with her, but mistakenly reaches co-worker Gilda Radner instead.  He seems happy yet unsatisfied in his marriage to Judith Ivey, recalling Tommy Noonan’s roving eye and boredom in The Seven Year Itch with Marilyn Monroe.

His friends are of no help to his burgeoning infidelity and thoughts of desertion.  They ogle women constantly and screw around behind their busy wives’ backs.  Joseph Bologna (fresh from Blame It on Rio) is a cad, and Charles Grodin plays a character he knows best: well-meaning and mild-mannered, but with a touch of hysteria.  All is not well as Bologna is informed his wife is divorcing him, so the central fear of loneliness is a preoccupation in Wilder’s character.  Evidently, men are all big talk until the shit hits the fan.  Interestingly, because Wilder refuses to discuss his feelings of ennui with his wife, he comes across as a gibbering idiot on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Ivey, livid over Bologna’s impending divorce, and all the terrible stories that accompany it, informs Wilder she is a violently jealous woman.  Her revelation horrifies Wilder.  Meanwhile, Gilda awaits her “date” with the clueless Wilder, who never arrives because he had no idea he was making a date with her.  In an unusual montage, we see Gilda sitting alone in an empty restaurant, Bologna sleeping and drinking alone next to pictures of his children, and Wilder unable to sleep next to his wife in the bed they share.  The next day, a furious Gilda keys his car and breaks his antenna.  When he discovers his mystery woman had a love of horseback riding, he arranges a meet-cute with the girl at the stables.

The two hit it off, and once Le Brock shows even the mildest of interest in Wilder, his life turns around.  He is happy and confident.  He buys new clothes, and tries to give himself a new hairstyle, to which his friend hilariously compares him to Robert Redford.  As with Dudley Moore and Bo Derek in 10, Wilder manages to get Le Brock into bed, but before he can consummate his lust, her husband arrives home early, and he must escape, by climbing out on the aforementioned ledge.  Where Moore was turned off by Derek’s casual attitude regarding sex, Wilder’s screenplay and direction emphasize the loneliness of his character.  He photographs Le Brock as though she were a goddess just out of his reach.

With a charmingly dated appeal, this is a movie made for the PG-13 rating.  While PG-rated movies in the late 70s/early 80s treaded lightly when it came to certain kinds of violence and off-color language, the introduction of the PG-13 rating promised movies with adult humor and themes that could be watched and enjoyed by kids.  This was the promise, but it was not kept.  PG-13 movies were produced (starting in the early 90s) to guarantee as many asses in the seats as PG movies did twenty years before.  The Woman in Red is a rare example of a movie that would be rated R (restricted audiences) if released today.

Gene Wilder never set out to become a comedic actor.  It was only when collaborators such as Mel Brooks and Woody Allen discovered his gift for controlled mania, and an unerring capacity to stretch the imagined boundaries of sanity with every character he played, were we truly witness to the birth of that comedic legend.  His first film was 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde.  Brooks cast him as the neurotic accountant Leopold Bloom in The Producers.  He would appear in Start the Revolution Without Me and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, but it wasn’t until 1972’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) that he began to make a name for himself as the reluctant comedian.  He would make Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles for Mel Brooks, as well as a series of successful comedies with Richard Pryor.  In addition to The Woman in Red, he would write and direct The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, The World’s Greatest Lover, and Haunted Honeymoon.

I’m gonna miss him.

A very special thank you to Christopher Hasler for suggesting this title.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

 

Vintage Cable Box: “Summer Lovers”, 1982

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“When there is not enough space, there is pressure.”

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“Summer Lovers”, 1982 (Daryl Hannah), Filmways 

Good-looking young couple Peter Gallagher and Daryl Hannah take a summer house on the Greek island Santorini.  Fresh from college graduation, I gather Gallagher is itching to settle down, but he becomes infatuated with a French archaeologist named Lina, on assignment at a nearby excavation site.  He follows her around like a puppy dog, and pretends not to spy on her, which is totally what he is doing, and she is aware of it.  These days, that would considered some form of harassment.  Meanwhile, Daryl, obviously bored, reads up on advanced (and ancient) sexual practices and techniques.  She speaks to Gallagher of her bondage fantasies.  Later that night, he agrees to be tied up, while she drops hot candle wax on him.

Peter accompanies Lina to a nude beach.  She strips down.  Uncomfortable, he also strips, but very quickly hides his shortcomings, as it were.  I wonder if these people ever worry about skin cancer.  Ultimately liberated by his nudity, he jumps into the water and swims.  He and Lina swim to a secluded cove and make love.  He confesses to Daryl, telling her he’s confused, doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life.  Daryl is pissed.  She takes off, and heads to a bar where she lets a kid hit on her.  Meanwhile, Gallagher hooks up with Lina again.  The kid takes Daryl back to his house, offers her drugs, which she declines.  She fends off his advances and leaves.  She can’t bring herself to make love to another man.  While Gallagher firmly believes he has an “open” relationship with Hannah, her feelings are hurt.

Daryl rushes off to confront Lina, but this other woman is sweet and accomodating, she can’t bring herself to hate her.  She tells Daryl she doesn’t want to destroy her relationship with Gallagher.  They start hanging out together, as an unusual threesome.  Gallagher becomes uncomfortable (yet again!) at the prospect of his girlfriend and his lover becoming friends.  This film could be easily re-edited as a comedy.  I can’t help but feel sorry for Lina, who appears to be caught in the middle of good old fashioned American Jealousy.  A sexually liberated, young French woman, Lina doesn’t immediately understand their problems, nor does she seem to care.  Daryl tells Peter she likes the girl.  Songs by Tina Turner play in montage pieces in a foreshadowing of the kind of cinema for which the eighties would become known.

One night, the three of them share a glass of wine, kisses, and finally sex.  With the initial tension out of the way, they’re finally having fun to the strains of “I’m So Excited”.  Regardless of the heavy adult content, this movie feels like innocent fun, a call-back to a different time where everything seemed to be permitted, and nothing was particularly sacred.  The use of popular songs (disco, new wave, and rock) of the time, and the patina of early MTV-style cinematography and editing contribute to a wonderful yet dated appeal.  Indeed, once Gallagher and Hannah, shed their inhibitions and get with Lina, it finally feels like they’re truly enjoying their vacation, which is weird.  The three spend an enormous amount of time nude in the film, and enjoying each other’s company.  This is another case (as with “Blame It On Rio”) of a mainstream movie that would never be made today, or if it were, it would be severely neutered for the sensibilities of today’s audiences.

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Director Randal Kleiser had previously shown his skill at telling stories involving young people with 1978’s mega-hit, “Grease” and 1980’s “The Blue Lagoon”.  In 1984, he would direct “Grandview, U.S.A.”.  The film is beautifully shot, but the youthful cast seem lazy and uninterested, and spend more time taking their clothes off than putting them on.  In a movie filled floor-to-ceiling with unabashed nudity, there are no sex scenes.  While a very interesting character study of post-college frustration, boredom, and rebellion, I would not classify “Summer Lovers” as romance.  Perhaps a “Graduate”-like drama about a different generation; the children of the first boomers in an era of prosperity and promiscuity, doing things they will one day regret but always remember.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

Vintage Cable Box: “To Be Or Not To Be”, 1983

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“Listen, if I don’t come back, then I forgive you for anything that happened between you and Lt. Sobinski.  But if I do come back, you’re in a lot of trouble!”

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“To Be Or Not To Be”, 1983 (Mel Brooks), 20th Century Fox

The story goes that Mel Brooks sought out the widow of Ernst Lubitsch to get her blessing with regard to a remake he wanted to produce for 1941’s Jack Benny classic, “To Be Or Not To Be”.  Lubitsch’s widow approved, and Brooks chose Alan Johnson (celebrated choreographer of many films including “The Producers” from 1968 and director of the notorious Brooksfilms flop, “Solarbabies”) to direct the film.  I can only assume Brooks decided not to direct because he wanted to focus on producing a faithful remake of a film with potentially controversial subject matter, and stay true to the dramatic material. In fact, this movie (and “The Twelve Chairs”) is as close to drama as Brooks would ever permit.

Brooks (with wife Anne Bancroft) play Frederick and Anna Bronski, reknowned actors (world famous in Poland!) and owners/operators of the Bronski Theater in Warsaw.  Despite warnings of imminent German incursion, Bronski reasons the show must go on; including a politically satirical musical number featuring a buffoonish Hitler (played by Bronski).  The Ministry of Information threatens to shut down his theater if he doesn’t remove the offending material.  Frustrated, he relents.  Meanwhile, Mrs. Bronski conducts a romantic affair with a brash, young Polish Lieutenant Sobinski (Tim Matheson) during Bronski’s center-piece, Highlights From Hamlet, in which he destroys Shakespeare with his hammy performances.

Soon after, the German war machine rolls into Poland.  Sobinski tells Anna he must leave immediately and connect with the Royal Air Force in England.  The Germans shut down Bronki’s theater, confiscate their possessions (including their home), implement gas rationing, and start rounding up dissidents and enemy agents.  The Bronskis reluctantly start hiding Jews in their basement.  Anna’s homosexual dresser, Sasha, opens his modest apartment to the Bronskis.  The brave Sobinski discovers that a respected member of the underground, Professor Selitski (José Ferrer), is a double-agent for the Germans.  Selitski acquires a list of Polish Underground members.  Sobinski is ordered by the British to paratroop back into Poland and kill Selitski.

Anna, in spite of her obvious infidelity, persuades her husband and his troupe of actors to help Sobinski.  First, Bronski must impersonate Colonel Erhardt in order to obtain the list from Selitski.  After Selitski is dispatched and the list is destroyed, Brooks masquerades as Selitski for the benefit of Colonel Erhardt (hilarious scene-stealing Charles Durning) and his bumbling assistant, Schultz (Christopher Lloyd).  Sobinski devises a plan to steal an aircraft and fly the Bronskis, the theater troupe, and all of the Jews (cleverly disguised as clowns) in hiding out of Warsaw to safety in England.

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This is such a fun film I have to admit I enjoyed it much more than the Jack Benny original that inspired it.  Film lovers in my age bracket respond more to Brooks than Benny.  Jack Benny, while a hilarious entertainer, was not in constant rotation on cable television in those days.  Even today (like Ernie Kovacs), it’s difficult to find a good portion of his surviving material.  When I was a kid, Mel Brooks was the king of comedy, and when “To Be Or Not To Be” debuted on cable, The Movie Channel ran a retrospective of his films.

What impresses me the most about “To Be Or Not To Be” (above the remake’s requisite respect for the original) is the very thin line the film negotiates between hilarity and pathos.  As an actor, this is Brooks’ strongest performance of all his movies.  In fact, all of the performances (particularly Bancroft) are on equal par.  These are a group of committed and energetic actors giving their all, and putting on a wonderful show.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.