Sunday, February 26, 2012

Old School: DIPLOMANIACS (1933) and WHO'S MINDING THE MINT? (1967)

Pops says we finally made it to DVD!

And Pops is right!  Whether you're a fan of old school comedy or of really old school comedy you got a DVD treat during the month of February. This month's installment of Missing No More turns up two more past Horn Section reviews that just made it to DVD.  These new releases date back to our blog's earliest days; in fact, both were among the first ten films reviewed here back in 2006.

WHO'S MINDING THE MINT? (1967) was finally rescued from DVD unavailability by our friends at the Warner Archive on February 7th.   If you were a little disappointed by TOWER HEIST (who wasn't?) and would like to see how a caper comedy is supposed to be done, by all means check out this oldie-but-goodie.  Danny Peary accurately said it is "from the IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD school, but on a smaller scale". 

Indeed it is, and that's not only what sets it apart from the better known WORLD, but makes it even funnier.  Yep, you heard me right.  Hell, I said so in my original review.  MINT checks in at a lean, clean 97 minutes (barely half of WORLD's length) and with all due respect to Stanley Kramer (JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG, INHERIT THE WIND), he wasn't exactly a comedy specialist.  Howard Morris (YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS) was, and he pulls out all the stops without telegraphing it as much or allowing intrusive mugging.  It's an impressive directorial debut for Morris, who actually beat his YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS colleague Mel Brooks "to the chair"--Brooks' legendary first film, THE PRODUCERS, arrived in 1968.

It's not easy being green!
Compared to IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD's all star cast, MINT is loaded with second bananas, but it's still an impressive bunch.  (Ha!  "Bunch"!  Get it?)  Jack Gilford, Walter Brennan, Bob Denver, Victor Buono, Joey Bishop, Jamie Farr and Jackie Joseph are among the TV stars getting some big-screen love.  Morris cast two actors from WORLD: Lou Costello's 30 FOOT BRIDE herself, Dorothy Provine (also in Blake Edwards' WORLD-styled THE GREAT RACE) and Uncle Miltie Berle, whose lodge costume is put to inspired use by Morris. 

Here is my original review, from way back in May 2006.  WHO'S MINDING THE MINT? was out of print on VHS even then, and has been really hard to see for a long time.  The film deserves a hearty welcome back to circulation.  It is also available for viewing at Amazon.  A bit of trivia: the producer was Norman Maurer, Moe Howard's son-in-law.

DIPLOMANIACS (1933), another long awaited title, was rather quietly released on Valentine's Day by the Warner ArchiveIn my original review I bemoaned the lack of DVD love given to Wheeler and Woolsey, perhaps the most unsung of the classic cinema comedy teams.

Happily, Warner Archive has been rectifying that situation over the last year. In 2011 PEACH O'RENO (1931) and GIRL CRAZY (1932) got the "two-fer" treatment at the Archive, and DIPLOMANIACS was one of four Bert and Bob vehicles to get a Valentine from WA this year with KENTUCKY KERNELS (1934), THE RAINMAKERS (1935) and ON AGAIN OFF AGAIN (1937) also being released on DVD for the first time February 14th.  Unfortunately the latter three are all post Production Code, and therefore the team's finest film, COCKEYED CAVALIERS (1934) is still missing from DVD.

Bert Wheeler (L) and Robert Woolsey
Quibbles with the film selection notwithstanding, we now have fully one-third of the 21 Wheeler and Woolsey films on DVD through Warner Archive (1929's RIO RITA rounds out the list).  It's atypical "Bert and Bob" as usual leading lady Dorothy Lee is nowhere to be found, but the Pre-Code DIPLOMANIACS is still the best of the new arrivals.

DIPLOMANIACS might well be the best anti-war comedy that predates DR. STRANGELOVE.  Does any of the following sound real-world familiar (even today)?  Bert and Bob are thoroughly unqualified diplomats chosen solely by being in the right place at the right time; peace pleas with substance are ignored in favor of visually pleasing circus shows; wars are egged on by those who stand to profit financially from the conflict.  All points are timeless and presented by screenwriters Myers and Mankiewicz (MILLION DOLLAR LEGS) in a fashion that never lets satire overwhelm the comedy.

Bert and Bob wake up to these ladies.  Who needs an alarm?
Unlike the satire, the rampant un-PC humor does get in the way on one glaring occasion, with the climactic setpiece "No More War" turning a U.N. conference into a minstrel show.  Thankfully, it's barely two minutes of screentime, but the film couldn't lose the scene as it is key to the plot (unlike, say, the awful and often snipped President's Day number in 1942's HOLIDAY INN).  This set piece is likely the biggest reason DIPLOMANIACS stays on the shelf whenever TCM trots out HIPS, HIPS, HOORAY, HOLD 'EM JAIL and other Wheeler and Woolseys for periodic late night mini-marathons.  Just be forewarned its here; I'll get off the soapbox.

With these two releases Warner Archive has made two more dollops of comedy history from vastly different eras available.  Here's hoping I'll be writing about further releases that are Missing No More from DVD in the future.  Next post, I'll be writing about a film that is unfortunately still missing from DVD: Number 75!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Test Drive for Toby!

This is The Horn Section's offering to the Classic Movie Dogathon, which is hosted by a blog that is one of my frequent online visits, Classic Film and TV Cafe.  We contributing bloggers are paying tribute to our favorite cinematic canines, so if you're a dog lover or a film lover, be sure to check out all the movies featuring memorable moments from man's best friend!

"Peanuts" per the credits, but known and loved to film cultists everywhere as "Toby".
Participating in the Classic Movie Dogathon gives me the opportunity to wax poetic on the film I consider to be the funniest movie ever made.  Yes, my favorite comedy of all time, a film I've watched literally one hundred times without ever getting sick of it. Yet this is the first time I've blogged at length about director Robert Zemeckis' 1980 masterpiece, USED CARS.

Notice I said, "at length".  Long time Horn Section readers (or those scanning "Divvying up the Posts") will notice I did post about the legendary Marshal Lucky commercial in a 2008 post(WARNING: The video clip of said commercial ain't safe for work!) I shouldn't be calling attention to this because I didn't deliver, but I kinda sorta promised a detailed review at the end of that post.  I know you're wondering what excuse I have for not coming through.

Toby wants to know why you didn't write it, don't you Toby?
Well, for one thing, it was available on DVD long before I started blogging in 2006, happily making it unnecessary for me to ask "Why the Hell" it isn't.  For another, I don't think I could improve on the many reviews that are already out there.  Click on these links for two terrific takes on USED CARS: from Marty McKee at Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot and Ivan Shreve of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.

Those two reviews pretty much covered most of my thoughts on the greatness that is USED CARS, but I'll add one.  It seems appropriate that a film that repeatedly tweaks the corruption of the political process by money is strengthened by spreading its laughs out so democratically.  Everyone gets multiple punch lines from the uproarious Bob Zemeckis/Bob Gale script.  If it seems like Jack Warden gets a few more, keep in mind that the great character actor was a master improviser, responsible for much of his own dialogue during the "landscaping" scene as well as his true feelings about the camel assisting him with his "good old fashioned, homespun entertainment".

But while USED CARS had a highly quotable script, it also had a tremendous contribution from a character with no lines at all.  Unless "woof" counts.  Yes, I'm talking about Toby (credited as "Peanuts"), the beagle owned by the late Lucas Fuchs, proprietor of the New Deal Used Car lot. 

Hitchcock's philosophy is invoked early on in the DVD's commentary track, that being that the audience can identify with any character if he's good at his job.  Well, being a dog, Toby has a built-in lovability already, but he also fits the criteria set forth by the old master of suspense.  In addition to being a damned good watchdog (watch him protect the territory repeatedly from Roy L. Fuchs, the Evil Twin brother), Toby proves himself equally adept at assisting mechanics and car salesmen.

In fact Toby is performing the former duty when we are introduced to him, dutifully responding to Luke's request for a Phillips screwdriver.  The little fella isn't infallible, as he comes back with a flathead on his first trip before correcting his error.  It's still an impressive feat for a pooch, and it took trainer Tony Shields two months of work with Toby before that trick was ready for filming.

After the first of two legendary setpieces involving illegal (and FCC violating) commercials, every available man is needed to help sell cars on the packed lot the following morning,  Toby is ready for action, teaming up with Gerrit Graham to help put a family in their dream station wagon.  Rather than try to describe it, I'll just let you witness Toby's most famous scene in its entireity:

Of course, no acting animal could possibly play that dead that convincingly without a helping paw, and Zemeckis admitted Toby was lightly sedated for the scene (with the Humane Society monitoring filming and a DVM on set at all times).   Juiced a little, sure, but that hasn't wiped Canseco's home runs or Clemens' K's off the books yet, so it certainly shouldn't negate Toby's spot-on support of Graham's salesmanship.

Other sites identify Graham's superstitious Jeff as Toby's owner instead of my assumption that it is Luke.  Granted, Toby seems to be best buds with Jeff during the bulk of his screen time, but I base my theory on the fact that Toby is with Luke Fuchs at the outset and only bonds with Jeff after Luke demonstrates that $50 (and a perilous ride with his brother's henchman) can kill somebody.  Toby is also noticeably upset later when Luke is truly about to drive over the curb for the last time.

Truthfully it's hard to say who's right on this.  It is never revealed which man is truly Toby's best friend in the Gale-Zemeckis shooting script, and the DVD's otherwise highly informative commentary track is no help either.  It remains one of the mysteries of USED CARS, right up there with the source of Jim the Mechanic's legal expertise ("That's the most blatant case of false advertising I've ever heard!") and how workaholic Roy has the time to follow routine cases like the People v. Billy Joe Washington.

Toby's second most famous scene is the setpiece fight between Roy L. Fuchs and Jeff after "Marshal Lucky" goes huntin' high prices at the lot across the highway.  The surviving Fuchs brother is outraged enough to temporarily overlook his fear of Toby (not to mention the possibility of a trespassing arrest) and invades the New Deal lot.  Unfortunately for Jeff, his loyal four legged friend ends up locked in a room and unable to help while Fuchs completely routs him.  In a display of Toby's extraordinary intelligence that is often overlooked, he manages to open the window.

Jeff is unconscious, Rudy is away, so mechanic Jim (who deals with threats ranging from Roy's henchman to protesting nuns) is the only person to go to for help.  Jim is in the garage sleeping off a bout of post commercial battle fatigue (PCBF?).  Face licking doesn't wake the slumbering giant played by former Chicago Bear DT Frank McRae (48 HRS.) so Toby has to kick it up a notch.  I'll be as tactful as I can:

No, Toby didn't really tee tee on him.  This was another clever trick Shields taught Peanuts, working with him to just stand on one hind leg, then run off.   Zemeckis ran the film in reverse to get the desired effect.  In a subsequent display of more beagle brilliance, check out this reaction shot.  Many human actors can't get the point across as effectively.

Toby consistently exhibits the traits we recognize in all our wonderful dogs.  Loyalty, bravery, affection, communication....but Toby goes above and beyond in all categories, impressing and occasionally amazing with his acumen.  I could go on all day about USED CARS and Toby, but it's about time for me to wrap this up.

I know, I know, but there's only so much time in your day to check out the other posts, right?  And not only do I think you should check out the rest of the films in the Classic Movie Dogathon, but Toby does too, don't you Toby?


Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Film Review: THE SLAMS (1973)


"Why the Hell isn't this on DVD yet?" -- Number 74

THE SLAMS (1973 MGM) Starring Jim Brown, Judy Pace, Roland Bob Harris, Paul Harris, Frank deKova, Ted Cassidy, Frenchia Guizon, Quinn K. Redeker, Dick Miller, Betty Cole.  Directed by Jonathan Kaplan.

Brown is a small time criminal looking to jump into the big leagues by making off with a cool $1.5 million in cash plus heroin over seven dead Mafia bodies.  Correctly sensing a double-cross afterwards, Brown dispatches his attackers but is wounded in the process.  Brown still manages to stash the booty before he is arrested, making him a person of much interest after his incarceration.  There's a price on his head and the Feds, corrupt guard Harris, and imprisoned mafia enforcer DeKova all want to know where he's keeping the ill-gotten gains.  Facing only a short sentence for the provable charges, Brown turns a deaf ear to all offers of protection (despite the imposing presence of DeKova's racist 6'9" henchman Cassidy) but develops a greater sense of urgency when he learns his hiding spot is scheduled for demolition.

Long before moving on to Oscar bait like THE ACCUSED and HEART LIKE A WHEEL, Kaplan cut his teeth doing action films like THE SLAMS, his third feature.  As you'd guess from the synopsis, there are no real good guys here, but Brown's shady protagonist has an intriguing sense of morality. He has no qualms about killing, as he is responsible for nine homicides during the opening heist alone.  But Big Jim draws the line at profiting off heroin, throwing the smack in the ocean and citing the drug's impact on his community.

Script by Richard L. Adams (Brown's I ESCAPED FROM DEVIL'S ISLAND) leaves much to be desired in terms of plausibility and character motivation.   In front of the Warden and Brown, the Feds address the aforementioned killings thusly: "We don't give a shit about the murders."  Really?  You would think they'd have to at least bluff a continuing investigation considering they badly need leverage against the only man who knows where the $1.5 million is stashed and Brown's "only facing a one to five".  (Some evidence gathering, by the way.....nine corpses and that's it?)

Cole turns up as Brown's mother for one brief hospital scene early that adds nothing to the plot and next to no insight to his motivation or background, then disappears completely.  His lady Pace is a television personality doing rather well for herself, so much so that you wonder why either is taking these risks.  One big chance taken by the meticulous (and as established earlier, anti-smack) Brown is trusting a recreational snorter with the key role during his escape plan.  Oh well, at least Adams does explain why the inmates more or less run the asylum (corruption, overcrowding, understaffing) if not their incredibly easy access to lethal substances during every work detail.

Suffice to say THE SLAMS will fall apart if you give it much thought, so Kaplan wisely sticks to the meat and potatoes with a concise 91 minute running time packed full of brutal bloodshed.  The often unsettling violence includes homicides via cyanide gas and drowning (to name two), disfigurement by acid, and Pace being assaulted in her home.  Racial and sexual slurs abound, with Cassidy's basso profundo delivery of the former rivaling Nichelle Nichols' gutter talk in Kaplan's TRUCK TURNER for unintentional giggles.  You can see Brown's inevitable showdown with Cassidy coming a mile away, but it is a surprise to see elder statesman DeKova (F TROOP) joining the fisticuffs at one point.  In one of the screenplay's few instances of a backstory, we learn that DeKova never carried a weapon, preferring to "kill with his bare hands".

That's right, my bare hands!  "Hekawis not fighters"  my ass!
Despite Kaplan's best efforts and a good cast, the story and characters are both badly underwritten, leaving THE SLAMS undistinguished as both blaxploitation and prison flick.  But it is zippy and shockingly vicious at times, making it a watchable (if not terribly memorable) vehicle for Brown.  Ubiquitous genre actor Thalmus Rasulala (WILLIE DYNAMITE) was the assistant director, and speaking of ubiquitous actors, Dick Miller cameos as a cabbie.

So....why isn't this on DVD yet?

The underdeveloped script hurts, one reason THE SLAMS is less remembered today than Brown's THREE THE HARD WAY, SLAUGHTER and BLACK GUNN.

Why it should be on DVD:

One of Kaplan's early films, and starring one of the enduringly popular action stars of the era, THE SLAMS should really be on DVD by now.  Kaplan's TRUCK TURNER is, and MGM distributed numerous Soul Cinema entries, so the omission of THE SLAMS is a puzzler.

Your only chance to see Pace (COTTON COMES TO HARLEM) as Brown's leading lady.  She also starred in MGM's COOL BREEZE (1972) with Rasulala.  Speaking of which, COOL BREEZE is also missing from DVD, so that's another film MGM has dropped the ball on so far.  Come on Metro, what do you have against the gorgeous Ms. Pace? 

 (update: Marc kindly informs me in the comments below that Warner now owns the rights.  Thanks Marc!  Given that.....) 

THE SLAMS may not be a classic, but it would be a great fit along with the aforementioned BREEZE for a Warner Archive Urban Action Collection II---the four-pack Collection I included THREE THE HARD WAY.