For consumers and collectors interested in erotica that’s both artistic and evocative, Cult Epics releases Nico B’s “Sin.” From the director of films like “Bettie Page: Dark Angel,” his short film “Sin” is a very unique and sophisticated anthology about sex, obsession and the idea of sin. Nico B’s artistic direction is quite fascinating even if “Sin” isn’t one hundred percent as engrossing as it should be. Nico B. explores these ideas through three stories set in various parts of time. There’s “Lady of the East” which involves an Egyptian Dancer who seduces an American traveler. This leads to a rather violent result when he brings the dancer across the world and reveals the bigger more heinous sum of the power of money.
The winner of the Best Picture Award at this year’s New England Underground Film Festival, this amusing 25-minute from filmmaker Jesse Berger slices and dices scenes and dialogue from four anti-classics from the notorious Edward D. Wood Jr. – “Glen or Glenda?”, “Bride of the Monster,” “Plan 9 from Outer Space” and “Night of the Ghouls” – into a wonderfully warped blend of lunacy that perfectly captures the inane spirit of Wood’s work in a fraction of their running time.
In the realm of cinema, the 1975 blaxploitation feature “Dolemite” might be the closest thing that the medium has to folk art: its raw form carries strains of both naivety and shrewdness, resulting in a work that is mesmerizing for its utter lack of polished structure.
When “In the Street” was first screened in 1948, it was unusual in several ways: it was a silent film created two decades after Hollywood jettisoned the silent format for talkies, it was a view of New York’s Spanish Harlem at a time when mainstream movies ignored the growing urban Hispanic population, and it offered an unprecedented view of daily life without the benefit of a preconceived screenplay.
In post-World War II America, homosexuality was being addressed with various degrees of maturity and artistry in literature and theater – but not in cinema, thanks to the restrictive Production Code censorship that governed Hollywood. Far removed from the movie industry, 17-year-old Kenneth Anger used cinema to consider homoeroticism with the 14-minute “Fireworks,” which was certainly the most daring film of 1947 – and is still among the most astonishing productions ever made.
For this experimental work, Anger cast himself as a young man whose sex-fueled fantasies become a violent reality. From its opening, Anger immediately breaks taboos by suggesting the dream of the youth being held in the arms of a hunky sailor. The youth awakes and it appears that he has an erection – but the pulling back of the blanket reveals he was holding a statuette to simulate his phallic tower. Slipping through a door marked “Gents,” he winds up in a bar where a bodybuilder sailor shows off his muscles – but when the youth offers the sailor a cigarette, the sailor slaps him in the face and twists his arm behind his back. The sailor later lights the youth’s cigarette with a flame burning at the end of a bundle of sticks – or, to be crude, using a faggot to light up a faggot.
Then, more sailors show up, with their leader holding a large chain. They surround the youth, who sinks to the ground. The youth is framed in tight close-up, screaming with blood being splattered across his face, as sailors beat him with chains and cut open his chest to find a gas gauge in his heart. This assault is followed by white liquid being poured on the youth’s face and body. One of the sailors is seen with a lit Roman candle dangling from his fly. But it turns out to have just been a sadomasochistic dream as the youth shares his bed with another man (although this partner’s face is scratched out of the print in a manner that gives his head a cartoonish sunshine glow).
Not unlike many experimental films, there is a degree of artistic wobbling going on – a Christmas tree is trotted out for no clear reason and a few shots are not in focus. But the sheer audacity of the film’s most visceral images and its unapologetic consideration that the orgy of sexual violence was little more than a dream – that ultimate storytelling cliché, played for a big gay laugh here – were far ahead of its time. And, maybe, with its willingness to jettison aesthetic safety for sheer carnal outrageousness, “Fireworks” is also ahead of our time.
The decision to hire Fred Zinnemann as the director of the film version of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical “Oklahoma!” was peculiar – the director never helmed a musical before and was best known for his intensely riveting dramas such as “The Search,” “The Men,” “High Noon,” “The Member of the Wedding” and the Oscar-winning “From Here to Eternity.” One would imagine that bringing in a veteran musical director such as Stanley Donen or Vincente Minnelli would seem more logical for a vehicle like “Oklahoma!” – this would seem to be the job for an expert in the light and breezy, not in doom and gloom.
But Zinnemann’s predilection for the dramatic gave the frothy “Oklahoma!” a sense of complex gravitas that was absent from other mid-1950s musicals – not to mention the original Broadway production – and when viewing it today, it seems more modern when many of the other musicals of the decade seem badly dated. Part of this was achieved in the off-beat casting of Rod Steiger (who transformed the character Jud Fry from a stock villain into an emotionally tortured untouchable) and film noir diva Gloria Grahame (who played the comic relief Ado Annie without a trace of wink-and-nudge farce, thus making her character’s sexual cluelessness more humorously invigorating). Zinnemann might have taken the film into even darker territory, as witnessed in his unusual eagerness to audition non-musical young Method actors Paul Newman and James Dean for the Curly role. But under Zinnemann’s direction, Gordon MacRae, a usually bland musical-comedy performer, tapped into hitherto unknown dramatic abilities as he plumbed Curly to find an insouciant malevolence that clouded the character’s personality and motivation.
Still, “Oklahoma!” is a musical and not a melodrama, and Zinnemann responded to the material with an imaginative style that took full advantage of the widescreen format (the film was simultaneously filmed in the Todd-AO and CinemaScope processes) and vibrant rural locations (in Arizona, as Oklahoma proved oddly incompatible for the production). The classic score was wonderfully enhanced with boldly conceived outdoor sequences – “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” and “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” are playfully visualized while the complicated “Kansas City” dance number was staged with a large ensemble in an open air train depot. Zinnemann also provided expert framing for Agnes de Mille’s groundbreaking dream ballet, which offered an astonishing avant-garde sequence laced with psychosexual menace.
It also helped that the film brought in reliable performers to inhabit the broad roles with unapologetic hamming – Eddie Albert’s oleaginous Persian peddler, Gene Nelson as the handsome but dim cowboy and the sublime Charlotte Greenwood as the earthy Aunt Eller offer a jolly presence to keep Zinnemann’s edgier elements in check, creating the cinematic equivalent of a yin-yang balance. The biggest surprise was the film’s greatest gamble: putting unknown Shirley Jones in the central role of Laurey. The young actress was not lacking in photogenic charms and a fine voice, and Zinnemann carefully guided her through the role’s light comedy and difficult emotional turns, which resulted in one of the most startlingly effective film debuts.
In 1946, low-rent Republic Studios lured Oscar-winning writer Ben Hecht with the offer of being able to produce and direct films. But while the studio gave Hecht creative liberty, it imprisoned him within its ridiculously low budget framework. For his first (and, it turned out, only) Republic offering, Hecht had $200,000 to spend.
The resulting work, “Specter of the Rose,” turned out to be one of the most bewildering features of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Part-thriller, part-light comedy and part-ballet, the production was an emotionally bipolar experience. It also betrayed Hecht’s limitations as a filmmaker – cinematographer Lee Garmes shared co-director status, albeit with minimal prominence in the credits.
“Specter of the Rose” focused on the efforts of would-be impresario Max Poliakoff (played by Russian acting teacher and occasional thespian Michael Chekov) trying to pull together various dubious talents for a major ballet endeavor. Aging ex-ballerina Madame La Sylph (Judith Anderson) reluctantly agrees to get pulled into Poliakoff’s scheme, which involve bringing the elusive ballet star Andre Sanine (Ivan Kirov) back to the stage. Sanine had been sidelined following the on-stage death of his wife, and in his grief he began proclaiming that he was responsible for her death. But the offer to star and choreograph a new production, coupled with his sudden infatuation for Haidi, one of Madame La Sylph’s students (Viola Essen), brings Sanine back to performing.
However, the endeavor is wrought with endless problems: Poliakoff runs up debts and resorts to outrageous lies to keep his creditors pacified while a degenerate poet (Lionel Stander) whose love for Haidi goes unrequited stalks the ballerina. Haida winds up marrying Sanine, but his mental health begins to fray after their wedding – and it appears that his distraught claims about being responsible for his wife’s death had a ring of truth.
“Specter of the Rose” is notable for carrying some of the most pretentiously peculiar dialogue in the history of English-language cinema. Lines such as “The lunacy of great artists usually produces masterpieces, not murders” and “The suffering of the masses is a minor phenomenon beside one man’s tears” and “Hug me with your eyes” crash throughout the story, and it is hard to determine whether Hecht was trying to make an artistic statement or if he wrote the script while drunk.
There is also the bizarre performance by Chekov – with his wavy hair, oversized boutonnière and florid use of language (everyone is called “darling,” regardless of gender), his Poliakoff vividly shredded the Production Code’s taboo on obvious homosexual characters. The character’s atrocious behavior – deliberate mistruths, unctuous flattery and silly threats – makes him maddening rather than amusing. Matching Chekov for sheer strangeness is Stander, the gravel-voiced character actor whose line readings of Hecht’s overripe dialogue are so tortured that it feels like he is reciting his part phonetically.
And as for the grand ballet that is promised for the first two-thirds of the film, the resulting production is such a Republic-caliber cheapjack offering that it feels like the screenplay’s endless teasing of a masterwork was the ultimate bait-and-switch – especially since the title and a few dialogue references to the ballet “Le Spectre de la Rose” seem to suggest there would be a version of that masterwork on screen.
Nonetheless, “Specter of the Rose” keeps the viewer attention through Garmes’ effective noir-style cinematography (which mostly hides the poverty of the budget) and a stunning performance by Ivanov, a Broadway chorus dancer making his film debut. His rugged physical presence and offbeat interpretation of the increasingly unhinged ballet star dominates the film – and even if Tamara Geva’s choreography is less than stellar, Kirov’s physicality and emotional interpretation of the work saves the day. (Sadly, this was his only film appearance.)
And for all of its failings and weirdness, “Specter of the Rose” ties up brilliantly for its startling climax, where Sanine’s madness and sense of artistry duel over him. Without giving too much away, it can be said that this sequence embodies an astonishing mix of Garmes’ visual style, Kirov’s magnificent dramatic and physical talent and Hecht’s audacity to ratchet up the bizarre to a level of intellectual horror. This leaves the viewer with a sense of “what the hell was that?” – but, also, a subsequent consideration of “wow, that was really different!”
Unless you are a die-hard aficionado of the films of the late 1920s and early 1930s, there is a good chance that you never heard of the comedy team of Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough. This duo worked their way up from the rough-and-tumble worlds of circus entertainment and vaudeville before reaching Broadway stardom in the mid-1920s. When Hollywood jettisoned the silent movies in favor of “talking pictures,” Clark and McCullough were among the many Broadway headliners to find their way to Hollywood.
In 1928 and 1929, Clark and McCullough starred in14 shorts produced by the Fox studio. Sadly, all but two of these films are considered lost: “Waltzing Around” (1929), which exists in private collections and is available for exhibition at the moment, and “The Belle of Samoa” (1929), which can be found in an unauthorized YouTube posting. (The team later made short films at RKO, but most of their work for that studio is not easily accessible for contemporary review.)
The comedy of Clark and McCullough has been polarizing among many film scholars – some praise the duo for bringing a rough anarchy to the medium, while others bemoan the uneven distribution of comedy that favored Clark’s motor-mouthed antics while McCullough was often treated like a glorified onlooker to the mayhem. In some ways, the comics never truly found a comfortable transition from stage to screen, particularly Clark with his painted-on eyeglasses and his tendency to enunciate as if he was still playing to the last seat in the balcony. The theatricality of their act is clearly demonstrated in “The Belle of Samoa,” which is presented like a filmed record of a stage revue.
The film opens with the duo walking on stage wearing funny clothing – Clark has a fez and oversized coat while McCullough wears a porkpie hat and plaid pants – and immediately announce that they are in Samoa. They knock on a door and are greeted by a large, somber man wearing greasepaint make-up and a wild wig – this was the 1929 Hollywood idea of a Samoan native. The man is the guard at a sacred temple of the maidens of Samoa, and he tells the interlopers, “Speak softly.” Clark takes the instruction with flippancy, announcing, “Oh, it is a speakeasy!”
After tricking the guard with a gambling distraction, Clark and McCullough race inside and they find the temple consists of young women who are wearing exotic garb that seems closer to an Arabian Nights fantasy than a Samoan village. “All of these flappers are looking for a man!” Clark exclaims before a Samoan princess (played by Lois Moran, a popular film star of the era who was transitioning into talkies). Clark feels that McCullough is crimping his style and whacks him in the chest with a cane, to which McCullough moans, “Oooooh, my operation!” Clark then explains McCullough to the princess by stating, “That’s my valet – he look like a hill, but he’s really a valet.”
Just when it feels like Clark is wearing out his welcome, a curtain passes across the stage to signal a change of scene. For the next several minutes, the audience is treated to an extended musical sequence starring Filoi and her army of 60 Samoan singers and dancers. After this interlude, Clark and McCullough return to face death by beheading for defiling the maidens’ temple. The princess begs her father to spare the duo, and their salvation is rewarded by the princess performing a decidedly non-Samoan pop ditty while backed with her own small army of singers and dancers. At the end, everyone runs out on stage to take a bow.
Admittedly, “The Belle of Samoa” is no one’s idea of a classic. But it offers an idea of what Clark and McCullough’s Broadway offerings of that distant era may have looked like. Yes, the comedy is too corny and too politically incorrect for today’s tastes, but it moves with a rapid speed and a heavy sense of self-confidence that compensates for whatever it is missing in the aesthetics department. Clark muffs two lines, but recovers quickly and keeps firing away with his material. McCullough, however, is the real joy – he watches the proceedings with a slacker’s bemusement, and his cackle-voice delivery gives an odd charm to whatever he says. And while the Samoan musical segment requires a bit of patience, Lois Moran’s solo is fun and sexy – and it is a shame that she left films a few years after “The Belle of Samoa,” as she clearly possessed a star power that warranted a longer screen presence.
“The Belle of Samoa” is a hoary and somewhat creaky affair, but it is valuable as a reminder of where American comedy came from.