Ten fantasy-driven films I saw on TV, while home from school, pretending to be sick in the fourth grade, that changed my life forever.
By Shaun Costello
My life-long love affair with motion pictures began, not in the cavernous movie palaces of New York City, although I regularly accompanied my parents, or my grandmother to see the latest offerings at Radio City Music Hall, The Roxy, The Loews State, and the Palace; but instead on the 15 inch screen of my family’s black and white Dumont television set, that occupied a place of honor in the finished basement of our house at 9 Elderberry Lane, in the suburban village of Valley Stream, about a 40 minute car ride to mid-town Manhattan. I was 9 years old and in the fourth grade at the local Catholic School, and for purposes of full disclosure, have to admit to taking full advantage of every trick imaginable in order to accrue more than my share of sick days, pretending to be at death’s door, in order to not be held accountable for homework not done, or book reports not finished, or maybe just giving in to chronic laziness in a Herculean attempt to keep my eyes glued to our television screen, without interruption, for, if possible, the entire day.
Daytime TV in the mid-Fifties offered a cornucopia of entertainment, beginning with NBC’c Today Show with Dave Garroway and his chimp Mr Muggs, followed by Arthur Godfrey and His Friends, featuring The McGuire Sisters, Julius LaRosa, and Hawaiian Hottie, Haleloke, who sang songs like ‘Lovely Hula Hands’. Then came a half hour watching Jack LaLane pumping iron and drinking carrot
juice, followed by an assortment of Game Shows and Soap Operas. The afternoon kicked off with Joe Franklin’s Memory Lane, which offered Franklin talking with people I’d never heard of and showing old shorts and Feature Films. There were two channels, WOR Channel Nine, and WPIX Channel Eleven that regularly showed old movies. Channel Eleven showed mostly Westerns – lots of Hopalong Cassidy, Tom Mix, Bob Steele, Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, and Westerns were right up my alley, but Channel Nine showed a variety of movies, some of which got my attention, and had me clambering for more. Movies about the supernatural which included ghosts, goblins, fairy tale characters, outrageous swindles, outlandish inventions, mermaids, men who could walk through walls, statues that came to life when you kissed them; genies, giants, magic carpet rides, magicians, and friendly spirits who could appear and disappear at will. I was hooked. I was mesmerized. I couldn’t get enough of this newly discovered form of entertainment.
The purpose of this list, dear reader, is to share ten of these gloriously outlandish movies with you. Ten preposterously unearthly and undignified examples of fantasy cinema, that thrilled me beyond my wildest expectation, and changed my life forever. Of course, you might excuse my reaction to these movies by suggesting that I was nine years old, but here we are, a half century later, and I can still hear that haunting musical score, the sound of singing, the kind of singing that only comes from out near Key Ora, as Mr. Peabody rows his boat through that thick fog bank, following the song, and searching for his mermaid.
So, in alphabetical order:
BABES IN TOYLAND
1934 Charles Rogers and Gus Meins
Based on Victor Herbert’s popular 1903 Operetta of the same name, Babes in Toyland was later released under the titles ‘March of the Wooden Soldiers’, and ‘Wooden Soldiers’.
This is a delightfully silly fantasy amalgam of Fairy Tale characters with Laurel and Hardy at its center as Stanley Dum and Ollie Dee. The film’s story takes place in the fictional Kingdom of Toyland, inhabited by Mother Goose, Tom-Tom Piper, Mother Peep and Bo Peep, Stan and Ollie’s boss the Toymaker, and the evil Silas Barnaby, who holds Toyland in a constant threat of siege from his henchmen, the Bogey Men, who lurk just outside the gates of the city. Stan and Ollie live in a shoe, with “The Old Woman”, who turns out to be Mother Peep, her daughter Bo Peep, a mouse that is actually played by a monkey in costume, and so many children she didn’t know what to do. The mortgage on The Shoe is owned by the villainous Silas Barnaby, who has his eyes on the lovely Bo Peep. Stan and Ollie try to borrow enough money to pay off the mortgage from their boss the Toymaker, but the normally kindly gentleman is furious at our boys for mixing up an order from Santa Claus, and building one hundred Toy Soldiers six feet tall, rather that what Santa really wanted – six hundred Toy Soldiers one foot tall, so he fires them. With Stan and Ollie unemployed, and The Shoe in foreclosure, Barnaby’s got his clutches into Bo Peep, and the horrible Bogey Men are breaking down the gate to the city. All seems lost, until Stan comes up with the solution. “The Soldiers, the Toy Soldiers”, so our heroes wind up their army of one hundred six foot tall Toy Saviors, Victor Herbert’s March music begins to swell, and Toyland is saved in the nick of time.
Directed by Gus Meins and Charles Rogers (whoever they are), Produced by Hal Roach, and released through MGM. Silly, delicious fluff that I must have seen 20 times down through the years. I can still hear that ‘March Music’.
THE BARON OF ARIZONA
1950 Sam Fuller
How can a person own a whole state? That’s the question I asked myself when I first saw this Hollywood ‘land-grab’ fantasy. But the fact is, it turns out to be based on a true story, as preposterous as that might seem, and not really a fantasy at all. It’s based on the story of master forger James Reavis, who, in the late Nineteenth Century, almost got away with taking over the entire State of Arizona, forging documents claiming that the area then called Arizona had been granted to his family by the King of Spain, centuries earlier. The U.S. government recognized land grants made when the West was under Spanish rule. This inspired James Reavis to forge a chain of historical evidence that made a foundling girl the Baroness of Arizona. Reavis married the girl and pressed his claim to the entire Arizona territory. And he almost gets away with it. Makes you wonder where John McCain would be today, had this delightful bit of mischief actually succeeded. The real James Reavis (1843 – 1914) was found guilty of creating forged documents, paid a fine of five thousand dollars, and spent two year in jail.
A nice turn here by Vincent Price, as the adventurous forger, and Ellen Drew as the foundling child, who almost became the Baroness of Arizona. Solid direction by war film maven Sam Fuller, and stunning, as usual, black and white lensing by the inimitable James Wong Howe. An aside – Ed Wood does a turn here as a stunt double.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL
1951 Brian Desmond Hurst
The one and only. So many movies have been produced from Dickens’ classic story (even my own), but this Alistair Sim version still holds up as the all-time champ. A wonderful story, simply told, with a bumbling, befuddled, and delighted Sim at its core. The word “humbug”, forever connected to this story and with the Scrooge character, is misunderstood by many people, which is a pity since the word provides a key insight into Scrooge’s hatred of Christmas. The word “humbug” actually describes deceitful efforts to fool people by pretending to a fake loftiness or false sincerity. So when Scrooge calls Christmas a humbug, he is claiming that people are only pretending to be charitable and kind in a scandalous effort to delude him, each other, and themselves. In Scrooge’s eyes, he is the one man honest enough to admit that no one really cares about anyone else, so for him, every wish for a Merry Christmas is one more deceitful effort to
fool him and take advantage of his good nature. This is a man who has turned to profit because he honestly believes everyone else will someday betray him or abandon him the moment he stoops to trust them.
At least, this is what he thought before that fateful Christmas Eve, when the spirit of his long-dead partner, Jacob Marley, made his ghostly appearance at Scrooge’s bedside, foretelling of the coming of three apparitions that would all appear to Scrooge that very night, in the hope of saving his soul. At the age of nine, I hadn’t read the Dickens book, and was unaware of the story, and this movie scared the bejesus out of me. Although this film is carefully directed, beautifully shot and art-directed, and a typically solid early-Fifties British Production, it’s Alistair Sim’s delicious performance, as the transformed miser, that drives the bus here.
Beyond Sim, there’s Mervyn Johns and Hermione Baddelee as the Cratchits, Michael Hordern as Marley’s ghost, George Cole as a hopeful but broken-hearted young Ebenezer Scrooge, and Glyn Dearman as Tiny Tim, who has the last word, “God bless us, everyone”.
THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR
1947 Joe Mankiewicz
In early 1900s England, a young widow, Lucy Muir (a devastatingly beautiful Gene Tierney), moves to the seaside village of Whitecliff and into Gull Cottage with her daughter Anna (Natalie Wood)) and her maid Martha (Edna Best), despite
the fierce disapproval of her mother, and sister-in-law. She rents the house despite discovering that it’s haunted. On the first night in her new digs, she is visited by the ghostly apparition of the former owner, a roguish sea captain named Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison), who reluctantly promises to make himself known only to her; Anna is too young for ghosts. When Lucy’s source of investment income dries up, he dictates to her his memoirs, entitled Blood and Swash. His racy recollections make the book a bestseller, allowing Lucy to stay in the house. During the course of writing the book, they fall in love, but as both realize it is a hopeless situation, Daniel tells her she should find a real (live) man.
When she visits the publisher in London she becomes attracted to suave Miles Fairley (George Sanders), a writer of children’s stories known as “Uncle Neddy” who helps her obtain an interview. Despite a rocky beginning, the publisher agrees to publish the captain’s book. Fairley follows her back to Whitecliff and begins a whirlwind courtship. Captain Gregg, initially jealous of their relationship, decides finally to disappear and cease being an obstacle to her happiness. He ends their relationship and convinces her that his ghostly apparitions were only a dream. Shortly thereafter, while visiting her publisher in London (the book has become a bestseller), Lucy pays a surprise visit to Fairley’s home and discovers that, not only is Miles already married with two children, but that this sort of thing has happened before with other women. Lucy leaves heartbroken and returns to spend the rest of her life as a single woman in Gull Cottage with Martha to look after her.
About ten years later, Anna (Vanessa Brown) returns to the cottage with her Navy Lieutenant fiancée and tells her mother that she knew about Captain Gregg and Miles Fairley all the time, rekindling faint memories in her mother of the captain (we also learn that Miles Fairley has become fat and bald and that his wife and children finally left him).
After a long peaceful life spent at the cottage, Lucy dies. This being a movie, Captain Gregg appears before her at the moment of her death – reaching out, he lifts her young spirit free of her old dead body. The two walk out of the front door arm in arm, into the mist. Two spooks in love, and together at long last.
This movie hooked me from the very first moments, and kept my nine year-old eyes glued to that screen. Nicely directed by Joe Mankiewicz, and released by Twentieth Century Fox and Darryl Zanuck. I could spend my whole life in Gull Cottage by the sea, listening to Bernard Herrman’s fabulous music, and playing bridge with ghostly apparitions. I’m just saying………………….
THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT
1951 Alexander Mackendrick
A delightful satirical comedy from England’s ever-fabulous Ealing Studios, who brought us The Lavender Hill Mob, and The Lady Killers. It followed a consistent Ealing theme of the common man (Alec Guiness) against the establishment (everyone else). Sidney Stratton, a brilliant young research chemist and former Cambridge scholarship recipient, has been dismissed from jobs at several textile mills because of his demands for expensive facilities and his obsession to invent a long-lasting fiber. While working as a research chemist at the Birnley Mill, his daily toil accompanied by the constant, almost musical sound of bubbling liquids, he accidently invents an incredibly strong fiber which repels dirt and never wears out. From this fabric, a suit is made – which is brilliant white because it cannot absorb dye, and slightly luminous because it includes radioactive elements.
Stratton is lauded as a genius until both management and the trade unions realize the consequence of his invention – once consumers have purchased enough cloth, demand will drop precipitously and put the textile industry out of business. The managers try to trick Stratton into signing away the rights to his invention but he refuses. Managers and workers each try to lock him up, but he escapes.
The climax sees Stratton running through the streets at night in his glowing white suit, pursued by both the managers and the employees. As the crowd advances, his suit begins to fall apart as the chemical structure of the fiber breaks down with time. The mob, realizing the flaw in the process, rip pieces off his suit in evil triumph, until he is left standing in his underwear. Only Daphne Birnley, the mill-owner’s daughter, and Bertha, a Mill laborer, have sympathy for his disappointment.
The next day, Stratton is dismissed from his job. Departing, he consults his chemistry notes, and slowly, an expression of revelation overcomes him, as we hear that sound of those bubbling liquids once more. “I see!”, exclaims young Stratton. And off he goes, with another outlandish invention in his crosshairs.
As a nine year-old, what I liked most was that the white suit glowed in the dark. Guiness, as usual, is a delight, as is Joan Greenwood – she of the voice like tinkling crystal. Early, and solid black and white lensing by British cinematographer Doug Slocombe. You might find a dvd of this at your local library – mine has all the Ealing classics. Grab it, if you can.
MR. PEABODY AND THE MERMAID
1948 Irving Pichel
This one absolutely knocked me out. It was my first exposure to the idea that Mermaids were a possibility. This fish fantasy stars William Powell as Arthur Peabody, who is undergoing a mid-life crisis as he approaches his 50th birthday. Much of the story is shown in flashback as Peabody tells his skeptical doctor a fish tale for the ages.
Peabody had gone on vacation with his wife Polly (Irene Hervey) to a sea side resort in Bermuda. One evening, he hears singing coming from the distant Key Ora, singing, the likes of which he’s never heard before. He asks s few of the locals, and some of them have heard it too, but long ago. So, our song-smitten hero decides to do a little fishing. To his surprise, he reels in a beautiful mermaid played by Ann Blyth. He names her Lenore (shades of Poe here), and although mute, Lenore is mischievous and childlike and not just a little bit alluring – so much so that before long Peabody has taught her the art of kissing. She shows him an extraordinarily beautiful comb, made from a shell, that she wears in her hair. He hides Lenore by letting her soak in a suds-filled bathtub, then later in the resort’s fish pond. But confusion ensues as his wife thinks he has a big fish in their bathtub and later suspects him of infidelity with Cathy Livingston (Andrea King), a vacationing singer. Things get even more complicated when, after an angry Polly returns home without Peabody, police suspect him of her murder. But they’re British Police (hey, it’s Bermuda), after all, and it would be uncivilized to arrest a man in his home, even if it’s a rental.
And Peabody hears that singing again, out from somewhere near Key Ora. Out in that thick fog bank. And off he goes in his little boat, searching for the lost Lenore. A wave capsizes his craft, and while trying to survive under the water, he see’s and reaches for Lenore’s beautiful comb.
We dissolve here, ending the fishy-flashback, to his shrink’s office, back in Boston. He’s told his story to a doubting psychiatrist, who knows a mid-life crisis when he see’s one. But wait – Peabody’s got something in his hand. Something he’s been holding all the while he’s been telling his tale. “What’s that”, asks his shrink. “Oh nothing”, say’s Peabody. “Just a comb I found somewhere”. “How extraordinary”, say’s the Doctor, “I’ve never seen anything quite like it before”. And we begin to hear that singing again, like the kind of singing that only comes from that thick fog bank, somewhere out near Key Ora.
Well, this being my first mermaid experience, I was just as smitten as poor Peabody – smitten, but combless.
1951 Jean Boyer
This one also knocked me for a loop. In Paris, a simple civil servant named Léon, who has the unusual ability to walk through walls (who cares why – he can really do this), falls madly in love with a hotel thief by the name of Susan. He poses as Garou-Garou, a dangerous gangster to attempt to woo her affections, but is mistakenly arrested and sent to jail. While incarcerated, he annoys the guards by walking in and out of his cell, right through the bars, and the cell walls. It’s a bizarre, modern/fantasy/adventure/ romance. It’s boy meets girl with an walk-through twist. Leon’s friends suggest he use his odd ability to become the criminal of the century, walking through bank vaults and off with the loot. But, Leon instead, see’s his strange gift as a way to help Susan, who is being blackmailed. A very moralistic tale – love triumphs over crime. The film stars Bourvil, as Leon, who up until this effort, had been a semi-successful French lounge singer and comedian; and the delightful Joan Greenwood (that voice again) as Susan the Cat Burglar. Fantasizing about having Leon’s abilities took up a great deal of my young life. The possibilities were endless. Unlike other films on this list, I confess to only having seen this that one time, on my family’s black and white Dumont, but I never forgot this delightful French fantasy. I know it’s a one trick pony – but what a trick.
ONE TOUCH OF VENUS
1948 William A. Seiter
Kiss a statue, and it turns into Ava Gardner? Yikes! Since I’ve turned parts of this Blog into a my own private confessional, I might just as well go on record here, as having laid the smooch on countless pieces of marble and granite, in a futile attempt to recreate the aforementioned morphing, after seeing this movie, at the tender age of nine, in the confines of my basement. I even talked my puzzled parents into a trip to the Metropolitan Museum so that I could sneak up on renowned statuary and, when no one was looking, do some furtive fondling. The idea of possessing my very own Ava Gardner overwhelmed me, and probably was the beginning of my inability, throughout my life, to nurture and maintain a lengthy and lasting relationship with a member of the opposite sex. I was looking for a statue, instead. But, before I rant on about one of my favorite fantafilms, let me give you some of the surprising background for this production from Universal’s fluff department.
One Touch of Venus was a Broadway musical with the score written by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Ogden Nash, and book by S. J. Perelman and Nash, based on the novella The Tinted Venus by Thomas Anstey Guthrie, and very loosely spoofing the Pygmalion myth. The show satirized contemporary American suburban values, artistic fads and romantic and sexual mores. Weill had been in America for ten years by the time he wrote this musical, and his music, though retaining his early haunting power, had evolved into a very different Broadway style.
The original Broadway production opened at the Imperial Theatre on October 7, 1943 and closed on February 10, 1945 after 567 performances. The original production was directed by Elia Kazan and featured choreography by Agnes de Mille. It starred Mary Martin, Kenny Baker and Paula Laurence. Marlene Dietrich reportedly backed out of the title role during rehearsals, calling it “too sexy and profane”, which gave Martin the opportunity to establish herself as a Broadway star. The show was made into the 1948 film, directed by William A. Seiter and starring Ava Gardner and Robert Walker. The movie version omitted much of the Broadway score and received poor reviews.
OK, enough surprising background. Let’s get back to kissing a statue and getting Eva Gardner in the bargain. Wealthy department-store mogul Whitfield Savory II (Tom Conway) buys a statue of Venus for $200,000. He plans to exhibit it in the store.
Eddie Hatch (Robert Walker), a window dresser, kisses the statue on a whim. To his shock, Venus comes to life as Eva Gardner. She leaves the store and Eddie is accused of stealing the work of art.
Nobody believes the truth, including secretary Molly Stewart (the one and only Eve Arden), who is Savory’s right-hand woman, and Kerrigan (James Flavin), a detective. Venus turns up at Eddie’s apartment, forcing him to hide her from girlfriend Gloria and roommate Joe.
Entranced by Venus’s song of love, Joe falls for Eddie’s girl Gloria. At the store, meanwhile, Venus has fallen asleep on a sofa and is discovered there by Whitfield, who is instantly smitten.
Kerrigan decides it’s time for Eddie to be placed under arrest for the statue’s theft. Venus, to save Eddie, is willing to seduce Whitfield, but a threat by Molly to leave him brings Whitfield back to his senses. He realizes it’s Molly he truly loves. Aw Geeze.
Venus is called home by Jupiter and must return to Mount Olympus, so she returns to her pedestal. Whitfield can now display his work of art to the public. Eddie is the only one left alone, at least until he meets a new salesgirl who is, I’ll bet you knew this was coming, a dead ringer for the goddess of love.
I’ve spent my life trying to turn marble into flesh, only to find that the opposite usually happens.
THIEF OF BAGDAD
1940 Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger, and Tim Whelan
A fantasy for all seasons! Years ahead of its time, in special effects, cinematography, and directorial vision, this movie, maybe more than any other, just plain blew my sox off. When the giant genie, all 100 feet of him, lowers his hand, allowing Sabu to climb aboard, and then flips the little fellow up onto his shoulder, telling him to take hold of the long pig tail, and with Sabu holding on for dear life, and an echoing, thunderous laughter, the Genie takes flight, I just stood up and started screaming…..screaming! I couldn’t contain my joy.
OK, I’ll calm down now, enough to explain the story. Ahmad (John Justin), the naive King of Bagdad, is convinced by the evil Grand Vizier, Jaffar (Conrad Veidt), to go out into the city disguised as a poor man to get to know his subjects (in the manner of his grandfather Harun al-Rashid). Jaffar then has Ahmad thrown into a dungeon, where he is joined by Abu the thief (Sabu), son of Abu the thief, grandson of Abu the thief. Abu arranges their escape.
They flee to Basra, where Ahmad becomes acquainted with its Princess (June Duprez). However, Jaffar also journeys to Basra, for he desires the Princess. Her father, the Sultan (Miles Malleson), is fascinated by the magical mechanical flying horse Jaffar offers and agrees to the proposed marriage. Upon hearing the news, the Princess, by now deeply in love with Ahmad, runs away. Confronted by Ahmad, Jaffar magically blinds him and turns Abu into a dog; the spell can only be broken if Jaffar holds the Princess in his arms.
The Princess is eventually captured (but not recognized) and sold in the slave market. She is bought secretly by Jaffar and taken to his mansion, but falls into a deep sleep from which he cannot rouse her. Ahmad is tricked by Jaffar’s servant Halima (Mary Morris) into awaking the Princess. Halima then lures the Princess onto Jaffar’s ship by telling her that there is a doctor aboard who can cure Ahmad’s blindness. The ship immediately sets sail. Jaffar informs the Princess about the spell; she allows herself to be embraced, whereupon Ahmad’s sight is restored and Abu is returned to human form. They chase after the ship in a small boat, but Jaffar conjures up a storm to shipwreck them.
Abu wakes up alone on a deserted beach and finds a bottle. When he opens it, an enormous djinn or genie (Rex Ingram) appears. Embittered by his long imprisonment, the genie informs Abu that he is going to kill his rescuer, but Abu tricks him back into the bottle. The genie then offers to grant Abu three wishes if he will let him out again. The hungry boy uses his first wish to ask for sausages. When Abu demands to know where Ahmad is, the genie flies Abu to the top of the highest mountain in the world. On it sits a temple, and in the temple there is an enormous statue with a large jewel, the All-Seeing Eye, set in its forehead. The genie tells Abu that the Eye will show him where to find Ahmad. Abu fights off a giant guardian spider while climbing the statue and steals the gem.
The genie then takes Abu to Ahmad. When Ahmad asks to see the Princess, Abu has him gaze into the All-Seeing Eye. Ahmad despairs when he sees Jaffar arranging for the Princess to inhale the fragrance of the Blue Rose of Forgetfulness, which makes her forget her love. In agony, Ahmad lashes out at Abu for showing him the scene. During the ensuing argument, Abu unthinkingly wishes Ahmad to Baghdad. The genie, freed after granting the last wish, departs, leaving Abu alone in the wilderness.
Ahmad appears in Jaffar’s castle and is quickly captured, but seeing him restores the Princess’s memory. The furious usurper sentences them both to death. Abu, unable to watch his friend’s impending doom, shatters the All-Seeing Eye and as a result is transported to the “land of legend,” where he is greeted by the Old King (Morton Selten) and thanked for freeing the inhabitants, who had been turned to stone. As a reward, he is given a magic crossbow and is named the king’s successor. However, in order to save Ahmad, he steals the king’s magic flying carpet and rushes to the rescue.
Abu’s marvelous aerial arrival (which fulfills a prophecy often cited in the course of the story) sparks a revolt against Jaffar. Abu kills the fleeing Jaffar with his crossbow, and Ahmad regains his kingdom and his love. However, when Abu hears (with growing alarm) Ahmad tell the people of his plan to send him to school to train to become his new Grand Vizier, Abu flies away on the carpet to find his own fun and adventure.
Did you get all that? Just checking. And every frame is gorgeous and thrilling. Nominated for four Oscars, it won three: Best Cinematography, Special Effects, and Art Direction. Shooting began in England, but with the outbreak of WWII, the picture was finished in Hollywood. Produced by Alexander Korda, it took three directors to make this happen; Michael Powell (later to dazzle with The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, and many more), Ludwig Berger, and Tim Whelan. Absolutely dazzling, from beginning to end.
1937 Norman McLeod
Well, we’ve come down to it – ghosts, fun loving, hard drinking, practical joking ghosts. Appearing and disappearing at will. What could be better? Those funloving Kerbys, George (Cary Grant) and Marion (Constance Bennett), stockholders in the bank of which henpecked, stuffy Cosmo Topper (Roland Young) is president, drive recklessly once too often and become ghosts. In limbo because they’ve never done either good or bad deeds, they decide to try a good one now; rehabilitating Topper. Lovely, flirtatious Marion takes a keen personal interest in the job. Will Topper survive the wrath of jealous ghost George? Will Mrs. Topper (Billie Burke) find that a scandalous husband isn’t all bad?
“Topper”, a delightful and original film directed by Norman Z McLeod, should be on everybody’s ‘must see’ list. It is one of the best films Hollywood produced, at the height of the madcap comedy craze of the thirties. Just to watch Roland Young, Constance Bennett and Cary Grant in the same film is pretty delicious.
Constance Bennett and Cary Grant made a fabulous couple. Ms. Bennett had the uncanny gift of blending with all her leading men well. She was a charming actress with such a sense of style and an amazing figure to boot that made her an irresistible presence on the screen. Cary Grant is also seen at his best in the film as the carefree and fun loving George Kerby.
But it’s Roland Young who steals the show! He plays the staid banker Cosmo Topper, who is all business until he starts being made the object of the Kerby’s antics. Cosmo Topper’s wife is the incomparable Billie Burke, the Queen of Ditz.
Produced (uncredited, for some reason) by Hal Roach, shot by Norbert Brodine, and music by Marvin Hatley, Topper, referred to as ‘Toppie’ by Ms Bennett, makes me happy every time I see it. Delicious fluff!
© 2011 Shaun Costello
CHRISTMAS ON EIGHTH AVENUE
By Shaun Costello
In the cold months of winter, Manhattan apartments back in the early Seventies, as I’m sure they do today, resonated with the clanky noises that accompanied the warmth provided by the hot-water radiators that were the common source of heat in most buildings. The clank, clank, click-click-click, clank as the hot water replaced the cold in the pipes leading to the radiating units, followed by the phsssssssssssssssssssssssssssst, as the steam safety valves on the those units went into action protecting the tenants from the danger and inconvenience of exploding pipes. The ability to sleep through this racket was the sign of a true New Yorker. While tourists probably got little sleep terrified that the radiators in their midtown hotel rooms were about to burst, scalding them to death, the hardened veterans of Gotham simply slept through the noise, waiting for their clock radios to start their day. My building was no different, maybe even louder than most, but the clanking never bothered me, and I didn’t need an alarm clock. Each morning between 6 and 7, I would feel the annoying, but reassuring sensation of little teeth gently biting down on the tip of my nose. This was my cat Spiegel, demanding breakfast, and there was no escaping him. So I got up, fed the cat, made coffee, and jumped in the shower, the beginning of just another day in the life of a sex addict.
The 32 one-day-wonders that Bill Markle and I had made for Sid Levine at Star Distributors the year before were playing everywhere, and people were beginning to find out who was responsible for this sudden tidal wave of mass produced smut. I had gotten a call from someone with a medium-heavy European accent earlier in the week asking for a meeting. His name was Tom Gioulos who, along with a partner named Teddy Kariofilis, owned the Capri Theater on Eighth Avenue, where many of the pictures I had been making for Star played regularly. So, fortified with a few cups of coffee, I began the trek uptown to meet “The Greeks”.
It was a cold five-block walk to the Lexington Avenue subway station at 23rd Street, where I took the Number Four train to Grand Central Station. Then the long walk down sour-smelling corridors to the Times Square Shuttle, which deposited me underneath what some people have called the cross roads of the world. The Times Square subway station was an intense assault on the senses. A sudden, almost overwhelming surge of smells and filth hit you as the train doors slid open to the rush of urine, and cotton candy, and damp humanity, and hot dogs on their revolving spits, and vomit, and baked goods like crumb cakes and bran muffins and pretzels, and the garlicky pungent scent of Gyros slowly rotating, and everything suddenly interrupted by someone chasing a pick-pocket through outstretched hands asking for dimes, and a tidal swarm of the disenfranchised huddled in groups, trying to stay warm. And this entire sensory phantasmagoria was musically scored by the overmodulated sound of Kool and the Gang wailing “Jungle Boogie” from the cheap speakers over the door to the subterranean record store. And then the cold again as I climbed the stairs to the street, and there it was. The Deuce.
Forty Second Street between Times Square and Eighth Avenue had pretty much the same chaotic intensity as the subway station, except brighter and colder. The sidewalks were covered with evidence of the previous night’s activities, and silent men with brooms were sweeping out the entrances to the many movie houses that provided a dark haven for degenerates on the prowl, and warm place to sleep for those who had no alternative. When I was a bit younger I spent many a night with friends from High School in these theaters, where you could see three action pictures for a buck, and where the predominantly black audience threw empty soda cans at the screen to warn the hero that a bad guy was sneaking up behind him. Even this early in the morning the pedestrian traffic was heavy. The owners of most of the storefronts were busy opening the security screens, revealing cheap discount goods and services of every variety imaginable. Army/Navy, Discount Electronics, Peep-O-Rama, Nedicks, GIRLS/GIRLS/GIRLS, Souvlaki/Gyros, El Cheapo Menswear, Tad’s Steaks, Pinball-Palace, Te-Amo Cigars, Orange Julius, Modell Sporting Goods, Movieland, all opening up for another day on The Deuce.
Why I found this degenerate atmosphere to be the soothing, nurturing, cradle of comfort that drew me like a moth to a flame, is difficult to describe, particularly to those who never experienced it, or never needed to. Today’s Forty Second Street is a Disney-driven, squeaky-clean, family-friendly, vanilla canyon of imitative tourist attractions that might just as well be found in Kansas or, better yet, Orlando. But back then, before the bulldozers cleared away the grunge of reality to make room for the plasticine, cellophane wrapped Valhalla that would replace it, “The Deuce” was the Mecca for those restless souls who prowled the canyons of Manhattan’s West Forties looking for the shit.
When I got to the corner of Eighth Avenue I turned north and was surprised to see The Tycoon’s Daughter in big letters on the marquee of the Cameo Theater. It was one of the many little movies I had made for Sid Levine at Star the previous year, and here it was nine months later and people were still paying money to see it. After perusing the familiar promotional photographs outside the theater I headed toward the Capri, which was near the corner of 46th Street.
Teddy Kariofilis and Tom Gioulos were a couple of Greek immigrants who had taken advantage of the relaxation in the enforcement of the obscenity laws and opened the Capri Theater which played about half the little pictures that I made for Star. And up on the marquee was another one of my movies. Sexual Freedom in the Ozarks was a little picture that we shot at my partner Bill Markle’s house up in High Falls, which was about 90 miles north of the city. It wasn’t yet 10AM and people were already paying to get in.
The box office attendant was pretty gruff and kept repeating “four dollars, four dollars”, until I finally got his attention by telling him I was there to see Tom. After making a call he waved me through the turnstile, pointing up and shouting, “upstairs, upstairs’. There was a narrow stairway to the balcony, which was pretty crowded, even at this early hour, and as I climbed up toward the projection booth I heard a familiar voice, my own. I turned, and up there on the screen was a porn actress named Andrea True, bent over a few bales of hay that we had placed in Bill’s barn, and standing behind her was me, naked except for cowboy boots, and fucking Ms True for all the world to see. I laughed out loud which seemed to disturb some members of the audience whose concentration had been broken by my careless levity. A crack of light appeared in the back of the balcony as the door to the next level opened. My eyes had not yet fully adjusted to the darkness so I slowly climbed through, and as the door closed behind me a glad hand grabbed mine. “Shaun, how ya doin. Great to meetcha. C’mon up, Teddy’s dyin to see ya”. This was Tom, who had called me a few days earlier. He led me up the stairs and into their offices above the theater, where we walked through a private projection room and into a large, wood paneled office that faced east. Behind a desk that seemed much too large for its occupant sat a little round man with an enormous balding head, who jumped up when I entered the room and approached me with both arms outstretched. “Oh Shun, Shun, You make me so happy. You come to see Teddy huh? Oh, Shun, Shun”.
As he sat back down behind his desk all the features on his face suddenly rearranged themselves. I had never seen a face like this before. Each of his facial features seemed to have the ability to move about or change shape independently of the others. His eyebrows, and lips, and cheeks, and eyes, danced all over his face, apparently triggered by some change in mood, or the necessity to express joy or concern. He was now in serious mode so I just sat there and listened. His head was low and cocked to one side, and the musculature in his face was tight. “Oh, Shun, Shun. I got no money”. I wondered if he was going to ask me for a loan. Anything was possible under these preposterous circumstances. So I continued to listen. “Oh, Shun, Shun, what can I do uh? What can Teddy Do? Shun, I got no money”. I’m still listening. “Oh Shun, you help Teddy uh? You work cheap for Teddy uh. I got no money”. So Teddy obviously wants me to make movies for him, but doesn’t want to pay much. I suggest that his theater, even at ten o’clock in the morning was packed with paying customers, and his face changed shape again. He looked away for moment, then thoughtfully turned his slightly cocked head back to me, and nearly in tears replied, “Oh, Shun, Shun, it’s so cold outside. I let the people in for free to keep them warm. They got no money, but I keep them warm for free uh? Teddy keeps them warm”. At this point I reminded him that I was downstairs and watched the customers paying four dollars each for his warmth, and his face changed again. He appeared concerned, but behind his concern an invisible grin was revealing it self as he said, “Oh Shun, heat costs money uh?” And slowly all of his features turned upward, he threw his head back, and roared with laughter. Tom slapped me on the back, and Teddy seemed beside himself. “Oh, Shun, Shun, it never hurts to bargain a little uh? We make movies, you and me. We make movies.” His eyes had expanded to such a diameter that his eyebrows almost touched his hairline. “We make money, Uh?” Teddy could take this routine to the Catskills and make a living as a comedian.
Up until now, the Capri had been playing about half the movies I had made for Star, but Teddy was ambitious, and wanted to expand. Bigger budget movies like Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door, and the Post Graduate were cleaning up at the box office and Teddy had a plan. If he made his own films, increased the budget to $12,000 each to give them a better look, and opened them at the Capri, they would only need to play two weeks to recoup his investment. He would then be free to distribute them all over the country and every dollar that came in would be profit. A smart plan. I told him that I would have to think it over. I was used to making sixty-minute quickies. The length of each movie would need to be increased to 70 minutes, and I would need to shoot an additional day, maybe two. My rule of thumb was that for each day of shooting I would need to make a profit of one thousand dollars. I told Teddy and Tom that I would need to think this through and I would get back to them.
During the eight months that followed, and under the name Oscar Tripe, I would deliver three features to Teddy and Tom. The first was “COME FLY WITH US”, a Stewardess buddy movie that did big box office at the Capri, and made Teddy Kariofilis a very happy Greek. The second was “LADY ON THE COUCH”, a lost identity – psychoanalytical pornodrama starring Andrea True. It did healthy, if not gangbuster box office, keeping Teddy Smiling. And the third was “THE LOVE BUS”, a cheaply made, silly sex farce that played to standing room only audiences at the Capri Cinema. By the first week in September 1974, flush from this series of box office successes, and receiving daily calls from Tom Gioulos begging for the next movie idea, I had pretty much run out of steam. I was also bored. The movies I was making were formulaic and unchallenging, but the formula was working because Teddy’s box office receipts were never higher. I needed to do something different, but what?
My reading habits were, as they still are, pretty cyclical. I was going through a Charles Dickens phase, starting a new Dickens book, the minute I finished the last. And half way through “A CHRISTMAS CAROL”, I started thinking. It was three and a half months before Christmas. Plenty of time to write a script, prep a production, get through the shooting, and complete the edit. Just in time for The Holidays. A Christmas porno movie – a preposterous idea. Could I actually convince Teddy Kariofilis to invest his hard-earned sheep money in something this ridiculous? It would certainly be fun to try. This was, after all, the time of Porn Chic, when Harry Reems could be found chatting with journalists at the bar at Elaine’s and Jackie Onassis had been seen sneaking out of a screening of DEEP THROAT. In New York, porn was all the rage, and with the right promotion, any movie idea with sex in it, particularly if it was different, even outrageous (the movie – not the sex) might just become a big hit. This was my pitch to a bewildered Teddy Kariofilis who, for once, sat expressionless across his oversized desk, looking at me like I had just delivered my thirty minute presentation on why a porn version of Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL would be a blockbuster hit, not in English, or even Greek, but in Esperanto. He just stared at me.
Tom broke the silence with worried comments about the possibility of a backlash against the sacrilege of desecrating such a well known story, by turning it into smut, while every feature on Teddy’s normally active face remained frozen. I told them that my plan was to write a screenplay, closely following the Dickens book, shoot the entire picture on a sound stage which would require building cartoon-like sets, complete principal photography in four days, and bring the entire project in for fourteen thousand dollars, which was only two thousand dollars more than it cost to make any of the three box office bonanza’s I had produced for them that year. And, I reminded them of the popularity of the Christmas Show at Radio City Music Hall. “We’ll dress up the Capri Cinema like one big Christmas tree, and have our own Christmas Show, right here on Eighth Avenue. People will love it”. And then, the clincher. “Look, this kind of light comedy needs a sensitive touch, a woman’s touch. And there’s never been a successful female director of Adult Films. Let’s hire one to direct this movie. You can use it in the marketing. ‘Finally, an Adult film with a woman’s point of view’. Amanda’s a good name. Let’s call her Amanda something. Amanda Barton. That’s it. Amanda Barton’s Passions of Carol. I’ll bet Al Goldstein will try to pry her phone number out of you”. Although Teddy’s death mask expression remained unchanged, Tom was now smiling, his head nodding ever so slightly. It had taken less than an hour to convince the Greeks to finance my little Yuletide adventure, a decision they would live to regret.
It was now the second week in September, and I had guaranteed a December tenth delivery date, which would allow enough time to properly advertise the grand opening of Teddy Kariofilis’ Eighth Avenue Christmas Spectacular. And I had made this guarantee without smoking anything stronger than a Marlboro Light. So far, my career in the adult film business had been so successful that walking on water was not beyond my reach, al least not in my overbloated, egocentric, self-aggrandized opinion of my own abilities. I could do no wrong – a situation that was about to change, drastically.
It took a week of eighteen hour days to complete the screenplay, closely following the structure of Dickens’ book, and even lifting a fair amount of dialogue directly from the original. I blocked out four shooting days during the second week in October, booked crew people, with some additional personnel necessary for the task at hand, and went looking for an affordable sound stage.
Most shooting stages in Manhattan, and there were many to choose from, were union houses, meaning that their use was restricted to members of the Motion Picture Industry’s film production union, IATSE. They were also quite expensive. So, I found a list on non-union stages, most of which were in a state of ill-repair, and made the appropriate calls. The owner of a sound stage down on East Fifth Street seemed enthusiastic, even excited to have me rent his building for my production, and when I toured the premises I realized why. No one had shot in this place for years. Everything was covered in layers of dust and grime, but it was big, and it was cheap. And it actually looked like a film studio, with big lights, 10K’s, 5K’s, 2K’s, and soft lights, sitting on stands, their barn doors shut, looking sleepy. And a wrap-around cyclorama, thirty feet high, and over a hundred feet long – more than enough to house my little production. The owner said he would flat-rate the place to me for three hundred dollars a day. And I could use any of the lighting equipment, as well as the two hydraulic dollies. He started asking me about build days and strike days and, not wanting to seem like the amateur I undoubtedly was, I simply told him four days total. Up until now, my experience in film production was limited to shooting in apartments, houses, or hotel suites, which came furnished. If I knew then what I know now, I would have realized that an appropriate number of build days would have to be budgeted, so that a construction crew could complete the sets, which would then have to be wall papered, painted, and furnished by the set dressing crew under the supervision of the art director, followed by enough prep days for the Gaffer and his lighting crew to accomplish the task of setting the lights appropriate to the action involved. And, because you must return the space to its original, empty condition, a certain number of strike days would need to be budgeted to disassemble the sets, leaving the place as you found it. Oblivious to all of this, I had told the owner, “Four days total”, and had no idea what I was getting myself into. The idea that I was over-confidently marching head-long into a disaster was the furthest thing from my mind.
I lived in a rent controlled apartment on East Twenty First Street, in a building shared by neighbors who, for the most part, worked at home as illustrators, writers, and generic creative types, with whom I had become quite friendly, and by whom I was eagerly welcomed as the ‘Pornographer in Residence’. And, without quite knowing what they were getting themselves into, they were willingly conscripted into my Christmas fiasco as my very own little army of creatives, whose job it would be to turn that big, dirty, empty sound stage down on East Fifth Street, into a Dickensian wonderland, albeit a pornographic one.
Casting would be relatively easy. My first call was to Marc Stevens, who had worked for me many times, and who always managed to keep the cast and crew laughing, even on the longest of shooting days. I thought Marc would make a hilarious Lance Marley who, in keeping with the book, would be the first of Carol Scrooge’s nocturnal visitors. And my friend Jamie Gillis, who could exhibit his gentler side, as Bob Hatchett, who is forced to work late on Christmas Eve by an demanding, insensitive Scrooge. And Kim Pope, who I had never worked with, to play Mrs Hatchett, left alone on Christmas Eve with Tiny Kim, while hubby Bob burned the midnight oil at Carol Scrooge’s magazine. I even gave a small part to my pal and fellow degenerate Mal Worob who, under the nom-de-porn Carter Stevens, was a successful smut meister, in his own right. One by one, I cast the parts, mostly with people I knew and liked, but Teddy and Tom wanted a ‘name’ to play the female lead, important in selling the movie to the public. Teddy suggested Mary Stuart, who had starred in a recent film that was doing very well at the box office. Mary, a surprising choice, was someone I liked, so I agreed and the casting was complete. I, made up to be unrecognizable, would play two of the spirits.
As the weeks flew by, my wonderful, generous, gifted neighbors were hard at work, designing the sets, conjuring and sewing the costumes, and creating the props that would be required. David Wool, who illustrated children’s books, and moonlighted, creating authentic-looking Tom of Finland knock-off gay porn books for my friends at Star Publishing, would do the bulk of the set design and construction. Harriett Springer, another illustrator, who would become my long time live-in girlfriend, created the wall art for the sets. And Shelley Slater, Harriett’s former room mate at Carnegie Tech, who had followed her to New York, did the sewing. The furniture necessary to fill out the sets – beds, tables, chairs, rugs, wall art, etc, would come from all of our apartments, and would be moved by us in the production van down to the empty sound stage.
On the morning of October 18th, which was our first day in the studio, and had been erroneously scheduled by me as a shooting day, while staring into the vast, empty abyss that was our shooting space, I began to see the structure of the catastrophe I had created. I had a shooting crew and actors, standing around drinking coffee, and truckloads of props and furniture, waiting to be put in sets that had not yet been constructed. How could I not have seen this coming? The crew, made up mostly of friends, and the cast, also friends of mine, were understanding, and tolerant of my blunder. I sent everyone home, and put off the first shooting day for 48 hours. They could have stuck it to me, but they didn’t. And, without a single complaint. I had just bought us two build days, and my ridiculous pronouncement of shooting the whole film in four days, had now grown to six, and more likely, ten days in that studio. I was already subconsciously rehearsing my ‘we went over budget’ speech for Teddy Kariofilis.
Working, almost around the clock, with the help of caffeine, and a few Dexedrines, David, Harriett, Shelley, myself, and a few PA’s assembled the sets out of the available building flats, constructed the fake windows, began the dressing process, and the absurdist Dickensian rooms began to take shape. David had constructed the skyline of lower Manhattan in forced perspective, made entirely out of corrugated cardboard, complete with tiny lights in the windows, that would become the view from Carol Scrooge’s bedroom window, where Marley’s Ghost, in the person of Marc Stevens, would first appear.
Two days later, on the morning of October 20th, the exhausted, bedraggled set builders, myself included, greeted the cast and crew for a second try at a first shooting day. Peter Nevard and his lighting crew were tweaking the big 10K’s, Bill Markle and Alvar Stugard were putting the camera and sound recording equipment together, and all around us, actors were rehearsing their lines, while getting into costumes and make-up. I kept hearing lines of dialogue repeated from all over the stage floor, which was a new experience for me, because, for the very first time I was listening to dialogue that I had written being read aloud by the intended performers. Until today, I had handled dialogue scenes by giving the actors a situation, and turning them loose to improvise their own lines. These people, though they tried their best, were not professional actors, and it had seemed best to let them make up their own material. But, for this film, I had actually written a screenplay and, for better or for worse, the cast would have to learn their lines, and deliver them as believably as possible. This caused an unforeseen dilemma from an unexpected source.
Marc Stevens, in full make-up as Marley’s ghost, presented me with the first crisis of the day. “Shaun, I can’t do this. I just can’t do this”. Marc, truly one of the word’s nicest, and most cooperative people, had seen his lines and panicked. He had tears in his eyes when he told me he had never done dialogue before, and most of what I had written for him was lifted directly from the Dickens original. He didn’t want to disappoint me, but he told me that he just couldn’t do it. He didn’t know how. And he couldn’t remember all of his lines anyway, and that no one had ever asked him to do this before. I hadn’t anticipated anything like this. I told him to study and rehearse his lines, and when it came time for the camera to roll, we would wing it. And, that’s exactly what we did. Marc, wearing his ridiculous costume, covered with paper mache chains and cardboard locks, did his best. It wasn’t what I had written, but Marc was a naturally funny person, and camped his way through the scene, leaving the crew doubled over laughing. I was disappointed, but it was a valuable lesson. My first confrontation with writing dialogue for performers who had no acting experience would certainly not be my last. With few exceptions, the vast majority of performers in Adult Films had no professional training, and struggled with delivering their lines in any believable way. So, I learned to be flexible, and to accept their best efforts, even though the results were sometimes embarrassing.
As the days went by, the constant building, dressing, and lighting of tomorrow’s set, while attempting to shoot in today’s, became an exhausting process, the ever-present sound of David Wool’s power tools doing battle with actors delivering barely believable lines of dialogue. The general exhaustion of the crew, working one 20 hour day after another, was becoming a factor in their performance. The four days total, that I had so idiotically predicted, became fourteen. In between scenes, I could usually be found on the phone with the studio owner, pleading my case for a negotiated settlement of the overage. I guess my groveling was effective, because he gave me the additional 10 studio days at half price, which certainly helped. But, sooner or later, I was going to have to tell Teddy Kariofilis that a movie he really didn’t want to begin with, was going to cost more than he expected.
Before the dust would settle, Teddy and I would face off in attorney Seymour Detsky’s office to hammer out a settlement that would see Teddy pay four thousand dollars in overages, and accede to my preposterous demand to open the film, not at the Capri Cinema, but instead at a straight, non-porn venue. Somehow, I thought I had created a crossover comedy with the potential to successfully play to a straight audience. What was I smoking? In March, 1975, missing my predicted Christmas Opening by four months, Passions of Carol opened simultaneously at the Capri Cinema, and The Quad Cinemas, a straight venue that had never before played a sex film. The box office was disappointing at the usually packed Capri, porn audiences bewildered by this odd presentation of sex and Christmas, and downright disastrous at the Quad, where the film played for two weeks to mostly empty seats.
We had entered the East Fifth Street Studio on October 18th, and finally struck the production on November 2nd. During our time in that building TWA Flight 841 was blown out of the air by a terrorist bomb over the Ionian Sea, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopea was deposed, Japanese Red Army members seized the French Embassy in The Hague, and in Kinshasa Zaire, Muhammad Ali knocked out George Foreman to regain the heavy weight championship of the world. During those fourteen days Joaquin Phoenix, Jerry Stackhouse, and Leonardo DiCaprio were born, and Ed Sullivan, Vittorio Di Sica, and Oskar Schindler passed from this earth.
Within a few months, Teddy forgave me my sins, and Tom was once again on the phone asking for the next movie idea. I guess they had made so much money with my earlier pictures that they were willing to overlook my first financial flop. But, it would probably be difficult to ever again convince Teddy to put his hard-earned money into a project that seemed unusual. Just about then, I got a call from Doug Collins, an old friend who had taken a risk and made a totally unsellable movie three years earlier. A picture so ridiculous that no one in his right mind would distribute it. It was called:
AN AMERICAN IN BETHESDA
The world’s first Vaudeville-Porno-Musical
Doug had gotten himself into hot water over some kind of abuse of the commodities market, and was selling everything he owned to pay his lawyers. He had heard that I was making hit sex movies, one right after the other, and probably had good contacts in that market. He asked if I might have an interest in buying his still-unsold Vaudeville-Porno-Musical disaster, adding some sex scenes to it, and convincing a theater owner to open it as an unusual sex movie. Now, this was the most unsellable cinematic oddity I had ever seen, but the idea of attempting to convince someone into buying it was irresistible. And I knew just the guy. So, I made the call. “Tom, hey it’s Shaun. Listen, I have something – something wonderful. Tell Teddy I’ve got a great idea”.
© 2010 Shaun Costello