Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Streetwise Pipsqueak: Deceased Artiste Arnold Stang

During my “exchange student” college studies in Paris dozens of light years ago, I remember looking up what was playing in the city in Pariscope, the listings magazine, and seeing that The Man With the Golden Arm was being revived. Only two cast names were included in the write-up: Frank Sinatra and Arnold Stang. For some reason the French copywriter had skipped over Kim Novak, Eleanor Parker, and even the awesomely campy Darren McGavin, to get right to the sidekick to end all sidekicks, the man we knew as… Stang!

Today a very good New York Times obit appeared to pay tribute to the Stang, but major fan-archival work was done by a gent named Kliph Nesteroff in an article found here. Stang moved from medium to medium as a young comic performer: he started work as a kid in radio on “Let’s Pretend” and “The Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour,” then moved on to movies, went back to radio working as the sidekick for one of my faves, Henry Morgan. He then shifted over to TV, where he eventually became Berle’s sidekick (he had worked with Uncle Miltie on radio), and then moved between the worlds of TV, movies, and cartoons, where his crazy voice was heard for decades, most particularly on Top Cat.

Stang’s voice will live on and on, and he is probably best known as an actor for having appeared in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Here are some clips of Arnold at his best. The first being the absolute best, him telling off his boss, Milton, on a Berle Xmas episode:

Stang also did the game show circuit. Here he is on the show The Name’s The Same. My fave fun fact about this series, besides the fact that Bob and Ray hosted a half-season in quite a bizarre fashion (sometimes confusing the hell out of the studio audience), is that when Stang quit he was replaced by a very similar personality… Basil Rathbone!

The Man with the Golden Arm was never copyrighted for some bizarre reason, and so it is up on YouTube in its entirety. Here is one posted version of it:

An odd assignment for Arnold: starring with Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall in a country comedy called Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar (1966):

And here is the man himself, talking about his work on Top Cat:

Two of the strangest films Stang was in are available in their entirety on YT: Hello Down There, a “with-it” comedy that wasn’t so with it, and Hercules in New York, which starred a young, dubbed, and renamed Arnold Schwarzenegger (“Arnold Strong” starred with Arnold Stang).

And to close out with some tip-top visuals and audio, here is an amazing collage of Stang photos assembled by Kliph Nesteroff for his great article on the gent.

For the final bang from Stang, here is my re-upload of some wondrous record collector's posting of his novelty 45, "Where Ya Callin' From, Charlie?" If anyone knows who the original poster was, I will most definitely give them credit:

"Christmas In Jail": Lux and Ivy's Xmas favorites

As I noted in a lengthy post earlier this year, the celebrity death I was the most depressed about in 2009 was that of Lux Interior of the Cramps. This was because Lux and his wife, the ageless and mega-awesome guitarist Ms. Ivy Rorshach, not only created one of the seminal punk/rockabilly/comic-book/horror groups back in the mid-’70s, but because they were rabid musicaholics who introduced myself and their other fans to countless forgotten garage, rockabilly, r&b, and (ah, yes!) novelty acts that we never would’ve discovered otherwise in the Seventies and Eighties.

The Cramps have been ignored when it came to the creation of the “Underground Garage” concept (and I am, by the way, a fan of the UG radio show and live shows). For me and countless others, Lux and Ivy were as important to our discovery of garage music as the Lenny Kaye Nuggets two-record set (in fact, in some cases like mine, we discovered the Cramps first, then Lenny’s great compilation).

Thus I am constantly heartened by the work of a devoted Cramps fan who is known as “Kogar the Swinging Ape” (after the wandering monkey in Rat Pfink a Boo Boo). Kogar has put up 13 collections of “Lux and Ivy’s Favorites” in various places on the Net, always for free and always mind-blowing and thoroughly entertaining (containing music that belongs both on oldies radio and in the UG). He now has put up a collection he says was created by Lux himself and given away with a magazine at one point. It is called “Black Christmas” and can be downloaded at the “WFMU Ichiban” blogspot.

Go get it now at the Ichiban site.

In the meantime, I’ll close off by lamenting the fact that we blogspotters have no idea of each other’s presence unless we go “digging.” I wish the folks running Blogger would create a tighter sense of community, so those of us who dwell in the same swamp of vintage pop-culture obsession could find each other more easily. I discovered that this recent-vintage WFMU blog existed through a bulletin Kogar put on the dreaded (gasp) MySpace, which has forfeited its “go-to site” throne to the comfier-for-old-folks Facebook. I’m glad I found it in any case, and urge ya to partake of yet another slice of Lux’s exquisite taste in heaven-sent rock ’n’ roll.

A "Blast" of a Dark Christmas

It’s hard to pick a conclusive “end” to the film noir cycle, but the brilliantly bleak b&w 1962 hitman saga Blast of Silence has got to be one of the very last fully formed works before the “revisionist” and homage items that showed up in the Seventies. Last year I wrote a lengthy review of the Criterion release of the film , and definitely recommend that you check it out.

One among many reasons it needs to be seen is its NYC location footage, and there is no better example than a segment I called “Noir Christmas” when I uploaded it to YouTube. Sheer masterful scripting and direction by Allen Baron, and kick-ass narration by Lionel Stander.

Croaking Out the Carols: Dylan's Christmas album

At the intersection of genius, calculation, and batshit crazy, there is Bob Dylan. His latest oddball career move — after the “never-ending tour,” the Victoria’s Secret ad, and Masked and Anonymous (not forgetting the years of Xtianity, Renaldo and Clara, the white face-paint and the wacky Nashville Skyline voice) — is the Xmas album Christmas in the Heart. The album gets my vote as funniest CD of the year, and not because of its cutesy, fun, upbeat numbers like “Must Be Santa Claus,” in which Bob channels Mojo Nixon, the Leningrad Cowboys, Gogol Bordello, and just about every polka band in his native state of Minnesota.

The element that does make the album tilt into the humor category is Bob’s croaking of solemn hymns and carols. Plainly put, Bob has smoked his voice away to a froggy, gravelly level that would make a pro wrestler (or a homeless man on a subway platform) proud. In his last few, masterfully written albums, he’s occasionally revealed the sediment at the bottom of his vocal cords, but on the Christmas album, he intentionally goes for note after note he can’t possibly hit (and never could), just to go into full cringe-inducing (or, alternately laugh-inducing) rasp-and-gargle. There are numerous examples of this, but the finest have to be the “I” in “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and pretty much all of his “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

The closest comparison I can provide for this album are the final Sinatra studio recordings, all done in one afternoon for the two Duets albums. Those albums were “stunt” creations, and the one-time perfectionist Frank just ran through his “assignments” until his voice was gone… and they kept recording, and they released the results.

I don’t think Dylan has reached the point where he does everything in a single afternoon, so why sing a bunch of songs with a range that shows the ravages your throat have gone through? Well, there are a number of factors here: the Dylan “brand,” which Bob himself has kept going for years — meaning he has made four to five times the albums of his peer singer-songwriters like Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, and Randy Newman — but they’ve never once dropped a true stinker like a few of Bob’s Seventies and Eighties LPs; the destruction-of-mythology factor (which I've discussed with my friend and webmaster), in which Bob, like Brando, wants you to know he can still produce solid works of genius, but often chooses not to (or decides to simply deconstruct/destroy something he knows the fans and critics hold dear); and yes, random ridiculousness. A nice country-western Xmas album would’ve been very welcome. Christmas in the Heart is one-third a rouser, and the other two-thirds the willful act of perversity everyone expected it would be.

That said, you can download the album at the Zinhof blog (Rapidshare link is down, but the others aren’t). It’s better if you buy it, since Bob is donating some of the money he earns to charity, but I can well understand if you don’t.

Friday, December 18, 2009

"What Is It With You Blondes?": Deceased Artiste Val Avery

Val Avery was not a handsome man, but he was one hell of a character actor. Avery died at 85 this week, and I’m sure his grizzled visage will be impressing movie watchers for years and years to come.

He was of Armenian extraction (real name: Sebouh Der Abrahamian), served in WWII, and was in over 100 movies and 300 television shows. He had several prominent character parts in everything from Hud to Donnie Brasco, but I will always remember him for his powerful scene-stealing bits in Cassavetes’ films. He worked with him in five episodes of Johnny Staccato, and then had featured parts in five of the features JC directed. I already mentioned this in a previous blog entry about character actors, but I treasure Avery’s scene in Minnie and Moskowitz (1972) as the blind date from hell. It is a case study in how to steal a movie in less than four minutes:

Creatures Were Stirring: the noir art (and Christmas nightmare) of Johnny Craig

As a seasonal equivalent to my Halloween post saluting the gruesomely talented Graham “Ghastly” Ingels, I would like to extend a Yuletide tip of the Santa hat to one of E.C’s other two wonderful “lead” horror artists (the third of course being Jack Davis), the deeply, deeply noir Johnny Craig.

Craig’s work is probably the single best comic book corollary to the film noir cycle, because he went from being an artist who perfectly captured the mid to late-1940s guys-with-guns and sexy-gals style of illustration (a style also possessed by E.C. stalwart Jack Kamen), and then, much like the noir cycle, he went crazy stylistically and storywise as the 1950s came to stay. He began working on E.C.’s “normal” comics before the “New Trend” of horror, sci-fi, and “suspenstories” came in. His work for Crime Patrol and War Against Crime is striking but often workmanlike, and although his style is eye-catching, it is the equivalent of a fairly decent but not exceptional late 1940s film noir. As soon as he became the lead artist for Crime Suspenstories and the “official” artist alter-ego for the “Vault Keeper” in The Vault of Horror in the early Fifties, he began to move in earnest from straight suspense to psychological and supernatural horror.

The much-discussed “crispness” of Craig’s work (the result of him being a painstakingly slow artist) remained throughout his tenure at E.C., but his work became really deranged as the months went along. His Crime Does Not Pay-ish artwork became skewed and pop-Expressionist, in the way that the great Fifties film noirs did — think Kiss Me Deadly as opposed to The Blue Dahlia. Craig was also one of the only E.C. artists besides Harvey Kurtzman who wrote his own stories, while the others worked from tales written by Al Feldstein and Bill Gaines. Here, too, he progressed from being a fairly procedural yarnspinner — his early Vault stories are indeed visual delights but seem to have none of the “kick” of the Feldstein-Gaines stories, until he finally let his subconscious take over and sent his characters into a noir hell. To illustrate this, I would point you to Vault 31 (actually issue #20, and given that number in the full reprint series issued in the Nineties), where he delivers an eight-page nightmare that is structured like a short story by Cornell Woolrich, but one of the later, more deranged Woolrich tales (the ones he wrote in the 1960s when he was holed up inside his apartment all day). It can be found here (thanks to the original uploader, whoever he may be — the .cbr file can be extracted in the free RAR extractor).

Craig’s covers also went from being perfectly serviceable drawings of characters in peril to really extreme illos of nasty-ass situations. Here is a full gallery of Craig’s Vault covers and another gallery of his Crime Suspenstories covers found on the great Golden Age Comic Book Stories blog (the title isn’t exactly accurate — there are many, many posts about Golden Age movies, as well as classic cartoon art and lurid paperback covers!).

My personal favorite Craig cover is one that predates Clive Barker's "Midnight Meat Train" story by several decades and also has the advantage of getting all the details right....

The three most famous Craig covers are below, and it’s pretty obvious why they raised eyebrows back in the early 1950s. The dismembered head cover is famous for being used as an exhibit of comics at their most lurid during the Kefauver hearing on juvenile deliquency, and the bullet-through-brain and meat cleaver ones — well, they're decades before their time, and indeed one full decade before H.G. Lewis’s groundbreaking gorefest Blood Feast, which played as kitsch even on its first release, while the E.C. stories still read as very pungent nightmares….

A very thorough piece by Mark Evanier on Craig's life before and after E.C. can be found here. But why am I paying tribute to Craig at this time? Well, he was the writer of, and the artist for, the single greatest E.C. Christmas tale, “… And All Through the House…” Most folks know the story through its inclusion in the 1972 movie Tales from the Crypt, where Joan Collins is the guilty Mum boarding up her house to keep out sicko psycho Santa.

Here, however, is the original Johnny Craig tale, from Vault 35, and it is a wonderfully creepy bit of work. Click here to download the issue (again, thanks to the original uploader, who put up scans of the 1950s originals!).

Friday, December 11, 2009

Mike Kuchar: The Funhouse interview

The influence of the Kuchar Brothers on “underground” and independent cinema can’t be overestimated. Their unique view of the world and unique methods of moviemaking are addictive — once you become a fan, you’re a fan for life. Thus, I was very happy to recently interview Mike Kuchar on the occasion of screenings of his new video works at the Anthology Film Archives.

Here he discusses his love of Hollywood movies, in particular lower-budgeted genre movies, which he considered more “friendly” and personal:

And here he discusses the gorgeously overwrought color in his best-known film, the cult classic Sins of the Fleshapoids:

For those who aren't familiar with Mike's work, three of his classic films are available on DVD, on the Sins of the Fleshapoids collection. Two of those three are also available on YouTube (ain't it interesting how these things work?). The first is the selfsame no-budget camp sci-fi masterwork Sins (1965):

The other available example of his work is fascinating, as it points the way to early John Waters (particularly one notable kissing sequence), The Craven Sluck (1967):

Thursday, December 10, 2009

My current favorite Xmas song

I stand by what I wrote last year about the oppressivesness of Christmas music, and the coldly corporate notion that the finest (mostly long-dead) American singers can only be dredged up out of the collective unconscious once a year, and ONLY as purveyors of that dreaded canon of the same four or five dozen songs.

However, every so often a Christmas song comes along that is not offensive to the ears, and is in fact chronically catchy, and becomes something I actually enjoy humming obsessively. That tune is innocently titled “The Christmas La La song,” and can be found here. It comes to us courtesy of Sherwin Sleeves, the storytelling alter-ego of New Hampshire writer-performer Sean Hurley. I rhapsodized about Sean’s work months ago on the blog. Sean’s audio podcast Atoms, Motion and the Void remains my favorite original Web creation, a brilliant mixture of fine storytelling, old-time radio, carefully chosen (and created) music, genuine emotion (without sticky, Spielbergian sentiment), and an indelible lead characterization. Catch up with his work at the Atoms, Motion site and his blog.

Though you should hear “The Christmas La La Song” as an audio file first (and should buy it at iTunes — Sean is a truly independent artist), there is a modest computer-animated video for this very modest and catchy Yuletide tune:

Yes, Teenage Boys, There is a Santa Claus -or- Where is Robin Askwith When You Really Need Him?

Male adolescents of all ages were certainly happy to hear about the scandal at James Madison High School in Brooklyn earlier this week. It seems that two good-looking young “Romance language” teachers were having a nude get-together in an empty classroom while a student talent show was going on. Having been taught by some women that I had fantasies about (and some old horrifying nuns I would love to erase the memory of — for visuals, just take a look at some of the pics in my “Ghastly" Graham Ingels post), I have to say that I count among the millions of attentive straight males who read this story and immediately thought, “now why didn’t I go to THIS high school?” The news story, for those who missed it, is here.

The news outlets covering the story were so caught up in the nude lesbian sex aspect of the tale that they didn’t focus on the clear villain of the piece: the janitor who turned both teachers in and got them suspended (the condition they’re in now is prosaically known as “being in the rubber room” –- hmmm...). I’ve been listening of late to Bill Hicks bootlegs, so I need not voice my opinion on the allure of lesbianism (we’re going for intelligent humor on the matter, not tee-hee Howard Stern b.s. here).

But what exactly was this janitor, one Robert Colantuoni, thinking when he decided to bust the teachers? Had this noble citizen, who obviously took exception to something that most men would give their eyeteeth to walk in on, not SEEN any softcore pornography in his life? (My bet is that he was not protecting his job — I’m betting he was *religious*, because only a stooge for religion would drop a dime in that situation.) He was living out a scenario that has filled literally hours and hours of cinema — and pounds of bad Penthouse Forum letters — but he was morally above it, and finked on the ladies.

Now, Mr. C, there is this film Keyholes are for Peeping, made by a very incompetent but nonetheless compelling filmmaker named Doris Wishman. It’s all about a janitor who views numerous sexual encounters through keyholes. He in fact *likes* seeing sex through keyholes (no clips are online, but the film is easily available on DVD). In fact, the dominant male fantasy is to either join the ladies in an escapade, or to simpy watch what unfolds. Not to bust them, dude. But in case you need further instruction as to what one does when one walks in on attractive teachers having a “nude romp,” let me refer you to the British softcore cinema of the Seventies, when there was an ENTIRE SUB-GENRE of movies made about the situation you encountered and decided to complain about to the authorities.

The sub-genre is made up of two series of films, the Confessions of a… series starring Robin Askwith and the later Adventures of a... series. I credit film scripter/producer/critic David McGillivray for whatever knowledge I have about these films: David was the first celeb guest on the Funhouse way back in 1994 or so; he presented a discussion about British censorship and softcore, and eventually let the Funhouse have the U.S. premiere of the BBC docu based on his book about the history of British sex films, Doing Rude Things.

The Confessions series is remembered quite fondly by British gents of a certain age. In Confessions of a Window Cleaner (1974), Askwith created the character of Timmy Lea, an affable bumbler who continually chances into situations where he can either watch sexy women or have sex with them. Here are the sadly sexless opening credits for the first film, but I should note that Mr. Askwith reprised the Timmy Lea characer in three more films, Confessions of a Pop Performer (1975) [you have to love the clunkiness of that title], Confessions of a Driving Instructor (1976), and Confessions from a Holiday Camp (1977).

The frivolity continued in the next series of films — a few more that the moral Brooklyn janitor should be forced to watch, in a manner akin to Malcolm McDowell's indoctrination in A Clockwork Orange. The entries in that series were Adventures of a Taxi Driver (1976), Adventures of a Private Eye (1977), Adventures of a Plumber's Mate (1978).

And since I can’t drive home enough that what Mr. Colantuoni did was a BAD thing, I herewith offer three samples that offer a good glimmer of what the “stumbling into sex” sub-genre was all about. The first is a scene from Confessions from a Holiday Camp:

The next is a recreation of the genre for a music video by those Scottish purveyors of pure pop for now people, Belle and Sebastian. The tune is “Step Into My Office, Baby”:

And since, as I noted last week, the skittish but devoutly corporate YouTube will only put up nudity when it is commercially sponsored, the best clip I could find to illustrate this phenomenon without toplessness is the trailer for Confessions of a Window Cleaner series:

Friday, December 4, 2009

Fuck Twilight, Paul Naschy’s dead….

I must first confess a severe deficiency of knowledge about the horror-packed career of Paul Naschy, the Spanish actor/filmmaker/screenwriter. However, what I and other film fans do know about the man was that he was a Mad Monster Party in a single person. Naschy, who was actually Señor Jacinto Molina, played at various times in his career Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, the Mummy, and Fu Manchu. This earned him the nickname “the Lon Chaney of Spain,” but sometimes Naschy even topped ol’ Lon by playing multiple monsters in the very same film.

In this season when werewolves are being celebrated once again because of the latest Twilight installment, it should be noted that Naschy was the cinema’s greatest werewolf, having played one in twelve movies (when Lon Jr. only played the part seven times!). The fact that his werewolf character was always named “Waldemar Daninsky” is an even odder part of the phenomenon. The fans, of course, love him in his hairy alter-ego, and so you can find on YT numerous video tributes to Naschy, as with this romantic wolf-paean:

Further hirsute horror can be found in this slice of Werewolf Shadow (1970):

Check out the “overstuffed” trailers for Naschy’s films: Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror (the uploader doesn’t want embeds — does that really stop anyone from finding the vid when you’ve labeled it so clearly?), and Curse of the Devil.

And how can anyone possibly pass by a movie named The Werewolf vs. The Vampire Women?

Los Monstruos del Terror

The Hunchback of the Morgue

And the film that appears in its entirety on YouTube, Vengeance of the Zombies (1972):

If you want background information on Naschy and his films, I direct you to www.naschy.com, run by Euro-horror expert (and former cable-access colleague of mine), Mirek Lipinski, whose main site is here.

Given mine own predisposition, I cannot help but conclude this tribute to the late, great werewolf with the trailer for one of his singularly best-titled movies. How many times have you felt like you’d like to live in (or did in fact live in) a House of Psychotic Women? They just don’t make ’em like this anymore….

Adult content now available on YouTube — but only with commercials!

Anyone who is even moderately familiar with DVD (and VHS) releases has come across the dreaded ever-present selection of public domain titles, which are movies that were never copyrighted, or somehow slid out of copyright. I’ve noticed several enterprising souls uploading them to YouTube, but one individual in particular has actually got car commercials preceding his public domain offerings — which include Paul Naschy’s Vengeance of the Zombies (see my other post today for a tribute to the “Spanish Lon Chaney”). Interestingly, the stash uploaded by this person, who cares to be known only as “Drelb” (yes, we got it, Laugh-In reference; as in “Morgul the Friendly…”), raises two interesting issues.

The first is the fact that Drelb’s collection includes a bunch of the TV episodes that are p.d. It isn’t clear at all how these network shows, which have appeared in better copies on legally licensed discs, fell into p.d. status, but Drelb has Jack Benny episodes, You Bet Your Life, The Beverly Hillbillies, One Step Beyond, and numerous 1970s TV movies (all, I believe, from ABC) from the infamous (The Boy in the Plastic Bubble) to the actually quite good (Hustling and the very evocative Sixties character study Katherine). These items are available in every p.d. collection in video stores and junk shops, but I’ve often wondered how the hell network fare fell between the cracks as far as copyright. If anyone would like to elaborate, I’m always interested in comments from readers.

And even more interesting, considering YouTube’s stringent rules on the unveiling of the human body, Drelb has a number of the p.d. titles that have nudity and “adult content” of one kind or another. Thus, he offers movies like Mandinga and Savage Man, Savage Beast, but if you, a member of the public, try to upload a video you’ve made that has an undraped human form, or some garish insanity (a la the very “mondo” Savage Man), it will be pulled down within a few hours. As I noted when I I wrote about Taxi Driver being offered in its entirety on YouTube, you are allowed to have adult content if you offer YouTube “commercial potential.” If not, screw ya!

As a closer here, let me note that several of the p.d. films are actually surprisingly good. Definitely worth your time is Ivan Passer’s Born To Win starring George Segal. The film is a terrific representation of that strange time in the early Seventies when actually adult fare (meaning intelligent and mature “adult,” not pornographic) was made on a regular basis by Hollywood studios. Sadly, the film came out in theaters at 88 minutes, but has come down to us in all of its p.d. releases at 83 minutes. I have no idea what is missing, as this is the version I’ve always seen, but it still is a powerful and memorable character study. You can find it at archive.org or you can watch Drelb’s version (after a fucking car commercial!) here.