Friday, May 26, 2017

'Lost' films found 2: Harry Hurwitz's 'The Comeback Trail'

In the world of cinephiles Harry Hurwitz’s The Projectionist (1971) is regarded as a treasure, a beautifully rendered tribute to the joy of movie-loving, made at a time when Golden Age Hollywood icons were still widely known and revered. It’s an unmitigated delight and silly fun to boot.

The Projectionist was the first of three “nostalgia trip” comedies that Hurwitz made. The second and third of these films are nowhere near the first in terms of laughs and sentiment for a “lost era” of moviemaking, but both have their bright spots. The third and last was the very funny That’s Adequate (1989), a mock-doc about a fictional “poverty row” film studio hosted by the great Tony Randall; the second film, The Comeback Trail (shot 1971-’79; released ‘82) is the focus of this article.

But first, a word or two about Hurwitz himself. A NYC native who died at the young age of 57, he was a painter and filmmaker who made a series of low-budget genre flicks (for theaters and later “straight to video”) to pay the bills and to finance his nostalgia comedies. His art was acquired by Metropolitan Museum, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the NYU art collection. He taught film and drawing at NYU, Cooper Union, and the Parsons School of Design, among others.

The nostalgia comedies were “personal” pictures for Hurwitz, the type he was only able to make every decade or so. He talks about this in an interview in the Film Director’s Guide by Michael Singer:

“I made my first five features without even being in the industry. I worked out of New York. I was making my living as a college professor, so I didn’t even look to my art for financial sustenance…. And as a filmmaker, I began with the same spirit that I did as a painter. Then, I got to see that I could make more money by joining the industry rather than teaching. In other words, I realized that I’d rather make bad movies than do good teaching. The movies that I do for myself I manage to do once every five years. I write it, I direct it, I cut it, I produce it. And it’s not an ego thing. It’s just that I wouldn’t have anybody come in and paint the red in my painting. It’s a complete work, and good or bad, I stand behind it. Whereas to make a living, I am now a writer and director for hire, in which I’m perfectly prepared to compromise. I feel very comfortable joining a system which, by the way, I revere….” [p. 4]

Harry Hurwitz. Photo by B. Fentington.
It’s odd to consider The Comeback Trail a personal film. The Projectionist, on the other hand, has various moments at which one feels great sympathy for its lead character, a projectionist played by the much-loved comic actor Chuck McCann. This reaches its peak in a series of moments in which we see McCann wander Times Square as he gets off work. He eats dinner at a greasy spoon, buys some porn mags (possibly the most low-key, true-to-life depiction of the place that adult materials have in the life of the average male ever found in cinema), and then goes to home to watch movies on the late show.

Comeback is a much broader comedy, but it still is a valentine (albeit a pretty crazy one) to Golden Age Hollywod. The plot is quite similar to that of The Producers. It concerns two low-end movie producers, Enrico Kodac (McCann) and E. Eddie Eestman (Robert Staats), who need a quick influx of cash or their “studio,” such as it is, will be shut down. (By the way, the misspellings of the last names were intentional — Staats played “E. Eddie Eastman” in other Hurwitz films.)

They hit upon the idea to make a comeback film for a retired action star, whom they assume is out of shape. They plan to insure the old man to the hilt and tax his heart by having him do his own stunts, and then collect on the million-dollar insurance policy when he dies. What they don’t count on is that the star they picked, Duke Montana (Buster Crabbe), is in terrific shape, and so their attempts to kill him backfire in one way or another.

Buster Crabbe
The film’s three stars all deserve discussion. Firstly, Crabbe, who was indeed in great shape at 63 (not that surprising, considering he was a two-time Olympic swimmer when he was younger). He plays along quite well with the broadly comic humor, serving as a straight man to both producer characters. His character narrates the proceedings, recounting to close friend Hugh Hefner (playing himself) the story of the producers' ridiculous plan.

Buster is quite the gentleman in the film, but Hurwitz confederate and sometime scripter Roy Frumkes decided to tell the world Crabbe's little secret, in a piece published in Films in Review. He recounted in an article about Buster that, while making Comeback, he had asked the film's stunt coordinator how the legendary star was on-set. “… he replied matter-of-factly: 'His style was always the same. He was a perfect gentleman on the set until the last day of shooting. Then he'd get drunk and beat everyone up.'” Frumkes proceeds to recount how Crabbe was indeed a complete gentleman on the set, but did get drunk and beat a guy up toward the end.

Another piece from Films in Review about Crabbe finds him reflecting on the film as near-pornographic. This is ridiculous, since breasts are only seen in one musical number that appears in one of the early films-within-the-film; topless dancers back up Monti Rock III as he sings a tune called “These Raging Loins.” No sex is ever seen in the film, but the producers discuss the softcore films they made in the past.

Buster, in younger days.
Said Buster: “Few people saw it in theaters. Some scenes were pretty strong – too sexy for family viewing…. All the producer had to do was take out three scenes and it would have been a good B Western. But he was adamant about not cutting anything. Still is. They ran it in Atlanta and the thing only lasted two days. The families would go and then protest some of the scenes. Without that family viewing audience you're dead. But, honestly, I think that picture was the best thing I ever did. And it's the vault right now, just sitting there. I worried about it for a few years, but I don't worry about it any more. It'll never get out.”

The least-known of the movie’s stars is Robert Staats, who is something of a mystery man. He appeared in five of Hurwitz’s films, and had small roles in films directed by Hurwitz’s contemporaries Robert Downey Sr., Jonathan Kaplan (a former Hurwitz student), and Alan Abel, and then basically disappeared. He is wonderfully funny in the other Hurwitz pictures, especially as a late-night TV pitchman in The Projectionist:


He played a pitchman again, albeit in a much more bizarre context, in Hurwitz’s softcore pic Fairy Tales (1978).


While he makes a great partner for McCann in Comeback, he’s generally an odd presence in the film. When not engaging in comic cross-talk or doing his pitchman shtick, he purses his lips, skulks around in a long coat, and generally takes on the appearance of a cartoon villain. His schnook-ish posture here is a far cry from his confident pitchman persona.

There is no information as to when or where Staats might have left this mortal coil, so I’m not certain if he’s still with us or not. Anyone who knows what happened to him, drop a line.

Despite the presence of the heroic-at-any-age Buster, McCann is the actual star of the film. He is tremendously endearing in The Projectionist, but here he assumes the cartoonish persona of an Italian con man. The character is broadly drawn and odd-looking: wearing a white suit, Chuck has a fake putty nose and a clearly fake mustache (he donned this look formerly on his TV show for an escape artist character named “Bombo Dump,” who can be seen here). His Italian accent is half-Chico Marx, half-J. Carroll Naish on Life with Luigi.


Chuck does have some very funny moments bantering with Staats, but the broadly farcical nature of his character is one of the reasons that Comeback doesn’t work in the long run.

Oddly enough, Chuck reappeared in this persona in the R-rated slapstick comedy Linda Lovelace for President (1975), where he plays two roles, a racist mayor and a hitman who is indeed the same “Kodac”/”Bombo” character. He worked in the film under two pseudonyms: the film’s credits say that the Mayor character is played by “Alfredo Fettuchini” and the guy with the crazy mustache and Italian accent (no putty nose this time) was a certain “Fettuchini Alfredo.” 

One assumes Chuck chose a pseudonym for the Lovelace picture because he was appearing at that time on the Saturday morning kiddie show “Far Out Space Nuts” and didn’t want to be identified with the most famous porn star of the era (although the movie is incredibly tame and Chuck does nothing “adult” except curse).
*****

The Projectionist remains endlessly entertaining because Hurwitz inserted a number of tangents in between the plotted sequences. Hurwitz is quoted in the Film Directors Guide about the fragmenting of the film:

“And the nature of the film is really about the daily bombardment of ideas and ideologies and feelings and thoughts that we go through, so the whole picture is about fragmentation. Our lives are made up of little serials. You drop one thing, you go to another, you’re juggling 40 different parts of your life: the emotional part, the political part, the moral part. We’re constantly being tempted, we’re constantly being bombarded, so that’s why The Projectionist is full of commercials, superhero serials. It’s this fragmenting of time, which is what our days are like.” [p. 7]

Comeback has a few such diversions at the beginning to show us the movies that the characters made before their “great idea” came along. Later on we see a sequence from the film they’re making with Duke Montana, which is pure Western action, reminiscent of the “oaters” Crabbe made many years before (clearly a labor of love for movie buff Hurwitz). The rest of the movie sticks to the plotline, with Hurwitz seemingly allowing ample space in which to ad-lib. The result is a rather informal picture that viewers will either enjoy or tune out early on.

Thanks to uploader Kenny Hotz (star of the CBC/Comedy Central show “Kenny Vs. Spenny”), Comeback is now readily accessible to the public for the first time in decades, on the Vimeo website. Coincidentally, Hotz and his writing partner Spencer Rice codirected Robert Staats in his last film role to date, in the 1997 comedy Pitch, which is also currently online for free, on YT. Staats plays — can you guess? — a pitchman!

A later pic of Hurwitz.
There is much confusion as to when the film was officially finished — so now let’s try and “carbon-date” what has shown up in public view. Firstly, a friend and colleague, Donica O’Bradovich, has told me stories of being on the set in Santa Fe, New Mexico (the film-within-the-film was shot there) in 1971 with her father, award-winning makeup artist Bob O’Bradovich, who did a great job “aging” Crabbe in the early scenes, before he shows the producers he’s in kick-ass shape.

So Hurwitz began Comeback in ’71. The title credit on the version on Vimeo has a 1973 copyright, but another friend, Ben Fentington (a friend of Hurwitz’s), has told me about shoots in ’74-75 he was at, where Hurwitz shot material to “flesh out” the film. In this case, the scenes shot were things put at the film’s beginning, as examples of the films the producer characters made before they hit on their “great idea.”

Henny Youngman is seen as a comedy character named “Dumpo” who told one-liners in various gene-movie situations. This is followed by one of the film’s funniest scenes, a weirdo spoof of monster movies featuring standup comedian Lenny Schultz as a human chicken, and none other than Funhouse fave Professor Irwin Corey as a mad scientist (!).

Hurwitz and the Professor. Photo by B. Fentington.
The Comeback Trail wasn’t shown publicly until it premiered at the long-gone, much-missed Thalia in NYC in 1982 (here is the review that appeared in The New York Times). A Funhouse friend who has very pleasant memories of that engagement, actor Allen Lewis Rickman, can (much to my amazement) recite some of the film’s dialogue by heart, strictly from having seen the film that one time back in ’82. Suffice it to say that the film has never been released on VHS or DVD.

Here’s where things get even cloudier: I first saw the film on a VHS copy made by a fellow nostalgia buff who recorded it on Beta (!) when it aired on the famed Z Channel in Los Angeles. I broke out that version of the film — which is hard to watch because of constant video “rolls” — before writing this piece and discovered it’s a vastly different edit of the material. (Both cuts of the film include one of the odder ad-libbed scenes, an interview of the two producers and Duke Montana by the late, great Joe Franklin!)

Firstly, the title credit has a copyright date of 1979 and the narration by Buster Crabbe (told to Hugh Hefner) was replaced with Chuck McCann doing a sort of Lowell Thomas newsreel voice. The new narration emphasizes that the two producers run “Adequate Pictures” (the studio that is the focus of the later comedy That’s Adequate); Henny Youngman’s character is given a different name – he is now “Pimples” (a comic character reused in the later picture).

The approximately 15 minutes of newly shot footage includes other films produced by “Kodac” and “Eestman,” including another monster picture (a pizza-faced menace) and an action movie that takes place in Africa (but is shot by an L.A. swimming pool). We also see an Adequate Pictures awards ceremony (one winner is named “Tom Revolta,” thus dating the sequence), and the attempts on Duke Montana’s life are followed by a series of scenes in which McCann is in a hospital bed being visited by his incompetent partner.

And, in a scene that attempts to cover for a plot that Hurwitz had minimized to the point of near non-existence in the first version of the film, Crabbe goes back to his motel room with the producers’ loyal secretary, Julie (played by the leading lady of The Projectionist, Ina Balin). All this diligent re-editing clearly indicates that Hurwitz did indeed work on the film for close to a decade — and it *still* ran only 75 minutes!

For those who have waited decades to see Comeback, it may not be the “revelation” they’d hoped — then again, few comedies can measure up to The Projectionist. It contains some wonderfully funny moments and some bits where one wishes that Hurwitz had cut the routines a little sooner.

In an era when Lorne Michaels-produced crap-comedy is the norm at the movies, though, even a lopsided live-action cartoon like The Comeback Trail can be warmly welcomed for the broad farce and crazy movie buff daydream that it is.

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