Friday, February 18, 2011

An exploitation pioneer passes: Deceased Artiste David F. Friedman

Dave Friedman was a very amiable gent whom I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing twice. He will go down in history as the last of the old-fashioned, road-tested exploitation producers. He learned at the hands of a master (Kroger Babb), created with Herschell Gordon Lewis the gore movie, made some very dippy nudie-cutie pics with HGL, wrote a great memoir (A Youth in Babylon), and gave us some of the best-ever trailers for softcore pics in the Sixties. He of course also made features to go with these trailers, but they very often (with one or two exceptions) were much less entertaining than the trailers were.

Here is a classic Friedman trailer for his “roughie,” The Defilers:

The Defilers (1965)

Another great one that reflects beautifully Friedman's attitude toward softcore. A free i.d./password for Daily Motion might be required to view this one, but you should have one of those anyway (Daily Motion is a YouTube with no squeamishness about the unclad body):

The Lustful Turk

I thought I had put up the “carnival pitch” clip from my first interview with Mr. Friedman (who did insist on being called “Dave,” as noted in his New York Times obit), but I evidently never did. I will rectify that in the near future. In the meantime, I offer this great bit from my second interview where Dave just laid it on the line about his profession.

The man was a delight to talk to. His trailers may have indeed been better than his films, but I can vouch for the fact that talking to the guy was FAR more entertaining than watching either. He was an extremely friendly legend.

"A riot is an ugly thing!": Deceased Artiste Kenneth Mars

Show biz folks die all the time, but it does seem like a lot of people whose work I really loved are dying these days. I was introduced to the brilliance of stalwart comic actor Kenneth Mars by my dad, who would tell me of the wonders of The Producers before I finally got to see it and memorize it (the recent-vintage musical remake is an abomination I won’t even comment on).

Mars did play normal characters quite often (he was the dad in a Molly Ringwald comedy, fer chrissakes), including a lead part in a Frank Gilroy picture I’ve yet to catch up to, Desperate Characters with Shirley MacLaine (1971). But it’s for his absolutely brilliant comic turns he’ll be remembered, most especially the two for Mel Brooks (see below).

In reading Mars’ obits, I became aware of how much work he did as a voice talent for cartoons. It makes perfect sense — in his best comic performances, he was most definitely cartoonlike but played the characters with a sincerity that was gorgeous (and made the characters even funnier). Besides his prolific work on sitcoms, I want to point to two of his performances that absolutely blew me away.

The first is in the overambitious and sadly underwhelming Woody Allen film Shadows and Fog (1991). The film, Woody’s last for Orion Pictures, is his homage to German Expressionist silents and also the work of Franz Kafka. It is a confused picture that has way, way, way too many celebrities in supporting roles and cameos (it could be seen as the Expressionist Mad, Mad, Mad World) — John Malkovich, Madonna (who received prime placement in the Spanish poster, as you can see on the right, although she’s barely in the picture), Jodie Foster, Kathy Bates, Donald Pleasence, John Cusack, David Ogden Stiers, Philip Bosco, Fred Gwynne, Kate Nelligan, Wallace Shawn, William H. Macy, and of course Woody’s main squeeze at the time, who now threatens to sue if her clips are shown in documentaries about him.

The film doesn’t wind up working well as an Expressionist update or as a Kafka-esque comedy. Kenneth Mars shows up at the film’s end as a magician in a circus that Woody has run to, in order to escape a killer. Mars proceeds, with a beautifully understated performance that seems intended to evoke Bergman actor Erland Josephson, to steal the entire movie. I was already a firm fan of Mars’ when I saw the film upon its initial release, but I was very impressed that a really talented character actor could just steal an entire film away from its unnecessarily star-studded cast. Someone has posted the entire film on YT, here is the very end:

The other Mars performance that is indelible for me is his semi-regular work as William W.D. “Bud” Prize on the terrific Fernwood 2-Night and its follow-up program America 2-Night. In that character, Mars achieved something quite unique: he actually made hardcore deadpan comic actors Martin Mull and Fred Willard break up. Unfortunately, the scene in question isn’t on YouTube, but it occurred when “Bud” Prize began to lecture “Barth Gimble” (Mull) and “Jerry Hubbard” (Willard) about why parents shouldn’t let their children transform themselves into pirates. The show was written by brilliant comedy writers, but one could see that Mull and Willard were always “sweetening” their bits with toss-off lines. Mars was the only guest I can remember whose riffing got Mull and Willard to smile broadly on camera (and Mull to hide his face behind a prop, so as not to be seen laughing).

As for clips of Mars, I offer a late Sixties Prell ad he appeared in:

And, from around the same time, the charming low-key sitcom He and She with Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss. Mars played their Greek fireman neighbor:

Kenny’s introductory sequence in The Producers ranks among the funniest scenes ever. Ever!

An outtake from Young Frankenstein that introduces his Inspector character:

And the classic “a riot is an ugly thing!” bit:

The best for last: Mars as “ambassador-at-large for the Fernwood Chamber of Commerce” William W.D. “Bud” Prize on Fernwood 2-Night. Here he talks to Barth and Jerry about his environmental preservation (which he calls “conservatage”) and his terminal underbite:

Bud Prize debates “Sylvia Miller” (Fannie Flagg) on whether or not she’s having sex with aliens. He also discusses his mentor and “chin-odontist,” the great Cletus Emmett Wheelwelker (Fernwood 2-Night was so goddamned good for several reasons, among them the fact that even the smallest characters had a demented back story):

Bud Prize came back on America 2-Night as Barth’s “interview coordinator.” Here he presents in the flesh the great aviatrix Amelia Earhart… kinda:

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Example 6,357: Why variety shows were TV magic

Of all the Golden Age movie comedians, I think Red Skelton is probably my least favorite. However, he did have a weekly TV variety show in the Fifties, and sometimes the bizarro magic that occurred frequently on such programs took place. For example, when he decided he wanted to do Art Carney's Ed Norton character in a sketch — it was a natural fit, of course, forcing him to play "down" for once (Skelton famously was noted for laughing at his own jokes, something Stan Laurel had said was a definite no-no in sketch comedy). In any case, who to get to play Ralph and Alice Kramden? Well, why not (it just must have been a Halloween episode) Peter Lorre and Vampira in full attire? Why not indeed?

Thanks for M. Faust for passing this piece of obsurantia on. It's a doozy.

Friday, February 11, 2011

“Tears on my Pillow and Ave Maria”: Dean Friedman’s “Ariel”

Sometimes the mere mention of a song title will do it. I was moving through the threaded forums I visit that cover topics related to nostalgia, obscurantia, tangentia, whatever you want to call it, and saw a mention of Dean Friedman’s 1977 song “Ariel.” It’s a tune I haven’t heard in two decades (easy!), and that last listen was most likely to an audio recording I made off the radio.

Friedman seems to have a solid web presence with his official website, which is great, as the fellow is talented and quite singular. He appeared on the scene when singer-songwriters were still having top 40 hits (without having to be country-pop hybrids) and has maintained a cult following over here and in the U.K. In fact one of the more welcome discoveries on YouTube is a guest appearance he made on the much-missed The Kenny Everett Show:

In the U.S. Friedman is best known to folks of a certain age (oh, how coy the phrase…) who remember “Ariel” or his other hit, a duet with Denise Marsa called “Lucky Stars” that was evidently a massive success over in the U.K. I hadn’t heard this tune in a good three decades until the other day, but I know certain lines by heart because it is the most Broadway-sounding song that didn’t come from a Broadway musical — it in fact sounds like a pop-single variation of some of the “conversational” songs from Sondheim’s Company. Friedman succeeds in having a chorus made up of one very long but memorable sentence (“And we can thank our lucky stars/that we’re not as bright as we like to think we are…”):

In case you need a little “snapshot of a life,” check out the YT commenter on the above video who notes that he “was on the way to solicitors to get a divorce from my wife — this came on the radio and I couldn't go through with it.” A moving commentary on the healing power of Seventies pop music!

Friedman also writes catchy songs with food themes, as with “Deli”
and the tune of his that has seemingly been covered the most, “McDonald’s Girl” (which I don’t remember hearing at the time it came out). Here’s a pretty tune he performed on Top of the Pops called “Lydia”:

In researching Friedman for this piece, I found that he’s still recording and performing, has a load of loyal fans in England and Scotland, wrote influential books on synthesizers in the Eighties, has designed video games, and, most memorably for a late-night TV addict like myself, is rumored to be the voice singing in this commercial (I think it doesn't sound a thing like him, but hey, it's nice to include the link since I haven't seen this ad for 32 years!):

No word on whether he wrote the above jingle, but he is seen singing it in a different version here.

But onto the song that triggered this musing. “Ariel” is a tune that will probably seem trifling to naysayers, but it is deeply loved by those of us who can’t forget it. Why? Well, it boasts a humble-as-hell lyric about a hesitant guy falling for a Jewish girl (that fact was edited out by the record label, according to Friedman’s site, to get the single more airplay in the South!) wearing a peasant blouse, looking for contributions to the “Friends of BAI” (meaning the NYC Pacifica institution WBAI).

The song references Friedman’s home state of N.J. and is distinguished by his high-pitched warbling on the chorus. The song went to number 20 on the American charts back in 1977, but it has remained charming, catchy, and damned winsome for the last 33 years….

A crafty editor’s public-domain movie visualization of the song can be seen here.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Three lovely ladies exit the stage...

So many talented cult-favorite performers are dying these days it’s difficult to keep up. All three of the actresses below are primarily known for one film performance, but all of them kept going in show business and did interesting things above and beyond their one international “hit” picture.

The first to be announced in the news in the last few days was, as she was called in many obits, “Last Tango in Paris star Maria Schneider.” She definitely will forever be linked with that performance, which she gave 39 years ago, when she was 20 years old. I’m going to assume that readers of this blog are already familiar with that modern masterwork, one of Bertolucci’s most focused (and popular) pics and Brando’s last great starring performance, the one into which he put a full range of emotion and acting genius.

Schneider was indeed incredibly sexy in the film and gave a very fine performance, as her character navigates between very verbal males (Brando, Leaud). The film’s incredible success gave her a “name,” but seems to have typecast her in many producers’ eyes and the fame clearly affected her personal life, as she had a succession of very public problems, including breakdowns, drug troubles, and public affairs — the European press had a field day with her moving into an asylum to be near her lover (I remember something being made of her yelling across a gate that she loved the woman; the press loves nothing more than an emotional breakdown in public).

Thankfully Schneider moved on from her problems and continued to work regularly as an actress. Here are a few clips to remember her by (check out Last Tango… on yer own!):

A great scene from Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975), featuring Schneider and Jack Nicholson. A week or two ago New York Times critic A.O. Scott declared the present a “golden age for foreign film.” I’m very glad that he deflects American readers’ attention overseas to where good movies still are being made regularly, but it’s hard not to believe that he declares the present era to be the best-ever because… he’s writing in the present day…. There are indeed miraculous items being made overseas, but when you had Masters like Antonioni on the scene, the term “golden age” was sorta redundant:

She costarred with Joe Dallesandro in Rivette’s uneven but still interesting Merry-Go-Round (1981). Here she plays a game with Joe and speaks in French (no subs) with Daniele Gégauff, a movie producer who was married to screenwriter Paul Gégauff, who I wrote about in my blog entry on Chabrol:

I was trying to remember what “recent” film I’d seen Schneider in. It was a rare Bertrand Blier comedy called Les Acteurs (2000) that I reviewed on the Funhouse TV show in an English-subtitled print. Here is her scene, sans English subs, from the film. The film is an utterly bizarre creation that pays tribute to the acting profession by having a succession of big-named veteran performers appear in episodic scenes concerning the actor’s approach, his madness, his ego, etc. There aren’t as many big-name female stars, but that is explained early on, when one character notes that men’s egos tend to be much, much bigger than women’s. One of the female stars to make an appearance, though, is Ms. Schneider, looking great as a woman “of a certain age”:

Much like Schneider, Lena Nyman was identified by international movie fans with one movie, or in fact two movies, Vilgot Sjöman’s I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967) and its sister-movie I Am Curious (Blue) (1968). The films were declared to be “obscene,” but are instead brilliant artifacts of their era, sociological studies that do include sexual interludes between the characters (Nyman plays a slightly fictionalized version of herself), but also interviews with Swedish politicians and Martin Luther King, Jr. The films are brilliant, and the tiny dynamo Nyman is terrific in the lead. Not much can be seen of them online, but here is an outtake from I Am Curious (Blue) in which Lena “abolishes” the state church. I love blasphemy of any kind, and this is a pretty wonderful scene in which Nyman asks a priest how the church became involved with the bourgeoisie, instead of the poor, to whom Christ tended:

Nyman’s only other film seen by American audiences was Bergman’s Autumn Sonata (1978), in which she played a supporting role. I found a lot of Swedish clips on YT, however, that show she had a rich career and had fans who were touched sufficiently by her death to put up very nice tributes to her. She not only acted but also sang in the movies and on TV, including this scene in a comedy called The Adventures of Picasso (1978), where she plays a nightclub singer who becomes Picasso’s object of affection:

Most of the Lena Nyman clips on YT aren’t subtitled, so I was most “grabbed” by the musical ones and the broadly farcical ones. Here is a clip from a comedy called Dromkaken (1993|), in which Nyman apparently played two characters:

And to repeat the comic device in the last clip, here’s yet another sequence where Nyman’s kooky character again sees the stuffy female lead going to the bathroom (so much for the staid image of the Swedes!):

Nyman may forever be enshrined as a “Lolita” figure because of Sjoman’s films (she was 22 or 23 when I Am Curious (Yellow) was made, btw), but she proved herself to be a broadly versatile performer. One final comedy clip:

I never met Maria Schneider or Lena Nyman in person, but I did meet the third woman whose obit appeared this weekend, the iconic “velvet glove cast in iron,” Ms. Tura Satana. I interviewed Tura Satana back in 1996 at the Chiller Theater convention, and she was a delightful lady who was happy to talk about her past film work, and was pleased that I asked her not only about her three exploitation classics, but also her work in other films, including Billy Wilder’s Irma La Douce.

Tura did indeed lead a very colorful life as a model, an exotic dancer, an exploitation movie star, a lover of Elvis (!), a latter-day icon for both women and men who liked dominant women, and one of those few folks who had a band named in her honor. As was the case with Nyman, her fans have posted tribute videos to her:

Her starring role as “Varla” in Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) remains her best-remembered contribution to the Western World. She has been copied, imitated, ripped off, and enshrined by various and sundry performers and aspiring exploitation moviemakers, but it’s hard to top the original:

Tura’s other two wonderfully memorable starring roles in exploitation were for Funhouse favorite Ted V. Mikels. She played a “dragon lady” character in the completely deranged and wonderful Astro Zombies:

And is seen briefly doing one of her exotic dance numbers in Ted’s Doll Squad, which supplied the template for Charlie’s Angels, but is a whole lot more, well… Mikels-ian:

I regret that there is only a very small slice of my interview with the great Ms. Santana online. At one time a few years back I had offered the whole thing in the short-lived Funhouse video podcast, and the interview was indeed posted on MySpace by her then-agent/manger. It shows the fervor of the Tura fan-base that my interview with her was so appreciated it got booted (proper attribution was added later, I believe — right before MySpace lost all of its audience in what seemed like one fell swoop. Ah, the fickle social-communitarians on the Web…).

A post-script: I have somewhere the hand-typed thank you note that Ms. Santana wrote after I sent her a VHS of the episode as aired. She was one classy dame, that Tura. And quite the black-clad icon:

Friday, February 4, 2011

The loneliest theme song in the world: Deceased Artiste John Barry

Many wonderful tributes have appeared to composer John Barry since he died last Sunday. I have nothing to add to these, except that one of Barry’s best-known pieces of music (outside of the Bond soundtracks, of course) received the noir “seal of approval” in a French TV documentary many years ago.

Jean-Pierre Melville was profiled in the hour-long program, which has been circulating for years and I believe has wound up on one of the Criterion releases of his films. In it, Melville talks at length about his rampant cinephilia — to the extent that the documentarian uses lap-dissolves to show that Melville continued to talk on and on about certain topics for quite a long time.

At one point in the docu, Melville takes a break from talking to the interviewer to play him a record. Since J-PM didn’t like rock & roll, one would assume he would’ve put on a classical piece or a suitably smoky piece of jazz or a tune by Sinatra (who he paid tribute to in his film L’âiné des ferchaux). Instead, he falls into a reverie over a then-current movie theme that he likes very much.

Given Melville’s status as arguably the master noir filmmaker in France and an influence to great directors in France, America, Hong Kong, and Japan, I thought it would be interesting to note what lonely and noir piece of music the Master played for his interviewer:

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Noises and faces: Deceased Artistes Charlie Callas and David Frye

Late last week it was announced that two nightclub comics whose work I had enjoyed were dead. Nostalgia buffs mourned Charlie Callas on Friday, but were then diverted by the announcement of the death of impressionist David Frye. The interesting thing I found in researching them is that both comics were represented by precious few clips on YouTube, given the amount of TV work they did (especially Callas); also that the YouTube reposters who put clips back up with their own commercial message in the “About This Video” comment box had decided to repost some of the Callas and Frye TV appearances (ah, the fleeting spotlight of fame…).

One of Callas’ best routines was a long shaggy-dog story about two “nervous” (read: shaky, twitching, moaning, noise-making) hunters. Charlie performed it on a Sixties variety show (which I think is Hollywood Palace) and he performed it on The Johnny Cash Show, but I believe the seminal telling of the tale was on the 1984 Jerry Lewis talk show on Metromedia:

Charlie had earlier had a supporting role in Jerry’s wildly uneven movie The Big Mouth (1967):

Here’s a Johnny Cash Show appearance that finds Charlie mostly utilizing his verrrrry rubber face:

Here he does his Georgie Jessel bit on Dinah Shore’s daytime show (and yes, that is Roy Rogers sitting to Charlie’s right):

Here’s a lengthy Godfather routine, apparently performed on The Tonight Show, which, it was noted in every one of Callas’ obits, he was banned from, when he playfully shoved Carson on-air in 1982 (Johnny could be a vindictive son-of-a-bitch if he wanted to be):

Another Tonight Show fragment, with Charlie commenting on men’s magazines:

And lastly, to show that in show biz, you gotta do a little bit of everything. Charlie was not only a professional drummer before he became a comic, but he could also successfully carry off an act no one does anymore, spinning plates!

I regret not having bought Charlie Callas memorabilia on his official website, which featured his artwork, info about his drumming, many lovely pics of his wildly cartoonish mug, and is now gone forever. He had a wonderfully bizarre-looking drinking mug with his face on it. Oh, these folks who tell us that “that stuff will always be available on the Internet….”

As for David Frye, what was most interesting about him to me is that I noticed he was one of the few standup comedians in the Seventies who made certain to credit his writers on his LPs. Now certainly there were comedians who wrote all their own material during that era, but there were a lot who didn’t (including some key, very famous ones) and never credited their writers, but Frye always did (one of them was a young Gabriel Kaplan).

Frye was a vigorous impressionist who, like Frank Gorshin, literally twisted his body and face to really *become* the person he was imitating. His three most famous impressions were Lyndon Johnson, Nixon, and William Buckley, Jr. — in each case, he literally did become a living cartoon of the person, showing their mean, pretentious, or conflicted sides as he impersonated them.

Here is Frye when he was first attracting notice, on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967:

In the Seventies, by the time Nixon was out of office, Frye was still doing mainstream TV variety show guest shots, but his material was more unsteady, as here, on the awful Dick Clark show Live Wednesday (I remember this show, and man, it was a loser). He does brilliant new impressions that fit the time (Jack Nicholson, Rodney Dangerfield, etc.), but he has no material to go with the accurate impressions:

And here is Frye’s most recent promotional video, an item where old clips are supplemented by him doing George W. Bush, Jesse Ventura, and Dick Cheney. I really don’t remember seeing Frye on TV after the Nixon era, but from his obits it was apparent that he kept on trucking and worked steadily in his adopted hometown of Vegas, updating his impressions every few years:

To end on an up note, here is some audio from the wonderful late 1980s Steve Allen AM radio show (which aired on WNEW with cohost Mark Simone), with Frye doing a number of impressions for Steve, who was always the consummate straight man: