Friday, April 5, 2013

Frank over Franco?: Deceased Artistes Jess Franco and Frank Masi

I take my schlock seriously. And so I do differentiate between schlock that is entertaining and the kind that is... well, so bad it's just bad. I already aired my feelings about Jess Franco on this blog when I paid tribute to Lina Romay, but I feel I should touch upon his work again at the time of his passing — and then discuss the legacy of a man who was completely sincere, but achieved some blessedly wonderful kitsch/schlock.

To cite from my piece on Franco in the Romay obit: What is my problem with Franco’s cinema? Well, just about every cult moviemaker who has a great reputation I feel has gotten that reputation because their films are either quality works of cinema (Corman, Metzger, Meyer, Sarno, Jose Mojica Marins), or because their work is bad but fun to watch (Herschell Gordon Lewis, Doris Wishman, Mike Findlay, and of course Ed Wood).

I have seen a handful of Franco’s films, and while I find that his soundtracks are often terrific, the films themselves are crashing bores — which is about the single worst thing that exploitation can be. To elaborate, I absolutely love women’s prison pictures and have seen most of them over the years. I have found it rather stunning that Franco’s WIP pictures are extremely dull, even compared to some of the cheesiest straight-to-video items that came out in the Nineties.

I can’t say any more, except to note that the films Franco made in the Sixties and Seventies are at least worth a look for their psychedelic moments and their soundtracks. And thus I salute Franco in the format that suits his work best: the trailer. The trailer for his films are often much better than the films themselves — and the scores were just terrific.

Here is a fan’s trailer gallery of a dozen juicy coming attractions, and here is the trailer for the slowwww-moving but, again, well-scored Venus in Furs (1969):

Franco’s trio of women’s prison films are all represented online, with the trailer for Barbed Wire Dolls here and the entirety of Women in Cellblock 9 here. The trailer for the best of the three pics, 99 Women (1969) shows off its great slumming cast — Maria Schell, Mercedes McCambridge, Herbert Lom — as well as its typical Franco sadism:

Franco adapted a few pieces by the Marquis de Sade. His film Eugenie: Story of Her Journey Into Perversion (1970) is an adaptation of the Marquis’ “Philosophy in the Bedroom” starring Marie Liljedahl (of Joe Sarno’s Inga), Maria Rohm, and Christopher Lee:

A slice of baroque weirdness from Vampyros Lesbos (1971), driven by nudity, a set that’s barely there, and, natch, music:

Finally, two clips that show the best and worst of Franco. First the worst: this slice from Exorcism, aka “Lorna the Exorcist” (1974). Shoddiness rules (in underground films the misapplied eyebrow pencil would be an “effect” — here it’s just ridiculous). It goes on and on and just gets sillier and more awful (read: pure Franco):

I’ll close out with a fan-created clip that shows off Franco’s best side: the showcasing of his first muse, the gorgeous Soledad Miranda, and a terrific score by Manfred Hubler and Sigi Schwab. The film is She Killed in Ecstasy (1970):


To move on to kitsch that is consistently entertaining, I turn to the television show hosted and produced by another gent who died in the last week, Philadelphian turned Brooklynite Frank Masi. He was a singer who hosted the Manhattan access show Stairway to Stardom, a talent contest program that has acquired a national (worldwide?) cult since clips from it were posted on YouTube.

Many blog entries have been written about STS (I did one back in 2007, saluting… well, we’ll get to her below). The two most important pieces done on the show, though, come from the year that YouTube exploded, 2006. The first was an NPR segment on the show in which curator Mitch Friedman discussed his fixation on the program.

Friedman and his friend Doug Miller watched the show for the first time in the 1980s (it ran roughly from 1979 to the early Nineties, according to articles) and eventually came up with a plan to watch the whole series: contact the host-producer Frank Masi, say they were doing a documentary on public access (a lie), and suddenly the wealth of earnestly sincere kitsch that was STS was theirs. Friedman has paid back Masi’s trust in him by making the show a cult item through posting the clips on YouTube.

The second seminal piece on the show appeared later in 2006 on The Village Voice blog. By this point there were two STS tribute nights at a Williamsburg, Brooklyn, club and celebrities had professed their love of the STS clips on YT, including Marshall Crenshaw, John C. Reilly, and Bjork.

In case stars watching old access as kitsch entertainment appeals to you, it should be noted that Alec Baldwin recently told “voice of her generation” Lena Dunham on his NPR show “Here's the Thing” about smoking pot and watching “Stairway to Stardom” when he was younger – Dunham, in turn, tweeted about it later on, after she evidently took a tip from Alec and watched Masi's brainchild on YT.

Friedman interviewed Masi in 1993 on video, presumably for that documentary that never existed. Masi's reminiscences are stream of consciousness here, roaming all over the map. I could've done with more about the actual show and Masi's experiences in putting it together (perhaps that's because I'm always interested in other access producers' tales of triumph, and woe); by part three of this chat, Frank is talking about his cooking and his aptitude as a bowler, but there are some good fringes-of-show-biz stories:

Masi mentioned that tapes of his show were requested by someone at Metromedia a few years before Star Search showed up on that syndicated outlet. It's not certain that anything was lifted from STS for that show – one must remember that Major Bowes and later Ted Mack pioneered the “Amateur Hour” concept on the radio and then on television (Bowes started it in '34; Mack ended it in '70).

Whatever the case may be, it's often stated by everyone who writes about STS that it is a lot more entertaining than any of the talent contest shows that are currently on the networks. Certainly STS is a lot more unpredictable and goes places that those slicker shows never would (with some acts “preaching” in their songs, children singing tunes meant for adults, and people performing their own startlingly unusual compositions).

So I salute Mr. Masi, who was entirely sincere about his program and did have an old show-biz attitude about the acts he introduced, who ranged from fairly talented to mildly deranged. But only clips can elaborate exactly how weird things could get on the Stairway....

The title was sung by Masi at one point in the series, but at another there was this colorful montage:

There have been a few shows on access that have charged their guests “fees” to come on the air (money is allowed to change hands in leased access, but is verboten on public access). Here is the “ad” that ran during STS in which original cohost Evie Day, a big band singer, mentions “production fees” the guests will have to pay. In the video interview embedded above, Masi maintains that he only charged his guests for a short while on the show, and then he began to pay studio costs himself and let the acts appear for free:

Masi was a histrionic singer who really wanted to “sell” his songs. He recorded some singles and albums (mentioned, again, in the video interview above) and occasionally lip-synched to recordings on the air (as he does here). His STS performances are mostly, live, though, and he did tend to do certain songs over and over again, as can be seen in this montage of clips of him singing “(What Can I Say) After I Say I'm Sorry?”:

Perhaps his affected reading of a lyric is his rendition of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” This will give you a taste of some hardcore Masi:

He closed out STS episodes bringing all the acts back out onto camera and having them join him for a song. Here the show closes with a rousing “God Bless America”:

A montage of acts from “Stairway to Stardom” set to Masi singing “The Way We Were.” (There is an alternate version of the song, performed on an early episode of the absolutely wonderful access show “Beyond Vaudeville,” to be found here at the 4:00 mark). Yeah, this stuff gets big laughs among the hipster contingent (and some of the material is very funny or just jaw-droppingly unusual), but there is something touching about this little clip, which I'm assuming was assembled by Mitch Friedman:

As a final farewell, I have to offer up a trio of items from the show, three people whose acts Masi exposed us to. If I had to go with a Holy Trinity of interestingly odd STS acts, I'd go with the dramatic monologue delivered by Precious Taft,

the mime and general weirdness of the late Don Costello,

and the unsurpassable, all-around double threat that is Lucille Cataldo (who has never had her clips taken off YT, but is, according to Friedman, not thrilled to have the show brought up to her). I assume most of my readers will have seen this already, but on the off-chance that there is someone who hasn't, please, please feast on “Hairdresser, Hairdresser.” And a final godspeed to Mr. Masi for bringing us Lucille:

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