Archive for July, 2010|Monthly archive page

Search for Beauty

In Film on July 15, 2010 at 5:05 am

“My dear young lady, there can be no virtue without the knowledge of vice.”
– Larry Williams

Pre-Code Hollywood Films; That nefarious period of American cinema that gave Depression-era film goers the perfect escape. When viewed today, the films of this era may not retain their same impact, but the stories and conflicts are still remarkably contemporary with a some surprisingly risqué subject matter: adultery, abortions, drug use and every now and then – nudity . Who doesn’t like a little skin in their movies? And isn’t it more titillating when you’re seeing something that maybe you’re not supposed to?  That is the thrill of Pre-Code Hollywood.

Skin – and all its natural beauty – was exploited to maximum effect in Paramount Picture’s Search for Beauty in 1934. Directed by former “Keystone Cop”, Erle C. Kenton, Search for Beauty shrewdly mocks the growing censorship against an ever-increasing (and usually contradictory) American moral majority.

A trio of hard luck schemers led by Larry Williams (a delightfully sleazy Robert Armstrong, fresh from his role of Carl Denham in King Kong) comes up with the perfect scam; resurrect a defunct Health magazine for the brazen act of selling sex, and nothing but. He and his associates even hire two wholesome Olympiads (All-American, steel jawed, Buster Crabbe and the curvaceously petite Brit, Ida Lupino) as Editors to whitewash their perverted operation. When the two medalists discover the misleading intentions of the Health magazine, they force the hustlers to partake in a heavy regiment of exhausting physical workouts to teach them a lesson. (Kenton’s comedic background is evident during the film’s ridiculous climax, culminating in the words ‘The End’ sewn to the backside of Larry Williams’ under-britches when he turns to the camera).

Pre-Code Hollywood Films refer to a very specific era in motion picture history and only existed in America. It was not a style, or genre, but a roughly 4-year time period beginning in 1930 in which the major studios agreed to a set of self-imposed rules that were enforced by The Studio Relations Committe (headed by devout Irish Catholic Joseph Breen). But sex sells, and during the nation’s first major economic downturn, these rules were largely ignored in favor of greater financial prosperity. It was not until Breen instigated a potential Catholic boycott against the motion picture industry that they began to clean up their act. Search for Beauty comes at the tail end of this era and satirizes America’s combined love for sex and censorship with astute bluntness. It’s amazing that it made it past Breen and the SRC. In fact, many of the scenes and bits of dialog are indirect attacks on the censorship board who had to view it. But lo and behold, the picture made it through – naked shower room romps and all. (Regional censors still cut the film to shreds when it finally made it to local theaters. Thankfully, the movie survived and now exists uncut on DVD). It was because of this final enforcement of the Production Code that the parallel exploitation film industry was able to thrive during America’s tender years that followed The Great Depression. In reality, there is very little difference between the morality of Search for Beauty and most exploitation films that followed it, aside from stronger talent and greater production values.

Joseph Breen: Head of the SRC and Tastemaster of the American Public

Search for Beauty‘s crowning moment is  The Symphony of Health (see below). This music number displays the contest results of the Health magazine’s worldwide search for the perfect human body (in true showmanship tradition, Paramount Pictures held their own beauty contest to promote the film. The winners are featured as extras). However, the resulting musical number is a blatant, border-line tasteless and often hilarious (albeit, competently assembled by Paramount craftsmen) montage of sex, sex, sex. Female fannies jiggle in the foreground (large breasted ones, front and center) while Arian beefcakes create a human train of sweaty torsos; all set to the patriotic marches of John Philip Sousa. While Busby Berkeley used the body as a tool to display sex in fetishistic, kaleidoscopic grandeur; this music number cuts to the chase and gives audiences a brassy and often uncomfortable smorgasbord of taut hamstrings and alarming camel toes. Regardless of the era, Search for Beauty is a great example of Hollywood sex disguised as art.


Women In Cages

In Film on July 13, 2010 at 1:49 am

Hollywood take note: Lindsay will soon be hotter than ever. On July 6th, Lindsay Lohan was sentenced to 90 days in the slammer for repeatedly violating the terms of her parole, stemming from a 2007 drunk driving incident. Lindsay Lohan in prison?! The script writes itself. I for one, have never been against the Hollywood Remake Machine and I pray to the Tinseltown Gods that someone cast Li Lo in a Women In Prison Film remake.

I nominate any one of these classics as a new starring vehicle for Li Lo, each ripe with potential to rekindle Hollywood’s never-fail formula; Women In Prison.

Ladies They Talk About (1933)

Based on a play written by a Hollywood actress who spent time in the San Quentin, Dorothy MacKaye, Ladies They Talk About helped launch Barbara Stanwyck to stardom in the early 30s. Chock full of sapphic overtones and some of the bawdiest humor this side of Stanwick’s previous boundry-pusher Night Nurse (1931),Ladies They Talk About was remade in 1941 as Lady Gangster with Faye Emerson in the starring role. But that should not stop anyone from putting Li Lo in the lead role for a third time. She’s done sassy, no-nonsense before, now lets see her do it in prison stripes.

Caged! (1950)

Elenor Parker was the perfect victim. Hope Emerson was the perfect tough-love head matron. Both actresses received Oscar nominations for their roles in this, the greatest of all WIP films. Caged! is all at once melodramatic, campy, emotional and  breathtaking. Add to the mix Carl Guthrie’s stunning cinematography and a heartfelt supporting cast (including Jan Sterling and Agnes Moorehead), Li Lo would be perfect to play the naive young lead who learns how to survive in an unfair penal system. Just let her keep that kitten!

I Want to Live! (1958)

OK, so it’s not technically a WIP film, but Robert Wise’s stylish, beat-noir melodrama speaks volumes about America’s love for crime and fame. Even after 50 years, the message in this film (both on the Death Penalty and the media) has lost none of its impact. Susan Hayward won the Oscar for Best Actress as Barbara Graham, the two-bit petty criminal good-time girl who gets framed for murder. She’s never done it before, but I think Li Lo could pull off a sexy, never-say-die, sympathetic middle-aged woman.

This is easily, my favorite scene in the movie. Johnny Mandel’s electrifying jazz soundtrack is also well worth seeking out.

99 Women (1969)

A crucial benchmark in the evolution of WIP films. Spanish filmmaker Jess Franco and legendary British exploitation producer Harry Allen Towers added a few more elements to the mix of WIP trademarks that would identify the genre for decades to come – sex, color and jungles. Featuring a bewildering plot and even more bewildering cast (Herbert Lom and Mercedes McCambridge!), 99 Women finally showed all the lesbian innuendos, cat fights and shower scenes that were tip-toed around for decades. It also served as the inspiration for Roger Corman to produce his own string of WIP films in a tropical setting for cheap. For sheer lunacy, I nominate Li Lo to take on McCambridge’s whip-yeilding head matron role.

The Big Doll House (1971)

At the time of its release, The Big Doll House was the most profitable independent film ever made, playing both drive-ins and hard top theaters. Directed by exploitation maverick Jack Hill (Switchblade Sisters) and featuring a stellar cast (Roberta Collins, Pat Woodell, Brooke Mills and Judy Brown), The Big Doll House was also semi-responsible for the cross over success of subsequent blaxploitation films of the era, all thanks to Pam Grier’s scene stealing antics and the theme belted out by the mocha-skinned diva herself. Based on an original screenplay by James Gordon White (The Tormentors), Hill was forced to re-write the film while on location to suit its jungle surrounding and even re-named the evil head matron after a Swiss producer that he just finished working with. Casting Li Lo as the star in this film is a no-brainer. She even shares a charming similarity to Judy Brown.

Caged Heat (1974)

Writer/director Jonathan Demme breathed new life into the Corman cycle of WIP movies, by relocating the action back to the United States and returning some of the social messages of earlier WIP films. Casting Russ Meyer starlet, Erica Gavin in the starring role was inspired and Barbara Steele as the wheelchair-bound head matron was an equally marvelous casting coup. Caged Heat is probably one of the least conventional of all Corman-produced WIP films, most likely due to Demme’s taste and talent as a filmmaker. As with The Big Doll House, Li Lo could easily slip into the lead role originated by Ms. Gavin.

Reform School Girls (1986)

A partial remake of Caged!, Reform School Girls is without a doubt, my favorite of all WIP films. Writer/director Tom DeSimone infuses the genre’s conventions with remarkable confidence, resulting in a feeling that is fresh and invigorating.  A perfect cast also helps (Pat Ast and Wendy O. Williams of The Plasmatics have  a wonderful chemistry together; campy but never overboard). Sybil Danning returns to the genre, but her deadpan delivery of lines leads me to suspect that she was not in on the joke. Tom DeSimone was also known as Lancer Brooks, director of many gay pornography films throughout the 70s. For Li Lo, I recommend taking on the smaller role of one of Charlie’s girl gang shower mates. Stay strong, little one. The world will be waiting for you once you make Freeside.

Update 7/21/10

Black Mama, White Mama (1973)

After discovering Lil’ Kim’s advise to Li Lo on prison time, it occurred to me that these two would make a killer onscreen duo. Jonathan Demme and Joe Viola’s revisionist take on Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones resulted in this Pam Grier/Margaret Markov WIP classic. Li Lo and Lil’ Kim would positively light that motha’ fuckin’ screen on fie-ya if they appeared together in this updated version. Even there names together on the poster would look perfect. And don’t shake your head at me, either. You know that I’m right.