Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Double Feature


Much has been written and spoken regarding drive-in theaters and its appeal to the American way of life. Admittedly, car and movie culture played key roles in the drive-in’s invention by Richard Hollingshead Jr. in depression era 1932. His notion was that the Americans would never give up--no matter how difficult economics became--going to the movies and driving their cars. Both were fairly new technologies in their own right, continually evolving the rapidly changing culture of American, and the marriage of the two was a sustaining magic. For me, the allure of the drive-in has always been the DOUBLE FEATURE.

“What’s playing at the drive-in?”

I loved hearing my parents utter those words. Yet, I was always way ahead of them. When reading the Las Vegas Sun newspaper every morning as a kid (we never subscribed to the Review-Journal), I quickly scanned past The Redrock 4, The Redrock Americana, The Parkway, The Huntridge, and The Fox theater ads until I found the drive-in ads for The Nevada, The Skyway, The Sunset, The Desert 5, and The Las Vegas 4 (the closest D-I to our house), and found what was playing:

Live and Let Die…
The Legend of Boggy Creek…
Mary Poppins…
The Battle for the Planet of the Apes…
Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry…
Enter the Dragon...
Now You See Him, Now You Don’t…
Bedknobs and Broomsticks…
The Bermuda Triangle…
Gone in Sixty Seconds...
Bug!…
The Swarm…


Yes, these movies date me, and most of these films are crap (then and now). But this is no matter, not when you’re at the drive-in, or an impressionable child. Watching a machine-generated wave flip a 20 ft. model of an ocean liner upside down and seven panicky survivors shouting inane dialogue back and forth (no, not Gilligan’s Island, but you're close) is worth its weight in gold. Once the movie ended, and the lights from the snack bar came up across the field, and the speakers once again pumped out radio music, we took solace knowing another movie was on its way.

It wasn’t often that a great movie like The Poseidon Adventure was paired with another great flick. (Frankly, I can’t remember what followed that movie. It could have been The Ruling Class with Peter O'Toole and Alastair Sim for all I know.) In truth, I often fell asleep after the first feature and usually woke up as we drove away, or the next morning in bed. Once I was forced by my parents to sit through a triple feature of torture: Last of the Red Hot Lovers, The Magic Christian, and Paint Your Wagon. (Yep, you read that right.) All I recall is that Paul McCartney song "Come and Get it"--performed by Badfinger, people thrashing around in sewage for free money, Alan Arkin arguing with a woman in bed, and a bull rampaging through a gold mine. Blame this on the biology of my seven-year-old body, or a very boring movie. Or in this case, three.

As I got older I could stay awake and partake of the second feature. When 1974’s The Towering Inferno finished, the second feature had me just as excited. 1972's Skyjacked starred Charlton Heston and James Brolin and was directed by John Guillermin, who co-directed Towering Inferno with Irwin Allen. Here was the story of a jetliner highjacking by a whacked-out Vietnam veteran (Brolin) and his on-board bomb (I don’t know who played the bomb). How could I not stay awake? Something had to explode! I just watched hundreds of people get barbecued and flooded, all in one movie, so why not one more?

I didn’t stay awake. Somewhere in the middle of the first act, waiting for events to happen, I passed out from the boredom and woke up late in the third act, just in time to see Brolin shoot Heston in the shoulder (allowing the hero to live another day), and the Soviet police shoot Brolin (all about the face and chest). My father assured me I had seen all the action anyone who stayed awake had seen. But I blame it on The Towering Inferno, which was so bloody long it had an intermission. In retrospect, the skyscraper was very, very tall (136 stories), and there were all those arrogant rich people to kill and maim in rather interesting ways. (Actually there's only one way to burn to death, but you know what I mean.) At the film's core were the numerous interlocking love stories, either romantic or familial, seeking resolution amid a torrent of dysfunctional communication typical of American culture in the 1970s. The film's Academy Award winning song, We May Never Love Like This Again by Maureen McGovern, best exemplifies this struggle:

We may never love like this again
Don't stop the flow
We can't let go
We may never love like this again
And touch the sky
Though we may try

So, while we're here,
Let's give out all,
Release the dreams inside--


Oh, who gives a crap...

I was rather fortunate to go to the drive-in as a kid and see movies I was interested in viewing. Disney movies never failed me. I still fondly recall seeing The Living Desert and Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in the very early 70s. You bet I stayed awake through both of those! What a great double-bill. When I was higher up on the throes on puberty, I enjoyed The Outlaw Josey Wales and Freebie and the Bean. While I did not ‘get’ Freebie and The Bean starring Jimmy Caan and Alan Arkin (it was very adult with a transvestite serial killer and tons of F-words), I did manage to stay awake. But much of that film is a blur, and from what I hear an equal blur with most critics. (It’s not even out on DVD yet.)

Sometimes you get a mismatch of films that don’t jive with one another. For a modern day example try last year’s The Dark Knight and Mamma Mia! A little something for everyone, right? But have you seen Mamma Mia!? (Have you ever gnawed off your own foot like a crazed raccoon? There's not much difference from what I've seen.) This is why movies like Mamma Mia! are shunted to the tail end of a double feature.

Naturally, this leads us to our next topic, the notorious nature of the second feature as a wasteland of disjointed plots, hyper-extended characters, odd camera angles, bad lighting and overamped sound. In my impressionable youth these would include 1970s car chase movies, those ultra-creepy Billy Jack movies (which I love!), and films where black cops put the beatdown on corrupt Whitey. (And Skyjacked.) Drive-ins were these film's last--or sometimes only--refuge to earn money for their distributors by piggy-backing them on more reputable films. Here's just a sample:

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls...
Rabid...
Piranha...
Women in Cages...
Foxy Brown...
The Car...
Tentacles...


If you want a great-bad movie for a second feature you can't go wrong with 1982's Megaforce, starring Barry Bostwick and directed by Hal Needham of 'Stoker Ace' fame. Forget Plan 9 From Outer Space (overrated as a bad movie, much the way Duck Soup is overrated as the Marx Brother's best film, which is A Night at the Opera). Megaforce is the mother-god of all craptastic films, hands down, no contest. Just to quickly illustrate how deliriously lousy this film is, the next time you're saying good-bye to someone you romantically love (or not, just to creep them out), stand like Superman with your cape blowing in the wind, kiss the tip of your thumb, and then give them the thumbs-up sign as you smile, utterly confident that no one suspects that you and your motorcycle riding, pastel headband wearing, anti-terrorist commando squad are as gay as French toast.

video

What we drive-in goers most want is a great double bill, and sometimes we get it. Sometimes not. If I could go back in time and order up the perfect double bill at the drive-in I’d line up the following:

1950s
Forbidden Planet and The War of the Worlds
The Blob and Fast and the Furious
Lady and The Tramp and The Shaggy Dog

1960s
The Magnificent Seven and Spartacus
Ice Station Zebra and The Planet of the Apes
The Nutty Professor and The Pink Panther

1970s
Dirty Harry and The French Connection
Airport 1975 and Earthquake
The Omen and The Exorcist


This year I wouldn't mind seeing Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen paired up with Land of the Lost. But truth be told; I'd go see Transformers with Mamma Mia! any night at a drive-in. Or Skyjacked. Skyjacked and Megaforce! Oh, yeah...

Hey, it's the drive-in!

2 comments:

  1. Your post is bang-on!

    Who even cares what's playing? The drive-in experience is just that, an EXPERIENCE! It's all about the ambiance... the wafting sounds & echoing smells, the kinetic feel in the air, the communion with strangers beneath the rapturous glow of a towering screen.

    Aye, 'tis Nirvana of which ye speak!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Dang daddy you can write. this makes me want to be a writer too, or at least do something like this. Takes a long time to learn how to write something like this!

    ReplyDelete

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