Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Swarm (1978)

Contained in the Book of Revelations is a prophecy about a dreadful pestilence, which, when unleashed on Mankind, will bring such pain and suffering souls will beg the very mountains to fall upon them and smother the agony that is their miserable lives. That’s right: it’s the 1978 motion picture, The Swarm, produced and directed by Irwin Allen.

Welcome to Drive-in Cinema. Who knew an actual motion picture would violate The Geneva Convention and be quoted frequently in the legal underpinnings for Department of Justice lawyer John Yoo and the Cheney admini—I mean, Bush administration. In case you’re unfamiliar with The Swarm, and all the drama I’m conjuring up about its lack of…uh…being a good movie, first orientate yourself with this 1978 trailer:

What makes torture appealing is the mere threat of torture: dangling the electrodes, the knife, the gun barrel in front of the victim, taunting the helpless with vicious pain. "It’s not just a movie. It’s real. It’s coming!"

Look. On its surface, The Swarm has a great premise. After all, in the 1970s anything under the sun that could trigger a disaster, either natural or manmade, proved ample fodder for a disaster flick. Growing up in Las Vegas, news of the swarms from South America approaching up towards Texas was alarming to me, and the sensation of deranged bees infiltrated Nightly News headlines, Reader’s Digest features and the glossy pages of the National Geographic magazine. With such a scenario you can't blame Irwin Allen, father of the disaster flick, from taking this and running it to the bank. It worked with a rouge wave capsizing an ocean liner, and a raging fire consuming the world's tallest skyscraper--why not mad killer bees taking out the greatest military force on earth? (No. Not the Romans. The U.S. Army!)

But what God hath wrought, let Man put asunder, and thus falls another great story to terrible plotting, stagnant direction, stilted scripting and overwrought acting. How gawdawful is it, really, you ask?

Have you ever read Vogon poetry? (Never mind.) Just watch the following scene, as the main characters battle awkwardly through layers of exposition and anglo-saxon machismo. [Warning: it’s coyote ugly, meaning you’ll chew off your own paw to get away from this clip, so pass the ketchup.]

Remember Michael Caine from The Man Who Would Be King? Richard Widmark from The Bedford Incident? Katherine Ross from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? I wonder how the conversation with their agents went after this screenplay arrived in their respective mailrooms...
Michael Caine: Sidney, you bloody twit! I will not do this rubbish. This dialogue isn’t worthy of a one-armed monkey robbing a bloody bank.

Sidney: They're offering you 10 million dollars, Mickey.

Michael Caine: I’ll do it.
How the mighty and talented are fallen. (For all you folks cross-referencing at home, see Jaws 4.) For extraordinary play-by-play of the movie's plot, go visit The Monster Shack. See ya later, at the drive-in theater.

Friday, January 22, 2010

"The Fiend of Dope Island" (1961)

Welcome back to another installment of Drive-In Cinema.

Say what you will about the lack of truth in advertising. Guaranteed, what you’re about see in the following trailer is exactly what you’ll get in the 1961 crime drama motion picture “The Fiend of Dope Island”.

The plot centers on a megalomaniac of a small Caribbean island, who uses the local natives and his henchmen to grow and ship marijuana. When he becomes bored with his empire, which he treats like his footstool, he summons a beautiful nightclub singer from the mainland to be his love-toy, but when she falls for his second-in-command…

Well, I think you can guess where all this is headed. For a more detailed synopsis of the plot, go to TCM.

But why have me waste words on this. Here’s an eloquent review written by Mark Shanks of Oregon for Amazon.Com, which gets to the point:

“OK, this one takes the all-time prize for over-the-top, pure wild-man scenery chewing. In fact, as the case itself claims, Bennet doesn't just CHEW the scenery, he swallows it whole! It begins with our "fiend" pulling out his whip (any more obvious Freudian symbolism would be pointless) and dealing a few lashes to someone because......hey, he don't NEEEED no steeeekin' reason! As he proudly proclaims, he owns EVERYthing on the island! And since his "staff" is about the most lame-brained crew this side of the Three Stooges, he's a busy man, whippin' everyone and everyTHING in sight. But that's before the girl arrives, and then he REALLY goes berserk! Great fun - I can't recall EVER seeing such vein-popping, chest-thumping, rip-roaring hyper-machoism. Sets a new standard - makes John Agar in "Brain From Planet Arous" look as if he were on Thorazine. You HAVE to see it!”

Here’s what Mr. Shanks means. Watch this:

(Thanks to SabuCat Trailers for the clip!)

Enough said? If you'd like to buy a copy of this movie (which comes with another equally terrible film, Pagan Island, as a double feature drive-in delight), go to Amazon.Com.

See ya later, at the drive-in theater.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"Motorcycle Gang" (AIP 1957)

It’s not the drive-in really, not unless you get to enjoy truly bad cinema. Never mind that crap you get today that sincerely disappoints one’s soul, like “Monsters V. Aliens” and “Land of the Lost.” These films were made by the cream of Hollywood’s crop. Expectations are high. (Or were…)

What I mean by bad cinema are the films crafted by individuals and companies where no lofty expectations are held, where the cream doth not rise, but settles, congealing into a blackened sludge on the bottom. Such films tickle our fancy. How can someone be so openly gawdawful, so brazen in his or her ineptitude?

“Oh dear God, what were they thinking…?”

On today’s installment of Drive-in Cinema, let’s take a peek at 1957’s Motorcycle Gang. (Thanks to SabuCat Trailers for the clip):

Was that fun? What did you think of that body throw John Ashley gets? The next guy that pulls a gun on me in a dark alley…I will seriously not try that on him. ‘Cause I’ll get shot. Better just cough up my wallet…

More or less Motorcycle Gang is a teenage angst film, typical of those crafted by American-International Pictures (A.I.P.…ask for them by name.). The plot is simple: a kid trying to go straight is challenged by a ne’re-do-well friend from his past. This all centers, of course, on motorcycles, which at the time of this film’s conception, were a popular item among the youth, along with hot rods, and were seen as symbols of rebellion against all that was good about America. Oh--and the love a woman is at stake here, too. Girls, like motorcycles, were a popular item among 1950s youth and too were seen as symbols of rebellion against all that was good about America.

For a complete synopsis of the film and credits try here at TCM. If you'd like to buy a copy of the movie, you could try here, or Amazon.Com.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Alexander Film Company

What I know about the Alexander Film Company could barely fill a small popcorn container. Frankly, there isn’t a comprehensive source of information about AFCO out on the Internet, just a plethora of bits and pieces, here and there, but enough to cull a generalized picture of this company and its functions.

I do know AFCO celebrated its 90 anniversary last year, and produced most of the drive-in intermission commercials and clocks seen by drive-in goers throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s, which is of great interest to me. At Brian Light’s Drive-In Theater Workshop I found a 1998 article penned by a former employee of AFCO, Sebastian Speranza, who sheds some light on this process:
“On-screen people were usually local folk, but again, there were times when they were brought in from other places. I even had a hand in bringing in some people. There was a fellow, Gordon, from Colorado College that had a super voice and I urged him to come in and audition. He did, and was hired for a bunch of [voice overs] for drive in trailers. A singer I did vocal arrangements for, Bonnie Boyd, was also brought in for screen testing and she wound up doing some things also.

About sound recording/transfers. We had a number of machines. Most of the V.O. stuff was recorded on a Fairchild 1/4 inch tape machine at 15 ips. using their Pic-Sync Signal technology. Paul, or Wes, or whoever, would show up every morning about 9:30 AM and take his place in the booth. All the copy to be read was on individual cards. There was a special clock behind the mike that the announcer would set 5 or so seconds before the zero mark and then at zero would read the copy and hopefully get it in before the 10, 20, 30 or 60 second mark was reached! These guys were good and there were seldom a problem.

The way sound tracks are placed on film, there was a 1 1/2 second delay before the sound started and it ends a 1/2 second before the end of the film. (Due to placement of optical sound pickup head in the projector and splicing.) This was also indicated on the timing card that the announcer had in front of him as shaded areas. These V.O.s were all destined for the drive-in "clocks" and trailers ... AFCO's bread and butter…”
To further illuminate our subject, take a short peak behind the scenes with in the AFCO promotional film, circa 1950s:

While AFCO wasn’t the only producer of these drive-in theater trailers and intermission clocks, it was by far the largest. Tim Brown lays out the genesis like this:
“In the late 40s, the Armour company produced a trailer (short advertising film) promoting their hot dogs. This was distributed free of charge to drive-ins that sold Armour hot dogs and was run during the intermission break between features. A rapid increase in hot dog sales was immediately noted by all who ran the film and soon requests for the trailer poured in from operators all over the country. Other manufacturers followed Armour's lead and soon several product trailers were in the hands of the drive-ins. This further increased concession sales and began the trend to advertise on the screen during intermission.

“The Alexander Film Company was engaged in selling screen advertising to local merchants. This involved a nationwide network of salesmen who called on various car dealers, drug stores, laundrys, banks, service stations and the like, to sell them advertising on local screens. This salesman also negotiated contracts with individual drive-ins, for their screen time.

After production, the films were sent to the local theatres, and screened according to a particular schedule (in the mid 50s, this was usually a one week flight, but longer times evolved). Alexander paid the theatres directly for their screen time. This amount varied according to the size and location of the theatre, which reflected the number of people who would potentially see the ads. After the run, the films were requested to be returned to Alexander. It was a popular way for theatre operators to generate extra income.”
Here’s a sample of some intermission ads, supposedly produced by AFCO:

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Keitz & Herndon

There seems to a joyful consensus among animation and drive-in bloggers about Keitz & Herndon, an animation studio out of Dallas, Texas, operated by Larry Herndon and Roddy Keitz. I have an affinity for their style of animation that reminds me of the old UPA style from the late 1950s and 1960s, which might explain my attraction to the old Mr. Magoo cartoons I watched on television after school, as well as the many cold war cartoons found in education films aimed at deterring any and all childhood fears of thermonuclear annihilation.

Of Keitz & Herndon's animation, they produced two of my favorite snackbar commercials, whose animation and music styles take me way, way back to the drive-in. The first is a Dr. Pepper commercial, well fitted with a hip brassy jazz orchestration, and peppy animation evoking the heyday of drive-in theaters, jazz and animation.

The second is what I call the "Witch Doctor" snackbar ad.

Now, I know that this ad isn't exactly politically correct, for obvious reasons. But let's not froth at the mouth. We're adults. Let's just examine it as a pop culture artifact. And a wonderful artifact it is. Note the music, a jazzy-Tiki Club variation that was indicative of the exotica music popularized by the likes of Denny Martin and Les Baxter, to name a few. Both of these snackbar ads are pitch perfect for the monotonic drive-in speakers. Hearing them ring out in the night air makes one swoon.

For far, far more on Keitz & Herndon visit a great blog and by his book, CARTOON MODERN: STYLE AND DESIGN IN FIFTIES ANIMATION.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

"Variety Show" (1957)

"Variety Show" is the granddaddy of drive-in theater intermission clocks. This 1957 short film was the creation of Filmack Studios, who also created the 1953 granddaddy of indoor theater snackbar commercials, "Let's All Go To The Lobby", the most famous snackbar commercial...ever. What remains over fifty years later is something memorable and a delight to watch, again and again.

What makes this work? Well...variety, for starters. Having the food come out and literally dance for our entertainment, as in this circus motif guided by the ringmaster announcer, is amusingly simplistic. Aided by the light breezy easy-listening music, the hot dog jumping into the bun, the tight rope waking candy bars, the tap-dancing soda, the marching ice cream--they're all mesmerizing. Whether or not it drove many adults to hunger is unknown, but one can imagine little kids in backseats watching the funny snack foods cavorting about on the screen and giving Mom and Dad some verbal nudging to get something from the snackbar.

For more information on Filmack, and their products, including the aforementioned classics, visit their website.

For a fantastic 2006 article on the subject of Filmack please visit J. Theakston's blog.