View from the Cheap Seats

On Set Visits, The Only Game in Town, Naughty DVDs and Time Wasting Origin Stories

July 17, 2013 - 8:59 am   |   By 

The Only Game In Town

Here’s the first time I ever stumbled upon a film set – my family and my eight year old bad self had driven from Purcell, Oklahoma to San Antonio, Texas to attend the HemisFair ’68, a wing ding of a World’s Fair (do those still exist?) which featured H.R. Pufnstuf as its mascot and the Tower of the Americas as its symbol of both American and Texas ingenuity and, as I remember, a heck of a place to eat while slowly spinning above the earth.

It was hot, I remember that, but it’s always pretty brutal there, and we were downtown when it was pointed out to us a crowd of people around a group of Boy Scouts raising the flag with all kinds of gadgets and whirlybirds in the immediate vicinity.  The picture, sorrowfully forgotten by just about everybody, was a comedy about a disillusioned Mexican general trying to take back the Alamo called Viva Max, which starred Peter Ustinov, Jonathan Winters, John Astin, Harry Morgan, Pamela Tiffin and others.  When it came to the theaters we saw it three or four times - the first time because we felt special in that we has seen them film and the other times because it was good clean fun and because, even at an early age, I knew Jonathan Winters was a difference maker.

I mention this as I wanted to discuss how magical it is to just happen upon a movie or TV set.  You big city yardbirds trip over them, I know.  Even by accident when I’m on the east or west coast, there they are with their signs and their walkie-talkies and their underfed interns and their overfed security. But we in the hinterlands are lucky to see two guys with a Betamax shooting in front of the Dairy Queen.  And here’s a story that’s cogent in that Twilight Time, the savior company of lost and forgotten movie gems, has recently released The Only Game in Town, a 20th Century Fox picture, the last of any movies directed by George Stevens, and starring Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty, a more than interesting substitute for its original male star, Frank Sinatra.

Bill and Billie Thrash are people that every reader of this site would love to pieces.  Bill has, in his 70 plus years of living, never not been in the television station business (he currently is the station manager for our local public television station) and Billie is an actress of great perspicacity – she was in the Ann Miller version of Follies at the Paper Mill Playhouse that is a milestone production of that Sondheim musical.

They were celebrating an early anniversary in 1969, when Bill popped a last minute Vegas trip on Billie, throwing caution to the wind and staying at Caesar’s.  From the time they landed in the wee small hours, however, as though they were extras in a Las Vegas road show of The Out of Towners, the trip went off the wheels, especially when Caesar’s didn’t have, in pre-computer days, their reservation.  So there they are, our little Oklahoma City couple, sitting around praying that Caesar’s wouldn’t pawn them off on some strip dump motel, when A-Ha! they spied, is that him, Warren Beatty walking out the front door and, look over there, that can’t be George Stevens, can it?  Yes, they stumbled upon the set of The Only Game in Town.

Apparently it took hours for the exhausted couple to get their room (which, eventually, was a very upgraded suite) but, at that time, they had to sit around and Billie was upset and who came over to sit by her, Mr. What’s New Pussycat himself.  Warren offered kind words and a sympathetic ear and then went back to shoot the scene.

Isn’t that cool?

While most of The Only Game in Town was filmed on stage sets near Paris so Mrs. Burton could be with Mr. Burton when he filmed Staircase with Rex Harrison (Twilight Time, please?), Taylor, Beatty and company must not have been in Vegas for set ups.  Oh, there was a sighting of Hollywood’s Cleopatra.  She and Beatty filmed an elevator scene at Caesar’s to a delighted crowd.

The Only Game in Town is currently available in Blu-ray from screenarchives.com.

Avalanche Express

Here’s the back story behind the recent Warner Archive release of the 1979 film Avalanche Express, a spy picture that starred Lee Marvin and Robert Shaw and was directed by Mark Robson, he of Von Ryan’s Express, Peyton Place and Valley of the Dolls.  The script was written by, of all people, Abraham Polonsky, the formerly blacklisted director of Force of Evil, known mostly for not giving us enough good movies.  And Avalanche Express had the elements to be one.The Avalanche Express

My story comes from Gray Frederickson, who was then head of production at Lorimar, a television studio that had recently branched out into great filmmaking (The Big Red One and Being There) and not so hot (The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh).

Robert Shaw, straight from the shark’s tummy in Jaws, was thin and pale from the first day of shooting and died mid production.  You can certainly tell if you’re looking for it – his voice was actually dubbed by Rich Little (I’d like to see a complete list of films he’s dubbed over, I know he did David Niven in the last Pink Panther).

It was in post production, however, that the final nail in the coffin of Avalanche Express was hammered.  Director Robson was diagnosed with devastating cancer and was determined to finish what would certainly be his final movie and, as fate would have it, he died that week after production. 

After all the funerals, when the movie was brought into the editing room, the producers were shocked to see that, in order to finish the movie while he still had the strength to do so, Robson only shot masters.  There were no close ups or camera angles.  It looked like a big home movie.

Here’s my favorite part – Gray hired his longtime friend and name above the title cult director Monte Hellman in to re shoot and salvage what he could of the picture.  Hellman, of The Shooting, Ride the Whirlwind and Two Lane Blacktop, had the perfect credentials to make something of the footage and apparently to those who have seen the original mess, he pulled off a miracle.  Find out for yourself at warnerarchive.com.

That Reminds Me

I have been somewhat intimately involved with The Lone Ranger since it was first announced, as a good friend of mine was offered and, at the time accepted the role of Butch Cavendish.  I saw the movie in an early preview and knew then what we all know now – it’s a disaster, without a single redeeming feature except that, well, maybe the color was pretty.  I have lots of stories that I’ll tell when wounds aren’t so fresh, but here’s a tidbit – my friend’s break even gross, when his percentage points would have been paid, was $600 million.  Wow.

On Video

One of the true joys of the digital world is that we are able to experience movies that aren’t necessarily of the “first run” type and there are some genre releasing companies rescuing some fabulous films from obscurity that are but fodder for our personal DVD and Blu-ray players.

Such a company is Vinegar Syndrome, which, this month released two fabulous retro pictures that take me back to New York naughtiness that is not completely different from Oh Calcutta on stage and other “adult” films of the time.  The Telephone Book and A Labor of Love are essential, especially Telephone Book, which features former Laugh In star Sarah Kennedy (a Goldie Hawn clone, at the time) along with character actors Roger C. Carmel and William Hickey to tell a psychedelic sex story in amazing black and white Blu-ray.  I had never heard of this movie and consider it a major find.  Go to vinegarsyndrome.com today to check out all their titles.

Wild Eye Releasing keeps ‘em coming… this month is a fascinating documentary about the controversial death of comedian Andy Kaufman.  I’m one of the brave and few who actually saw Kaufman perform – this in a Tulsa, Oklahoma night club, and remember thinking then that everything was a put on.  It was after his Letterman incident and he wore a neck brace the entire time, even when he was playing Tony Clifton, who, by the way, plays a major part in the DVD.  Go to wildeyereleasing.com.

Shout! Factory keeps up its release of quality Blu-rays with The Producers and Kentucky Fried Movie, which I first saw, and loved, at the time, at a Norman, Oklahoma drive in theater.  What I remember most was the nakedness.  Also coming from Shout! – Swamp Thing in Blu-ray.  They also, bless, just released a wonderful Blu-ray of The Producers, that really is a must have.

Also from Cult Epics is Private – a Blu-ray sex farce from a master of the genre Tinto Brass.

Perhaps one of the most infamous movies of all time is currently on Warner Archive – The Brotherhood, a gangster picture with Kirk Douglas being directed by Martin Ritt.  Why is it so important?  Because it was such a disaster in the late 60s for Paramount, that the studio vowed to go low ball with their then newest gangster script – The Godfather.  Would not for the miracle of the right stars aligning, you would have been seeing a modern day Godfather with Ernest Borgnine, Ryan O’ Neal and the like.  It turns out, however, that The Brotherhood is terrific fun.  It’s currently available at warnerarchive.com.

On October 12, 2012, an unprecedented gathering of music stars and friends joined together to celebrate the life and music of Levon Helm at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey, where the likes of Joe Walsh, Bruce Hornsby, Mavis Staples, Lucinda Williams and the essential John Prine put on a fabulous performace that is captured on both blu ray, DVD and CD representations.  Love for Leon: A Benefit to Save the Barn is available at outlets all over the country.

In Theaters

For discerning film goers, the summer season used to be a mixed blessing – believe it or not, there was a time when summer blockbusters were, like, good.  Not so much anymore.

Of the last few $200 million plus features I’ve seen, only one, World War Z uses its budget to full effect as it adapts the Max Brooks novel (which the film resembles not at all) to create a sensitive, family film about vampire zombies. You actually leave the picture wanting more, a rare feat these days.  I left Man of Steel wanting more.  Vodka.

As for the rest, yuk.  Man of Steel is just almost unforgivable. Seriously, at this point in the game, why do we have to spend so much of the picture learning who is Superman?  Don’t we all know?  My argument is that not only is Hollywood turning out unoriginal nonsense but that the movies contain unoriginal nonsense within the unoriginal nonsense.  Why not let Superman be Superman and fly around and save the world in at least a new and exciting way if you’re going to make the picture at all?  We don’t care anymore about Kevin Costner being eaten by a tornado.  Man of Steel is glum, disinteresting, confusing and unnecessarily dark.   

The Lone Ranger is its own storm.  I have intimate known this project and this script for several years and time hasn’t made it any better.  Just a complete, unfocused, long, disgusting mess.  An embarrassment for all concerned.

It’s funny our local television station when I was growing up alternated the television versions of Superman and The Lone Ranger every other day.  Now, they’re two new, horrible movies together!

Leave it to the Pixar Studios to provide some light hearted cheer for the summertime blahs – Monsters University could be called a completely unnecessary sequel – the original was so delightfully self contained - but there are laughs to be had here.  So what if it’s not Wall-E or Up or even The Incredibles (recently selected by a national critics’ group as the best of all Pixar films)?   Considering the options at the box office,  Monsters University is, even when it seems a tad forced, a colorful, clever addition to the Pixar canon.

Now looking forward to Pacific Rim.  Mongo like monster movie.

Finally...

Have to add a postscript here – as you many of you know, Oklahoma got slammed around like an old rag doll in the month of May and the results were awful.  Within a month’s time, my friend Howard Pollack put together a fund raising concert within the confines of my sainted University of Oklahoma football stadium which featured a return to performing from Garth Brooks, as well as sets from Toby Keith (the instigator of the show in that Moore, Oklahoma is his hometown), Willie Nelson, Sammy Hagar and many others.  It was a day of incredible generosity and healing.  Tickets were $25.00, 75,000 were sold and everyone worked for free.  I didn’t know what national resonance came from this event, but I wanted to take the time, as one who was close to the production, to publicly thank all concerned.

- Bud Elder

 

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