The Concession Stand

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Movie Deep Dive: The Industry Changes, Part 2

After the motion picture industry solved its problems with Thomas Edison by relocating to Southern California, it soon ran into another problem- supply. The world was clamoring for more motion pictures, far more than the industry could provide at that time. Theater owners decided to take matters into their own hands; establishing and buying studios of their own that could ensure a steady stream of product. William Fox’s Fox Films was one such enterprise. Fox’s theaters would get first pick of the studio’s films. The studio would sell its films to the highest bidders in markets without Fox theaters.

Marcus Loew, whose Loew’s Theater chain was one of the biggest exhibitors at the time, decided to assemble a supplier by buying three existing studios- Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures and Mayer Films. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. While it might have seemed like a pricy option to buy three established studios which were owned and operated by three opinionated moguls, it turned out to be one of the smartest deals Loew had ever made.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer would reign over Hollywood during the golden age of films. Led by Louis B. Mayer, who ended up winning the studio power struggle, MGM proved that it was up to the challenge of producing the pictures its parent company needed for its theaters. Mayer created a literal motion picture factory whose film making prowess was unmatched by anyone else. MGM locked up Hollywood’s top talent- actresses, actors, directors and writers- providing them with a steady income based on their value to the studio. Whereas many in Hollywood today have to hustle for parts, at MGM the talent were full time employees, making weekly pay regardless of whether they were actively working on a project. Mayer’s dream factory often seemed to be less of a dream and more of a factory.

MGM would become the gold standard in Hollywood; the studio that all others would be judged against. Nobody could make films as quickly or efficiently as MGM and nobody had more power than its leader, Louis B. Mayer. Mayer’s power and influence wouldn’t insulate him or his studio from Hollywood’s next big challenge.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Movie Deep Dive: The Industry Changes, Part One

Much has been made of recent comments made by acclaimed directors who derided the type of big budget movies that have become a staple of modern cinema. Bizarrely enough, the media has highlighted these statements as though they were anything other than a few older talents bemoaning the fact that these young people dared trampling on their lawns. The rise of big budget movies has happened because of changing audience expectations and competition. Adapting to change is nothing new and something that both Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola took advantage of themselves in the 1970’s when an even older group of legends bemoaned their lawn trampling. This week we’ll look at past changes and how Hollywood dealt with them. As we’ll see, the only constant in Hollywood is change.

Our story begins not in Hollywood, but in New Jersey. The burgeoning motion picture industry got its start in New Jersey, centered around Thomas Edison’s company. Edison had the earliest patents for motion picture equipment which originally consisted of a kinetoscope and a kinetoscope viewer. His early equipment would take numerous, quick pictures that when flipped would appear to depict moving scenes. Customers could view these vignettes at arcades where they would peer inside a machine to see them.

While some of the machines would feature risqué film of women in bloomers, mainstream machines would have short, captivating vignettes. The technology behind these “motion pictures” would advance quickly. Eventually, filmmakers could make short films that could then be projected on a screen to large audiences. The public soon had an insatiable desire to watch these films and the young entertainment business would spring up in New Jersey.

While Thomas Edison would attract these businesses to New Jersey he would also be responsible for chasing them away. The young studios wanted to buy Thomas Edison’s equipment outright, but Edison only wanted to lease them out. Additionally, Thomas required a royalty from every picture filmed with his cameras. These startups could barely afford to make their pictures to begin with. Having to pay an additional royalty to Edison on top of the camera rental threatened to kill the industry before it began. Enterprising “entrepreneurs” swooped in to build and sell their very own cameras, which probably violated a few of Edison’s patents. These grey market cameras were irresistible to the studios up until Thomas Edison sent in his goons to bust up studios he suspected were using equipment that violated his patents.

Yes, Thomas Edison had “goons”. These violent altercations proved to be bad for business, but instead of encouraging the studios to use his cameras, Edison encouraged the movie industry to make its first big change. The studios decided to move as far away as they could to escape Edison’s wrath- to Los Angeles, California.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Hall of Infamy: The Phynx

What happens when out of touch Hollywood execs, desperate for a ‘today’ picture, take the advice of a clueless focus group? The Phynx happens. Every frame of the picture is insanity and you’ll certainly feel like you’ve lost your mind after watching it. The Phynx is an example of a film in which everything appears to have gone wrong.

The film is about the titular band who are a Monkees ripoff with an ‘amazing’ secret- they double as secret agents who are given the job of rescuing a group of celebrities who were kidnapped and taken to Albania. The Used-To-Be-All-Star cast appears to be everyone the film’s producers could roust from the Hollywood retirement home. These kidnap victims politely sit in carefully arranged chairs, providing no resistance to the kidnappers. While it was nice to see the producers throw some cash at these past their prime stars, they could have easily borrowed wax figures from the Movieland Wax Museum and nobody would have been the wiser.

The film had a very limited release, which meant that most of the celebrities were spared the embarrassment of anyone seeing them in this colossal failure. Relegated to the dustbin of history, the film would live on only in the memories of those who most likely suspected it was just a hallucination. Warner Brothers would eventually take the film out of its vault, releasing it on DVD in 2012.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Hall of Infamy: Mommie Dearest

She was a legendary presence on the silver screen, a pioneering businesswoman who insisted on getting a seat on Pepsi’s board after her husband passed away, the personification of Hollywood glamour and so much more. After her death, however, the public’s view of Joan Crawford would be forever informed by her estranged daughter’s best selling book- Mommie Dearest, which depicted her as a monstrous perfectionist who used her children as props to sell the idea that she was a warm, beloved mother.

The book was a controversial sensation, selling millions of copies to a public that had become eager to tear down its legends in a post-Watergate world. While many took the book at face value and lowered their esteem for Ms. Crawford, others questioned her daughter’s motives. Even if Joan was guilty of some of these offenses, why wait until she was dead and couldn’t defend herself? Wasn’t this just a tacky hit piece from a disgruntled child who was written out of her mother’s will? Paramount Pictures entered the fray by buying the film rights, pledging to make an Oscar caliber picture. Some of Joan’s legendary friends and “frenemies” sprang to her defense, expressing disappointment in Paramount.

One of Paramount’s biggest mistakes was hiring Faye Dunaway to play Ms. Crawford. Faye had gotten a reputation around Hollywood for being difficult to work with, so she was eager to be in another Oscar caliber film after winning the award a few years earlier. If Faye could win another Oscar from a prestigious picture she would ascend to Hollywood’s permanent A-List. As a result, she planned to utilize all of her acting skills to bring Joan Crawford back to life. Rather than becoming a legendary performance, however, Dunaway’s Crawford would become a case study for reigning in your actors. (As fellow Hall of Infamy inductee Gotti illustrates, this is a lesson that Hollywood still hasn’t learned.) 

Dunaway portrays Joan Crawford like a cartoon villainess, an exaggerated monster who never appears to be a living, breathing person. Every still of her from the film looks like it could be from a satire. That Dunaway thought this performance would garner anything more than derisive laughs is astonishing. We see her yelling, wielding wire hangers, shouting and slapping. It’s more like a community theater performance than that of an Oscar winning actress on a big budget film.

Although the film’s intent was to depict Joan as a monstrous woman whose reputation deserved to go down several notches, it actually has the opposite effect. Could any real human being be this cartoonishly villainous? Most viewers left theaters firmly believing the answer to be ‘no’. The film was a box office disaster, eliciting more laughs than plaudits. Paramount quickly changed its marketing literally over night, trying to salvage the film by depicting it as purposely comedic. It was too little, too late. Faye’s career would come crashing down and the film would be laughed out of theaters.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Hall of Infamy: Superman IV: The Quest For Peace

1978’s Superman: The Motion Picture was arguably the film that gave birth to the modern day super hero picture. By 1986, however, the franchise was running on fumes. Original director Richard Donner had been forced out of Superman II and Superman III was an embarrassing disgrace. Warner Bros. was having financial issues and couldn’t seem to get any Superman related project off the ground. A Supergirl project had been farmed out to MGM and was an embarrassing disaster. It seemed as though things couldn’t get any worse. That was before Golan and Globus got involved.

Golan and Globus’ Cannon Films was an up and coming production company that mostly produced low budget action films. Its founders wanted to join the big leagues, however, and they saw Superman as a vehicle that could get them there. They made a deal with Warner Bros. in which the companies would each put up half of the budget for the film. Since Cannon Films was not one of the major studios, it could pay its crews much less than Warner Bros. could get away with, adding to the savings.

The biggest obstacle to the production was getting the cast back together again. Gene Hackman had avoided being in Superman III and was reluctant to return for IV. A promise of a huge guaranteed paycheck brought him on board. Christopher Reeve signed on for a relative pittance, though Cannon promised him that the film would have a socially conscious message and that he could make one of his passion projects for them. It seemed that Cannon Films was pulling off what Warner Bros. wasn’t able to do after four years of pre-production.

As it turned out, Cannon would be able to finish the picture, but it wouldn’t be pretty. The film was a laughable mess and a spectacular fraud. Cannon took Warner Bros.’ money, skimmed off the top, then used what was left to make the picture, most of which went to Gene Hackman. Warner’s deal with Cannon Films called for each side to put in $25 Million for a total budget of $50 Million, a modest bump from Superman III’s $39 Million budget. Warner Bros. saw this as an amazing deal because they would not be on the hook for the entire film’s budget. Investigators would later discover that Cannon took Warner’s $25 Million, skimmed $10 Million for other projects and most likely spent just $15 Million. And it was obvious by the hokey special effects.

The debacle would essentially kill the Superman franchise, putting it into an over twenty year tailspin that it still hasn’t quite gotten itself out of.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Hall of Infamy: Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla

Hollywood has always “borrowed” from itself. When Elizabeth Taylor became a sensation, Joan Collins was imported by MGM as its “answer” to Elizabeth’s popularity. After Marilyn Monroe became a popular pinup, Jayne Mansfield tried to capture some of that magic for herself. (Did we mention Jayne Mansfield just so that we could have an excuse to show these pictures of other stars staring at her? Yes. Yes we did.)

While Joan Collins and Jayne Mansfield took roles in the types of films that their respective rivals starred in, they brought much more to the screen than just impersonating them. Far lazier Stars would do just that, however.

Martin and Lewis were THE top comedy team in their era. The suave, smooth talking Dean Martin could charm the skirt off of any woman he pleased, while the nerdy Jerry Lewis could make them laugh until their sides split. The two perfected their act during countless nightclub performances and eventually took it to Hollywood where their pictures made millions. Others saw the money that the comedy duo was earning and decided that they could try to get their share. Rather than borrow from Dean and Jerry, however, the comedy team from today’s Hall of Infamy selection just blatantly stole it.

Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo were a comedy duo in which Duke was the smooth talking lothario and Sammy was the nerdy comic relief. While Sammy was practically a dead ringer for Jerry Lewis, Duke sort of resembled Dean. The two took their stolen act on the road, performing in obscure venues that Dean and Jerry wouldn’t be caught dead in. Eventually they decided to make their motion picture debut in Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla.

This picture not only stole Dean and Martin’s act, it also shamelessly copied from another comedy team- Abbott and Costello. Abbott and Costello staged a comeback of sorts when they were paired up with Universal’s famed monsters. Bela Lugosi had even starred in the most successful of the pictures- Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein- four short years before he was reduced to starring in this blatant copy.

The picture featured the faux Martin and Lewis duo becoming stranded on an island with beautiful native women and a mysterious scientist played by Bela Lugosi. Bela’s Freakish experiments turn Duke into the titular Gorilla and all hope seems lost until SPOILER ALERT - we discover it was all a Dream. As it turns out, Duke and Sammy are part of a traveling show that features everyone they encounter on the island, making the entire film a waste of time.

The picture bombed at the box office and was the end of the road for this “comedy” team. While Duke went on to produce and star in increasingly bizarre films, Sammy allegedly just annoyed Jerry Lewis and was forced into retirement.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Hall of Infamy: Sextette

In the golden age of Hollywood, Mae West reigned on the silver screen. Her blend of bawdy comedy and risqué double entendres mesmerized audiences. That all changed when Hollywood decided to police itself in order to avoid government censorship. While still popular, Mae’s films quickly became a target for the newly enacted “Hayes Code”. Rather than change her act, Mae went into semi-retirement, writing and performing in bawdy plays and musicals but rarely on the silver screen.

In the 1960’s, it appeared that the world had caught up with Mae West. After a successful guest role on (of all things) Mr. Ed, Mae West made it clear to one and all that she would consider movie roles again. Though now in her 70’s, Mae still sought the sort of sexy roles that would have made sense for her to play decades earlier. This attitude resulted in few offers from Hollywood.

In 1969 that would all change. Twentieth-Century-Fox was desperate for a ‘today’ picture that would push the boundaries of what could be shown on the screen. Myra Breckinridge would be the picture that would show the world that Twentieth-Century-Fox was ‘with it’ and could be a comeback vehicle for Ms. West. Mae agreed to do the film as long as certain changes were made- her character’s name had to be spelled ‘Leticia’ instead of ‘Letitia’, she needed to get at least one musical number, her age should never be mentioned, she was the only woman who could wear white on the set and she had to be in the film’s notorious orgy scene. The studio agreed to all of these demands. The film was a box office disaster, sending Mae back into retirement.

Temporarily defeated, Mae decided to dust off an old script she had written nearly twenty years before and try to get it made as one last hurrah. Sextette was a bawdy play that depicted a sensual, sexy woman whose feminine wiles were no match for the men of the world. Mae was too old to play the character when she originally wrote it twenty years before. As an eighty plus year old woman, she was definitely too old to play the leading lady in the film. Interestingly, she didn’t even need the money. Her wise investments meant she was worth around $100 Million at the time. She even used to sell her year old Cadillacs to friends for $1 because she didn’t like riding around in an “old” car. This project was mainly an ego boost for Ms. West.

Seeing “great grandma” Mae cavorting with a cast decades younger than she has to be seen to be believed. It was almost as though Madame Tussaud’s Mae West figure became sentient and slightly ambulatory and the picture’s producers chose to film it for posterity.

The film was an even bigger box office disaster than Myra Breckinridge and marked the inauspicious end to the legendary Mae West’s career. She would die not long after, her legendary status intact.


Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Hall of Infamy: Gotti

What happens when you take an actor who is desperate for an Oscar, give him a way too small budget, hire an inexperienced director and commission a laughable script? In 2018 you’d get what is quite possibly the worst “Oscar-Bait” movie of all time- Gotti.

John Gotti’s story had been told many times before, but never in a prestige picture. John Travolta had envisioned making an epic film about the notorious mobster, a picture that would be in the same rarefied company as The Godfather or Goodfellas. Unfortunately for him, the project was a hard sell around Hollywood. Various scripts had been written and famed director’s attached, but it never quite got off the ground. Travolta’s career has suffered many ups and downs over the years and whenever he built up enough cachet to get the stalled project going, he’d find himself in a low point again.

In 2016, however, things changed. The glut of new streaming outlets and the rise of MoviePass meant that projects that were previously stuck in what the industry calls “turnaround” (A film that is given a ‘yellow’ light but is no longer considered to be in production) were now considered ripe for the taking. MoviePass, which was trying to establish itself as a theatrical exhibition partner, was willing to overlook the problems with Gotti and give it a green light. It seemed like an easy project to approve, since most of the work had already been completed. 

The film was not quite out of the woods yet, however. MoviePass and its production partners could only scrape together a minimal budget of $10,000,000. To try to economize, Travolta took a cut of the profits and asked his wife to play Victoria Gotti. Relatively inexperienced director Kevin Connolly was chosen to helm the film. While he had some experience with directing he had never worked on what was considered to be a prestige picture. Gotti would quickly begin production.

After production on the film wrapped, it was set for a December 2017 release by Lionsgate Films. After the studio saw the finished picture, however, it pulled out of its distribution agreement and handed the film back to its producers. The company never officially announced why it pulled out, but most people believed it was due to the film’s lack of quality. This setback would delay the release of the film for a full year.

When the picture finally made it to theaters, the world was able to see what all the fuss was about. Instead of the Oscar caliber film Travolta thought he was making, the picture was a laughable mess. Travolta plays Gotti like he’s acting in a Saturday Night Live sketch. His real life wife portrays Victoria Gotti as a stereotypical Italian goomar in a performance that looks like it belongs in a community theater presentation of Goodfellas. Travolta bizarrely has little onscreen chemistry with his real life wife. The film was a critical and financial disaster. Too bad John didn’t  learn his lesson about doing passion projects after Battlefield Earth.


Monday, November 18, 2019

Hall of Infamy: Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny

It’s an age-old problem faced by many parents; they need to go Christmas shopping, but need something to distract the kids. In the 1960’s and 1970’s when malls became ubiquitous in the United States, the answer was simple; drop them off at the mall’s theater to watch a kid’s film of some kind. Mall theaters were more than happy to oblige, but often had problems finding something to show because the biggest producer of children’s entertainment- Walt Disney Productions- rarely released its films into second run theaters. Lucky for the theaters, since most of these pictures would only be seen by children they didn’t have to be of high quality. This opened the door to cheap no name entertainment like Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny.

Take a producer who was famous for making sleazy films that existed mainly as excuses to show topless women, mix in a disreputable theme park, add a Santa who looks like he was found on a street corner and a flea ridden bunny rabbit costume and you get Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny. The film takes a group of community theater kids and forces them to listen to a drunken Santa who has clearly soiled himself tell a Pirates World themed story about a braless young lady who looks like she is stoned out of her mind.

This ‘story within a story’ is clearly just a failed film that was repurposed with the Santa filler to qualify as a Christmas film. The picture was filmed at the dreariest place on earth- Pirates World In Dania, Florida, which was trying to gain traction against its much bigger, nicer competition. 

Pirates World brought in notorious Florida-based producer Barry Mahon to make a picture that could double as an ad for their theme park. Prior to this project, Mr. Mahon produced a series of films that were merely excuses to show topless women. Needless to say, he was an odd choice to make a children’s film.

The film itself boasts the worst production values you’re ever likely to see. “Santa Claus” looks like a wino who is only doing this because he was promised a bottle of ripple at the wrap party. In one regrettable scene it appears that “Santa” has crapped his pants. Ho, ho, no! The kids are joined by a psychotically deformed “Ice Cream Bunny” whose mascot costume looks like it was fished out of the dumpster behind the mall on the day after Easter. Filmed on the filthy Pirates World premises near what looks like a drainage ditch, the film looks more like a cautionary tale against attending a dangerous theme park rather than a promotional film.

The Santa footage, however, is just a wraparound for a different film- Thumbelina. Featuring even worse special effects and acting than the wraparounds, Thumbelina looks like the legitimate scenes of a stag film which is to be expected coming from a past producer of soft core nudie pics. It’s the sort of film even Ed Wood would refuse to make.

Another picture based on Jack and the Beanstalk was also used with the same Santa filler material. Neither of them were any good. While the film was good enough to entertain a bunch of brats while their parents frantically shopped for Christmas gifts, it never led to further work for its cast, nor did it save Pirates World, which closed after some concert related riots later that decade.