The Concession Stand

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Forbidden Planet: Real Life Terror From The Wasp Woman

The Wasp Woman was a 1959 film in which a vain cosmetics company founder pushes her staff to conduct bizarre experiments with wasps to find a skin treatment that would allow women to keep their smooth, youthful skin. The experiments turn her into a freakish mutant wasp, bringing terror in her wake. The film’s star Susan Cabot had a more terrifying real life ending.

Like many before her, Susan Cabot arrived in Hollywood looking to become a star. After catching the eye of a talent scout who saw her acting on stage, she was signed to MGM, who never elevated her above its B-List. She then signed with Universal Pictures, though yet again she seemed stuck in B-List schlock. What began as a promising career ended with the B-List cheapie The Wasp Woman. 

Despite her lack of success, Susan invested her money wisely and moved into an upscale neighborhood in Encino, California with her son, Timothy Roman. Timothy has been born with dwarfism, which Susan did not appreciate. Much like her movie alter ego, Susan’s son was a test subject in a government “treatment” trial that sought to “cure” dwarfism. While the treatment was apparently successful, it proved to be too risky to perform on humans because many of the subjects became infected with what is popularly known as “Mad Cow Disease.” The treatment would have horrific consequences.

By the 1980’s, Timothy and Susan were living together in her Encino mansion. The ensuing years had not been good for either of them; while Susan was still quite wealthy, she had become a recluse. Her mansion was littered with garbage and spoiled food while her son had rage issues, doubtless caused by his medical treatments. On December 10, 1986, Timothy dialed 9-1-1 to report that his mother had been killed. Officers who arrived on the scene described a disgusting, messy house that appeared ransacked. Susan’s bloodied, beaten and lifeless body was discovered and Timothy was arrested. At first, he claimed intruders had killed her. He then took credit for the murder, but claimed it was all self defense. Then he claimed that his mother had awoken him in the middle of the night screaming and it startled him.

 After further investigation, the nightmarish treatments had been discovered and the prosecution no longer believed that Timothy was in his right mind at the time of the killings. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

A Star is Born: The Lovely Sharon Tate

It’s time to appreciate Sharon Tate for her talent, beauty, charm and style. For too long, the lovely Miss Tate has been remembered as a tragic figure when we should be celebrating her for her sense of style and the spark of life she brought into the world. In 1969, Ms. Tate starred in the ring a ding action film starring Dean Martin as the swingingest detective of the 1960’s- the Matt Helm picture The Wrecking Crew.

Easily the best thing about the picture, Sharon plays a bespectacled guide who Matt Helm begins to suspect is a lot more than than she seems. Sharon is a delight in the film, adding her timeless charm to the 1960’s action flick. Amazingly, Sharon even makes her somewhat dated wardrobe look effortlessly timeless. If anyone else had been wearing the same clothes as Ms. Tate, they would have looked hopelessly dated.

Everyone who knew Sharon described her as a force for good whose bright spark lifted up everyone around her. She was never a diva nor was she difficult; she was always grateful for the opportunities she was given to live out her dreams.

Sharon Tate has become an icon of the 1960’s with a timeless look and sense of fashion. Isn’t it about time that Hollywood finally honors her with a star on the Walk Of Fame? There are Walk of Fame honorees who have made much less of an impact in their fields than she did. Sharon Tate is long overdue.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Hooray For Hollywood! When The Lion Roared

Today, MGM is but a shadow of its former self. Its famed studio backlot and classic movie catalog are owned by two of its much larger rivals. Weakened by management that was slow to embrace the changing entertainment landscape and taken to the verge of collapse by a corporate raider who sold everything that wasn’t nailed down to fund his casino empire, the once mighty lion’s roar has become but a whimper. If we take a look back at Hollywood’s Golden era, however, it is easy to see why MGM was the undisputed king of the jungle.

At the height of its power, MGM had the biggest backlot, the largest stable of stars and the most ambitious slate of films each and every year. Studio head Louis B. Mayer had turned the art of filmmaking into an assembly line process, setting up a facility that could produce more films than any other studio at that time. Unlike in today’s Hollywood, MGM kept all of its actors on payroll. Almost everyone involved in the production of its pictures received a weekly paycheck, benefits and was part of its pension plan. While this created huge overhead for the studio, it ensured that MGM could provide a steady stream of product for the world’s motion picture theaters. It also meant that even the lesser known actors earned a guaranteed paycheck as they would get paid whether they worked or not.

MGM’s immense wealth guaranteed that it would typically get the most talented and successful talent in Hollywood. One of MGM’s biggest challenges was making sure that its resources were utilized as much as possible. Even in an era when the public’s desire for motion picture entertainment seemed insatiable, not every cog in MGM’s machine was always used. Louis B. Mayer quickly figured out a way to utilize his resources even when the company didn’t need them; he could rent them out to other studios. Rather than just rent them out to the highest bidder, however, Mayer would often use his resources to reward studios who he saw as being friends of MGM or who had something he needed. As the 1000 pound gorilla in Hollywood, most studios were willing to play ball with Mayer and his empire.

MGM and Louis B. Mayer’s power came with a dark side; since most talent at the time would sign seven year contracts that required them to do whatever they were asked, a few actors often had to be in projects that they may have hated and pass up projects they liked just because MGM and Mayer wanted them to do something else. Additionally, Mayer would punish uncooperative stars by giving them nothing to do. As long as MGM paid out their salary, they were powerless to do anything about it and couldn’t seek employment outside of the studio. Some actors would see their Hollywood careers wither and die just because they had angered Louis B. Mayer and couldn’t get assigned to any new projects.

MGM’s fall from grace would primarily happen due to its stubborn refusal to fully accept television and Hollywood’s changing economics. MGM’s studio machine was unsustainable in a world where people could watch programming for free in their homes. While MGM’s fall might have been shocking to observers at the time, in retrospect it was hardly surprising.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Batman at 30: Part Five

On June 23, 1989 Batman was unleashed upon the world. After all of the hype and marketing everyone would finally get their first glimpse at the Bat- and they loved what they saw.

Batman would break records around the world, grossing hundreds of millions of dollars. The film’s marketing and merchandise partners would also find huge success. Anything emblazoned with the Bat symbol flew off of store shelves and McDonald’s would regret not signing up as a partner. Batman’s success would forever change the way films were promoted and marketed. Prior to Batman, few people outside of Hollywood cared about or followed box office grosses. Batman changed all of that, making box office grosses a new type of spectator sport.

Beating even the loftiest of expectations, the picture was both a critical and box office success. The film cemented Tim Burton’s place among Hollywood’s A-List directors, resurrected the superhero genre and made Jack Nicholson one of the richest actors in Hollywood. While Jack’s actual haul from the film was never officially announced, it was estimated that he made $95 Million from his share of the box office and merchandise sales in 1989 alone.

Batman’s most enduring change was to the home video market. Prior to Batman, live action releases would initially retail for $99.95 on VHS. It was believed that people didn’t really want to own their own copies of live action movies and only wanted to rent them. Disney films were exceptions to the rule and sold for less than $30, which put them in the reach of regular buyers. Warner Bros. wanted to see if it could enter the market with Batman. The studio released the film to stores priced at less than $30. It was a huge seller and proved that live action pictures could succeed in the retail market. By the end of 1989, having broken just about every record imaginable, it was no longer a question of if there would be a sequel but when the sequel would be released.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Happy Fourth of July!

Batman at 30: Part Four

While movie merchandise tie-ins and promotions had been around since the 1930’s, most of the time they were produced for films catering primarily to children, and even then mostly just for animated pictures. Most studios saw merchandising as an afterthought; in fact, Walt Disney Productions was the only studio regularly and successfully licensing merchandise and promotions before their films entered theaters. The biggest non-Disney Films that had successful merchandising often did it after the fact and only because the outside licensee approached the studio first. In 1989, Warner Bros. wanted to change this, and Batman would be the test case.

In an unprecedented move, Warner Bros. unleashed its merchandising department, typically just used to license Looney Tunes products, to proactively sign up Batman licensees. Initially, it was an uphill battle. While Batman the character was a known quantity, Batman the movie was not. McDonald’s passed on the film, but Taco Bell eagerly signed on. Taco Bell had been trying to shed its reputation as a just a cheap place to eat and it saw Batman as a way to do that. In addition to the direct cash provided by these deals, movies also benefit from the added promotion that the outside partner provides.

In another unprecedented step, Warner Bros. leveraged its portfolio of magazines to publish a catalog of Batman merchandise. People, Time and Sports Illustrated distributed millions of copies of the Batman-Themed catalog in their respective summer issues. Not willing to order from a catalog? No problem! Thousands of stores across the country featured Batman merchandise, most of it featuring the iconic bat symbol. There would be no way for anyone to escape The Bat in the summer of 1989.

With so much at stake, it was easy to see why Tim Burton was nervous about what would be the biggest film he had made up until that point. The expectations- and the possible embarrassment if it failed- were huge.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Batman at 30: Part Three

Originally, Warner Bros. had intended to film Batman entirely at its studio in Burbank, California. The intense publicity and paparazzi interest in the picture led to Warners moving production to Pinewood Studios in the U.K. While this added new issues of how to deal with Jack’s L.A.-centric demands, it afforded the production some privacy. 

The privacy would be short lived. Paparazzi tried to bribe crewmembers to take pictures of Jack Nicholson in full makeup and costume as the Joker. Film canisters were stolen, adding to the stress on the set. By this time, Warner Bros. had clearly placed a ton of high expectations on this film, which put a lot of pressure on Tim Burton. While a box office disaster would be a mere bump in the road for Warner Bros., it would probably kill Tim’s career before it really had a chance to take off. Additionally, this picture was much bigger than anything Tim had worked on before; all leading to one stressed out director.

While Jack Nicholson was, by most accounts, a genial presence on the set, Burton had to factor in some of the contract riders Jack had negotiated into the production schedule. Jack had negotiated time off to attend Lakers games, something he did on all of his pictures. It was always difficult to accommodate him even when filming in Los Angeles. Accommodating him in England proved to be a budget busting nightmare. 

Adding to Tim’s headaches was a writer’s strike that forced the writer of the screenplay to leave the production, meaning that rewrites had to be done by Tim and the producers themselves on the fly. Jon Peters, who was producing the picture, proved to be more hands on than Tim anticipated. Jon took it upon himself to hire Prince to write songs for the film that Tim was expected to just fit into the movie and changed the film’s ending which added $100,000 to an already over budget film. Jon’s change moved the ending to a decrepit cathedral just because it looked cool. Tim was flummoxed by the change because Jon made it without scripting it first. Why would the Joker randomly climb up to the bell tower of a random building, trapping himself in a crumbling tower?

After using almost all filmmaking space at Pinewood Studios, the picture was completed and ready for its premiere. Warner Bros. had high hopes for the film and had lined up an unprecedented number of licensees and promotional partners. Would everyone be smiling after this project was unleashed on the world?

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Batman at 30: Part Two

While a potential Batman picture had been in development around the same time that Superman was dazzling audiences and racking up millions at the box office, the project had stalled by the mid-1980’s. The lukewarm reception to Superman III and the complete failure of Superman IV had soured Warner Brothers on producing another superhero picture. Lucky for Batman, however, an up and coming director named Tim Burton was interested in making the film.

Cast out of Disney for being too bizarre, Tim Burton was afraid he’d never work in Hollywood again. His big break came when Paul Reubens insisted that he was the perfect director for Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Pee-Wee was a hot franchise at the time, so Paul was able to bring in Tim despite the studio’s reservations. The film was a smash success. It sent Pee-Wee’s career into the stratosphere and made Tim Burton a sought after director, practically overnight. Tim could now pick and choose his projects and an adaptation of Batman was at the top of his list. At this point, the project became seemingly unstoppable. Not even the disastrous Superman IV could slow things down.

After coming on board, Tim Burton quickly threw out most of what had been considered for the film. Before Tim took over, the possible choices for main character Bruce Wayne ranged from an unknown actor to Bill Murray. Tim didn’t consider Bill Murray, but he did invite a pre-fame Ray Liotta to tryout, an opportunity Ray declined to his later regret. Warner Brothers pressured Tim to choose a big name and a who’s who of Hollywood action stars were considered. Tim Burton ended up suggesting Michael Keaton. Warner Brothers was not sold on Keaton until Beetlejuice, his collaboration with Burton became a smash hit. The pre-internet comic book fandom rallied against the choice, feeling that Keaton was a comedic actor and thus unsuitable for the role. By this time, however, the project had gained too much steam and traction at Warner Brothers to be stopped.

By this time, Batman’s origin story had been stripped from the beginning of the picture, replaced with a series of flashbacks. Gone too was Robin. To further streamline things, Tim had chosen to include just one villain in the final film- the Joker. The part was highly sought after, with Robin Williams heavily lobbying for the role. Others considered for the role were Tim Curry and John Lithgow. The number one choice of the studio, producers and fans alike, however, was Jack Nicholson. Jack, however, wasn’t initially enthusiastic about the role and had a standard list of demands that would make production difficult. Warner Brothers was willing to do whatever it took to get him onboard, however, and even agreed to his getting top billing and an unprecedented share of merchandise revenue and the gross. While Jack was only guaranteed a relative pittance, he stood to make a record breaking payday if the movie took off.

Vicki Vale, who would be Bruce Wayne’s love interest in the picture, was originally supposed to be portrayed by Sean Young. Ms. Young had already been heavily involved with pre-production on the film when a horse riding incident forced her to withdraw. With production scheduled to begin a replacement had to be found quickly. Kim Basinger stepped in to take the role. With casting completed, production on the film began in the U.K.