I’m so delighted to see that Blu-Ray is “going Mamie” in a very big way. Of course, I’m not referring to the 1950’s FLOTUS, but the 1950’s goddess, Mamie Van Doren. Three of her best (if not her greatest) movies have now been spectacularly remastered in High Definition and the correct CinemaScope 2.35:1 aspect ratios. I commend Olive Films and Paramount Home Entertainment for (at last) giving us the definitive editions of 1958’s HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL, THE BIG OPERATOR, and THE BEAT GENERATION (the latter two both 1959). I think even those who haven’t yet joined the MVD fold might wanna give these a shot. They’re not only terrific star vehicles, they’re damn good movies, one a cult classic, the others excellent noirs – with the last being a borderline genuinely great and controversial pic!
The late Fifties was indeed a busy time for Mamie, having been sprung from Universal-International (where she had been under contract), and then dividing her career between a series of UA flicks, Warner Bros. titles and these MGM classics. In the interim, she managed to do a bit in Paramount’s Teacher’s Pet and giving birth to a son. Quite a busy lass.
The MGMs, not only allowed her art to flourish in more extravagant epics (utilizing existing sets and props from bigger pictures), but had the benefit of being produced by the iconic Albert Zugsmith, also recently of U-I (where he and Mamie initially collided and would soon concoct the volatile celluloid results). Zugsmith, unfairly crowned as an exploitation maven, was responsible for three of Universal’s greatest Fifties movies: Written on the Wind, The Incredible Shrinking Man and Touch of Evil. That ain’t no accident. Mamie, who at U-I, generally portrayed the panting lady lust bucket impatiently waiting for her man to beat the baddies, was never truly given her potential for snarkiness, and, even more bizarrely, for hot, passionate sexiness. That all changed with Zugsmith (and Howard Koch at Warners and UA). These three Zug masterpieces (out of the seven they made together) define the woman as more than mere eye-candy. She entertains, tosses off one-liners like a 30’s “say girl,” and proves herself as quite a good straight actress. You’ll have to watch the flicks to get what I mean, but, perhaps, I can give y’all an example of what I’m talking about via my subsequent scribbling. So, take a deep breath, and keep the ice in a wash cloth handy!
1958’s HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL has grown from a cult fave to an underground classic to an iconic Fifties must-see. And with good reason. It pushes the “restriction taboo” bar as far as 1958 would allow. While it’s undeniably wacky, it’s also magnificently sleazy, sardonic and often laugh-out-loud hilarious (mostly, intentionally). The pic, photographed in black-and-white and CinemaScope (one of my favorite combinations, a Zugsmith preference, too, it seems) is ably directed by sci-fi impresario Jack Arnold (It Came from Outer Space, Creature from the Black Lagoon); the only thing missing is the 3-D (then, long fizzed out); too bad.
The plot, takes its lead from the far more serious Blackboard Jungle, a 1955 blockbuster that MGM (Blackboard‘s and HIGH SCHOOL’s distributor) shamefully ballyhooed comparisons in the loopy trailer (included on the platter).
Tony Baker (Russ Tamblyn, just three years away from West Side Story) is the new local bad boy, heavily into kicks. And, by that, we mean drugs and hot teen babes. He lives with his Aunt Gwen – get ready – Mamie Van Doren, a lady horndog who’d really like to take her nephew to nirvana, via Kama Sutra.
School doesn’t make it any easier for Tony to keep it in his pants, as, aside from the curvy co-eds, there’s smokin’ teacher Miss Williams (Jan Sterling). Vying to be the new cool kid is also rather tough, as that position is currently occupied by j.d. J.I. (John Drew Barrymore), a leather-jacketed leftover from Rebel without a Cause, who spouts insane mumbo-jumbo versions of Kerouac poetry, that runs the gamut from bad to verse.
Eventually, Tony achieves his goal, and is inducted into the drug cartel (including a well-paid gig as a pusher). “This is the final test,” sneers smarmy kingpin Mr. A (Jackie Coogan), watching Tamblyn inject horse. Tony’s secret, later revealed (but not by us), turns the tables upside down and inside out.
Add in rock ‘n’ roll, including the amazing opening with Jerry Lee Lewis pounding out a piano keyboard on the back of a pickup truck and you’ve got the makings of one helluva afternoon at your living room Grindhouse. With a score by Albert Glasser and a supporting cast including Ray Anthony, Charles Chaplin, Jr., Diane Jergens, Michael Landon, Jody Fair, Lyle Talbot, William Wellman, Jr., Mel Welles, Florida Friebus, Norman “Woo-Woo” Grabowski, Helen Kleeb, and William Smith, HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL delivers and then some.
The recent remastered Blu-Ray (first time ever 1080p for this title) is terrific, giving viewers the full CinemaScope experience (previous widescreen editions were compromised, more like 1.85 than 2.35). Auntie Van Doren, whose screen time is limited, nevertheless makes the most of her scenes. If I haven’t said it before, I’m saying it now: Mamie’s da bomb!
1959’s THE BIG OPERATOR is one of the most elusive of the Zugsmith sleaze-noirs – and one of the best.
Taking a lead from more mainstream acclaimed works like On the Waterfront, OPERATOR deals with the crooked unions and their crime family connections.
In this case, diligent workers Bill Gibson and Fred McAfee (Steve Cochran and Mel Torme), striving for fair union representation, come across psychopathic monster Little Joe Braun (Mickey Rooney, in one of his few performances I can tolerate). Pure evil, this diminutive malignant lawn gnome rules by fear and violence. Indeed, Braun thinks its dope to torture, and cherishes cruelty almost as much as his ill-gotten gains. It’s so refreshing when he gets his ass kicked.
Cochran, married to (hardly) typical suburban housewife Mamie seems like a stretch on paper. But they actually make a reasonable middle-class couple, with Van Doren toning down the HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL “auntie” kitsch, and being thoroughly believable as Mary, her tough, liberal husband’s spouse. Although, that said, one scene, where she punishes son Timmy (TV’s Dennis the Menace, Jay North) gets a rise out of Cochran, for all the wrong reasons (a s-p-a-n-k-i-n-g). The never dull marriage has a potent amount of chemistry, likely due to the actual sparks that the pair exhibited off-screen, much to the dismay of the actresss’ then real-life husband Ray Anthony (who also appears in the pic). In fact, the entire cast of THE BIG OPERATOR needs mentioning, as it’s 1950s B-noir heaven: Ray Danton, Jim Backus, Billy Daniels, Maila Nurmi (aka, Vampira to you!), Lawrence Dobkin, Leo Gordon, Ziva Rodann, Don Barry, Ben Gage, Joey Forman and Peter Leeds (with return appearances by Zugsmith “regulars” Jackie Coogan, Charles Chaplin, Jr. and Woo-Woo Grabowski).
As indicated earlier, the violence is as red hot as Cochran and Van Doren, particularly one scene where the Velvet Fog gets smoked. Literally. Barely alive, covered in third degree burns and more bandages than Imhotep, Torme’s Fred McAfee makes a miraculous (if somewhat ludicrous) comeback in the final reels.
THE BIG OPERATOR was directed by Charles Haas, who did quite an admirable job. He had an interesting no-nonsense occasionally surreal approach to his projects, and was another Universal-International alumnus Zugsmith brought along to MGM; check out his underrated Technicolor western Star in the Dust, featuring Mamie (the first Zug and Van Doren teaming) to see what I mean.
The script to the movie (based on a Cosmopolitan Magazine piece by no less than Paul Gallico) has a number of one-liner zingers that often blur the genuine corruption theme of the narrative. Alan Rivkin and Robert Smith deserve a modicum of applause.
The black-and-white CinemaScope camerawork, too, merits praise – and I therefore tip my hat to Walter Castle.
The music credit is perhaps the most deserved of endless kudos – a remarkable jazzy score by Van Alexander. Jazz maestros and aficionados have worshipped the movie’s main title instrumental for decades. I’ve heard it covered in jazz clubs and on a myriad of artists’ LPs continuously since the 1970s.
The Olive Films Blu-Ray transfer of THE BIG OPERATOR is a joy to behold in all its 1080p glory. What a treat to finally be able to see it again – and, at last, in its proper 2.35:1 aspect ratio (those Seventies full-frame TV prints blowed!). To savor the rectangular imagery is not only especially pertinent but redefined in relation to the oft description of BIG‘s star: a little Mickey Rooney goes a long way.
1959’s THE BEAT GENERATION is one of producer Zugsmith’s zenith pics. It’s certainly Charles Haas’ finest moment, and, easily one of Mamie’s best (although she has a secondary, but potent role).
The movie, hyped as a cool, kookie look at the “way-out” world of the beatniks, is really a thrilling, but sordid controversial slap in the face of American culture and mores. It’s a late film noir that, goofy elements aside, is a genuinely good (and, for its time, jaw-dropping) movie. Richard Matheson’s and Lewis Meltzer’s piercing, realistic script tells two simultaneous stories that wrap around each other like a pair boa constrictors into B&D. The first, the thread which ties all the elements together, concerns the Los Angeles police search for the Aspirin Killer, a psycho-sadist, who has raped a number of women – most perplexing, as these victims apparently willingly let their attacker into their homes. The villain is none-other than smooth talking Stan Hess, a revered beatnik from a wealthy family who has dropped out to enjoy the youth movement before “the next mushroom cloud with radiation gumdrops, you dig?” Eschewing the attention from a variety of beauteous beat girls, Hess denies their lust to purify his preaching of the words of Schopenhauer and others. Others might well be Adolf Hitler and Jack the Ripper, as the fake 99-per-center is a virulent misogynist whose hated of women began at an early age (“I don’t need a mother – I’VE BEEN BORN!”). Hess’s M.O. is to hitch rides with middle-class males, learning as much as he can, then tracking down their spouses while they’re at work. He convinces the wives that he’s an old friend of their husband’s, then feigns a headache. While the woman fetches an aspirin, he lays out his personal assault kit, and brutally takes his targeted marks to task.
Parallel to these gruesome going-ons, is the life of Detective Dave Culloran and his wife, Francee. Culloran and his longtime partner, Jake Baron, have been assigned to the case, but Baron is concerned over his bud’s growing annoyance at these “so-called” casualties. When Jake drops a verbal bomb on Dave that his psych profile matches the Aspirin’s, Culloran, at first angered, dissolves into despair; he knows it, too. So does wife Francee; their marriage is corroding before their eyes, his outbursts of violence, his temper at her being barren – much of it due to the stress of the job, and this hellish case.
Then, one day, he picks up a genial hitchhiker and engages in conversation. Of course, it’s Hess, who chalks up Francee as his latest prey. The additional caveat; upon recovering, she learns she’s pregnant. Is it her husband’s or the rapist’s? Both go over the edge, as Francee confides in her BFF to help her find an abortionist. Being the 1950’s, this was extremely illegal, and, being the 1950’s, her bestie sends her to the neighborhood priest, who listens to the woman’s disgust of what’s growing inside her, and casually replies, “Then do it.” It is shocking reverse psychology that further takes up room in the troubled woman’s head.
In the interim, Culloran and Baron meet another victim, the tough-as-nails and hot-to-trot Georgia Altera (guess who?). A strong woman, who can handle herself, she doesn’t seem to mind what happened – or almost happened. The rape wasn’t completed, as the perp wasn’t the real Aspirin Killer, but part of a truly insidious plan by Hess to groom an army of copycats to throw suspicion off him.
The ending, while dealing with the main plot, leaves one open for a not-so-happy conclusion, reminiscent of the finale of De Toth’s brilliant 1948 noir Pitfall.
THE BEAT GENERATION is a movie that really deserves a revival: not only for the amazing scenario, but also for the superb black-and-white CinemaScope photography of Walter Castle, Haas’ aforementioned direction and the wonderful performances from the cast. Steve Cochran, as Culloran is absolutely terrific, as is Fay Spain as Francee. The third lead, Ray Danton, as Hess is equally outstanding. The large and diverse cast of notables also includes Jim Mitchum (Robert’s lookalike son) as the copycat, Margaret Hayes. Cathy Crosby, Ray Anthony, Irish McCalla, Dick Contino, Paul Cavangh, Sid Melton, Guy Stockwell, and the usual suspects Charles Chaplin Junior, Jackie Coogan (who also served as dialog coach on the Zug pics), Billy Daniels, Woo-Woo Grabowski, and Maila Nurmi. I was always wondering about why Ray Anthony, as Van Doren’s volatile husband (a real-life mirror at the time; Van Doren referred to him as “Ray Agony”) was so damned angry in this picture. A clue was given in Van Doren’s excellent autobiography, Playing the Field. She and Cochran were off-and-on in a torrid love affair, and, one day, during shooting, Anthony entered his wife’s dressing room to find the two having upright sex on a chair. I guess that’s a red flag.
I always loved this movie, and recommended it without reservation. Indeed, most people have never heard of it. With good reason, it rarely played anywhere after 1959, except on scant late night TV showings – and then in awful pan-and-scan full frame versions. What a revelation to the see it at last in 35MM full aspect ratio CinemaScope High Definition. The mono audio is just fine, and features a bizarre soundtrack of musical artists, most prominently Louis Armstrong, who does the fantastic opening title number.
One thing that bothered me when I first saw it was the integration of “wacky” beatnik kook stuff, mostly via Woo-Woo and aged beat schlump Maxie Rosenbloom. Now, even that works – another example of how sociopath Hess uses the movement (even the benign, mild aspects of it) to live the master race life.
Upon reviewing the above copy, I had a few questions (well, more than a few); I yearned to include a “personal touch,” so I sent an SOS to the lady herself, who graciously agreed to give me a call. Believe me, there are few greater joys (if any) for cult movie buffs than reminiscing with Mamie Van Doren.
As usual, Mamie was direct, informative, and riotously funny.
“The story about my first meeting with Albert Zugsmith is practically a comedy legend. I was under contract to Universal, and sitting in the VIP area of the commissary one afternoon with Tony [Curtis] and Rock [Hudson]. In comes this smart-looking sandy-haired dude. Tony and Rock both greeted him, “Hello, Mr. Zugsmith.” I wasn’t sure I heard right. All I got was the “Smith” part. “Good afternoon, Mr. Smith,” I said with a smile. He grinned at me, nodded and moved on. Tony and Rock burst into laughter. “MR. SMITH!?” “I thought that was his name.” “ZUGsmith!,” they both replied. “I thought that was like a nickname: ‘Zug’ Smith.” At this point, Tony was laughing so hard I thought he’d choke. Rock almost fell off the chair on to the floor. Great, I sighed, talk about keeping up the stereotype of the dumb airhead blonde!
“I guess it made some kind of an impression ’cause he cast me as the female lead in Star in the Dust. After that, he wanted me for the sister in Written on the Wind (the part Dorothy Malone won an Oscar for), but the Black Tower nixed it cause I looked too young! Later, when Zugsmith left Universal, I got a call from him (I was free now, due to my violation of the studio’s contractee morals clause; best thing that ever happened to me!). “Hey, Mamie, I’m over at MGM, and I got a part for you. You play an aunt.” “ME – as someone’s aunt!?” “Yeah, Russ Tamblyn’s.” Sounded intriguing, so…
“The movie [HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL] was a hoot. John Drew Barrymore upheld the family tradition. There were days when he was absent from the set, and MGM had to send out handlers to drag him back from his apartment (he being too totally fucked up to make it to the set on his own). Russ, however, was a doll. We hit it off real well, and even had one date. He had just been drafted (right after HIGH SCHOOL wrapped), and I spent his last night of freedom out with him. He wrote me from camp. “They’re treating me like crap, razzing me constantly about being in the movies. They got me scrubbing the latrines!”
“MGM was quite pleased with my work in HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL, and Zugsmith phoned to say they wanted for three more movies. They were so much fun to do, much more of a relaxed situation at Metro than at Universal. “Yeah, sign me up!”
[The other movies include the two listed here, and the as of yet, unreleased Girl’s Town].
HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL. CAT # OF798.
THE BIG OPERATOR. CAT # OF828.
THE BEAT GENERATION. CAT # OF968.
All black-and-white. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment. SRP: $29.95@.