Kissing Shemp and Other Cinematic OMG Moments

Although comedy fans may not immediately react when they hear the name Sylvia Lewis, they will almost instinctively burst out in appreciative laughter when they see the sexy, funny dancer/actress/comedienne.

Sylvia Lewis is an iconic movie and TV figure, who has made a memorable impression opposite such laugh legends as The Three StoogesAbbott & CostelloDick Van Dyke and, perhaps most prominently, Jerry Lewis (with and without Dean).

Stooge addicts worship Sylvia’s satanic devil girl, Helen Blazes – out to seduce Shemp in 1955’s Bedlam in Paradise.  Bedlam it was (of sorts) as you will soon learn.

She also survived a triad of B-pix for the notorious producer Jungle Sam Katzman.  The first, Siren of Bagdad (1953), an early Richard Quine-directed tits-and-sand opus, featured Paul Henreid doing a devastating parody of his famed Now, Voyager move – simultaneously lighting and puffing on two hookahs, before handing one to a buxom harem girl; Drums of Tahiti (1954) pushed a plethora of 3-D effects into the camera’s puss – all under the tutelage of director William CastleCha-Cha-Cha Boom (1956), one of Katzman’s rock ‘n’ roll quickies, gave Syl what is likely her closest bid to a starring role – as a vampish vixen gyrating to the Latin beat of Perez Prado.  Cha-Cha, perhaps the least-known of Katzman’s rock pics, is ironically his best; the director was his house fave, the prolific Fred F. Sears (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, The Giant Claw)!

It is the work with another Lewis – Jerry – that ultimately places the beautiful performer in the Comedy Hall of Fame.  As the strangely-christened Miss Cartilage, Sylvia dominates (and we mean that in every B&D way) her bizarre sequence in what is for many Jerry’s finest movie triumph, 1961’s near-surreal The Ladies Man.  It is the segment everyone familiar with the flick instantly remembers…and with good reason.

Hailing from Pennsylvania, Sylvia Lewis’ journey to Hollywood began with her family’s cross-country migration when she was just twelve.  Her passionate devotion to dancing provided the impetus that so many of her fellow gypsies utilized to enter the movies:  she lied about her age.  Thus, still a teenager, she glided across the screen in the 1947 Gene Kelly musical Living in a Big Way (“…possibly the worst musical MGM ever made! I still remember with shock the sight of Gene showing up at rehearsal sans his rug!”).   Syl fared a bit better five years later in another Kelly MGM outing – as a tango dancer in the classic Singin’ in the Rain.

From then on it was a whirlwind ride through the nightmares of live television – securing gigs on The Colgate Comedy Hour, as a regular/featured dancer on the celebrated Ray Bolger series Where’s  Raymond?, the outrageous gorgeous alluring femme dancing lead in the John Wayne kitsch epic The Conqueror, and more.  She bumped-and-grinded with pal Sheree North in an eye-popping strip contest in Frank Tashlin’s The Lieutenant Wore Skirts (1955) and twirled the Hungarian light fantastic in Nick Ray’s campy 1956 opus Hot Blood (she also functioned as the pic’s co-choreographer for the movie’s jubilant dance numbers; by the 1970s, Sylvia moved into choreography full-time, putting performers through their paces through musical moments of such long-running programs as The Jeffersons, Who’s the Boss?, Living Dolls and Married With Children).

Every achievement mentioned above is worthy of a separate article (and might end up as one), but it’s the comedy and Katzman stuff that always intrigued me.  As I have known Sylvia for several years (there usually isn’t a day where we don’t email each other), I approached the possibility of a series of interviews regarding her diverse show biz accomplishments with relish, albeit slight trepidation (she tends to shy away from discussing herself at length).  Much to my delight, she acquiesced (“Sure, it’ll be fun!”); what do I know?!  Sylvia, I should proudly add, is an avid reader of Supervistaramacolorscope; in fact, one of the supreme joys of same is receiving Syl’s delightful feedback emails, almost guaranteed to contain some wonderful and often hilarious anecdote (“You mentioned Hugo Friedhofer – I MUST tell you this story…”).

Naturally, just when I figured I had her pegged, Sylvia gives me historical comeuppance; I had assumed what with the Stooges, Katzman and Hot Blood that she had a Columbia contract (“I never had a contract with any studio…The Columbia assignments were totally coincidental – a project-by-project for hire situation.  The only contract I had was on Where’s Raymond?.  By this time, the studios were really phasing out the contract system.  The only one still doing that was Universal-International.  They had that huge bank of contractees.”).  Again, what do I know!

But enough with me!  Comedy fans rejoice – the party is about to begin!

Sylvia Lewis on Bedlam in Paradise:  I had been working in live TV since I was 18; by the time I started working at Columbia, I had graduated from the chorus and was regularly doing character roles.  One day I got a call from my agent, who told me that they wanted to see me over at Columbia.  It was for a Three Stooges short, and they thought that I would be good for one of the parts.  So I went over to Columbia and their casting guy looked at me and liked me…and sent me over to Jules White, who was the director.  Jules White was kind of a crazy man – really hyper.  He was not like any director I had ever worked for – a true character, practically bouncing off the walls!  Genuine Borscht Belt stuff – that’s the way he struck me.  Not a typical Hollywood director by any means.  And he was working so fast because (at least by this time) they were churning these things out for no budget.  I’m not kidding – this isn’t an exaggeration; I went in there in the morning, Jules and I briefly talked about what the scene was going to be, I was approved, went to wardrobe where they devised that Devil costume – really just leotard tights with a tail tied on to my butt – and we were done before lunch!

When we shot the scene for my little dance, they didn’t even have a music track, just beats [does clicking sounds].  That was the rhythm.  And Jules would shout, “Okay, okay, Sylvia – here’s what you do…You dance around Shemp, and you vamp him, vamp him…Give him the vamp!”  We ran through it a couple of times, rolled the cameras.  PRINT!  Done by lunch!

I had so little to do with the Stooges – as far as personal contact.  And it was all done so quickly.  Most of my screen time was with Phil van Zandt.  This is going to break Stooge fans hearts, but Moe and Larry weren’t even there when we did the scene.  As for Shemp – he was just so cute and sweet…and, what can I say, he did his thing.  We had virtually no conversation other than what was called for in the script.  He was so adorable doing his bit and was very nice to me…totally pro, like everyone on the set.  But it was do it, go on with the next shot and go home.  That was the attitude.  And I feel so bad for all the Stooge buffs who always want to hear about what the three of them were like to work with.  As for kissing Shemp [laughs], hey, what ya see is what you get.  No interaction other than what was filmed.  A very nice man, but that was that.

SL on “Jungle Sam” Katzman:  (laughs) Ohhhh, boy – where do I begin?  Siren of Bagdad was the first of the three pictures I did for him.  Then Drums [of Tahiti], and, finally, Cha-Cha [Cha Boom].  Sam Katzman was – how can I say it? – almost like a cartoon version of what one would envision a Hollywood producer to be.  By that I mean in stature he was a small man.  He was portly – always had a cigar in his mouth…He was a total caricature. He walked around with a cane…a walking stick…and the hand of the walking stick was a very beautiful carving, and the carving was [pauses]…an upside down hand flipping the bird with the middle finger extended.  And while walking around the set, he would use that cane [laughs] to…goose people.  That was his sense of humor.  So, to put it mildly, he was rather crass.  No pun, but he was really a “hands-on” guy; by that I mean he was always on the set, walking around making sure that he was visible.  While he was making sure he was being watched, he, in turn, always watched the clock.  Let’s face it – he was really the King of the B’s.  Time was his biggest deal because, as you well know (especially in the picture business, but particularly in this aspect of it – the budget programmers), time was money.

If you worked on a Sam Katzman picture, you rarely had a chance to do a second take.  You better get it right the first time!  They really couldn’t be that picky and choosy about a fine performance.  They’d hire people who they felt were pros enough (and had enough of a name) to deliver the goods, to memorize the lines from the get-go…to a point where, at the very least, it was “acceptable.”  It was always a hurry-up-and-get-it-done feeling on a Katzman set.  It was a given that from the moment you set foot on the soundstage, that you were going to be in a rush.  That was Sam’s credo – to run a tight ship and his employees, specifically the females, generally took him with a grain of salt.  I mean, they knew he was the boss and ordinarily a woman would respond to his kind of demeanor with a “Bugger off, buddy – walking stick and all…It’s not funny…”  That’s what we felt, but, of course, nobody would ever actually say anything to him…A big fish in a small pond.  In that respect (or lack of it), he got away with murder…not exactly what you would call one of Nature’s noblemen [laughs].  Let’s put it this way:  he certainly had a knack, because, considering how low-budget these pictures were, he created a fairly decent-looking product.  For instance, we shot Cha-Cha-Cha Boom – I think there were something like 12-15 musical numbers (and Dante diPaolo and I did seven or eight dances together) – within a schedule that allowed us only a two week rehearsal period.  The only instructions we had was that we dancers had to block everything ourselves.  “Now go to it!”

We were essentially locked in this small studio – all the dancers, the choreographer and assistant choreographer…and, once we emerged, once we got to the set, it was understood that everything had been done…Forget about being allowed freedom…it was more accurately pressure – no one from the front office or the Katzman group would have ever thought about interfering with us within that short amount of time.  At that juncture, the choreographer was the boss.  It was overwhelming to even think about how much stuff we had to learn.  You know, to learn and memorize the routines and lines is one thing, but retaining that information from what we had rehearsed two weeks earlier, plus the costume fittings…it was grueling.  The entire shooting schedule was under a month.  From beginning to end, it came out to 26 days at the most!  Outrageous and impossible, but…that’s where Sam’s “genius” came in.  He was the absolute master at doing those quickies.  He did very well – and did so for a very long time.  Rock Around the Clock [his first ‘50s teen musical] put him on the map for that kind of picture.  That was probably done even faster than the subsequent pictures, but that was his forte.  The cha-cha craze was the obvious impetus for our movie; Sam was intent on cashing in on every aspect of the teen music scene.  He thought it was going to be huge – potentially even bigger than the Bill Haley movies he had done [Rock Around the Clock and Don’t Knock the Rock; in 1961, Katzman unleashed Twist Around the Clock, quickly followed by Don’t Knock the Twist with Chubby Checker replacing Haley].

Regarding Drums of Tahiti, I can affectionately state that I really liked [director] Bill Castle.  He reminded me in many ways of Frank Tashlin:  a great big guy…a lovable teddy bear.  Who knew that he had lurking within him all those gimmicky fright pictures…Smell-O-Vision…and the one where the buzzers went off under the seats [i.e. Percepto, used in The Tingler]…the ghost movies…When I worked with him, he was just another person doing a job along with all the other people in the cast and crew.  And they were great:  Paul Henreid, Patricia Medina etc.  They worked so hard, just total pros who knew their stuff.  Yeah, we ground it out, but with a certain aplomb…in spite of the fact that that there was no time for finessing or to hone anything down.  That would have been a luxury – and that wasn’t available to us, not on those low-budget pictures.  The 3-D element in Tahiti was interesting to me.  I obviously knew what they were going for, and, truly, it was the only time I recall any extensive re-shooting on a Katzman picture – you know, in order to get all those at-the-camera depth shots right.  I do remember a scene in Tahiti involving an argument between Dennis O’Keefe and Pat…She threw things at him and they would naturally do a reverse angle from the camera’s point of view.  That required a number of retakes [in order to work for the 3-D effect], which drove Sam bonkers.

For my dance, I had to stick those damn flaming torches exactly at the right point into the lens.  It had to be 100% precise or the stereo optics wouldn’t work.  Again, it was the only time I can think of where extra takes were done on a Katzman movie.

The director on Cha-Cha-Cha Boom was a man named Fred Sears.  If I had to describe him, it would be a very quiet, soft-spoken but schedule-driven professional.  On a picture like that, which had such time constraints, well, your one absolute is to get it right on the first go…or else.  In other words, the director really has no opportunity to direct.  His one function was basically to say, “Roll ‘em!” and “Cut!”  It sounds unbelievable, but in that kind of a situation, the director’s contribution is minimal.  There’s no leeway given to take the actors aside and have any kind of conversation regarding how a line is to be said or played.  You come in with your dialogue memorized, they tell you where to stand…to move from right to left.  Fred Sears’ main objective was to have his shots worked out with the cameraman in the easiest and fastest manner.  Master, cover one person, cover the other person…really that was it.  Movie-making at its simplest.  That said, Fred Sears was a nice man, but, as you might imagine from what I described, there was very little interaction between him and the rest of us actors.

My co-star/dance partner Dante diPaolo and I had been friends since I was a teenager.  He had come back from the service after World War II to the dancing school where I was studying.  He was in his early-mid-twenties…He had actually been working in pictures since he was a kid.  I think he had done a Bing Crosby picture when he was 12!  Dante was great pals with all the choreographers and we had studied, danced and performed together so much that it when he was offered the part in Cha-Cha (he had worked for the picture’s choreographer as a dancer at the Tropicana in Vegas), he got me role as his partner.  It was, in that respect, very easy for us to work together.  We’ve remained great friends since.  I talk to him at least once a week.  He was the greatest hoofer I have ever known, and could dance rings around his higher profile stellar competition.  He was so laid back and mellow, humble and unimpressed with himself, which I guess, worked against him as far as promoting that “big” Hollywood push that one needs.

Comedian Jose Gonzalez-Gonzalez was very friendly, very accommodating – he just worked his butt off. I don’t know whether or not he had ever done a feature film before Cha-Cha…perhaps he had in Mexico…He was so at ease with what he was doing, so very comfortable in his own skin.  I was very impressed with that.

SL on Abbott & Costello:  Wow – the one episode I recall [from the Colgate Comedy Hour] was right around Eisenhower’s winning the 1952 election.  It was a sketch surrounding the Inauguration Ball.  I had a little featured bit that I did, but I was really just a chorus dancer in the piece.  So there was very little (if any) interaction with the stars.  The headliners – the comics – had so much material to memorize and work out – remember all those shows were shot live.  The requirements expected of them were really extraordinary.  I don’t know how they did it – even with the Colgate rotating schedule [A&C alternated with Martin & Lewis, Jimmy Durante, Eddie Cantor, Donald O’Connor, etc.].  Even if they only did one show a month, it was still a huge task to master.  I remember Abbott & Costello being very present, driven but approachable…No “star” bullshit.  Simply put, they were two very hard-working comics.  They were also very pleasant to be around.  [In spite of the oft-mentioned problems that one hears at this point in their careers] there was nothing negative on that set.  They didn’t argue, and appeared to genuinely like each other.  I don’t honestly remember even hearing anything negative about them.  Unfortunately I never really got to know them too well.  Would have liked to – they seemed like a couple of nice guys.

SL on Jerry Lewis and The Ladies Man:  The way I got the part [of Miss Cartilage] was due to my appearance in Vintage ’60, a revue that was playing in Hollywood.  It had been running for almost a year.  David Merrick saw it and thought, “Well, this is such a hit here – it’ll be a smash on Broadway!”  So he bought the show and brought us all to New York to be one of the premiere attractions in the newly refurbished Brooks Atkinson Theatre.  We were all just thrilled to pieces; other cast members included Bert Convy, Jack Albertson – really wonderful people.  So to New York we went.  Well we lasted a whopping ten performances!  So disillusioned and deflated – back to L.A. we came.  The thing is that in Hollywood, the show was still playing to packed houses – so most of us simply went right back into the West Coast production.  Anyway, one night Bill Richmond, whom I had known since I was a kid, and his wife came to see me in the show…and  a couple of days later, I get a call from my agent telling me that they wanted to see me at Paramount.  Now let me tell you that Bill, who is a fantastic musician (he was both Peggy Lee’s and Frank Sinatra’s drummer), was currently co-writing movies with Jerry Lewis [includingThe Errand Boy, The Nutty Professor, The Patsy – they would go on to collaborate on seven features].

Their latest [and the first Richmond co-wrote] was The Ladies Man and Jerry had envisioned a certain way-out scene in the picture; during a meeting with Bill, he related how he “saw” this strangely exquisite creature in a totally white room.  She would be this mysterious gal in black.  “I want her to be a great dancer,” he told Bill.  “And dynamite looking – a real knockout!”  Da-da-da-da-da, and so on.  And Bill replied, “I know exactly the person you’re looking for – you’ve just described a friend of mine, Sylvia Lewis!”  Jerry was immediately intrigued – primarily because we both had the same last name [laughs].  So he had me come in for an interview, and he filmed it as a screen test.  If you have the DVD of The Ladies Man, you can actually see this audition – they put it on a supplemental extra.  It’s weird because it was the first and only screen test I ever had – and now it’s there for posterity – for everyone to see [laughs].  So Jerry hired me to do that role and they started shooting the picture, but the sequence involving me wasn’t to be shot until everything else had been completed on that incredible “big rooming house” set that Jerry had constructed on one of the Paramount soundstages.   The set for my scene was built on another soundstage at the studio.  So I really wasn’t needed until the end; however, Jerry insisted that I be there every day.

Each morning I’d arrive at Paramount, and there I was – on full (and very well-paid) salary – politely showing up…and that was all!  That said, I was hoping to get some time in with him during the filming where we could grab a few minutes here and there and discuss ideas for the number, maybe even work out some choreography…you know, just to get a handle on it.  Eleven weeks went by – and I’m just sitting there…watching Jerry work…and not one minute was spent on the sequence we were going to do.  Frustrating to say the least.  When it came time to move over to our set, it was really starting from scratch – no prep whatsoever.  Absolutely the most expensive way possible to make a movie, but, I can honestly say, that he didn’t seem to have too much concern about those matters.  He took me on the set, and we started talking about the scene.  And he said to me, “I want you to basically just follow me – whatever I do…”  He had hand-picked a track and had the sound man play it back for us and told me, “Listen to this, memorize it and when you follow me, follow me like it’s a dancing version of what I’m doing.  Whatever I do, react to it – and stay with me!  Don’t stay too far behind me, dance after me and with me…”  It was really improv.  Then he started to explain how he wanted me to come down from above – out of nowhere – on a rope.  “I see you coming down on this velvet rope.  That’s how you first appear in frame.”  He told me that he would turn my head, and I would respond with “Hi, honey.”

Now while he’s describing this routine, the crew is standing around dormant – all on the time clock.  But it didn’t matter, as that was Jerry’s way.  Then the discussion turned to how we were going to achieve that upside down shot, how I was going to be lowered down into the frame.  A couple of crew members figured out how to hold me until I was ready to be slowly dropped into the scene.  And Jerry heard this, and said, “No, no, no – she can’t really be doing that.  It’s too dangerous.”  He then called for his assistant, and said, “Get the casting people down here.”  So someone comes down, and Jerry tells them, “See this person here?  I want someone – stunt girls – in here immediately and that means NOW!  I want types who can double for Sylvia.”  So they leave, and we’re hanging around on the set – again with the entire crew plus the full Harry James Orchestra, who were in the sequence – continually talking the number through, doing a little impromptu rehearsing…all of that…, and about four hours later, the casting folks return to the soundstage with a half a dozen stunt girls.  Once again everything stops while Jerry checks these women out.  So he looks at them all carefully while I’m standing by.  The upshot is that, after about three minutes, he shakes his head, and says “Oh, there’s no one here that can double her!  No way anyone will believe that it’s the same person.”  So I stepped forward and told him, “Look, Jerry, I can do it.  It’s no big deal.”  “No, no, no – it’s too dangerous!”  “Jerry – it’s not dangerous.  These are big, strong guys – they can hold me.  They won’t let me drop.  I’m not afraid to do it – and I want to do it!  Give me a chance, let me do it.  Really, don’t worry.  I won’t get hurt” He looks at me and says, “You promise?”  And I laughed, “I promise.”

So he dismisses the casting people and the stunt girls…and I got myself into that black skin-tight outfit.  The guys up in the catwalk – not the highest ceiling one, but a lower tier that was used for secondary lighting – selected the best vantage point, and they raised me up with the camera crane.  There, four of the strongest guys on the crew, prepared for action.  One of them took my left ankle, another my right ankle.  The other two took my hands – I had them outstretched – and I scrunched way down.  But then I started to tip over, and they grabbed my ankles.  They slowly let go of my hands, and I put my arms tight by my side…and down I went, as they lined up the shot to get to the point where my face was directly opposite to Jerry’s.  I did the thing where I turned my head, after which they pulled me back up.  “You okay?”  And I said, “Yeah, I’m fine.”  And we just shot it.  No big deal – the only big deal was the delay where Jerry thought he needed stuntwomen to do the entrance instead of me.  It was actually kind of fun.  I wouldn’t do it now [laughs], but I was fearless then.  After being around for eleven weeks, I think it took us maybe three days to film the entire white room segment.

Later, when Jerry got his [1967] NBC-TV show, I became one of his cast regulars.  That actually came about because by that time, I had married Ed Simmons, who was the head writer.  So it was just sort of a natural – Jerry was comfortable with me and Ed could write little things for me to do.  That was great fun.

My last appearance with Jerry was on one of the telethons – a really lovely memory…Jerry, as you may recall, always opened the telethons with some stupendous musical number.  Some show-stopping spectacular to immediately grab the viewers’ attention.  So this one year, Jerry decided that it would be a good idea for the grandmas and the grandpas to kick off the festivities with a dance number.  So he hired all of us old gypsies – anybody who had worked in any one of his films, any of his shows [laughs] who was still alive and ambulatory.  I think there were 42 of us.  So we went into a rehearsal hall with [Emmy-award winning choreographer] Anita Mann and threw this number together.  Now Jerry had not seen anything until the day of the telethon.  So here we were at the studio – it was a top hat and tails thing – guys and gals – we all looked alike.  We were on the stage, blocking the number for camera when Jerry arrived.  At once everything stopped.  And he was like a little kid – he just wandered amongst us, his eyes all lit up (he always loved dancers).  He was absolutely thrilled by this reunion, roaming to and fro surrounded by all these folks who had, at one time or another, been involved in one or more Jerry Lewis projects.  Well he wound up in front of me, put his arms out, gave me a great big bear hug, and he said, “Nice of you to check in every twenty years or so.”  And that was it – he was so happy.  And he walked off – it was so adorable [laughs].  I was just so floored by that – out of all these “kids,” he would pick me out and kind of knock my sox off.  The number, by the way, was a big success.  And that was the last time I saw or spoke to him.  Thus end my tales of Jerry…at least for now!

 

Visit Sylvia on her website [http://www.sylvialewis.net/index.htm]

for more pix, facts and fun!

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Sylvia Lewis in the 1950s.
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with Jerry Lewis in THE LADIES MAN, 1961
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in SIREN OF BAGDAD, 1953
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in William Castle’s DRUMS OF TAHITI, 1954
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with Dante diPaolo in CHA CHA CHA BOOM, 1956
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with Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW episode “Too Many Stars,” 1963

 

 

Hard-Boiled and Scrambled

Harry Anglesea is just your average middle-aged Samoan police detective who just happened to go insane, ended up in the cracker factory and now is back on the force. And that’s merely matter-of-fact background information – a preamble to the engrossing 2013 neo-noir New Zealand mini-series HARRY, now on Blu-Ray from Acorn Media/RJL Entertainment.

Harry, as portrayed by the extraordinary actor Oscar Kightley (who also co-wrote the six-part drama), is old school in a neon post-Millennium social media world. And by old school, I mean in the weary alcoholic (and pill-popping) Lee Marvin/Robert Ryan/Robert Mitchum tradition (indeed, when he hears a parent of a psycho killer blather on, you can see his eyes conveying, “Lady, I just don’t have the time.”).

Because Harry is a recovering head-case, he’s under scrutiny from his peers, all of them negligible with the exception of his immediate superior officer (Sam Neill), who seems to be the only top echelon high-ranker with any in-the-field experience.

Harry’s first case is a doozy. A series of gang-led slaughter raids on banks and shops, leaving a cartload of innocent corpses. The raids are the mastermind of Chocka Fahey one of the most vicious maniacs ever to step before a camera (a thoroughly despicable Erroll Shand). He drugs the local teen Samoans, addicts them, arms them and sets them loose. Pure human collateral damage. Fahey answers to a higher power (Paul Gittins) who, in turn, is in cahoots with international foreign crime cartels. So it’s big stuff in that real-life bloodbath video game way.

Granted, on the surface, the narrative may not appear to be the most original (that said, the story is based upon an actual incident), but the way it’s presented definitely is. The tight, nasty script (co-written by the dual-hat-wearing Kightley with codirector Christopher Dudman and the appropriately named Neil Grimstone) is a no-holds barred verbal barrage of raw emotion. You know, ripping the mask off society and watching it bleed (I guess what I’m getting it is that fans of New Girl are wise to seek entertainment elsewhere). And the direction of Dudman and Peter Burger perfectly parallels the twisty and twisted scenario.

Harry’s problems aren’t merely in his brain or at the office. They spill over at home, in buckets. The reason for his breakdown wasn’t the job. It was his wife’s suicide (which was because of the job). Suicidal tendencies don’t only run in the family, they apparently gallop. Harry’s intuitive and super-intelligent teenage daughter (Hunter Kamuhemu) is quietly exploring the pros of ending it all. Harry’s mother (Ana Tuigamala) has moved in to watch over her son and grandchild and is basically doing a lousy job. The detective’s respite comprises the leisure activity of drinking himself into incoherency throughout the city’s approximately nine million bars. Here, he occasionally gives a liberal lead to his violent nature – like pummeling an abusive thug into near-death. This reflects his on-the-job training as well in regards to apprehending alleged suspects.

Thus, in no time at all, Harry is under investigation by the New Zealand equivalent of Internal Affairs. This is rather unfortunate, since the powers-that-be who aren’t corrupt are simply stupid. Even Harry’s team isn’t above ratting him out to save their skins. And, truth be told, Harry’s explosions into violence can’t be judged in black or white, as they’re concurrently justified yet revolting.

Harry’s concession to the force is his mandated sessions with a special shrink (Theresa Healey). There are some truly delightful moments when the grizzled veteran, after listening to the beauteous therapist patronizingly analyze his behavioral patterns (“It’s completely normal to feel angry…”), tells her, in no uncertain terms, to shove it.

Of course, all of these annoying interruptions are getting in the way of the growing crime wave, encompassing the drug deal of the century. And Harry has to make some often quick and difficult decisions. While a few go dreadfully wrong, enough are on the money – leading to the action-packed and suspenseful climax. The unsettling conclusion to Harry’s odyssey suggests a slow return to sanity while the rest of the country (via their judicial system) is quietly going off the rail. Ya can’t win.

The six episodes themselves (This is Personal; He’s Very Important, This Boy; He’s the Weak Link; Play with Fire; You Lied to Me; God Bless Brutus) provide a fascinating insight into the societal culture (tatts, Anglo assimilation, the spiritual vs. instinctive) of modern New Zealand. Personally, I was enthralled, and a bit disturbed. For years, I had fallen under the bogus travelogue spell that all of New Zealand was a picture-postcard paradise. Damn, if HARRY‘s New Zealand (mostly filmed in Auckland) doesn’t make the South Bronx look like a 5-star Alpen holiday resort.

The two-disc Blu-Ray of HARRY provides an excellent workout for your home video system. The gritty day and night photography (by D.J. Stipsen) is in-your-face gritty and the 2.0 stereo-surround will have you enveloped in a cacophony of cray-cray.

The amazing thing about HARRY is that it manages to never be depressing; in fact, it’s rarely not continuously exciting and gripping. If you love crime shows, yet yearn for something decidedly different, you’ve come to the right place.

Ultimately, HARRY‘s motto is that you don’t have to be a fucking lunatic to work for the New Zealand police. But it certainly helps.

HARRY.  Color.  Widescreen [1.78:1 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HA MA. Acorn Media/ RLJ Entertainment.  CAT # AMP-2429.  SRP:  $39.99.

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Hell is War

There really aren’t that many great movies about that 1950-53 skirmish, known to most as the Korean War and to stalwart veterans and military historians as the Korean Conflict. Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1950) comes quickly to mind, as does Lewis Milestone’s Pork Chop Hill (1958). But the best of them all might be the most obscure, Anthony Mann’s blistering 1957 drama MEN IN WAR, now on Blu-Ray and DVD from Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.

There’s so much to cover here (from both sides of the camera) that it’s difficult to begin, save to say that the movie could be Hollywood’s most savage, grittiest depiction of combat made up till that time. Indeed, 1957 was a banner year for war flicks, the top international box-office champ being The Bridge on the River Kwai. Suffice to say, MEN IN WAR makes Kwai look like a vacation picture, or, at the very least, The Harvey Girls. This triumph of grim realism is, as all fine motion pictures are, a result of first-rate collaborative efforts comprising the director, the writer, cinematographer, composer and the superb ensemble cast.  Again, a lot to cover.

The narrative, based on the tense novel Day Without End by Van Van Praag, was adapted and written for the screen by the prolific and legendary Philip Yordan. Yordan, who seemed to spring out of nowhere, had a penchant for natural dialogue and creating ideally cinematic situations for his protagonists to squeeze in and out of, all lubricated by a heavy coating of sarcasm. Long story short: he was a genius. His dubious rep, according to many who knew him, was as an evil genius; writer Ben Barzman’s widow (Barzman and Yordan cowrote El Cid) dubbed him a Chicago gangster. Indeed, he was a street kid right out of some Warner Bros. Thirties flick, the one destined to grow up to be Jimmy Cagney, and end up frying in the chair.

A tough talking, take-no-prisoners mercenary, Yordan, according to some, made his fortune as a front – tossing blacklisted writers a miniscule piece of a magnificent salary that he mostly pocketed. Incredibly, many claim that he never wrote a word during his entire career – a swipe that seems unlikely, as there is a theme and style that flows through his work. If true, Yordan’s genius overlapped into choosing a plethora of terrific scribes who effortlessly could mimic identical prose.  Furthermore,, Yordan’s career extended way past the blacklist, so it’s probable that most of his protractors simply spread these tales for the mere reason that they hated his guts. Yordan, who quickly realized the rewards of independence, latched on to an indie production deal with producer Sidney Harmon to form Security Pictures, a remarkable teaming that resulted in a handful of wonderful movies, of which MEN IN WAR is one. Yordan later attached himself to Samuel Bronston’s epic bandwagon and still later to the 1960s evocation of the Cinerama Company, a bogus outfit responsible for a bushel of Cinerama pictures whose scam was that none of their output was actually in the tri-screen process.

The independence factor was what also intrigued Anthony Mann, who was just coming out of a rocky professional relationship with star Jimmy Stewart, a once-triumphant teaming whose partnership had degenerated into one of seething acrimony (including two movies, albeit successful ones, that the director had not wanted to make: The Glenn Miller Story and Strategic Air Command). The director’s flight from the western Night Passage put the kibosh on any more Mann-Stewart pictures, an act of defiance that earned the star’s ire.

Mann’s problems didn’t end there; another recent project, which he envisioned as a bold new direction for American movies, was to be an unbridled uncensored version of James M. Cain’s 1937 novel Serenade. The final debauchery totally bastardized Mann’s vision – the rise and fall of a bisexual musician, admittedly an unlikely subject for 1956 (even the best moment in the movie, a violent seduction scene with a lusty senorita in a church during a ferocious thunder storm, is about as erotic as an Afterschool Special). It became a limp Mario Lanza vehicle, the only perk to Mann being that he married the smoldering costar, Sarita Montiel.  That didn’t end well either.

The aforementioned Security Pictures, to be distributed by United Artists, offered Mann a carte blanche from casting to final cut. It was a beautiful thing to behold.

The plot of MEN IN WAR concerns a beleaguered, ever-decreasing fatigued American brigade, seemingly forgotten by the top brass. Roaming the Mephistophelian  Korean landscape, surrounded by dead bodies, shriveled foliage, steaming ruins of recent carnage and various other artifacts of the price of glory, the band, led by pacifist Lt. Benson (Robert Ryan), is also severely psychologically bankrupt.

Things take a turn for the worse when they happen upon Montana (Aldo Ray), a war-mongering lunatic who carries a near-dead Colonel (Robert Keith) around with him like a souvenir. Ray is like Norman Mailer’s Sergeant Croft on steroids (think about that!), ironically a character he would portray the following year in Raoul Walsh’s uneven version of The Naked and the Dead. The Colonel, who, too, has had enough of war, is the victim of a stroke; he cannot talk or move and Montana’s maniacal devotion to his superior underlines the definition of “grotesque.” Ray’s character speaks to him, asks his advice, and turns vicious if anyone besmirches the Colonel’s name (a GI’s sneering that Montana lives to wipe the Colonel’s…that’s as far as he gets). What makes this pair important is that they have a functioning jeep – a transport that just might get them the hell out…of hell. Being ordered via walkie-talkie to perform one last mission en route to supposed safety takes its toll on all involved.

The cast is absolutely superb, with real-life pacifist Ryan delivering one of his finest performances; he’s equally matched by Aldo Ray as Montana, whose disgust for a liberal officer is one of the squad’s worst-kept secrets. Their simmering hatred for one another fuels their path to (supposed) victory (Mann, Ryan, Ray, Yordan and Security would team up again the next year for phenomenally successful God’s Little Acre, which at last gave the director his cinematic chance for sexual liberation). Robert Keith, as the Colonel, barely utters a word during the proceedings; in fact, he’s practically comatose, yet manages to deliver an amazing performance, via facial expressions utilizing eye contact and quivering lips in perhaps the most effective way since the advent of Clara Bow. The rest of the cast is about as good as it gets: Vic Morrow (who became a Mann favorite), Nehemiah Persoff, Phillip Pine, Tony Ray (Nick’s son; Ray and Mann were best buds), L.Q. Jones, Scott Marlowe, Victor Sen Yung and the wonderful African-American actor James Edwards, whose quiet dignity was sadly never able to rival the more high-profile emergence of Poitier and Belafonte.

The somber score is by Elmer Bernstein and the stark black-and-white camerawork by Ernest Haller.

It’s almost devastating to see Ryan struggling to keep his crew alive, concurrently striving to silence their racism and defeatism. Refusing to resort to using the term “gook,” Ryan stutters, referring to their adversaries as the enemy. When Ray happily machine guns a potential useful captive, Ryan screams out, “I wanted a prisoner, not garbage!”

The movie was swiftly and economically made, shot in and around Griffith Park and Bronson Canyon. It was modestly profitable and critically acclaimed (particularly in Europe), but the big-ass money would finally come in 1958 when God’s Little Acre hit the screen.

The trek of MEN IN WAR malingering in public domain purgatory is almost as harrowing as the scenario.

Once great-looking late-night TV fodder, the descent into p.d. served up a varying collection of godawful video tapes, laserdiscs and DVDs. It’s a revelation to finally see a 35MM edition in very-good-excellent shape (some slight wear at reel changes, but nothing crucial) and in the picture’s original widescreen aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Thank you, Olive Films (they have also released a Blu-Ray of God’s Little Acre, which shall be reviewed soon).

As if to warn off moviegoers seeking escapism, the posters for MEN IN WAR headlined the banner “The Part of the War Machine that Bleeds.” That said, if fans of 1957 pics are looking for that Funny Face froth, you might want to check out something a bit less corrosive first, like Sweet Smell of Success. If, however, you’re up for one of the most uncompromising (and best) war movies ever made, you can’t do much better than doing a tour of duty with Benson and Montana.

MEN IN WAR.  Black and White.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; DTS-HD MA.  Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT # OF750.  SRP: $29.95.

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Truth or Scare

It was with great trepidation that I approached the recent 6-disc DVD collection of ONE STEP BEYOND, available through Film Chest Media. The reason wasn’t because I was frightened of the classic supernatural anthology series that ran on ABC-TV from 1959-1961 (although many episodes are genuinely creepy). It was because, in the age of High Definition Blu-Ray, I’m reluctant to tackle a company primarily associated with public domain titles.

Now, before I go any further, let me state that this release is likely my favorite ever from this company. It is probably the best edition of the many p.d. DVD sets glutting the market. Thus, I recommend it to fans of the show – although with reservations. The main caveat is that the collection is incomplete. Out of the 96 episodes shot during its three-season run, this set comprises only 70 (only!). 70 isn’t bad, they are presented in chronological order, and they can even be accessed via an enclosed guide sheet (which also gives you the broadcast date and a brief synopsis).

To further understand my approval and frustration, one needs to probe the history of this quirky underrated goose-bumper.

It’s been incorrectly called the first horror anthology show to be broadcast on American television. This false claim is mostly due to the fact that it beat Twilight Zone to the airwaves by eight months (January 20th/September 22nd). But even if that wasn’t the case, it wasn’t anywhere near this oft-touted boast. Not surprisingly, it was Arch Oboler who bested ONE STEP BEYOND via the television adaptation of his radio horror series Lights Out, which debuted on U.S. TV in 1949!  Likewise, occasional supernatural subject matter crept into subsequent anthologies, such as Science-Fiction Theater and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. So let’s nip that in the bud right off the bat. The original hook for ONE STEP BEYOND, as conceived by Merwin Gerard, was the declaration that every story was based upon true-life, unexplained strange phenomenon.  And that was enough for me.

I first became a fan during the 1970s, when Channel 5 in New York would run it nightly. The turn-off for me then was the print source – scratched-to-hell, splicy 16mm syndication copies from the Worldvision Distribution Company, which had originally produced the show. I was intrigued by the plots, and also was greatly amused by the semi-conscious, monosyllabic intros by John Newland, or, as he was credited, “Our host into the unknown.” Indeed, Newland’s comments, while delivered in often subtle sinister tones, are the precursor for foreboding I.D. Channel reality TV-type audio, currently the rage and hissed by copycat on-air commentators. I find it funny, but nevertheless entertaining in that Ed Wood/Criswell way (“The amazing story you are about to see is a matter of human record.  You may believe it or not.  But the real people who lived it – they believe it, they know…they’ve taken that ONE STEP BEYOND!”). Newland’s no slouch, however, and does convey a thoughtful, quiet menace with a modicum of intelligence. Think Steve Doocy, but with functioning brain cells.

Newland was, in fact, an actor of modest means who after uninspiring post-WWII tenure at Warner Bros., drifted, like so many discarded contract players, into TV. Whilst on Letters to Loretta (better known as The Loretta Young Show), he was able to try his hand at directing, and thereby found his forte. Newland directed every episode of ONE STEP BEYOND (and likely, in Jeffersonian terminology, probably “had a piece of the pie”). What got him the BEYOND gig was a smattering of well-received directorial efforts on such diverse 1950s shows ranging from The Thin Man to Hitchcock to Bachelor Father (post-BEYOND, he would helm such iconic fare as Thriller, Night Gallery, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Checkmate, Route 66 and Star Trek).  In 1957, Newland directed an independent John Beal drama for the big screen, That Night. It pretty much went nowhere here, but became a huge across the pond, where it won great acclaim and two BAFTA nominations, including one for Best Film. It is probable that this also propelled him to push for the final season of BEYOND to be entirely shot in the U.K.

While it’s easy to poke fun at the Newland intros and closing tags, I must admit that it was through ONE STEP BEYOND that I initially heard the now-common terms paranormal, telepathy, teleportation, telekinesis, telemarketing (okay, not that one) spontaneous combustion, possession, psychic phenomenon and, my ole Huckleberry friend, hallucinogens.

The credentials behind the scenes of ONE STEP BEYOND are enormously impressive. The legendary Collier Young (Ironside, Cannon, The Bold Ones) produced the show in conjunction with the even more legendary Joseph Schenck. The series was first shot at Universal-International, then moved over to the MGM facilities (which, I also believe, was the route of Twilight Zone). No less than Russell Metty shot the debut episode (The Bride Possessed) where anxious, lovey newlywed Virginia Leigth (The Brain that Wouldn’t Die’s immortal Jan-in-the-Pan) goes all three-faces-of-Eve on startled groom Skip Homeier in order to find culprit who murdered her in a former life. BOOM!  How’s that for right out of the starting gate? The overworked Larry Marcus was the story editor on BEYOND, and often scripted episodes himself; otherwise, shows were farmed out to the formidable likes of Francis Cockrell, Charles Beaumont and Don Mankiewicz. Suffice to say, the series is incredibly well-written and generally quite engrossing. This high-quality writing is magnificently appended by the amazing casts that were assembled throughout BEYOND‘s three-year span. One must really take their hat off to Newland, who is actually a really good director, both with actors and with transforming tight schedules and budgeting into something visually interesting and compelling. Of course, if one had to pick the singularly memorable aspect of ONE STEP BEYOND, it would be the haunting title theme (dubbed “Fear”), composed for a theremin, by Harry Lubin. It became a minor sensation after the show’s debut and even resulted in a best-selling LP (later on, The Ventures did a fantastic cover of the theme on their seminal 1964 album, The Ventures in Space).

Among the terrific thesps included in this set, are Charles Bronson as an over-the-hill boxer (The Last Round), Torin Thatcher as a witch-hunting Lord, not of the era’s McCarthy variety (Doomsday), Julie Adams as a divorced mom who brings her young son and alcoholic ex together in a most unusual way (Epilogue). Then there’s The Tingler‘s Pamela Lincoln as a freaked-out deb convinced she’s about to be a victim of death-by-chandelier (Premonition). Joan Fontaine and Warren Beatty mix it up (in The Visitor), while Cloris Leachman as an award-winning photographer discovers that her mild-mannered “natural” subject is a long-deceased wife-killer (the great Marcel Dalio) in The Dark Room.  Can’t not mention Pernell Roberts as one of three tortured French WWI soldiers, condemned to death as an example of cowardice (The Vision, an almost phantasmagorical take on Paths of Glory).  Can you blame Patrick Macnee for getting a bit pissed at newlywed bride Barbara Lord because she has reservations about their reservations on The Titanic (The Night of April 14th)?  Or dysfunctional couple Mike Connors and Yvette Vickers from ditching their trapeze act in The Aerialist?  And check out Brainwave. That screaming kid sailor, terrified during a Japanese attack on his ship, is none other than Robert Osborne; with George Grizzard and Whit Bissell also on-board, he possibly mistook the voyage for the TCM cruise.

Sadly, the missing episodes are of greatest loss to the show’s likely key purchasers, as they comprise the lion’s share of the final British season, featuring such genre giants as Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasence, Anton Diffring, Andre Morell and Peter Wyngarde. Also criminally absent is the show’s most famous (and infamous) entry, The Sacred Mushroom, the only true documentary attempt by BEYOND‘s creators wherein Newland journeyed to Mexico to experience the effects of “special” ‘shrooms, all in front of the camera. “It was the series’ most popular episode,” remarked the psychedelic-bound host. And that was probably just with the location crew!

The success of the 1970s revival prompted Newland to pitch a follow-up, 1978’s Next Step Beyond, which flopped, lasting a mere 25 installments.

In 2009, Paramount (which had obtained the rights to the now-defunct Worldvision library) released a DVD set, One Step Beyond – the Official First Season. They never proceeded from that point (at least, to my knowledge). I surmise that, as the show had fallen into public domain, they figured, “Why bother?” Too bad.

Many of the DVD-R bootlegs are culled from homegrown, smeary VHS copies, taped off 1980s Cable broadcasts. This is what I expected with the Film Chest set. Imagine my delight when I popped in the first disc, only to be enthralled by spectacular 35MM, near-pristine imagery. I had never seen this show looking so good, and, natch, a great print of anything elevates the viewing experience. Alas, I spoke too soon. By Disc 3, the episodes morphed into the dupey (but still more-than-acceptable) evocation that usually defines a public domain title. The perk here is that the early 1960s credits (not the syndication reissues) are intact, brandishing the complete title ALCOA PRESENTS ONE STEP BEYOND. I guess it’s not such a big deal, and I much would have preferred the superlative quality being a constant (in all fairness, Film Chest does present a disclaimer on the jacket cover, and I suspect Discs One and Two utilized the transfers mastered for the abandoned Paramount release) although an acceptable trade-off would have been each ALCOA PRESENTS ep concluding with a “Curses, foiled again” end credit. Seriously, until Paramount decides to do a complete Blu-Ray box set (and they should), the Film Chest edition is the best way to go. And, at under twenty bucks, it’s not such a bad trip to take. With or without mushrooms.

ONE STEP BEYOND.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.33:1]; Mono audio.  Film Chest Media Group.  CAT # FC-514.  SRP:  $19.95.

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