Victor Willis Wins

It’s interesting, isn’t it, how some things just stay in your head. And it’s not always the significant things. I’m sure there are pivotal moments in my life that I just don’t recall with that much clarity but some goofy, little things I remember clearly.

One such ‘goofy, little’ thing for me is a faded snapshot I have in my head of being about ten years old and being in a neighbour’s basement in the early 1980’s and looking at their vinyl copy of the Village People’s second album, “Macho Man” from 1978. I remember that I liked a couple of their songs but what I remember really striking me was the sound and look and cool name of their lead singer, Victor Willis. I thought he had a fantastic, virile voice and was a cool looking dude. I eventually owned their third album, 1978’s “Cruisin'”, on 8-track but as the years went by, I generally kept them at bay, owing to a public backlash and a general perception of them as a ridiculous and dated disco group that predominantly catered to homosexual males.

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Cowboy, construction worker, Victor, Native American, leatherman and…suspender man?

I also remember when I was older – in the early ’90’s – yammering on about how I was a true rock ‘n’ roller and how I hated all hip hop and acts like Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock. In the back of my mind, though, I’d be thinking how the beat of songs like “It Takes Two” was catchy and maybe not so bad. Eventually, I came to openly embrace all music – even that which I could not defend. The Village People and all of disco, really, fell into this category of music you knew was kind of lame but, dang, if you didn’t love it!

Which would bring me back to my man, Victor Willis. Victor was born in Dallas in 1951 and, like a lot of people of his generation, began singing in church. In Victor’s case, he started in his father’s Baptist church. He moved to New York as a young man and joined the Negro Ensemble Company, a theatre group that was dedicated to presenting works documenting the black experience that got it’s start in part with funding from Al Bell of Stax Records. The spotlight shone on this group significantly in 1981 when it presented “A Soldier’s Play”, the story of the murder of a black soldier at a US Army barracks in the south during World War 2. The play starred Adolph Caesar, Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson and James Pickens, Jr.. It was made into an Academy Award-nominated film. Other members of this venerable institution, which continues to thrive today, include: Debbie Allen, John Amos, Angela Bassett, Bill Duke, Giancarlo Esposito, Laurence Fishburne, Louis Gossett, Jr., David Alan Grier, Sherman Hemsley, Delroy Lindo, Garrett Morris, Phylicia Rashad, Esther Rolle, Richard Roundtree and, our man, Victor Willis.

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Jacques Morali

Victor was in the original Broadway production of “The Wiz” in 1976 and then decided to go into a studio to record a demo tape of songs he had written. The tape eventually made it into the hands of one Jacques Morali. Morali was a Frenchman born in Morocco who had an extensive music career in France starting in the late 1960’s. He eventually teamed up with Henri Belolo, who happened to also be a Frenchman born in Morocco. The two moved to New York City to try their hand in the North American market. The partners represented a common team seen often in music history; non-performers who wrote songs looking for singers. The two were ready to create acts they would package and present to the world.

In 1977, this team of Moroccan-born Frenchmen – they called themselves “Cant Stop Productions” – had songs prepared but no one to sing them when they received Victor’s demo tape. Morali and Belolo were excited by Victor’s dynamic voice and met with Willis. Morali told him that he had had a dream in which Victor sang his songs and they were hugely successful. An alliance was born. Now, they just needed an act – so Morali invented one. Morali was a gay man who frequented gay discos in Greenwich Village. As he was being exposed to the “macho male stereotypes” he saw in these clubs, the idea came to him to form a group that would feature different gay fantasy figures. Now that he had a singer, he surrounded Victor with a studio band and went in to make a record.

“Village People” was released on Casablanca Records in the summer of ’77 and was a success. The album – featuring only the four songs Morali had started with, clocking in at just over 20 minutes – reached #54 in the US, 36 on the US Top R&B /Hip-Hop Albums chart and 21 in Australia. As demands for personal appearances poured in, Morali saw the need to create a group of dancers and musicians to surround Victor for live appearances. Victor and Morali worked together recruiting and also sent out a legendary ad that started to appear in the trades. In terms of recruitment ads in music history, this one ranks up there with the one that built The Monkees: “Macho types wanted”, the ad said, “must dance and have a moustache”. True story.

Once the official line-up was in place, photos were taken for publicity and for the cover of the second album, which had already been recorded. “Macho Man”, released in early 1978, featured six songs, five co-written by Victor. The other song was the standard “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody”, if you can believe it. The single “Macho Man” was the group’s first hit, charting at #25 in the US and going Top Ten in Australia and New Zealand. Following “Macho Man” on the record was the track “I Am What I Am”, a song that became a touchstone for the gay community, a community that was just “coming out” in the late ’70’s. Victor’s lyrics were a statement of liberation and not just for the gay community. It was also aimed at those who simply dressed differently and wanted to be different so all could relate. It is very interesting to note that Victor – a heterosexual – was able to write lyrics that all people could relate to but also that the gay community, specifically, could call their own. Another song on the album was “Key West”, singing the praises of the southern most tip of the US; a city also welcoming to the gay community. And I have to mention the final song on the album: “Sodom and Gomorrah”.

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“Cruisin'”, with the Hot Cop, Victor Willis, front and center.

The third album, “Cruisin'”, was released 7 months after “Macho Man”. It cemented the Village People as leaders in the disco and the club scenes. First, there was the title of the album which was a double entendre. Yes, it referred to the age old tradition of driving around but, as of late, the term had come to refer to the act of “cruising”; gay men looking for liaisons with other gay men. There is a track on this album called “I’m a Cruiser”. “Cruisin'” was the first Village People album to contain songs written exclusively by Victor and Jacques Morali; or at least they were credited that way. Again, it’s interesting to note that Victor was able to write lyrics that were easily adopted by the gay community. Perhaps more than all this was the opening track on the album: “Y.M.C.A.”. The story goes that, during a conversation, Victor was recalling the fun he had had at the YMCA in his youth. He was talking about it in reference to it’s standing in the history of black urban youth as it was a place to meet and play sports; it kept them off the streets. Morali had never heard of the YMCA and when Victor explained that it was a place where young men met, Morali got excited and thought it would make a great song for the Village People. Victor wrote the lyrics up here, in Vancouver. Victor Willis is from Texas. His group was based in New York City and was emblematic of the scene in Greenwich Village. The group was ran by two Moroccan-born Frenchmen. And “Y.M.C.A.” was written in Canada!

The song was a massive hit. It’s hard to properly assess this song, actually, because of it’s place in the very fabric of society and culture. Suffice it to say that it has become synonymous with fun, good times and excitement, constantly heard at sporting events, weddings and parties. The song peaked at #2 in the US and was #1 on 16 charts around the world. Consider that is one of fewer than 40 singles that have sold in excess of 10 million physical copies worldwide. 10 million. Remember that: our man, Victor Willis from Dallas, writes a song that 10 million people have bought. It becomes one of the best-selling songs ever. “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. “We Are the World”. “My Heart Will Go On”. “White Christmas”….and “Y.M.C.A.”. The “Cruisin'” album went to #3 in the US and was #1 in parts of Europe. The album also contained “Hot Cop” which became Victor’s strutting anthem.

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Shame on you, Allan Carr.

“Go West” (March, 1979) was another successful album featuring songs co-written by Victor including the hits “Go West” and “In the Navy”. In ’79, the group found themselves on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine and touring North America. However, Victor Willis left the group at the end of the tour. Subsequently, he was able to avoid being a part of the disaster that was “Can’t Stop the Music”. This 1980 musical comedy film was the sole feature film directed by actress Nancy Walker. Yes, that Nancy Walker. The film was supposed to be a “‘Singin’ in the Rain’ for the disco crowd” and “starred” Bruce Jenner. The film is notable as being one of the worst ever and was the inspiration for the Razzie Awards – it won the first ever Golden Raspberry for Worst Picture. After Victor left, Village People never had another hit.

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Look at her eyes. I’d deny this, too.

Post-Village People, Victor refused offers to record and perform and distanced himself from the group. He unfortunately also battled drug addiction for many years. He was married to Phylicia Rashad for four years ending in 1982. Victor had written the lyrics for Phylicia’s 1978 album “Josephine Superstar”. Produced by Victor and Jacques Morali, the album was a disco concept album (?) that told the life story of Josephine Baker. You can’t make this stuff up. Interestingly, I have read that Rashad has denied the existence of this record. Wouldn’t you?

After Victor left at the end of 1979, Village People went in a disastrous direction. Without Victor to write the words of the songs – thereby helping to define their identity by creating exactly what it was the group sang about – the quality of the records plummeted. Village People came up with songs like “Ready for the 80’s”: “I’m ready for the eighties, glad to be alive. I’m waiting for those magic numbers to arrive”. Like, really? The horrors continued with 1981’s “Renaissance” album. The plan was to re-style the group into a new wave act. The results are such that I can’t even relate them properly here. I read a review that declared the record an “embarrassment that never should have seen the light of day”. I had to do some soul searching about whether or not to share the album cover here. I decided not to, out of respect to my readers. Victor was coaxed back by Morali for the 1982 album “Fox on the Box” but the album was a failure – it was not released in the US – and Victor left again for good.

Fast forward to 2012. Victor has emerged from the Betty Ford Clinic having conquered addictions that have lead to trouble with the law. He is ready to start his life anew with a new bride. Karen, bless her, is a lawyer and an entertainment executive. She mentions to Victor something about “Termination Rights”. What happens next is nothing short of historic.

It’s a common story in the music business, as old as the business itself. Young, talented individuals have stories to tell. But how to get their stories to the world? This is where the “business” part of “show business” rears it’s sometimes ugly head. Managers, agents and publishers get involved. In Victor’s case, he was approached by Jacques Morali with an offer that would make Victor a star. Victor was young and signed on the dotted line without knowing all the ramifications. He says himself that he signed one contract that he never even read. All through the years, he was looked after, yes, and enjoyed all the trappings of stardom. He was credited on all the songs he contributed lyrics to and paid; but minimally.

The Termination Rights clause was added to copyright law in 1978 and states that after a period of 35 years, a composer may recover control of their songs even if they had signed away the rights. In September of 2013, after a five year legal battle, Victor Willis became the first significant artist to emerge from court triumphant, his copyrights rightfully, accurately and fully restored. I say ‘significant’ artist because there is a hit song involved here. I mentioned earlier that “Y.M.C.A.” was a major hit, eventually selling in excess of 10 million copies. But more than that the song has gone on to become something more than a song. It means something. If you hear it in a film, it means joy or success. Exuberance. If you hear it in a commercial, the ad men are trying to tell you that happiness accompanies their product. If you hear it at a ballgame, it signifies the unifying celebration that supporting your team and this ageless pastime involves. Needless to say, “Y.MC.A.” has gone further; it’s iconic. And, now, Victor Willis has gained considerable control over how it is used.

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Victor victorious in downtown San Diego.

Additionally, in 2015, it was determined in court that Victor and Jacques Morali were the only two writers of many Village People hits. Morali’s business partner, Henri Belolo, also had his name attached as co-writer. This is something else common in the music business. People can be given a songwriting credit for many reasons other than having contributed to the creation of the song. Now, instead of a third, Victor rightfully receives a half share of royalties (note: Morali died of AIDS in 1991).

For their part, the publishing companies that previously controlled the Village People’s catalog countered that Victor – like all songwriters – worked on a “for hire” basis. They were employed by publishing companies so therefore any works they created belonged to ‘the firm’. This argument didn’t fly in court and Victor emerged victorious. It will no doubt set a precedent for others facing Victor’s predicament.

Today, Victor Willis is 67 years old. He currently makes appearances, performs live and continues to record. Which is all wonderful. But he will forever be known by what he has already given us. It’s more than just acceptable to enjoy the Village People today, it’s actually recommended. They are an exciting reminder of an interesting moment in time. It is made all that much more enjoyable with the knowledge that one of the creators of this iconic sound has been justly rewarded with a healthy retirement fund. Victor Willis wins.

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Film Noir Review: “Undertow”

“Undertow” (1949)

Starring Scott Brady, John Russell, Dorothy Hart, Peggy Dow, Bruce Bennett and Roc Hudson. Directed by William Castle. From Universal-International.

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A typically fantastic poster, indicative of the era and the genre.

Tony Reagan (Brady) is a former gangster and ex-con who is vacationing in Reno. He runs into an old Chicago crony, Danny Morgan (Russell), who is still connected with the underworld. The two buddies share a drink and they find that they are both engaged to be married. On the flight home to old Chi, Tony sits next to pretty school teacher Ann McKnight (Dow). Tony and Ann had previously exchanged pleasantries at a Reno craps table. When Reagan arrives home, he is immediately rousted by the police in the form of old nemesis Det. Charles Reckling (Bennett). Tony is informed that he is suspected of causing potential trouble with his old boss, mob kingpin, Big Jim, his fiancee’s uncle. Tony goes to talk it over with Big Jim and is slugged, shot in the arm and left in his car. Upon waking, he hears a radio report of Big Jim’s murder and learns that he is the number one suspect. Tony looks up Ann and she, believing him innocent, harbours him. Tony tries to exonerate himself which leads him to his fiancée, Sally (Hart) and his old pal, Danny. Can Tony clear his name? Or will he be caught in the undertow?

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Ann believes Tony but he doesn’t want her to get hurt. They make a good looking couple.

In a way, “Undertow” is perfect. Is it a fantastic film on a level with “Citizen Kane”? No, that’s not what I mean. It’s perfect in that it is a prime example of “film noir”. Without getting into a long dissertation on this post-war genre, I’ll just quickly run it down for the uninitiated. Film noir can be considered a documentary look at the seamier side of life in America in the years immediately following World War 2. The men coming home from the war were faced with suddenly trying to go back to their former lives. This proved difficult for many considering the horrors they had lived through on the battlefield. Many men struggled to assimilate and this gave rise to a somewhat desperate condition. Unable to play the game, many men turned to the streets; if not to crime, exactly, then to a shadowy world that was in part born out of their inability to function after the terrors of war. “Happy endings” – or happiness, itself – were no longer a foregone conclusion. Reality in this time now included desperation, poor choices and living on the fringes of society in an ambiguous land.

Hollywood began to reflect this change in society with the production of these gritty crime dramas – the term “film noir” was coined in France many years later. A handful of actors began to make their name in this new style of film. Some were stars already like Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum but a lot of the actors employed in these films were lesser lights and a lot of them began to forge new identities and new careers in film noir. Scott Brady was among them. Brady started life as Gerald Tierney in Brooklyn, New York, the son of a police officer. Notably, Brady’s brother was actor Lawrence Tierney, who himself made a name in hard-boiled films noir such as “Born to Kill” and “The Hoodlum”. Tierney was a raging alcoholic who found himself regularly in trouble with the law, often for assaults on civilians and lawmen alike. He made a memorable turn years later in Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs”.

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Tony, realizing it’s a frame-up, has to take it on the lam.

Brady served in the US Navy during World War 2 and after his discharge he followed his brother and headed for Hollywood. Once there, he was immediately cast in films noir such as “He Walked By Night” – his first film, co-starring Richard Basehart and Jack Webb, who took his experiences on this film and created “Dragnet” – “Canon City” and “The Counterfeiters”, co-starring Lon Chaney, Jr., Hugh Beaumont and Joi Lansing. “Undertow” was his fifth film. He was a good-looking, fine and earnest actor who would never exactly make the big time. He would go on to star in his own show on television, the western “Shotgun Slade” which ran for two seasons starting in 1959. He died a year after appearing in his final film, 1984’s “Gremlins”.

John Russell was a handsome, strapping actor whose 6 foot, 3 inch frame almost made him ineligible to serve in the United States Marine Corps. He was eventually made a second lieutenant and served on Guadalcanal before contracting malaria. Unfortunately, Russell never even achieved the level of success in films that Scott Brady did. He appeared in many westerns, including “Rio Bravo”, before following Brady to television. Russell starred in the series “Lawman” beginning in 1958, a show on which he was joined by noir actress Peggie Castle. “Lawman” ran for four seasons – 2 more than Brady’s series. Russell is perhaps most notable for his appearances in Clint Eastwood westerns “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and – memorably – 1985’s “Pale Rider”, a film in which he cut a striking, villainous figure. He died in 1991, aged 70.

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Big- shouldered John Russell in Reno for “Undertow” and in Alberta for Clint’s “Pale Rider”.

“Undertow” was Peggy Dow’s first film. Later, she appeared in “Harvey” and “Bright Victory” but left the business to get married after only two years in Hollywood. In 1951, aged 23, she married an oilman from Tulsa, Oklahoma named Walter Helmerich III – theirs is a story I suggest you look up. Helmerich & Payne is an oil drilling company that was co-founded by Walter’s father and is currently the second largest onshore driller in the world. Walter was made president in 1960 (he got this news when his father, founder Walter II, came into his office and said “you’re president. Good luck”) and served as such until handing the reins over to one of his five sons with Peggy, Hans, in 1989. With her marriage, Peggy became Liz Taylor in “Giant” – a beautiful wife of an oilman, she became a prominent lady in Tulsa society and a philanthropist of the first order. The Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award has been given out since 1985 to authors who have made major contributions to the field of literature. Past winners include: John Le Carré, Ray Bradbury, E.L. Doctorow, John Grisham and Canadian Margaret Atwood. She developed a women’s health center that provides services including labour and delivery, childbirth education and neonatal intensive care. Perhaps most satisfyingly for us, Peggy V. Helmerich is still with us at 90 years of age.

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Peggy Dow. Quite a lady.

Bruce Bennett won the silver medal in shot put at the 1928 Olympic Games. In 1931, producers chose him to portray Tarzan in the vine-swinger’s first feature film but Bennett broke his shoulder making a football movie. Johnny Weissmuller – also an Olympian – got the call instead. Bennett would go on to a prolific albeit low-key career appearing in films such as “The More the Merrier”, “Mildred Pierce”, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “Love Me Tender”. He was still active late in life, skydiving at the age of 96. He made it to 100 and died in Santa Monica.

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Olympic medalist Bruce Bennett as Det. Reckling. Suspicious at first, he soon finds himself in Tony’s corner.

Pretty Dorothy Hart portrays Tony’s fiancée, Sally. Hart made only a handful of films including the noir classic “The Naked City” (1948) and “Tarzan’s Savage Fury” (1952) in which she became the tenth actress to portray Jane. She retired after only 12 films and seven years to work for the United Nations.

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Dorothy Hart as Sally. Soon to leave Hollywood for some real work at the UN.

“Undertow” marks the second film and first credited appearance of Rock (“Roc” here) Hudson. Rock had appeared the previous year in “Fighter Squadron” with Edmond O’Brien and Robert Stack. Delivering his one line in that film took 38 takes. Rock soon began to be groomed by Universal and would go on to make “Bright Victory” in 1951 with Peggy Dow before being used as a leading man starting with “Scarlet Angel” (1952) opposite Yvonne de Carlo and “Has Anybody Seen My Gal?”, a comedy that featured a brief appearance by James Dean. Rock Hudson, of course, would go on to be one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.

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“Roc” Hudson (with Bennett) in his one scene in “Undertow”.

The director of “Undertow” was William Castle. Castle was given his start in the entertainment business at 15 when he befriended Bela Lugosi and Bela got him a job with the touring company of the play “Dracula”. Castle’s interesting career is a story unto itself; I suggest that, while you’re looking up Peggy Dow, you also look him up. Castle began directing in the early ’40’s. He did uncredited script work on 1945’s “Dillinger”, starring Scott Brady’s brother, Lawrence Tierney. He also worked as an associate producer and uncredited script doctor on Orson Welles’ noir classic “The Lady From Shanghai” (1947). “Undertow” was his first notable film as director and he went on to direct low-budget action and western films. In 1958, he mortgaged his home to make “Macabre” which began his career in horror. Castle was also a master of publicity and promotion, coming up with endless gimmicks to promote his films. With “Macabre”, he took to the trades to offer life insurance policies to those brave enough to see the film. For the following year’s “House on Haunted Hill”, Castle worked in cahoots with theatre owners to rig up a pulley system in theatres to have a skeleton swing out over the audience. “The Tingler” (1959) was shown in theatres where Castle had secured buzzers to the underside of certain seats. At pivotal moments in the film, the buzzers would emit a screaming wail.

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William Castle. Aside from his horror gimmicks, he exhibited a deft director’s touch with this film noir.

Castle mortgaged his home again in the mid-Sixties to buy the rights to the unpublished novel, “Rosemary’s Baby”. His dream was to produce and direct an A-movie himself. In the end, Roman Polanski helmed the film with Castle producing and Castle enjoyed the success of a quality picture. Health issues made it impossible for him to capitalize on this success, however. He later had small acting roles in “Shampoo” (1975) and “The Day of Locust” (1975) and passed away in 1977.

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There are some great location shots in “Undertow”. In some, you can see the crowd watching the action.

Right from the opening credits, you can see that “Undertow” has partially been shot on location in Chicago and Reno. This characteristic of film noir is particularly pleasing as it adds to the realism and it allows us to see moving images of some great American cities as they looked post-war. So you see, there is a lot to recommend “Undertow”. It may not be “The Maltese Falcon” but, sometimes, that is exactly what you want from a film noir – simplicity. 70-80 minutes of regular guys and regular gals trying to make it through the shadows. Greatness is non-essential.

Autumn Movie Review: “St. Elmo’s Fire”

I have what I call “Seasonal Interest Syndrome” – I gravitate to certain forms of media at certain times of year. This includes watching particular movies in the fall. Here’s another review of one of my favourite autumn movies.

“St. Elmo’s Fire” (1985)

Starring Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Mare Winningham, Andie MacDowell, Martin Balsam, Jenny Wright and Matthew Laurence. Directed by Joel Schumacher. From Columbia Pictures.

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Interesting for me to note that this very autumnal movie was released at the beginning of summer.

The film depicts seven friends – all apparently the same age – who have just graduated from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.. The film plots their varied efforts to make their way in life. The two unofficial “leaders” of the group are Alec Newbury (Nelson) and Leslie Hunter (Sheedy). Rob Lowe is perfectly cast as Billy Hicks, the frat boy party animal who is estranged from his wife and baby and is in an on-again, off-again relationship with Wendy (Winningham), the virginal member of the group. Kevin Dolenz (McCarthy) is an aspiring writer and Kirby Keager (Estevez) is going to law school and the two share an apartment. Jules Van Patten is somewhat of a female Billy Hicks – beautiful, popular and wild. Jules works in international banking but soon loses her way.

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Georgetown grad exercises take place during the third week of May. Alec mentions at the start of the film that it’s four months since graduation.

As the film opens, Billy and Wendy have been in a car accident. A drunken Billy is at fault; it is the same old story with him. The rest of the gang shows up at the hospital to find the couple unscathed. Kirby spots Dr. Dale Biberman (MacDowell) and shares an exchange with her, rekindling an old flame. The group heads to their hang-out – St. Elmo’s Bar, where Kirby works as a waiter – to discuss the accident and decompress. Jules wonders aloud why Kevin is so moody lately. Kevin shrugs it off. Billy checks in with his wife, Felicia (Wright), and the call doesn’t go well; also the same old story. Wendy reveals to the girls that Billy lost the job that Alec got for him which angers Alec. He reprimands Billy, saying that his irresponsibility is hard on all of them. Later in their apartment, Alec again puts pressure on Leslie to marry him but his efforts are interrupted by Jules at the door. She is still stressing about her step-mother, who is dying in the hospital and worries about the expense of a funeral. In their apartment, Kevin and Kirby go back and forth about the pros and cons of love when Billy arrives saying he needs a place to crash.

The next day the gang is in Jules’ jeep when Alec announces he has got a plum job working for a senator. Jules has Kevin over and tries to get him to admit that he is gay and in love with Alec. He denies it and leaves in a huff. Kevin is at Alec and Leslie’s apartment for dinner and Alec takes Kevin aside and confesses to sleeping with another woman. Alec claims that Leslie committing to marry him will make him faithful. Wendy has Billy over for supper. Billy’s rebellious nature clashes hilariously with Wendy’s uptight family. Billy causes a stir by sitting on Wendy’s roof where he reveals that he has struggled since graduation. Poignantly, he tells her that school was fun but real life is not and he is having trouble dealing. During their conversation, Wendy reveals she is a virgin which seems to fascinate and shock Billy. Billy makes an advanced play for Wendy which she rebuffs. She says they shouldn’t see each other anymore, gives Billy his rent money and goes upstairs. Billy is remorseful. He leaves the money behind and walks out.

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Kevin at Jules’ apartment – with the all-world mural of Billy Idol. You can spot a picture of Idol on Jules’ desk at work, as well.

At St. Elmo’s, Jules tells Leslie that she is having an affair with her boss and Leslie and Wendy agree that Jules is spiraling. Billy sees his wife with another guy and attacks him. Out on the street, Billy and Felicia start to fight and are pulled apart; only to fall into each others arms. Kirby is now in full pursuit of Dale. He assumes that she respects money so he takes a job with a Korean gangster and invites Dale to a party. When she doesn’t show, Kirby loses it and travels up to the lodge where she has gone skiing. Kirby finds her there with another guy. The snow keeps him there overnight. In the morning, Kirby has a change of heart. He kisses Dale farewell and leaves her with thoughts that maybe she is missing out. Meantime, Billy makes a play for a drunken Jules who kicks him out of her jeep onto his front stoop. Felicia has seen the exchange and is not impressed. Billy goes back to his fraternity and is given a hero’s welcome. When he expresses a desire to perhaps get a job on campus, his friends are thrilled – only because if he does he will be able to provide them with drugs. This depresses Billy. When he meets Felicia and the baby there, she suggests an annulment. Billy says he is going to shape up.

At a party, Alec forces the issue by announcing to all that he and Leslie are engaged. She is angered and takes him aside. Playing a hunch, she questions him about his philandering. Alec blows it by assuming Kevin has spilled the beans. He knocks Kevin down and tells Leslie to move out of their apartment. Kevin takes Leslie home to his place where he reveals that the reason he doesn’t date and people think he’s gay is because he has a deep, hidden love for her. This is timely news for her and they have sex. Alec shows up to apologize and finds them together. Later, Kevin is talking love and moving in together but Leslie shuts him down saying she needs time to herself. This crushes Kevin.

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Significantly, it is Billy – who is as lost as Jules – that talks her off the ledge. He confirms that a lot of this is “self-created drama”.

Alarm bells go off when Leslie finds that collection agencies have repossessed all of Jules’ belongings and she has locked herself in her empty apartment with the windows open, hoping the cold November winds blowing in will kill her. The gang rallies and Billy breaks in and talks Jules off the ledge. Later, Billy realizes he has to move on. He has an intimate night with Wendy and then he is seen off at the bus station; he is bound for New York. Leslie tells Alec and Kevin that she loves them both but needs to be on her own. The gang plan to meet for drinks – but, they decide, not at St. Elmo’s. Somewhere else. Where there are less kids.

“St. Elmo’s’ Fire” takes place between the middle of September and early November and it contains some excellent autumn scenery. This makes it perfect for viewing in the fall. It was shot during the last three months of the year in and around Georgetown. The University itself read the script and decided it was not going to let the filmmakers shoot on the grounds so the University of Maryland stood in for the school scenes. St. Elmo’s Bar was based on a real life watering hole in Georgetown called The Tombs although the exterior shots of the bar were shot on the lot in Hollywood – just steps away from the clock tower in ‘Hill Valley’ as seen in “Back to the Future”. This “autumn movie” is also among my “Top 23” favourite films. I list it among the ten films I fell in love with while I was still a teenager. It is a coming-of-age story, a sub-genre for which I have a particular affection. My man, Brian Wilson, once said that growing up is a dramatic story. No matter what a person’s situation, simply going from ‘child’ to ‘adult’ is, in and of itself, a very serious pivot point in life. A coming-of-age story can have an appeal to those who are currently going through this phase of life and it can also inspire nostalgia in those who have long since past that point. The coming-of-age film makes for a great story that many age groups can relate to. It is rife with plot points and possibilities.

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The film features some great shots of Georgetown in autumn.

The film stars members of the “Brat Pack” – a group of young hip actors who frequently appeared in movies together during the 1980’s. Rob Lowe and Demi Moore have gone on to a certain degree of celebrity while the others remain most notable for the films they made together at this time. I have to single out Andrew McCarthy, though. One of my personal favourites, he possessed a quirky sort of casual charm and he’s always been a cherished “sleeper” sort of actor for me, showing up in great films like “Less Than Zero”, “Weekend at Bernie’s” and “Mulholland Falls”. “St. Elmo’s Fire” is noted as being the film that contained the highest number of “Brat Packers” and it is a great-looking and beloved cast. Lowe, McCarthy and Moore look particularly spectacular and the rest are outfitted and coiffed perfectly for their individual characterizations. Although Demi Moore was struggling with addiction at the time, she and Estevez – son of Martin and brother of Charlie Sheen – dated during the making of the film and Mare Winningham, playing Wendy, the virgin, was already a mother. Jenny Wright is a quirky actress in the Lori Petty mold. She appeared in a hidden favourite of mine, “Valentino Returns” (1989) but later dropped off the face. And Matthew Laurence appears as Jules’ gay neighbour, Ron. Laurence had been in another of my “Top 23” favourite films two years prior to this; “Eddie and the Cruisers”.

The girls in this film are dressed according to their characters. In Leslie and Wendy’s case, they are appropriately dressed as an upwardly-mobile modern woman and a safe, self-conscious virginal-type, respectively. Moore gets to wear fancier clothes as Jules and she looks great in glasses. In my opinion – and, yes, I’m a guy – it’s the boys that look cool in this film, particularly Billy and Kevin. Billy has taken to wearing a blazer over top of his fraternity coat and it’s a great look for him. It may even be representative of his struggles letting go of school and joining the real world. It’s a look I remember once trying to adopt. It did not go over. Later, Billy scores in his coveralls from his job at a gas station, earning extra points for his high-cut canvas Converse – one black and one green. Kevin is the moody writer who generally keeps himself under wraps and this is borne out by his great employing of an overcoat and fedora. A shout-out should go to costume designer Susan Becker who served in the same capacity for other films featuring hip, young people: “The Lost Boys”, “Flatliners” and “True Romance”.

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Rob Lowe, at 20, was the youngest cast member. He looks great in the film.

The film was co-written and directed by Joel Schumacher, who had previously been a costume designer before turning to directing; “St. Elmo’s Fire” was his third effort as director. He would go on to direct such films as “The Lost Boys”, “Batman Forever”, “A Time to Kill” and “Batman and Robin”.

Schumacher’s co-writer on this project was Carl Kurlander. “St. Elmo’s Fire” was the only feature film that Kurlander worked on and the story is autobiographical. This can serve as an inspiration of sorts for those of us who feel that we have but one story in us – the story of our lives – and would love to see that story come to life as a film or television show. It puts me in mind of another of my “Top 23”, “Dirty Dancing”, which was the autobiographical story of Eleanor Bergstein. Her screenplay for that beloved film is also an instance where a screenwriter has one solitary feature film credit. Kurlander went on to work on teen shows on television, notably creating the series “Malibu, CA” which ran for two seasons starting in 1998. This series stands out to me because, if you look it up, it features NOT ONE actor that you recognize. I defy anyone to look up that cast and spot someone you know or have seen in something. Fascinating. Kurlander later left Hollywood to return to Pittsburgh, where he grew up, to teach school and make documentaries, mostly about the possibilities of using “hometowns” like the Steel City as film making alternatives to Tinsel Town.

Canadian David Foster supplies the soundtrack for the film which features his excellent “Love Theme from ‘St. Elmo’s Fire'” which reached #15 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. John Parr performed “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)” which he originally co-wrote with Foster for Rick Hansen, the Canadian athlete who was traveling around the world in his wheelchair raising awareness of spinal cord injuries. This song fared even better on the charts, peaking at #1 for two weeks in September of ’85.

For me, the appeal of the film lies in the way this group of friends is depicted. Here we see the type of alliances most of us wish that we had or had had growing up. The script does a great job of establishing the make-up of each character early on and how they relate to others in the group. I might go so far as to call the script “perfect” in this respect. In the opening ten minutes the characters are basically fully formed and explained to the viewer. Certainly by the end of the second scene – the first time we see the gang together at St. Elmo’s – you know everyone well. Think about it: the film begins; Alec is dressed like a yuppy and is striding purposefully into the hospital, “plain pretty” Leslie by his side. Billy is gorgeous, has been driving drunk and is flirting with a nurse. Kirby talks legalities with the police officer and establishes his infatuation with Dale Biberman. Frumpy Wendy is making excuses for Billy, whom she obviously loves. Jules shows up dressed like a runway model with her date who looks like an ad for Bronson’s Tuxedos. And in the second scene, Kevin is questioned about why he is down on love and is evasive. Bam. How long did that take? Seven minutes, ten seconds. Effective and engaging screenwriting.

At the time of release, critics savaged “St. Elmo’s Fire”. It seems they misunderstood Joel Schumacher’s realistic presentation of twentysomethings. These people are horrible and irredeemable, the critics said. This film went a long way to showing what was really going on with people of this age group. The film is almost like a documentary, the relationships are so authentic, the chemistry within the group so palpable. You can clearly see the history here. There is obviously a lot of intimacy between the group members and past experiences are referred to, directly or indirectly. There is a love and a concern for one another evidenced in Alec getting jobs for Billy, Wendy getting money from her father to give to Billy for his rent, Leslie and Wendy trying to intervene in Jules’ life, Jules trying to help Kevin with his love life. Their lives are still wrapped up in each other as they were in school, Felicia going so far as to say to Billy that he is “married to your friends and the bar”. It is significant to note that when Jules is in deep distress the gang comes together despite a lot of friction due to the Alec-Leslie-Kevin situation. Billy’s role here is particularly interesting. First, you’ll note he has left work – with a company vehicle – to come and help. Of course this new job at a garage would seem better suited to Billy, the people there more like him than the people at the jobs Alec was getting for him. Secondly, it’s significant that it is Billy that gets in to talk to Jules. You’ll remember the scene when Jules dropped Billy off at his house and he “broke her heart”; so Billy ‘owes’ her. Also, he is going through the exact same thing Jules is – “we’re all going through this”, he says. Jules is suffering from ‘self-created drama’; trying to project the image of a hip and together lady of the ’80’s. There was a lot of pressure on young people at this time to be Alec – successful, motivated and focused. Such was not always the case. Billy has summed it up earlier on the roof when he lamented the fact that “school was pretty out-of-hand. In everyday life there’s just no way to be out-of-hand”. He speaks for everybody that has ever gone from childhood to adulthood – all of us. It’s a poignant albeit simple observation.

Someone always leaves. I always say that when Billy gets on the bus at the end of the film. Here is a basic but heavy fact of life; sometimes you have to leave the comfort of friends and home if you’re going to make it in the world. I immediately think of one of the original coming-of-age stories, George Lucas’ 1973 classic “American Graffiti”. At the end of that film, Curt – played by Richard Dreyfuss – also has to leave home to find his way. This is a very concrete way to illustrate the fact that things change. One of the group near the end of “St. Elmo’s Fire” says sadly “I always thought we’d be friends forever”. It’s a sad reality of life that this is almost never the case. Even the group that’s left after Billy has gone – will they always hang out together? What if someone meets someone who is a stranger to the rest of the gang? What if Alec and Leslie  get married and start a family? It gets increasingly hard to hold these relationships together. “St. Elmo’s Fire” serves as a love letter of sorts to a magical time in a person’s life. That brief moment just before you realize that life is serious and you have to get down to business.

At the end of the film, the friends walk out of the frame and that most perfect of all closing credits songs comes up. With it’s wistful sadness, Foster’s theme perfectly reflects the emotional feelings of this momentous time of life.

Horror Movie Review: “The Maze”

“The Maze” (1953) Starring Richard Carlson, Veronica Hurst, Katherine Emery and Michael Pate. Directed by William Cameron Menzies. From Allied Artists Pictures.

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“The Maze” from 1953. Brought to you in 3 Dimensions.

I stumbled on this film quite by accident. A random search for “classic horror films” of a certain length yielded “The Maze” so I checked it out. I was pleasantly surprised. And I wasn’t.

Gerald MacTeam, a Scotsman, is traveling through Europe with his fiancee, Kitty (Hurst) and her Aunt Edith (Emery) and some friends. He suddenly gets word that his uncle, a baronet, has died and Gerald has inherited his title and Craven Castle, the family estate in the Scottish highlands. Gerald leaves his party of traveling companions to deal with this family business promising Kitty he’ll be in touch soon. Weeks go by before Kitty hears from Gerald and the news is not good. Kitty is abruptly informed by telegram that Gerald cannot possibly marry her. She is to go on with her life and forget about him. Kitty, of course, is concerned by Gerald’s uncharacteristic tone and decides to go to Craven Castle, with Aunt Edith in tow, to investigate.

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Kitty and Aunt Edith decide to go to Craven Castle to see what’s troubling Gerald.

The two women are shocked at what they find at the castle. Gerald seems to have aged ten years and he is obviously tortured by something. Also at the castle they find two sullen servants who are devoted to Gerald and very stern and unwelcoming. Finally they find that the backyard of the castle is one giant hedge maze. Gerald insists the women leave at once but Kitty won’t hear of it. She and her aunt stay the night. They are informed that there are rules of the castle that stipulate they avoid the maze at all costs, refrain from wandering through the castle by day and that they be locked in their rooms overnight. The ladies retire to bed and hear their doors locked. Later, they hear an odd sound in the hallway outside their door. Through the crack underneath, they can see the shadow of something moving along the floor outside their room. This, of course, is unsettling.

Aunt Edith gets loose the next day and stumbles on a room in the back of the castle. Upon entering, she sees something hideous moving in the corner and promptly faints. With Aunt Edith confined to her bed with shock and sickness, the two women must linger at the castle, to the consternation of Gerald. When Kitty sees odd footprints on the carpet outside her door, she reconnoiters. She notices that the stairs leading up to the room where her aunt saw the hideous thing are oddly huge, like platforms, she says. She also finds Gerald reading a book on teratology and decides something must be done. Through a passing farmer, she gets word to her friends – one of whom is a doctor – to come to the castle. Her friends arrive and decide that Gerald has gone mad. Instead, what they find horrifies them beyond even their wildest imaginations.

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Kitty sees something moving in the maze.

William Cameron Menzies was the original “production designer”. He was working in silent film from before Paramount was called Paramount (Famous Players-Lasky) as a special effects artist and a setting designer. He soon developed a reputation as the top man in Hollywood for the design of a production. His work on “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1938) drew the attention of David O. Selznick who hired him to work on “Gone With the Wind”. The term “Production Designer” was coined for Menzies and he directed the “burning Atlanta” segment of that legendary Civil War drama. In fact, Menzies was so integral to the look of “Gone With the Wind” that a memo had been circulated stating that Menzies had the final word on many visual aspects of the film and subsequently “Gone With the Wind” bears the credit “This Production Designed By William Cameron Menzies”. At this point, though, Menzies had already directed 1936’s “Things to Come”, “Chandu the Magician” with Bela Lugosi and he would go on to helm “The Maze” and “Invaders from Mars”, both in 1953.

“The Maze” was part of the “3-D Movie” craze of the 1950’s. In an effort to draw viewers away from their television sets and back to the theatres, filmmakers came up with this process that lent itself well to Menzies’ visual style. Many prints of this film have by this time jettisoned the 3-D process but you can spot certain shots and setups that no doubt exist because of the original 3-D presentation. The film was produced by Allied Artists and, in a “Six Degrees of Elvis” element, Allied was on the verge of bankruptcy in 1966 when it released the Presley picture “Tickle Me”, the financial success of which brought the studio back from the brink. “The Maze” is based on a short novel written by William Sandoz and featuring illustrations by Salvador Dali. In turn, this novel is based on the legend of Glamis Castle in Scotland that reportedly contained a mysterious resident that lived in a hidden part of the castle and that no one ever saw. Interestingly, Sandoz seems to have been involved with a pharmaceutical firm that supplied legal LSD to the medical profession in the 1960’s.

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Handsome, reliable B-movie actor Richard Carlson.

The film stars Richard Carlson, an actor I know best from “Beyond Tomorrow”, a fantasy film centered around Christmas. He also appeared in “Too Many Girls” with Desi Arnaz, “Hold That Ghost” with Abbott and Costello and later in “King Solomon’s Mines” and “Creature from the Black Lagoon”. He also was given the chance to direct a handful of small pictures before wrapping up his career in films by appearing with Elvis Presley in 1969’s “Change of Habit”, which was also EP’s last acting role. Veronica Hurst is an English actress born in Malta. She is one of those actresses that acted in virtually nothing anybody has ever heard of on this side of the Atlantic but she is a delight as the fiancee of the tortured MacTeam. She looks and acts a little like Debbie Reynolds and she is pretty and bright and seems to be totally comfortable and confident in front of the camera. She plays Kitty as headstrong and determined and she actually carries this film and does it well. Miss Hurst is still with us, aged 86.

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Pretty and engaging Malta-born English actress Veronica Hurst as Kitty.

Australian Michael Pate plays Gerald’s butler. Pate was seen earlier in the decade in a couple of Boris Karloff horror vehicles. He was the first man to portray James Bond’s CIA buddy, Felix Leiter, and did so in the television production of “Casino Royale” in 1954. He went on to a middling career in films: “Hondo”, “Sergeant’s Three” and “McLintock!” and then worked extensively in his homeland and with his son, also an actor. Aunt Edith is played by Katherine Emery. I thought I had seen her in something before but I must be mistaken. She has a mere 12 acting credits to her name and “The Maze” is the last of them. She lived to age 76, dying in 1980.

The funny thing about “The Maze” is the maze itself. It serves as little more than a setting for a small aspect of the plot. The film is still remembered today only because of it’s 3-D presentation. It was one of the first 3-D films and it helped introduce the format to the masses. And then there’s the pay-off; the reveal at the end of the story. How do I describe it without spoilers? It is remarkable, actually, but it really matters little. The pacing and the build up to this reveal are handled surprisingly well. “The Maze” received mixed reviews at time of release. Notably, one reviewer praised Carlson’s “excellent” performance. One of my favourite reviews is most apt; “(“The Maze” is) moronic but entertaining”. Bang on.

 

On Heroism and Archie Bunker

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“All in the Family” – the first television show to top the Nielsen ratings for five consecutive years.

I’ve been watching the first season of “All in the Family”. I bought it at a garage sale. It came in a fancy tin box and when I got it home and opened it I discovered that the first season of “Archie Bunker’s Place” was inside, as well! I’ve always respected “All in the Family” and considered it one of the grandest, most influential sitcoms in history. Along with “I Love Lucy” and “M*A*S*H”, it is a syndication staple and can almost always be found somewhere on TV. I’ll always remember New Year’s Eve 1999. Amidst worries of a global shut-down with the arrival of the year 2000, I was in my basement watching an “All in the Family” marathon while my wife and baby son slept on the couch next to me.

For the handful of people that don’t already know, “All in the Family” was based on the British sitcom “‘Til Death Do Us Part” and starred Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker. Carroll was born in Manhattan and grew up in Queens; the same area where his future alter ego, Archie Bunker, would live. A member of the Actor’s Studio, O’Connor had a middling film career appearing in smaller roles in such films as “The Defiant Ones”, “Cleopatra”, “Hawaii” and most notably 1970’s “Kelly’s Heroes”. O’Connor would win four Prime Time Emmys for his portrayal of Archie Bunker. When he later won an Emmy for his work on his later series, the drama “In the Heat of the Night”, he became the first actor to win the lead actor Emmy for both a comedy and a drama. Edie Falco later joined him in that exclusive club. Jean Stapleton played Archie’s slow-witted wife, Edith. Stapleton had previously been a musical actress on Broadway but will forever be known as Edith Bunker, a role for which Stapleton garnered three Emmys. Perky Sally Struthers portrayed the Bunker’s mini-skirted daughter, Gloria, winning two Emmys. Carl Reiner’s son, Rob, played Michael Stivic, Gloria’s wife. Reiner won two Emmys playing “Meathead” and went on to be a noted film director with such films as “When Harry Met Sally…”, “A Few Good Men” and “Misery” to his credit. “All in the Family” was the first sitcom in which all the lead actors won Emmys.

Television legend Norman Lear recruited O’Connor to play the lead in “All in the Family”; the role and the show would become iconic. The show is notable for countless reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it spawned numerous spin-offs: “Maude” debuted in 1972 and ran for six seasons. It featured Bea Arthur as Maude, Edith’s cousin. “Good Times” is considered a spin-off of “Maude”. Esther Rolle’s character on “Good Times”, Florida Evans, had appeared as Maude’s maid. “Good Times” also ran for six seasons. “The Jeffersons” was a major hit in it’s own right and featured Lionel Jefferson and his parents who had been friends and neighbours of the Bunkers. “The Jeffersons” lasted 11 seasons – two more than “All in the Family”. “Checking In” was spun-off from “The Jeffersons”. George and Louise’s maid, Florence, had her own show for a mere four weeks. Sally Struthers had her own show, as well. “Gloria” ran for one season. “Archie Bunker’s Place” was more like a continuation of “All in the Family” with a new premise and new characters. After Edith’s death from a stroke, Archie owned his own restaurant and was raising the 10-year-old daughter of Edith’s step-cousin (?). These further adventures lasted four years. The oddest spin-off of “All in the Family” was “704 Hauser”. This was a case of the house the Bunkers lived in getting it’s own show. For five episodes in the spring of 1994, John Amos starred in a “photo negative” version of “All in the Family”. Amos was the head of a black family living at the Bunker’s former address. The difference here was that Amos and his family were liberals dealing with their conservative son dating a white, Jewish woman (Maura Tierney). Like, really? Anyways, for those keeping score at home, “All in the Family” accounts for over 37 seasons of award-winning sitcom entertainment between 1971 and 1994.

“All in the Family”: the mother of all TV shows. Well, a lot of them, anyways.

I remember years ago a friend of mine stated that he couldn’t watch “All in the Family” because Archie Bunker was a bigot. This was in my mind when I started watching the first season last month. A couple things struck me almost immediately.

Archie Bunker is the focal point of this show. He is the head of the family and played by the star of the program. The fact that the main character is seemingly so unappealing is pretty rare in television. Archie comes out with racial slurs that cover all races and denominations. I’m reminded of a line from “Dirty Harry”, a film that was released the same year that “All in the Family” debuted. A colleague of Harry’s says that Harry does not play favourites – he hates everyone equally. The same can be said for Archie Bunker. On the surface it’s odd to think that a bigot is put forward as the star of a television series but there’s more going on here. The character is representative of a certain generation, a generation that is slowly being superseded by another, newer generation. This change and the inherent nostalgia are well presented by the wistful lyrics of the opening theme song of the show, sung by Archie and Edith at the piano. This was a generation that had always been shown and indeed had always seen the world as dominated by white males. A person of another sex or colour was often looked at differently by men of this generation. While not making excuses for hatred – and I am by no means an expert in this kind of thing – these men often did not know any different. It is what they had always seen, it was how they were raised. However, a great number of this generation were untouched by prejudice so perhaps this ‘excuse’ is flimsy at best.

But I bring that up to try to illustrate that, with Archie, his bigotry does not seem to come from a place of hatred. Indeed, through the run of the show, Archie is somehow given a ‘pass’ and still seen as likable. Perhaps his surroundings and some deft writing contributed to his not being eviscerated. Take Mike, for example. Archie’s daughter, Gloria, is married to Michael Stivic, who is Polish and who is living in Archie’s house with his wife while he goes to college. Mike is very liberal and the character was essential to the show being accepted. NOT ONE of Archie’s slurs is let go by Mike.

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“Meathead” became iconic but Mike served to balance out Archie’s rhetoric.

Archie will drop one of his inappropriate comments and the studio audience will laugh. This laughter, actually, could stand some discussion but let’s just say that the audience is laughing incredulously; they cannot believe what they have just heard. Mike will immediately challenge Archie’s generalizations, often bringing in various statistics and facts to counter what Archie has said. He’ll often throw in a joke at Archie’s expense and this will draw a laugh that needs not be explained. Perhaps we could say that the audience laughs at the ridiculousness of Archie’s comments and they laugh with Mike as he makes things right by cutting down Archie and his stereotypes.

Gloria also combats her father’s ideology but perhaps in a more emotional way – she loves her father and knows that he is a good man. This is just something in his personality that needs to be corrected. Edith – Archie’s wife constantly being referred to as a “dingbat” needs it’s own post, maybe – seems oblivious to the vicious side of Archie’s stances. And her responses will at first seem idiotic but they will often cut to the heart of what makes Archie’s prejudices so unfounded. She is unmoved and untainted by her constant exposure to these attitudes.

The show was also able to maintain balance by adding black characters to serve as foils for Archie’s outdated thinking. Mike’s good friend, Lionel Jefferson, often has to listen to Archie’s idiocy. Lionel takes it in stride. He heckles Archie so astutely that Archie doesn’t even realize that he’s being heckled. Lionel nonviolently puts one over on Archie all the time, to the delight of the studio audience. Lionel’s father, the legendary George Jefferson, takes a less pacific approach. He is a perfect nemesis for Archie Bunker in that George is fed up with being suppressed by white society. So much so that he hates “honkies”. In what appears to be the first episode in which we meet George Jefferson, Edith has invited George and his wife, Louise, over for supper. Archie is outraged. He has started a neighbourhood petition to deter black families from moving in; how will having them over for supper look? On top of this, this dinner date means giving up his Mets tickets. The Jefferson’s come over and “George” fights with Archie about there not being any blacks at NASA. The audience revels in Archie getting some of the stuff he constantly slings thrown back at him. The payoff comes when it is revealed that this is not George at all but Louise’s brother-in-law. The real George refuses to sit down and break bread with “whitey”. The audience erupts in laughter. Archie can’t believe that George stayed home instead of coming to supper. “He’s not at home,” Archie is told, “he’s at the Mets game”. How perfect is this? The Jefferson family joins Mike in combating Archie’s bigotry, bringing balance to the show.

The way that Lionel is able to one-up Archie without Archie even realizing he’s being ridiculed hints at Archie not being too swift. And it was savvy on the part of the creators and writers of the show to add Archie’s malapropisms to his character. By mangling the English language, there is the minutest sense that perhaps Archie is not as intelligent as he might be. If he is dumb enough to get words wrong, he is dumb enough to get people wrong: Archie often sees his son-in-law’s way of thinking as smacking of communism: “What new subversion are you fermenting here?”.  And ‘bums’ who don’t work are “welfare incipients”. And Archie loves his cigars, especially when they are given to him as a gift: “Whoever sent these cigars wants to remain unanimous. These cigars are the nectarines of the gods”.

In this day and age, some of the slurs Archie comes out with can feel like physical blows. You find yourself laughing but not so much because you think that what he said is funny. You are also shaking your head at the audacity of the comment and the incredible close-mindedness it represents. “Man, were people really like that?!”, you find yourself saying. Yes, they were. Some will argue that we haven’t come that far from there after all. I tend to disagree. Maybe it helps to have someone be so blunt and verbalize these epithets so that we can be aware of that from which we progress and this can also remind us that we need to be ever vigilant and continue to progress even further. So, who will stand up and be that person? That person – ourselves, really – that we despise and strive to be different from?

Archie Bunker was not presented as a hero, which is rare on television. But Carroll O’Connor? Now, there’s a hero. He was willing to play the buffoon. But more than just a clown, he was willing to portray the dark side of man’s thinking and attitudes. He was willing to present to millions of families every Saturday night the archaic and harmful thinking of a generation. He was willing to be the pathetic “before” picture in a plan for America losing the weight of bigotry. For the greater good, Carroll O’Connor was willing to risk being hated and vilified in order to show the nation what needed to be fixed. That, in my opinion, is heroic. It is a testament to all of the talent involved in making “All in the Family” that Archie and the show emerged as one of the most socially and culturally impactful programs in history.

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Carroll O’Connor and Archie Bunker. Hero and icon.

In somewhat of a postscript to all this, after nine seasons of the original show, “Archie Bunker’s Place” is interesting in that Archie is to some extent remorseful about his attitudes. The show was created, written and ran predominantly by Jews. Archie’s new partner in the restaurant business, Murray Klein – played by Martin Balsam – is also Jewish. At first, Archie cannot fathom being in a partnership with a Jew, which he almost apologetically explains to Murray. Then Murray speaks to Archie’s 10-year-old ward, Stephanie. When Murray learns that Stephanie is Jewish and Archie had to join the local temple so that she could go to Sunday school, he realizes that maybe Archie is not such a bad guy after all. All this is, of course, the ultimate mea culpa for the bigot from Queens. The Archie Bunker of the early days – the beginning of the story arc and that which made the show popular – is no more. The moral here is obvious: if Archie Bunker can change, we all can change.

“Top 23” Review: “The Raven” (1935)

The Raven (1935)

Starring Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Irene Ware, Lester Matthews, Samuel S. Hinds and Ian Wolfe. Directed by Louis Friedlander (Lew Landers). From Universal Pictures.

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Boris billed with only his last name – like Schwarzenegger – and poor Bela has a new middle name, I guess.

Socialite Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) has been in a car accident and lies unconscious in hospital. Her father, Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds), her fiancee, Dr. Jerry Halden (Lester Matthews) and a team of doctors are at a loss. Something has impinged on the nerves at the base of Jean’s brain. The imminent Dr. Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi) is called. Judge Thatcher beseeches him to look into the case but Vollin initially refuses until his ego is appealed to. When Judge Thatcher says that all of the doctors in attendance say that Vollin is the only one who can do anything, Vollin agrees to operate. When he sees the beautiful Jean, he is smitten. The operation is a success and Vollin begins to make his designs on Jean known. Jean gently rebuffs the doctor, saying she is going to marry Jerry. This, combined with Judge Thatcher telling Vollin to forget about Jean, sends Vollin over the edge.

Edmond Bateman (Boris Karloff) arrives at Dr. Vollin’s home late one night. Bateman is on the lam and wants Vollin to change the way he looks so he can avoid the police. Vollin gets an idea. When Bateman suggests that having an ugly face makes one do ugly things, Vollin manipulates the nerve ends at the base of Bateman’s brain leaving him “hideously ugly”. Vollin says he will fix Bateman’s face if Bateman helps him exact his revenge on the Thatchers. Jean, Jerry and Judge Thatcher are part of a overnight party that Vollin hosts at his stately home. During the night, Vollin will set his evil plan in motion.

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“Do I look different?”, Bateman asks, hopefully. “Yes”, Dr. Vollin replies.

As always, I’m here to help you people. I get the feeling that no one has seen “The Raven”. Not the 1963 Roger Corman-directed film that starred Boris Karloff with Vincent Price and Peter Lorre and not the more recent film of the same name starring John Cusack. This version of “The Raven” is one of my “Top 23” favourite films of all-time. Made in the mid-’30’s at the height of Universal’s reign as the premiere monster movie studio, it was a rare chance for Lugosi to feature more heavily in a film than his frequent co-star, Karloff. It’s a well-known story that Lugosi was resentful of Karloff. Lugosi had become popular after his immortal portrayal of Count Dracula in Tod Browning’s legendary “Dracula” (1931) but this left him hopelessly typecast. For one thing, his thick, Hungarian accent made him hard to cast and for another thing the jury was out on the quality of his acting. In “The Raven”, Lugosi not only has the meatier role, more screen time and all the best lines but he actually acts and acts well while Karloff is by comparison poor. Karloff’s character, killer Edmond Bateman, is supposed to be your typical, half-literate, vicious American criminal. Karloff’s dulcet tones and British accent, however, make him a hard sell in this role. A bearded Karloff employs some colloquial dialogue in this film that he simply can’t pull off – he’s too erudite to make it work.

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As Bateman ponders his life, he suggests that a man’s appearance can influence his personality. “You are saying something profound…” says Vollin. He gets a sadistic idea.

I really struggled with how to present this review. The problem is Lugosi. He is very good as Dr. Vollin. I wanted to go into detail describing every scene because of Lugosi and his performance and dialogue. His dense accent seems to add to the luster of the wonderful lines he is provided with. The technique he employs here is perfect for the role of the egotistical fan of Poe who is obsessed with torture and death and he brings exactly what is required to the role. Everything from his accent to his eyebrows to his hair all work together for an excellent characterization. He is simply a joy to watch.

And the dialogue is great. Now, is it so bad that it’s good? I don’t know. It just all works. “The Raven” was written by David Boehm who did nothing, really, of any note besides this film and “A Guy Named Joe”, which Steven Spielberg remade as “Always”. Boehm really threw all of his good stuff into this film. The curator of a local museum visits Vollin wanting to view Vollin’s collection of torture devices. When Vollin says that the raven statue in his study is his talisman, the curator notes that it is a curious talisman, the symbol of death. “Death is my talisman”, declares Vollin. After Jean listens to Vollin play a piece on his pipe organ, she is awed with him. “You’re almost not a man. You’re almost…”. Vollin finishes her thought, revealing his delusions of grandeur: “…a god? A god with the taint of human emotions”. Vollin gives Bateman a tour of his cellar where his torture devices are kept. “They’re very old pieces but, I warn you…ready for use”. Perhaps the finest lines Lugosi is given to speak are delivered after Bateman realizes Vollin has deformed his face. Vollin – with sadistic glee – says “You’re monstrously ugly. Your monstrous ugliness breeds monstrous hate. Good! I can use your hate”. At the height of his madness, when his plans are beginning to be realized, Vollin becomes charismatic and bites of a few great lines with relish: “Do you mind if I smoke?”. “A knife – flashing!”. “Yes, I like to torture”. “Fifteen minutes! There’s the clock. You can see it”. “A humble place. But your love will make it beautiful”. And finally, drunk with the joy his diabolical plans are bringing him, Bela achieves the sublime: “What a torture! What a delicious torture, Bateman! Greater than Poe! Poe only conceived it – I have done it, Bateman. Poe! You are — avenged!!”. These are just a few examples of the film’s stellar dialogue.

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Homicidal bliss. “Poe! You are — avenged!!”

A review from the New York Times, however, certainly did not share my love of “The Raven”. In a sarcastic piece that appeared on July 5, 1935, the reviewer lambastes the filmmakers mostly for the fact that they have tied this film to Edgar Allan Poe when, it argues, those ties are flimsy at best. The film, showing at the Roxy Theater, was eviscerated thusly: “the Roxy’s current tenant should have no difficulty in gaining the distinction of being the season’s worst horror film. Not even the presence of the screen’s Number One and Two Bogymen, Mr. Karloff and Bela (Dracula) Lugosi, can make the picture anything but a fatal mistake from beginning to end”. Ouch. In a nice, old school touch, the review ends with a few words about the live show that was also featured with the film, including the dance team of Tip, Tap and Toe and the Freddie Mack Orchestra.

The cast is B-movie bland with a couple of interesting participants. Irene Ware was a beauty queen that spent only a few years making movies, one of which was “Chandu The Magician” with Lugosi. She was also in “Six Hours to Live” (1932) with Warner Baxter in which she played “The Prostitute”. Her story is a common one for her era in that she acted for a time and then quit the business to raise a family. A picture on her Wikipedia page is identified as being from “The Raven” but it is from “Chandu”.

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Irene Ware was a dish; if a generic one

Samuel S. Hinds was always playing judges and doctors except when he was playing Peter Bailey, George’s dad, in “It’s a Wonderful Life”. He had been a lawyer for 32 years before becoming an actor in 1933, a year in which he appeared in 22 films. In one year. He went on to have 217 acting credits in 15 years – or almost 14.5 movies a year! Nottingham born Lester Matthews has scores of credits to his name the most notable of which are “Werewolf of London” (1935), “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938), “Now, Voyager” (1942), “Niagara” (1953), “Mary Poppins” (1964) and “Assault on a Queen” (1966). He was the go-to guy when you needed a British-type on the cheap. Spencer Charters you’ve seen in many films among them “Libeled Lady” (1936), “Remember the Night” (1940) and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942). He committed suicide in January of 1943 by combining sleeping pills and carbon monoxide poisoning. He then appeared posthumously in “Arsenic and Old Lace”. Inez Courtney was another generic B movie actress. As a young hoofer she had the nicknames St. Vitis, Mosquito and Lightning and then eventually married an Italian nobleman earning her the title Marchesa.

Ian Wolfe was a noted character actor with over 300 credits to his name. For me, Wolfe has the distinction of being in two of my “Top 23” favourite films; “The Raven” and “The Falcon’s Adventure”. But more than that the diversity of his credits is astounding. I grew up loving “WKRP in Cincinnati” and enjoyed Wolfe’s portrayal of Mother Carlson’s sarcastic butler. I couldn’t at first reconcile the fact that this was the same man in “The Raven” 40 years earlier. Wolfe always looked like and played an old man. The same year as “The Raven”, Wolfe appeared in “Mutiny on the Bounty”. He later showed up in “You Can’t Take it With You” with Hinds, 2 “Blondie” movies, 3 “Falcon” movies, “Mrs. Miniver”, “Now, Voyager” with Matthews, “Random Harvest”, “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House”, “A Place in the Sun”, “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”. He appeared in everything from the film “Zombies on Broadway” in 1945 to two episodes of television’s “Star Trek” in 1968 and ’69. He was in George Lucas’ first film, “THX 1138” in 1971 and episodes of “Cheers”, “Remington Steele” and “The Fall Guy” before wrapping up his career in 1990 at age 93 in Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy”. Consider that he made films with Norma Shearer and Madonna. He died of natural causes in 1992, aged 95, leaving behind his wife of 68 years.

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Ian Wolfe has over 300 credits to his name; from 1935’s “Mutiny on the Bounty” to 1990’s “Dick Tracy” (top left) with countless TV appearances, as well.

Director Lew Landers was only in his second year of directing when he helmed “The Raven”, which he directed while still using his given name, Louis Friedlander. Why he changed his name I don’t know but he went on to direct over 100 films at every major studio but most of his work was done on B pictures at smaller studios. He directed two “Boston Blackie” movies before making his final film, “Hot Rod Gang” in 1958 for American International. He lived out his days directing on television and died in 1962.

One thing Universal always got bang on in their horror films was production design. Albert D’Agostino provided the great sets and look for “The Raven” and close to 350 other films, mostly for RKO. Vollin’s home is one of those great, old ‘movie homes’ with lots of wood, lots of curtains, lots of dark colours. A particularly nice touch is Vollin’s sinister organ (he plays Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” while Jean reclines by the fire) and the cool, little alcove it sits in next to the sitting room.

Those of you who love classic films will know what I’m talking about when I say that “The Raven” means something to me. I go way back with the film. When I was in junior high, I would often read books about the classic Universal horror films as I walked to school. It was a case of me knowing of a lot of those films before I had ever seen them. There was a local channel back then that would still present the old “late show”; a usually low quality print of an old film they would run at midnight and later. They presented a series of Universal horror films from the golden era and I taped “The Raven” on a VHS tape. So ever since I was 14 or 15 (a good 30 years ago now) I have revisited this film countless times. I always felt that it was more ‘mine’ than the other, more popular films of the era. “The Raven” is almost an asterisk or a trivia answer; it is a film that Lugosi and Karloff made together that is certainly lesser known. I eventually bought it on VHS and later on the “Bela Lugosi Collection” DVD set. I have, however, held on to that old Polaroid blank VHS tape I originally taped it on. Later in my early 20’s, I would play the film for my friends in my apartment and even these young, hip kids would enjoy watching Dr. Vollin snap his twig. “Do you mind if I smoke?” Man, they loved it. We would laugh and others would think we were laughing AT the film. But we were laughing because it was so deliciously perfect.

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“Do you mind if I smoke?”

Another aspect of my personal connection with this film involves my family. When my two sons were very young, my wife and I began introducing them to classic film. I would scan our shelves to see which films they could possibly handle or understand. We shared Abbott and Costello with them and Blondie. When Halloween would roll around, I would share the old horror films with them. The old films were creepy and atmospheric without being terrifying, satanic or just plain gross so I’d sit them down and we’d watch. “The Raven” was one of the early ones. Now my boys have a bit of a connection with this film as well.

I hope I’ve achieved what I set out to do; turn you on to a film you may have missed and also to an unsung performance of Bela Lugosi’s. He was never John Barrymore but Bela is forever the Count. And if you want to see him really shining in a role and, for once, outdoing Karloff, check out “The Raven”.

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Villains sometimes sleep.

“Top 23” Review: “Dirty Dancing”

I’ve got 23 favourite films: 10 from when I was a teenager and young adult, 10 from my adult years with a wife and kids and 3 ‘life-changers’ that hover over them all. I know these films inside and out and have lots to say about them. Journey with me as I try to explain why I love these 23 films and why I think they’re so appealing.

“Dirty Dancing” (1987) from Vestron Pictures — Starring Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze, Jerry Orbach and Jack Weston

We had a Jumbo Video where I lived. I had a membership. There was a time in my teenage years when I would rent movies from Jumbo; a lot of movies. For a time, I kept the receipts. I’ve always been a romantic. I think I can pinpoint part of the reason for this but its pretty heavy and pointless to get into. Suffice it to say that I have always been drawn to stories that depict a guy, a girl and love. I also love me a ‘shoot-em-up’, don’t get me wrong, but I have always been able to see the appeal in romantic films. Now, do I still seek them out? Absolutely not. As a happily married man, the goofy and heart-touching ups and downs of romance are far removed from where I’m at now so the ‘rom-coms’ and love stories of the last 20+ years appeal to me not one bit. But when I was young and single, I was fascinated by the stories about the many ways to fall in love.

I don’t remember exactly the first time I saw “Dirty Dancing”. If it came out in the theaters in 1987, then we can assume it was released on home video maybe 2-3 years later. Using this math, I must’ve rented it around, say, 1990, when I was 18. I immediately fell in love with it and, as soon as I was able, I added the VHS version to my growing movie collection. I’m sure you all know what it’s about 30+ years down the line but let’s run it down anyways.

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An iconic poster. Baby, Johnny and the “font”.

In the summer of 1963, sheltered Daddy’s Girl, “Baby” Houseman, vacations with her family in the Catskills at Kellerman’s resort. Her father, Dr. Jake Houseman, goes way back with resort owner Max Kellerman, who sets up his grandson, Neil, with Baby. While Baby is dancing with Neil on the first night, she spies ‘the dance people’; Penny and the handsome Johnny Castle. Baby befriends resort employee and Johnny’s cousin, Billy, who takes Baby to the off-limits-to-guests employees quarters where she observes the ‘dirty dancing’ of the title. Johnny expresses concern that a guest is among their number but playfully takes Baby in hand to teach her a few steps.

Meanwhile, Baby’s sister, Lisa, has caught the eye of Ivy League waiter and pre-med student, Robbie. Baby learns, however, that Penny – who is more like a sister to Johnny – is pregnant by Robbie. Penny wants to ‘deal with’ the situation but money is certainly an issue so Baby asks her dad for a loan, not telling him what it’s for. Billy explains that they can get a ‘doctor’ for Penny but the only appointment they can get conflicts with Johnny and Penny’s commitment to do their mambo number at neighbouring hotel, The Sheldrake. Baby, “Miss Fix-It”, suggests solutions, none that are acceptable. In the end, Baby is recruited to fill in and she and Johnny rigorously prepare to dance together and the number comes off OK.

Returning from The Sheldrake, Baby and Johnny begin to make eyes at each other but are interrupted by Billy, who says that the ‘doctor’ – more a butcher – has been and gone and Penny is in a bad way. Baby’s instinct kicks in and she runs to get her dad who attends to Penny but sees that Baby is somewhat involved with Johnny. Sizing up the situation, Dr. Houseman is disappointed in the apparent change in his girl and forbids her to associate with ‘those people’. Baby goes to see Johnny to apologize for the way Dr. Houseman treated him and she stays the night.

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Baby is cool. She is always in control. She takes the lead in Johnny’s cabin.

The next morning, a morose Jake tells his family he wants to leave but he is convinced to stay through the end of Labour Day to be involved in the end-of-season show. Jake engages with Lisa, much to her delight as she had been second to Baby in the past. Deceptively, Baby continues her relationship with Johnny, who reveals himself to be tenderhearted and tired of the divorcee guests using him for sex. Baby encourages him to change and to stand up for himself but Johnny gets upset when he and Baby have to hide from Dr. Houseman, who has been seen taking walks with Lisa and Robbie.

Baby overhears Johnny refusing one of his usual ‘customers’, Vivian Pressman, and is happy. Vivian, however, is not. She shacks up with Robbie and the two are discovered by Lisa. In the morning, Vivian sees Baby leaving Johnny’s cabin and frames Johnny for stealing her husband’s wallet. Baby defends Johnny to Max Kellerman in front of her family, saying Johnny could not have stolen the wallet at the assumed time because, at that time – the middle of the night – she was with Johnny in his cabin. Dr. Houseman is saddened by this news but Baby explains to him that she is sad, too, because her father has revealed his shortcomings in the form of a somewhat condescending attitude towards people who are not ‘like him’.

Johnny tells Baby that he has been cleared of the wallet theft but fired anyways for fraternizing with a guest. They share a tender goodbye and Baby is consoled by her sister. At the end-of-season show, Johnny returns. He interrupts the proceedings and tells the crowd that – as he has always done – he will end the season with a dance in a style favoured by him and his friends – his way. Jake realizes Robbie is a rat and Johnny is an OK guy and he fixes things with both young men. Baby and Johnny dance and the guests at Kellerman’s end the summer in thrilling fashion.

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In obvious symbolism, Baby succeeds at the end. She has navigated the waters and is now free to soar.

Some people have one movie in them, one story. Such is the case with Eleanor Bergstein. “Dirty Dancing” is mostly autobiographical. Bergstein grew up vacationing in the Catskills with her mother, her doctor father and her older sister. While her folks played golf, Bergstein was dancing, however in this respect she was more “Johnny” than “Baby”. She was a ‘mambo queen’ and entered ‘dirty dancing’ contests. Here’s where my eyebrows go up a bit. Being a mid-century guy, I have a familiarity with not only the films and music of the ’50’s and ’60’s but also cultural and societal things and, in my travels, I have never run across the mention of ‘dirty dancing’. I have no doubt that such dancing existed and was referred to as such it’s just that I haven’t heard of this from any other source.

During university, Bergstein was a dance instructor at Arthur Murray studios and then she married and turned to writing. A novel (“Advancing Paul Newman”) and a screenplay (“It’s My Turn”) were poorly received. During production of “It’s My Turn” – which starred Michael Douglas – producers cut a provocative dance number from her story which inspired her to document the dancing she remembered so fondly. She began to write her ‘personal story’, the story of her youth and she started with the music she loved as a teenager. Another of my “Top 23” films is George Lucas’ “American Graffiti”, which is also a personal story of youth. Bergstein wrote her screenplay the same way Lucas did – with a stack of 45’s at her side, the songs forming the skeleton of the scenes she was creating.

Like so many other legendary films, Bergstein’s script for “Dirty Dancing” was rejected by several studios until it landed at the tiny Vestron Pictures, who’s major interest was home video distribution. The project eventually got green-lighted and Bergstein and her producing partner, Linda Gottleib, began assembling their team. For a director they chose Emile Ardolino who had won an Academy Award for a documentary but had never directed a feature film. Another key piece was choreographer Kenny Ortega. Ortega got his start working with Gene Kelly on “Xanadu” (1980) and gained career momentum choreographing for films such as “St. Elmo’s Fire” (1985) and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986) and directing music videos. Ortega choreographed Billy Squier’s video for “Rock Me Tonite” (1984), a video that has been cited as one of the worst in history and one that is considered to have ended Squier’s career. Kenny also directed the video for Styx’s polarizing “Mr. Roboto”, a video that some fans claim “killed Styx”. These two blemishes aside, Ortega is a choreographer of note in Hollywood and has worked on multiple Michael Jackson tours, Super Bowls and Academy Awards telecasts. He also directed and choreographed the “High School Musical” trilogy.

Filming took place in two locations – neither of which was the Catskills. The “Borscht Belt”, the colloquial name given to the string of hotels in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York catering to Jews from New York City, is no more so stand-ins had to be found. Lake Lure, North Carolina has one of the most beautiful man-made lakes in the world and was used for scenes depicting the staff’s cabins, the “log” scene and the famous “water lift” scene. To this day, Lake Lure hosts an annual “Dirty Dancing Festival” which features dance lessons, watermelon carrying and a lake lift competition. Other scenes were shot in Virginia at Mountain Lake. Here we see the beach, the Houseman family’s cabin and the Mountain Lake Hotel Resort that stood in for Kellerman’s. Mountain Lake turns itself into “Kellerman’s” four weekends a year for “Dirty Dancing-themed Weekends”.

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One of the highlights of the “Dirty Dancing Festival” in Lake Lure, NC is the Friday night outdoor screening of the film.
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Travel to the Mountain Lake Hotel Resort in Virginia where you can see the hotel that stood in for Kellerman’s and the cabin where Baby and her family stayed.

Cast as 17-year-old Frances “Baby” Houseman was 26-year-old Jennifer Grey. Grey is the daughter of Academy Award-winner Joel Grey who was initially chosen for a role in “Dirty Dancing”. Jennifer had previously appeared in “Red Dawn”, “The Cotton Club” for Francis Ford Coppola and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. Jennifer was a trained dancer who possessed a sweetness that was essential for portraying the innocent Baby. Grey was nominated for a Golden Globe award for her role and her career is defined by it. While Billy Zane had tested for the role of Johnny Castle, 34-year-old Patrick Swayze was ultimately chosen. In screen tests interacting with Grey, Bergstein was blown away by their amazing chemistry. Previously, Swayze had made notable turns in “The Outsiders” and “Red Dawn”, also featuring Grey. The role of Penny Johnson, Johnny’s dancing partner, went to Cynthia Rhodes. Rhodes was much more a dancer than actress who had previously danced in “Xanadu”, “Flashdance” and “Staying Alive”. After “Dirty Dancing”, Rhodes gave up acting to concentrate on her family, husband Richard Marx and their three boys.

Tony Award-winner Jerry Orbach portrayed Baby’s father, Dr. Jake Houseman. Orbach had been a Broadway actor and singer of some note. He was the first performer to sing the standard “Try to Remember” and had released an album in 1963. Orbach would go on to achieve international fame and admiration for portraying Det. Lennie Brisco for 12 years on television’s “Law & Order”. Jack Weston played hotelier Max Kellerman, an amalgam of the type of regal hotel owner prevalent in the Catskills at this time. Weston brought with him hundreds of credits and a Golden Globe nomination. He appeared in “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies”, “Palm Springs Weekend”, “The Cincinnati Kid”, “Wait Until Dark” and “The Thomas Crown Affair” among many other credits including a notable “The Twilight Zone” episode, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”. And watch for Wayne Knight who, in his first credited film appearance, has a few scenes as “Stan”. (Significantly for me, his only previous film appearance was playing an uncredited waiter in 1979’s “The Wanderers” – another film in my “Top 23”)

The coming together of the cast and crew to create this legendary film was truly serendipitous. The team that was assembled – behind the camera as well as in front of it – created magic this one time. Most of the principles were never able to recreate their success here. Patrick Swayze, as we all know, became a star of the highest magnitude. His star turns in “Road House”, “Ghost”, “Point Break” and other films endeared him to fans the world over. Perhaps more importantly, he was, by all accounts, a pretty good guy as well. Sadly, he died of pancreatic cancer in 2009, aged 57. Jerry Orbach, as we’ve seen, went on to greater fame as Lennie Brisco. However, most of the principles involved with the film were not able to capitalize on the movie’s success.

Eleanor Bergstein had just the one story to tell; her own. The creator of “Dirty Dancing” has not worked again on an entity that isn’t related to this story based in part on her life. Director Emile Ardolino went on to direct only minor films like “Three Men and a Little Lady” and “Sister Act” and sadly died of complications from AIDS in 1993. Everybody loves Jennifer Grey. We always will. Truth be told, though, she was not able to turn her Golden Globe-nominated turn as Baby into a productive Hollywood career. A few weeks before the release of “Dirty Dancing”, she was in a car accident. Her boyfriend, Matthew Broderick, was at the wheel and the mother and daughter in the other car were killed instantly. Grey has said that her physical injuries coupled with her ‘survivors guilt’ made it difficult for her to enjoy her success. She famously underwent two rhinoplasty procedures that rendered her unrecognizable and all but ended her career. Max Cantor played skunk Robbie Gould. He made one more film before turning to journalism. While researching addicts in New York City, Cantor freebased cocaine and became a heroin addict. He died of an overdose in 1991, aged 32. Cynthia Rhodes, Jane Brucker (“Lisa Houseman”) and Lonny Price (“Neil Kellerman”) never really acted again but research shows that as basically a choice of theirs; they went on to other things. Neal Jones, who I thought was cool as “Billy”, guested on random television shows and was invisible in a dozen movies – albeit 4 with Al Pacino (?!) – before dropping off the face. Jack Weston and Charles “Honi” Coles (“Tito Suarez”) both passed away, although aged 71 and 81, respectively.

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“I’m not sure who you are anymore”, Baby’s father once said to her. Imagine if he’d seen her after her rhinoplasty.

Music can account for a great deal of a movie’s charm and appeal. An effective score, yes, can be an asset to a picture but a period piece like “Dirty Dancing” relies heavily on carefully selected songs from the past. I mentioned earlier that Eleanor Bergstein wrote this film from her personal experiences and used her old 45s as a starting point. I mentioned that George Lucas wrote “American Graffiti” the same way and it bears repeating. Lucas invented the idea of loading a film with old songs, something that became commonplace and with his “memoir film” it is fitting. We all have memories of significant times in our lives. Oftentimes, these memories can be triggered when we hear a particular song. Certainly, music has the ability to transport us directly back to a certain time and place and if you’re writing a story about the past then music is invariably going to play a huge part. This is definitely the case with “Dirty Dancing”; after all, the essential elements for dancing are at least one human body – and music.

Bergstein has made a point of separating the songs of her youth into two categories; ‘dirty dancing’ songs and ‘clean teen’ songs. For example, the film starts with the iconic Phil Spector “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes. Bergstein states that, in her youth, this was the type of song that the kids would save to listen to when they were alone with people their own age. To this type of song, they could dance the way they wanted to. Next up as the film begins is “Big Girls Don’t Cry” by the Four Seasons. Here was ‘cleaner’ (‘whiter’?) music that you could listen to in the car with your parents. I suppose a third category would be the Latin mambo and merengue music that was danced to in the Catskills of the era and that is featured in the film.

The “Dirty Dancing” soundtrack – two volumes, actually – sold incredibly well. The initial album sold 32 million copies and spent an incredible 18 weeks at #1. It is one of the five best-selling soundtracks of all-time. Jimmy Ienner was placed in charge of selecting the music; he took on the role of “music supervisor”, the job that George Lucas had created – and did himself – with “American Graffiti”. The soundtrack helped spark a renewed interest in “oldies” but, in what was a brilliant part of it’s mass appeal, contained new music that became iconic. The main theme to come out of the film was “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”, a song that went to #1 on many charts and in many countries. Upon initial release in the UK, the song went to #6. Four years later, when the film was played on television in that country, it re-entered the charts and went to #8! The song, sung by Bill Medley – one half of the Righteous Brothers – and Jennifer Warnes, won an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and a Grammy.

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The fifth biggest-selling soundtrack of all-time. Only outsold by heavy hitters like “Purple Rain” and “The Bodyguard”.

The song has it’s origins in an obscure ’80’s band called Franke and the Knockouts. Lead singer and songwriter, Franke Previte, was approached by Jimmy Ienner to write music for “Dirty Dancing”. Previte was hesitant as he was still trying to make it as a performer. He finally acquiesced and wrote “Time of My Life” with two other writers. Bill Medley was approached repeatedly to record the song but Medley was awaiting the birth of a child and didn’t want to commit. Warnes was approached and said she would only do it with Bill. Medley and Warnes were able to get together after the birth of Medley’s child. It has become one of the best-loved motion picture songs and is one of the songs most often played on the radio. The song is the perfect companion to the emotional ending of the film.

Patrick Swayze really could do it all. Act, dance, fight, rip your throat out and not only write songs but sing them, too. He contributed a three-year-old song he had co-written called “She’s Like the Wind” which was recorded with singer Wendy Fraser and included on the soundtrack. Startlingly when you think about it, the song reached #3 on the charts, #1 Adult Contemporary. Patrick Swayze has charted a song as high as #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. That is higher than any song charted by the likes of Van Morrison, Eddie Money, Alice Cooper or Chris De Burgh.

Eric Carmen was given “Hungry Eyes” to sing. Once again, here was a song that Franke Previte had written and recorded with his band in 1984. Ienner had worked with Carmen when Carmen was lead singer of the Raspberries and called on him to lend his vocal talents. Carmen was hesitant but eventually recorded the song. It became another popular song from the soundtrack and peaked at #4. Two other songs from the soundtrack are personal favourites of mine. “Overload” is a great late-’80’s pop/rock song from Alfie Zappacosta. How a song from an obscure Canadian singer ever ended up on this soundtrack I’ll never know. “Where Are You Tonight?” is a nice tune performed in the style of early ’60’s R&B. It took me awhile to confirm that it was actually Tom Johnston from the Doobie Brothers that sang it. It doesn’t sound like him to me and I was skeptical that it was the same Tom Johnston but it is.

The “oldies” on the soundtrack also add greatly to the charm of the film. And in turn a much deserved light was shone on this music and a lot of the songs re-entered the public consciousness. “Be My Baby” has long been heralded as one of the finest songs from the era and has become iconic. “Stay” by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs is what I call one of the “pillars” of this era. A number one song in it’s time, it is the shortest song to ever reach the top of the charts. “Hey! Baby” by Bruce Channel is the perfect lighthearted back drop to Baby and Johnny dancing on that log. It was this song that inspired John Lennon to learn the harmonica. “Love is Strange”, “Love Man” and “Cry to Me” had prominent positions in the film. “Do You Love Me” is an early Motown classic written by the label’s founder, Berry Gordy, Jr. It was a Top 10 hit when originally released in 1962. Amazingly, owing to it’s use in “Dirty Dancing”, it re-entered the charts 25 years later and reached #11! It is one the few songs from the classic era to perform well on the charts again years after it’s release.

“Dirty Dancing” has something in common with other legendary films. When the film was finished shooting and was edited together, no one liked it. Because Vestron, the company that made the film, was primarily concerned with home video, it was initially thought that after a brief run in the theaters it would go straight to home video. One producer even suggested burning the negative and collecting the insurance (there were those who suggested burning the negative of “Citizen Kane”, as well). Promotion of the film floundered as well as a corporate sponsor that would put it’s money and it’s product to work promoting the film could not be found. The acne product Clearasil was on board for a time until they found out that abortion was a plot point and they pulled out. Bergstein’s partner, producer Gottleib, began to wonder if the film would be released as opposed to when. Of course, it was eventually released to theaters and gradually, through word-of-mouth and a few positive reviews, it gained momentum and became a huge success. It won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe but more than that it became a true fan favourite, adored by millions. Many ‘bit players’ were able to dine out on it for years as part of touring companies singing songs from the soundtrack and dancing to them. Stage shows, a ridiculous and pointless ‘prequel’ and a live television event followed. Catch phrases from the film entered the popular lexicon: “I carried a watermelon”, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner”. Poor Vestron, though. They thought they could recreate this success but released flop after flop and went bankrupt only two years later. The film itself, though, has grossed well over $214 million and has the distinction of being the first film to sell a million copies on home video. I know I had it on VHS.

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You know you’re iconic when…

I think I’ve made a good point that there is a lot of “story” to “Dirty Dancing” and it is no accident that this story takes place in August of 1963. The opening narration even makes the point that this is a time of innocence; not just in Baby’s life but in all of American society. I have always insisted that ‘the fall’ began in September of ’63 when “Leave It to Beaver” was cancelled. That show was the epitome of (the ideal of) family life of the era. Then, it’s yanked off the air and two months later, JFK is shot and then three months after that, the Beatles land in America and nothing would ever be the same.

When you consider what happened to Frances Houseman – and to Johnny Castle – that summer it takes on mythic proportions. The story of ‘coming-of-age’ – transitioning from childhood to adulthood – is a dramatic story, one that is ripe with plot points. Baby comes of age before our eyes and it is tender and beautiful. And she has been in control of her pivot and has navigated it with her moral compass. Her entree into adulthood has been successful and this will inform the rest of her life. Comparatively, we see that Johnny has already had his pivot point and it was corrupt and has lead him down a destructive path.

Baby has been courageous. She has stayed true to herself. She has suffered, yes. She has fallen in her father’s eyes but his failings have been revealed to her, as well. But she accepts these revelations about her father and deals swiftly with any illusions she had about him. She has also brought about great change in Johnny’s life. Through Baby, Johnny has encountered fortitude, optimism and integrity. Meeting Baby has set him on a new path. But let’s face reality; there is no way that Baby and Johnny stay together. They are two different people going in different directions. Each will remember the other always. Each will look back on this summer and remember that this was the time that everything changed – and each will recall the other as a true catalyst of that change in their lives. Knowing that they do not stay together does not diminish your appreciation for the film. In fact, your appreciation grows once you accept and understand that this is not the ‘origin story’ of their relationship. This is their relationship in it’s entirety.

Scholars have found in “Dirty Dancing” comparisons to some of the world’s greatest literature. This film, they suggest, contains the same idea of ‘the journey’ that lies at the heart of “The Odyssey”, for example. Baby – and she does start out as a baby – goes on a journey, a journey we all take, that from childhood to adulthood. Her story contains a lot of the tropes of the epic journey; she starts in innocence but acknowledges the need to progress, she journeys to a mountain where she encounters a ‘castle’, she crosses a bridge to a forbidden place and she suffers which is, of course, the only way to gain wisdom.

But all this heaviness aside, I think the film’s biggest appeal lies in it’s glorious intangibles; those wonderful things that are hard to define but simply make you feel good. I’ve always felt it was significant that the lyric is “I’ve had the time of my life”. Colloquially, it is saying ‘this has been fun’. But philosophically; this has been the moment that will define who I am for the rest of my life.