Bad meaning bad or bad meaning good?













Sunday, July 10, 2016

Mandalay

Mandalay is a relic of Hollywood's pre-code era, back when you could get away with shit like adultery and blasphemy and abortion and drugs and theft and whoring and murder and saying things like "toilet" and "double bed."


The the Hays Code came along and you had to be punished or repent, preferably both. But, before then, we had movies like Mandalay, where our heroine lives in sin, becomes a prostitute... and continues from there.

During the 30s, Kay Francis was on the covers of all of the movie magazines, but she's relatively forgotten today.  It's too bad: While many of her films don't hold up over time, she does. Her demeanor is low-key and, if anything, she underacts, but she serves glamour like no one's business. Francis wears clothes like Dietrich or Dovima.


Not only can she make the most tricky of outfits seem like something she just threw on, she also has the grace and savoir-faire that could make a backless sequinned gown seem occasion-appropriate to a PTA meeting. I mean, it makes perfect sense that Kay Francis would pay a visit to the police station while wearing a floor-length white gown, a hat with a two-foot brim and a fan that unfurls to about a yard wide.


So, we open with Kay--here Tanya Borodoff--on a boat with Ricardo Cortez, her no-good, gun-running lover. He may look great in a white linen suit, but he's a terminal loser who can't pull off a deal. But Kay worships the ground he walks upon....


I believe it was Bessie Smith who said that there's nothing as dangerous as a man who knows how much you love him. It may not have been her words but, regardless, truer ones were never spoken. As Kay Francis is about to learn....


So Sleazebag Boyfriend takes Kay to the Jardin d' Orient nightclub in Rangoon, where he introduces her around to a variety of shady characters, including Nick, who owns the joint and the Countess, who's the resident hostess/madam, as well as some leering old guys in tuxedos. Then Sleazebag trades Kay Francis to Nick for a few cases of machine guns. That's an ammosexual for ya: Whether it's 20 grade-school kids or the woman you love, nothing's quite as important....


Kay sulks and hunger strikes, albeit in a lovely room with a gorgeous carved bed. Then the Countess gives her some wise advice..




Kay Francis decides to do precisely that, making a killer entrance into the Jardin d'Orient that lets everyone know who's the most precious piece of ass in all of Asia--fuck, perhaps the entire Eastern hemisphere...


We then get a too-brief montage of Kay Francis changing outfits, accepting gifts, drinking cocktails and playing torch songs--okay, the same torch song, over and over--on the piano for an adoring audience of men.


Kay Francis is now calling herself "Spot White" for reasons i'm unsure of--Because she always wears white? Because she's one of the few white chicks working the club? Because she's a White Russian? Because she drinks White Russians? No matter.


She gets hauled down to the police station, prompting a fantastic scene in which an utterly blase Kay Francis not only doesn't get deported, but winds up sashaying away with 10,000 of the police chief's rupees to buy herself out of the Jardin d'Orient with enough left over for a nice cabin on the next boat to Mandalay and a new wardrobe of ladylike white clothes. Kay Francis was apparently applying the "if i wear all white, i will look less trampy" philosophy long before Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings  Twice...


Of course, as she's unpacking, she drops her framed photo of Sleazeball Boyfriend--Wait, why did she have that? I've been known to forgive a man anything (twice) but even i would give the Soviet wiped-from-history treatment to anyone who sold me into prostitution. Anyway, she cuts herself on the glass and the cabin boy runs to the bar and gets a doctor there to come look at it and, woohoo, meet cute. Well, kind of. It doesn't take long before he reveals that he's an alcoholic who once operated drunk and killed someone, so he's going off to some colony where everyone has the plague so he can do penance and probably die. She, of course, hears this and immediately wants to come with him....


“We’re two wrecked people. We need each other.”

But wait! Guess who else is on the boat? Why, Sleazeball Boyfriend, of course. He sneaks into Kay Francis' cabin, but she brushes him off. Although first she stares meaningfully at the bottle of wound cleaner or whatever the doctor left her, helpfully labeled  POISON in big letters. But then it seems Sleazeball Boyfriend disappears--having taken the bottle of POISON and fallen/jumped/was pushed off the boat. Everyone suspects Kay Francis of murder...

 

... but then they find not only Sleazeball Boyfriend's suicide note, but a note someone had sent warning him that the cops were waiting for him in Mandalay. Phew! But then Sleazeball Boyfriend returns! he just faked his own death and, well, if it almost got her arrested for murder, that's oke, toots! He's also heard how successful Kay Francis was peddling it and he has this great idea that they'll open up their own whorehouse. Then he can quit running guns and just pimp her out full-time...


... and Kay Francis thinks, "You know, everybody believes this guy is already dead." What will  Kay
Francis do?


As the great Bebe Zahara Benet once said, "I give face, face, face..." 

Mandalay is just over an hour long, which is fine by me: There's no bullshit subplots, no droning on with dialogue, no stupid twists to pad out the running time. It also seems like a film that could have starred Marlene Dietrich--white Russian adventuress who becomes queen of a Far East brothel and then avenges herself on the man who wronged her... it's kind of like Shanghai Express meets Dishonored. Hell, Mandalay even has Warner Oland white slave-ing Kay Francis two years after he attempted to do the same with Dietrich in Express. There's also more than a touch of The Shangahi Gesture here as well....



As for Kay Francis herself, she once said, "When I die, I want to be cremated so that no sign of my existence is left on this earth. I can't wait to be forgotten." Francis was always underwhelmed by fame--it seems she never really intended to be an actress but, sort of wandered into it on a combination of beauty, style and being in the right place at the right time. Francis' interests were chiefly men, booze and travel and she saw movie stardom as a way to get away with it--not unlike those two other legendary existential beauties, Ava Gardner or Louise Brooks. While she may not be quite as iconic as those ladies, Kay Francis is still worth another look...



Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Forbidden Zone


In the immortal words of T.S.  Elliot, "And should I then presume? And how shall I begin?"


Unlike most of the movies on this site, The Forbidden Zone is intentionally weird and idiotic, or weirdly idiotic (actually, now that i think of it, it's idiotically weird). It's hard to make an intentional cult film--it often just comes off to self-conscious and smug to be authentically strange and subversive. However, The Forbidden Zone pulls it off because, however art-school absurd it is, it winds up going even further than intended.

 Yeah, i'm pretty sure that's a blunt. It'd better be.

A true relic of the 80s, down to Herve Villechaize as King Fausto of the Sixth Dimension (Yes!) It's also the first movie soundtrack by Danny Elfman of Oingo Boingo--or, as they were still known back then, the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo...


This German Expressionist/Max Fleischer aesthetic will continue throughout. Except when superseded by moments of bad 60s horror, 40s musicals, Warhol knockoffs and scat humor.


And we open with this guy running out of his basement and--whoa! Blackface. Before the credits even start.


Wait until they get to the Jews, the women, the trannys and the midgets. And the white guys: Everyone is mocked on the basest level in The Forbidden Zone. If you're not ready for that, note the word "forbidden" and move along. Hurry, before the child abuse jokes and menstruation gags kick in! Hitler and Satan will be here soon! Run!


So, the whole  premise, such as it is, is that there is a gateway to the Sixth Dimension (aka the Forbidden Zone) in the basement of the Hercules family: Ma, Pa, Gramps, Flash and Frenchy.


For some reason, The Forbidden Zone has old people played by twentysomething art goons in Caligari makeup and the kids played by aging Jewish comics in Boy Scout suits. But that is neither the last nor the least weird thing we shall see here....




Flash and Frenchy go to school, with their classmates: nerds, skanks, the knife-wielding pimp, the inbred pigtail twins, Chicken Boy and der Fuhrer.There are craps games and gunfights and some sweet jazz harmonizing, but school sucks. Frenchy jumps out the window, goes home, slips on a rollerskate and finds herself in the Forbidden Zone, where she is promptly treated to some weird boxing dudes and a song! Well, sorta, anyway!



Apparently this kid lost his nerve on set, so they wound up having to superimpose someone else's mouth over his face. Like Bette Davis' incorrectly fitted gown in All About Eve or the cloud that passed over the cornfield during a crucial shot in Bonnie and Clyde, it's the sort of on-set problem that only improves the filmic result. This is one of the movie's better musical numbers: The idea of people lip-synching to old 30s big band tunes was a fun idea, but it gets old if that's the only gag. The "Pico & Sepulveda" number is another excellent bit, but most of them--you're just kind of twiddling your thumbs. Or, given what you're watching, gobbling another handful of 'shrooms.


So, King Fausto of the Herve Dimension immediately falls madly in love with Frenchy, despite her odd mole and her penchant for sticking her tongue out at everybody. However, this does not sit well with his wife...


Behold Doris, the Queen of the Sixth Dimension, none other than Susan Tyrell HerSelf. Bow down!


Not because of Queen Doris, but because Susan Tyrrell. Susan Tyrrell's mom was a British diplomat and her dad was Carole Lombard and Loretta Young's agent. Susan Tyrrell played Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams at Lincoln Center and was nominated for an Academy Award for Fat City. Susan Tyrrell has appeared in the films of Andy Warhol, John Waters and Pee-Wee Herman. I wish I was one-tenth that awesome and so do you.


Anyway, Queen Susan Tyrrell sings a song that i'm pretty sure she did at the Mudd Club at least once and then has Frenchy locked up in the dungeon, where she meets some other locked-up girl... boy... boy we already saw, wearing a wig. (It can be hard to tell in this movie whether it's supposed to be a drag queen or a real female because both are often just boys in wigs.) Also King Herve pops through a window to snap photos in a moment that is creepier than was probably intended to be. And then he goes to make it up to the queen...



Fun fact: Herve Villechaize and Susan Tyrrell were actually dating. And, to answer the question that we're all asking: "I roll her up like a donut!" (Or that's what they say on the DVD commentary.)

In the meantime, Frenchy's brother and grandfather decide to jump down into the Sixth Dimension basement hole to rescue her....


Thus follows more scat humor, some flat rabbi jokes, a crucifixion bit, random whippings, some buggery, some bestiality, just padding out the running time here...

 

Meanwhile, Queen Susan Tyrrell ties up Frenchy in her electrified torture chamber. I must say, i enjoy a nice, scenery-chewing Susan Tyrrell Sprechstimme  more than the tenth or eleventh lip-synch to a Cab Calloway tune. Don't get me wrong: I freaking love Cab Calloway. Did i ever tell you about the time i saw him at a Mets game when i was about six? It was summer and--


--whoa! Alright, yeah, back to the film. I will say one thing: Even if The Forbidden Zone loses your attention, it won't be for long. The evil queen is defeated with the help of Warhol superstar Viva, who is wearing some kind of turd hat and never stops talking--in other words, standard Viva. Frenchy is declared the new Queen of the Sixth Dimension and everyone eats a bunch of hash brownies, drinks some Tequila and gets down to the Go-Gos...


The weirdest thing about The Forbidden Zone is perhaps how gosh darn much everyone involved believed in it. Herve Villechaize not only sunk his pay back into the film, he painted the freaking sets. (Only the part below the wainscotting. Ba-zing!) Many others also played multiple roles both in front of and behind the camera. I'm not sure what inspired such dedication, except for the fact that The Forbidden Zone looks like it was a fuck of a lot of fun to make.