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Supply and Demand 2: Four More from the MGM Vaults

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Friday, Dec 9, 2011
Another collection of diverse curiosities from deep within the Manufactured on Demand vaults of MGM.

As we slowly move away from the days of digital reproduction, as Blu-ray betters DVD in the dying format race, those savvy studios, sensing the downturn, have come up with a clever way to satisfy the cinematic purist…and their bottom line. Welcome to the world of Manufactured on Demand, a service in which the major movie makers of today - Sony, Fox, Warner Brothers, Universal - scan their vast catalog of titles and sensing limited interest in same, make their more obscure wares available for a copied to DV-R fee. While not really meant to replace the standard sell-through product, this intriguing business model bets that there are enough people out there anxious for some of these Tinseltown rarities that they’ll be willing to pay a price (usually around $19.99) to have them for their very own.


Every month, new selections are announced, with companies coming to the fore with interesting and often long forgotten favorites. Everything from old ABC Movies of the Week to classics considered OOP or without a viable commercial outlet are presented as part of a goodwill gesture, all under the guise of giving fans what they want. Granted, sometimes the pickings are very slim indeed. In other instances, lost classics can and are rediscovered. In the case of the four works from MGM discussed here - Top Banana, Little Cigars, The Quartermass Xperiment, and The Christine Jorgensen Story - we have some intriguing entertainments and a couple of near misses. For the most part, however, we get a chance to see the other side of Hollywood, the forgotten past where not every release is respected and not every film demands a tricked out special edition. Let’s begin with a surreal starring vehicle featuring a famed ‘50s face:
  


Top Banana (dir. Alfred E. Green, 1954)

Jerry Biffle is the center of the successful Blendo Soap program, a variety TV hour. He’s also a harried host who has sponsors bothering him and crazed co-workers mutinying. When his bosses demand he force a romance with an unknown starlet (to bring in the female demographic), he picks pretty department store model - and supposed girlfriend - Sally. Unfortunately, she’s fallen for show crooner Cliff. Now Jerry is facing ruin, especially if his proposed public elopement doesn’t come off as planned.


In the ‘50s, there was no bigger star than Phil Silvers. Like Lucille Ball, he was a comedic actor, not a stand-up or practiced funny man. He got his start in vaudeville, used his burlesque experience to break into more traditional stage work, and then found major success with the popular character of Sgt. Bilko in the sitcom named after him. By the dawn of the counterculture, he was a farce fixture, a go to combination of square and sass. One of his greatest triumphs was a two year stint on Broadway in the manic musical Top Banana. A take on Milton Bearle and all the noted names who went from the road show to regular prime time fame, it won Silvers a Tony Award.


Apparently, you had to be there. In order to capture this performance, producers decided to avoid a cinematic translation and just “film the play,” so to speak. The result is a weird amalgamation of theatrical work and surreal screen chaos. Originally offered in 3D (though prints no longer exist), the idea was to give moviegoers the experience of seeing Silvers and the show “as it happened.” As a result, there is a legitimate lack of big production value, parts of the plot seem truncated, and for something supposedly lighting up theaters around the country, the sparse 80 minute running time seems suspect. Even more disconcerting are the songs. As a musical, none of those moments are memorable. Still, Silvers carries it all, his human hurricane eye of the storm persona pushing us past the weak spots. Top Banana is interesting, if not indicative of what made this actor so special. 
Little Cigars (dir. Chris Christenberry, 1973)

When gun moll Cleo gets sick of her mob boss beau’s abusive ways, she threatens his life, steals some money, and heads out of town. With hitmen hot on her trail, she ends up a waitress in a small town diner. There, she meets the members of Slick Bender’s traveling troupe, a group of little people who put on free shows for interested patrons. What Cleo doesn’t know is that this company is actually a den of thieves. While the act is going on, members sneak out and rob the audience blind. Hoping to save herself, she decides to use the gang to get rich quick. Soon, Slick has fallen head over heels.


When you hear the premise for this preposterous mix of exploitation and ‘comedy,’ you can’t quite envision how director Chris Christenberry intends to pull it off. When you see the final result, you’ll understand the concern. Little Cigars (also known as The Little Cigars Mob) wants to be both politically incorrect and pure PC, knowledgeable about its subject and yet skewed as to what is and is not acceptable. Terms like “dwarf” and “midget” are tossed around with irregular aplomb, one being bandied about as acceptable while the other becomes an insult, and visa versa. Similarly, actress Angel Tompkins (a Playboy model and wannabe film star) simultaneously seduces and scorns everyone here. If she wasn’t already known for her horribly hot temper, she’d be the most unlikeable lead in ‘70s sleaze.


As a result, it’s hard to say if much works here. As an oddity, as a souvenir of someone’s stunted idea of entertainment, Little Cigars is barely salvageable. Some of the dialogue is clever, and the various permutations the narrative goes through (especially the middle act heists concocted by Cleo and the boys) are engaging. What doesn’t work…at all…are the various pseudo sexual asides and attempted romances. At any given point, one or more members of Slick’s group have their eyes (and other parts) on Cleo’s statuesque blonde frame, and the hints and innuendo end up feeling gross and unseemly. The ending, which involves violence and betrayal, is also wildly out of place, given the subject matter and set-up. Little Cigars is the perfect example of something that may have worked in creative theory, but never had a chance once brought to the big screen. It barely manages to be more than a curio.
The Quatermass Xperiment (dir. Val Guest, 1955)

A spaceship, designed and built by the renowned Professor Bernard Quatermass, has just crash landed in the British countryside. Investigating the wreckage, the scientist discovers that only one of its three astronauts - Victor Carroon - is still alive. Stricken by shock, he is immediately rushed to a nearby hospital. But something is not right with Carroon. Quatermass soon learns that he is mutating into an extraterrestrial organism that can absorb other life forms. Realizing that if the entity “spores” it will destroy the rest of the world, our hero must find a way to stop Carroon once and for all.


As one of the first successful Hammer Films ever, The Quatermass Xperiment is actually a big screen take on a small screen mini-series created by famed UK author Nigel Kneale. Needing to compress the material to fit a movie’s run time, the results are often championed by those who don’t know the source and criticized by others who view the treatment as tame. Indeed, there are elements of standard ‘50s sci-fi schlock on hand, aspects and approaches that time and attempts clearly manipulate. On the other hand, director Val Guest takes an unusual creative stance, trying a “you are there” level newsreel look…and for the most part. It works. While the plot percolates along with undeniable bounce, we get a real sense of place and process.


For many, however, The Quatermass Xperiment marks the beginnings of the rise in British horror. While few knew the Hammer name in 1955, it would soon step in to become a benchmark for the genre’s coming of age. As Roger Corman and his crew were busy building fake monsters out of mud and papier-mâché,  the UK was looking into more important cinematic elements like character and narrative. They pushed the boundaries of violence (though here, all the nastiness is off screen) and added a bit of sexual spice to the mix. While none of this is really present in Quatermass, you can see the foundation being laid. The combination of seriousness and storytelling announce a relatively radical change in aesthetic aim and though truncated from TV, the tale is still solid. Many may wonder what all the horror hubbub is about, but the truth is that The Quatermass Xperiment is a good film. It may not be great, but it gets the job done.
The Christine Jorgensen Story (dir. Irving Rapper, 1970)

As a young boy, George Jorgensen never felt quite right. He loved to play with dolls and dress in girl’s clothing. As he ages, he finds interactions with members of the opposite sex uncomfortable. Though he has support from his family, George is never settled…that is, until he learns about an experiment surgical procedure which could “reassign” his sex.  Jumping at the chance to solve his psychological problems once and for all, he goes ahead with the course of treatment, becoming Christine. Sparking massive media interest, she is both embraced and shunned in her new status.


Long before transsexuals were given their own social stature and support, the sex change operation was a whispered about taboo. Those who actually underwent the procedure hid within their own circles, with few venturing out into the world of public scorn and ridicule. One such exception was George, eventually Christine, Jorgensen. The most publicized person of his or her day, the story of how a small town boy became a seemingly stunning woman would wow the post-war conservative community until the ‘60s came along and further blurred gender politics.  So naturally a book, and eventually a movie, was made of this remarkable tale, and while telling in how it approaches the subject, The Christine Jorgensen Story suffers from many of the misgivings and misunderstandings that still haunt those who suffer through this syndrome today.


Associating “the sissy” with someone like Jorgensen, the entire early years part of the film forces the younger version of our subject into ridiculous, clueless cliches. Watching the amateur acting of young Trent Lehman as he tries to provide some context for all the pre-pubescent cross dressing is a chore, and the vague voice over narrative is more melodramatic than meaningful. Still, once John Hansen steps in to take on the adult George, thinks get much better. There are moments of quite tenderness and some ridiculous high camp. Since many of the medical facts had to be avoided, we don’t get a great deal of how-to. Still, for what it tries to accomplish, and when it was attempting to accomplish it, The Christine Jorgensen Story is intriguing. It may seem backward by today’s standards, but it still has reasons to recommend it. 

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