Need help deciding what to watch this weekend on Warner Archive Instant? The Retro Set has you covered with our must-watch Warner Archive picks! Each week, we select a small handful of can’t miss titles from the Warner Archive Instant catalog: some hidden gems, others well known classics … all deserving of a look or two. Or Three.
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This week we’re spending some time in the topsy turvy 1960s, with three films that represent how wildly varied the decade truly was. Robert Morse, John Gielgud, Rod Steiger, Jonathan Winters, Liberace, Milton Berle, Dana Andrews, and more, gleefully decimate American consumerism with the unappreciated and highly relevant absurdist satire The Loved One (1965). A very young (and super hot) Jane Fonda stars in a light and airy rom-com romp that is establishment-friendly and traditionally-gender-role appropriate, Any Wednesday (1966). And badasses George Kennedy and Jim Brown, with support from a drunken, cantankerous Fredric March, team up in the not-so-great …tick…tick…tick (1969/1970)
Must Watch Warner Archive Instant: 12.12.14
Carley’s Pick: THE LOVED ONE (1964)
Advertised upon its release as “the one film with something to offend everyone”, The Loved One is one helluva black comedy jam. One relentless deadpan riff after the other, director Tony Richardson’s absurdist allegory is a not-so-gentle poke at everything from Capitalism and American consumerism, to the Space Age, to the Cold War, to Hollywood and the media, to British propriety and pretty much anything else you can think of. The initial ‘shock’ of the film has waned with time, but even the most jaded 2014 audiences would be hard pressed not to watch this film and utter the words “what in the hell”, ad infinitum, with a sordid smile.
As outrageous as the film is, the plot itself is fairly straightforward: a love triangle caught in the corrupt sands of commerce. (An A+ to anyone who knows where I stole that line from…) Englishman Dennis Barlow (Robert Morse) is a floundering would-be-poet who wins a round-trip ticket to the destination of his choice. He chooses sunny Los Angeles where he intends to spend time with his Uncle, Sir Francis Hinsley (Sir John Gielgud, fittingly), who is a production designer at a major studio. When Sir Francis kills himself, after being canned after 30 years of service by smarmy studio exec Roddy McDowall, Barlow takes responsibility for making the arrangements, settling upon the finest funeral home in the world: Whispering Glades. Think of it as a Disneyland after-dark; a creepy plastic paradise that marries death with beauty (or, as it turns out later, carnal sex … there’s a reason the Whispering Glades sales girls could all pass for Playboy bunnies.) Liberace is the head salesman who introduces Barlow to the myriad options available for the dearly departed, aka, “loved ones”, at a hefty cost (again, Disney anybody?), peddling wares that the dead simply can’t live without. Barlow falls in love at first sight with Whispering Glades’ beautiful cosmetologist, Aimee (Anjanette Comer). A childlike innocent, Aimee (aptly named after Aimee Semple McPherson) is rather emotionally unstable and is a devout disciple of “the Blessed Reverend Glenworthy”— he is the man behind the curtain who created Whispering Glades and is a revered symbol of spiritual purity to Aimee and the media.
Of course, the Blessed Reverend (played with delicious venom by Jonathan Winters) is really an evil, calculating Capitalist crook with some seriously kinky sexual appetites, even for a 2014 audience … I mean … we’re talking orgies in caskets, for god’s sake. He presides over his fake-plastic empire as though he were Lucky Luciano, Harry Cohn, and the maniacal Dr. Strangelove all in one.
The plot thickens and quickens when the Blessed Reverend’s brother, Henry (also played by Winters), who is a former studio director that was canned by Roddy McDowall alongside Gielgud, is employed at the Los Angeles pet cemetery at the mercy of his brother. Barlow, needing a job badly in order to sustain his active courting of Aimee, is taken in by Henry, and the two begin a very savvy business together. Barlow tries to woo sweet Aimee with his poetry, but has a fierce contender in Aimee’s coworker, Whispering Glades’ master cosmetologist, Mr. Joyboy (Rod Steiger, in a fantastic comedic performance that is solid gold). Aimee believes Joyboy to be the proper choice for a mate, until, that is, she is taken home to meet Joyboy’s oversized mother, which turns out to be a Lynchian nightmare. (One of the seven deadly sins are uncomfortably ostracized here as the mother orgasms off food commercials and practically bathes in pig meat and cranberries.) Barlow and Joyboy’s fight over Aimee’s affections coincides with the Blessed Reverend’s decision to turn Whispering Glades from a funeral home into a home for the elderly—there’s more money in it. But what to do with the loved ones already interred on the property? Simple, according to Henry: blast ‘em into space. Using ‘advanced rocket technology’ as pioneered by a punk whiz kid, the Blessed Reverend gets the military in on the game … wooing them with sexual favors from Whispering Glades’ leggy ladies.
Aimee is a pure, poetic soul, but she also is highly unstable: she lives in an abandoned house at the top of a “slide area” in the Los Angeles hills, paying no heed to the menacing heaves and creaks of the flooring, telling the freaked out Barlow “what could be more beautiful than eternal risk?” To her, “Whispering Glades as a way of life” and she embraces death as something sacred and beautiful, which is why she has sought spiritual shelter, like a Sister to the Order, within its Disneyland-like funeral grounds. When Barlow tries to shake her to her senses, telling her how corrupt and ridiculous the whole thing is, Aimee’s world crumbles and she loses her mind completely. There’s a Louis Malle-esque moment as Aimee runs through the broody nighttime streets of L.A., her world a crumbling nightmare. She desperately tries to meet with the Blessed Reverend, to hear from the man himself that her world isn’t changing. He praises her “astonishing purity”, but the lascivious lecher only wants to have his way with her. She can’t handle it, snaps, and ends her own life there in the delusional beauty of the home she loved so much.
Joyboy is terrified at discovering Aimee’s suicide—not because of her, but rather because he fears for his job. He comes to Barlow for help. Barlow’s solution is simple: he requests every cent in Joyboy’s bank account in exchange for getting rid of Aimee’s body. He does a switcharoo on the military, putting Aimee’s body in the cosmic-bound casket, and buries the military loved one in the pet cemetery. The film ends with a rousing chorale of “America the Beautiful,” as Barlow watches Aimee’s rocket blastoff on a TV in an airport lounge. The launch has become a hungry media frenzy, its ceremony every bit as outrageous and He smiles, rises, with a cigar in his mouth, and walks to the gate to get the hell out of the country.
With such an extraordinary cast, how is it this film is not more well known? (Did I mention Milton Berle, Dana Andrews, James Coburn, Tab Hunter, Lionel Stander, Robert Morley, and Reta Shaw?) After repeated viewings, the answer can only be that it was simply too far ahead of its time. Sure, it’s certainly a mad, mad, mad, mad, mad world of misadventures—that outrageousness is what keeps the laughter going and the minutes speeding by. But it is Tony Richardson’s cerebral damnation on the hypocrisies of our society’s moral foundations that makes the film ageless.
Wade’s Pick: ANY WEDNESDAY (1966)
It’s a kick to watch Jane Fonda films in the 60s. The studios (and she, herself) seemed to struggle with her identity; sex kitten, progressive or innocent with a mind for business and a body for..? But just who was she? The daughter of one of the biggest stars in the world, it was obvious before the decade was over she was going her own way. She started with a wholesome “teen” comedy, Tall Story, then almost immediately set out to destroy that image with the over-the-top lurid awesomeness of Walk On the Wild Side. (A must-see, BTW). After that, she pinged back and forth from frothy rom-coms (Sunday in New York) to adult dramas (Joy House). Right before she jettisoned the bright eyed innocent with Barbarella, she made Any Wednesday, a very enjoyable, if highly sexist, farce.
Based on the stage play, Fonda is something of a ditz who holds onto her morals and standards of not sleeping with a very public multimillionaire — at least for a time. John Cleves (Dean Jones), a roguish Time Magazine “Man of the Year”, buys and sells companies for lunch and claims he’s faithful to his wife 6 out of 7 days. On every Wednesday, he pretends to fly out of town for business and has a pile of women who will pretend to be a long distance operator, placing the call to his wife so he can have a quick chat from Chicago, Baton Rouge, or wherever else he wants her to think he is, all the while cavorting with his bunnies. He spends a year plying Fonda with flowers, and creaky pick-up lines, until he discovers her weakness is balloons and gains entry into her apartment and her nether regions.
The real farce kicks in when Cleves has his company buy Fonda’s apartment so she can afford the rent, and writes it off as an “Executive Suite.” Before long, Cleves’ ditzy secretary (every female in the film is ditzy or a projection of the swinging’ 60s male fantasy) gives the key to this company suite to a business associate from out of town, played by Disney regular Dean Jones. When Mr. Cleves’ wife shows up and wants to “redecorate” said suite, “hilarity ensues.”
Any Wednesday is a lightweight confection that’s most appealing when it’s not trying to state its case for male superiority, or render stereotypes in a most frightening fashion. Lets not even dare mention the “gay decorator.” Puh-leeeze!
Jason Robards, Jones, and Rosemary Murphy are all well equipped to handle the fluff, and are all enjoyable. In fact, the weakest link is Fonda herself, who can’t really be blamed for the one note thinness of her character, but her whining and crying does get tiresome. Still and all, this is fun, if a little long, stuff to watch while sipping champagne and dreaming of a bygone world of martinis, Don Drapers and girls who just can’t help it.
Jill’s Pick: TICK…TICK…TICK (1969/1970)
Why, movie gods and goddesses, must this movie be so bad? It’s because we can’t have nice things. We’ve always needed well-made films about the social injustices in this world. Film adaptations of real-life events, or even fictionalized ones based on real trends, are the easiest way to inform the general population of serious social issues. Yet so many of these necessary films are really bad, at least in viewing them with the benefit of hindsight, and the benefit of being somewhat removed from that time and place. Message movies, no matter when they’re made, rarely hold up when looking through a modern day lens. They too often handle these social issues by resorting to overused tropes and hurtful stereotypes.
Here’s the thing: these movies attempt to address heavy topics such as racial and social inequality, brutality, and morality in an inconspicuous, natural way. Some succeed (For instance, the brilliant To Kill a Mockingbird and In the Heat of the Night, with the latter being problematic in spots, but overall a well-made, important film). The end result in these necessary films is often a “preachy” vibe, and a sense that actor performances and filmmakers’ efforts are merely “phoned in”; it’s a call to action, but in a “how can we address these issues without making audiences uncomfortable” sort of way. Within many of these so-called “message” movies, there’s a mixture of laughable scenarios that walk the border of the unpleasant, real truth, and Hollywood fantasy—which, to be fair, is what Hollywood was and is designed to do: provide escapist entertainment for audiences. But if Hollywood is going to delve into the devastatingly real world we live in by attempting to guide our consciences onto the right path, it needs to do so whole-heartedly, and without reserve.
In Ralph Nelson’s …tick…tick…tick, we do get a sense of the desperation that so many discriminated people of color felt and experienced in the American South, but just on the surface; we’re kept at a safe, segregated distance. It’s glossy, with a Hollywood-sanctioned amount of grit to make it feel like real life. Making us all feel like we’re doing something, participating in real change, when we’re not. In a small Southern county, Sheriff John Little (George Kennedy) is making the rounds on his last day in office. He acts defeated, perhaps bitter. We quickly learn that he recently lost his bid for re-election for sheriff to Jim Price (Jim Brown), a black man who was voted into office with strong support from the black community and political activists. Sheriff Little is chastised by locals for losing to Price (and by chastised, we mean some serious racial slurs being hurled here). John Little responds with professionalism, standing by the legal process with his words, so as not to appear vulnerable, but you can tell he’s conflicted in his heart and mind.
The new Sheriff Price has a dangerous job ahead of him. The “good old boys” refuse to address him as “Sheriff” or even “Mister”, using the degrading title of “boy.” His life is continually threatened, and his deputy (who is also black) is brutally beaten while on patrol. Price never flinches, rarely displays anger or disdain. He is stoic, almost to a fault. But in this crazy world he lives in, he can’t afford to show any emotion or even do his job, really. Even with the power of the Sheriff’s badge on his chest, one act of the law against a white person would cause mayhem. And, so, when Sheriff Price arrests a white man on the charge of vehicular manslaughter, all hell breaks loose. Besides having the support of his deputy, he’s also backed by the drunken, eccentric, bigoted Mayor Jeff Parks (an aged Fredric March in his penultimate role), who believes in following the law no matter who is enforcing it. But it’s an unlikely alliance that allows Price to finally do his job effectively: John Little swallows his pride (and perhaps working on his own bigotry) and comes to Price’s aid, serving as his deputy.
All of this sounds like an interesting premise, right? Unfortunately, it is a poorly executed, problematic, lazy exercise. The conflict that is brewing from the very first frame never really materializes adequately, and the conclusion is abrupt, unresolved, and far too “ha ha” for the seriousness of the subject matter. Our barrier-crushing black hero is never allowed to completely come into his own without the aid of Little, often resulting in some rather emasculating moments. While the intent of this pairing, and Little’s assistance, is such that the white folk in the town will come to respect Price, it’s not at all carried out that way. It results in Price pleading with them for help, looking vulnerable, while Little towers over the opposing citizens like he’s a bodyguard. Maybe it’s just a lousy story; maybe it just hasn’t aged well; maybe it’s the performances. Admittedly, in terms of acting chops, George Kennedy’s talents are far superior than that of football star-turned-actor, Jim Brown’s. But even with two Academy Award winning actors doing their thing, (with one being a 50 year veteran of the stage and screen), and Brown having a couple moments where he can display his athleticism and general all-around badassery, it’s not enough to save this film.
…tick…tick…tick is certainly a product of its time, but that’s no excuse for it being a really shitty movie.
On a lighter note, a warning: there are copious amounts of half-naked, sweaty George Kennedy. So, you know, just be ready for that.
You’re probably thinking “…no…no…no” I will not watch …tick…tick…tick, but you really should. It’s a reminder that we should always keep Hollywood on its toes by holding it to a higher standard…especially if they want to stay in the “social causes” business.
And if you’re a completist of the Fredric March nature (like this writer), then …tick…tick…tick is an unfortunate must.