Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Batman (1989)

I haven’t yet written a proper piece about Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) as part of my efforts to watch or revisit every major Hollywood movie released in 1989, so I figured it was long past time to revisit the movie that redefined the cinematic superhero by celebrating Jack Nicholson’s Joker for The Great Villain Blog-a-thon 2019!

The Importance of Being Jack: Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman

Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) places Michael Keaton’s Batman and Jack Nicholson’s Joker on unstable moral ground. They’re each branded at different times social outcasts or saviors of Gotham through the news media, and the film itself is about the manipulation of public opinion through the press. (Even typing that sentence in 2019 made me wince due to our current state of political affairs.) Likewise, the film’s narrative provides a playground for intertwined character arcs. The Joker presides over Batman’s origin story just as Batman presides over the Joker’s transformation at the creation of his permanent, toxic grin.

Gotham City Always Brings a Smile to My Face

Since the Joker’s on everyone’s mind with the buzz concerning the release of Todd Phillips’ Joker later this year, it seems the perfect time to reflect upon the iteration of the Joker that brought the character back into the cinematic consciousness. First, however, it’s entirely relevant to trace back the origin of the Joker.

the joker 1940 batman

Created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane and (maybe?) Jerry Robinson, the Joker made his debut in the debut issue of Batman on April 25th, 1940 (about a year after Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27). The team had originally killed off the character in that very same issue, but a last minute editorial “intervention” allowed the Joker to survive the issue and ultimately become Batman’s archenemy.

The criminal mastermind first appeared as a psychopath with a sadistic sense of humor – the relative levels of depravity dictated by didactic cultural trends and authoritative censorship of the moment. Most generally, the Joker, with his bleached skin, green hair, red lips and preference for chaos over order serves as Batman’s aesthetic and moral antithesis.

The source of the character’s iconic visage predates even his first comic appearance by twelve years. Robinson fed Bill Finger scattered ideas about his personality. Finger took these notes and for his first concept sketch of the joker drew from a picture of Conrad Veidt’s Gwynplaine in Paul Leni’s silent masterpiece The Man Who Laughs (1928) — a movie I plugged on Netflix’s Inside the Envelope earlier this year.

conrad veidt the man who laughs
Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine in Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs (1928).

Like the Joker, Gwynplaine has become disfigured with a permanent grin. He becomes a freak show in a traveling carnival. Unlike Victor Hugo’s source novel, Leni’s film allows for a happy ending and a measure of solace for its tortured protagonist. Not so for our Joker – who from the earliest stages of creation had been earmarked to become Batman’s Moriarty. (It should be noted that Finger, Kane and Robinson disagreed about who actually played a hand in the character creation. Finger and Kane say Robinson had nothing to do with it beyond bringing in a Joker playing card. Robinson meanwhile gives himself a full one-third credit.)

The Town Needs an Enema

Considered a dormant property through the 1970’s the notion of a Batman movie gained traction after the success of Superman (1978). Producers Michael Uslan, Benjamin Melniker, Jon Peters and Peter Gruber pitched the project around Hollywood until Warner Bros. decided to accept the film on its production slate in the early 1980’s.

Paul Reubens as Pee Wee Herman in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure — the reason we have a Tim Burton Batman film.

A 1983 script by Tom Mankiewicz floated around for a number of years (with filmmakers like Ivan Reitman and Joe Dante attached at various points), but Warner Bros. eventually attempted to woo to a hot young director by the name of Tim Burton, fresh off his first success Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985). Burton contacted screenwriter and comic-fan Sam Hamm to write a screenplay. Hamm dispensed with the origin stories that had been a focus of earlier drafts and used flashbacks to help “unlock the mystery” of the Batman.

After Beetlejuice became a surprise box office success, Warner Bros. finally put up Tim Burton’s bat signal. It was producer Jon Peters who suggested Michael Keaton for the role of Bruce Wayne (despite public skepticism from his partners), having seen the comedic actor’s nuanced dramatic performance in Clean and Sober. With WB blessing the Keaton casting decision, Burton officially agreed to direct the film.

Michael Keaton in Clean & Sober (1988) — a sneak peak into the darker side of a Keaton that led him to play Bruce Wayne in Batman.

Haven’t You Ever Heard of the Healing Power of Laughter?

Casting the comic Keaton (best known for films like Beetlejuice, Johnny Dangerously and Mr. Mom) coupled with a director best known for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure caused protests and widespread panic that the movie would reflect the campy 1960’s TV series. The next step, publicly casting the Joker, had to assuage premature and unfounded concerns about the film’s tonal direction. Jack Nicholson had been the first choice of producer Michael Uslan and Bob Kane (acting in an advisory role) since they first tried to pull the project together in 1980.

Tim Burton wanted to cast Brad Dourif, but the actor’s name carried no cachet. Other actors like Robin Williams dropped their own names into the contest, but “Jack” remained everyone’s first choice. Nicholson finally acquiesced but made a number of specific demands  in his contract, including top billing, the number of hours he would work each day, the number of weeks he’d be willing to shoot, and days he’d need off to attend Los Angeles Lakers home games.

the joker cesar romero

Costume designers took a number of cues from Cesar Romero’s wardrobe in the Batman TV series just as Nicholson borrowed mannerisms from Romero’s flamboyant histrionics. Despite the similarities, Nicholson’s Joker became a creation distinctly “Jack.” It would be easy to trace Nicholson’s “Clown Prince of Crime” back through his own roles in films like The Shining and The Witches of Eastwick.

Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

Here was a legendary acting icon taking hold of a comic book villain and molding it into something new and cinematic. Romero had owned the small screen 21 years prior, but Jack commanded the big one. For many (like myself) it was their first chance to see a live action Batman, and The Joker immediately became the greatest on-screen villain since Darth Vader. Manic and unpredictable, Jack’s Joker portrayed a brand of nihilism that felt dark and dangerous but oddly relevant in that some of his “crazy” actually made sense.

The Pen is Truly Mightier Than the Sword

Tim Burton populated his Gotham City with moral grey. Neither was the Batman wholly altruistic (as was the case in Adam West’s incorruptible incarnation) nor the Joker purely, soullessly evil. Just like advance, pre-release buzz on the film, the war between Batman and the Joker played out in the public sphere. The enemies waged a cerebral war of information rather than a physical struggle.

In keeping with the notion of Batman and the Joker being two sides of the same coin, the characters shared nearly identical screen time. Bruce Wayne/Batman appeared on screen for 32:30 while the Joker clocked in at 32:15. Burton made the Joker a primary character — and rightfully so. The audience couldn’t focus on anything else but Nicholson and his purple suit and bleached face makeup.

joker art museum

The Joker’s nihilism played into the film’s narrative construction as well. Take for example the scene in which the Joker and his goon’s deface the Gotham City Art Museum. I particularly enjoy this scene because it almost entirely serves the development of the Joker’s character. Set to Prince’s “Party Man,” Nicholson defaces the paintings with a swath of paint and a comedic malice. He’s destroying priceless works of art for his and the viewer’s own entertainment. Burton gives The Joker the best lines, the best scenes and the best asides.

joker defaces the art museum

None of this, of course, should suggest a deficiency of Michael Keaton’s Batman. By nature the reclusive Bruce Wayne would stand back, observe and protect. The Joker steals the spotlight while Batman hides in the neighboring shadows. Such little confrontation actually takes place in Tim Burton’s Batman that it’s misleading to consider it an action movie at all — a construction that would surely confound modern superhero aficionados visiting Batman (1989) for the first time.

Never Rub Another Man’s Rhubarb

Tim Burton created a superhero character study that wowed a generation of moviegoers. For many including myself, Batman remains an iconic, untouchable piece of their childhood. I walked out of the Plaza 2 in Kalamazoo, MI a changed 10yo human. It became a landmark moviegoing experience, the black letters on the while marquee emblazoned on my brain.

That summer of 1989 came to define the ultimate moviegoing summer, in no small part because of my immediate affection for Batman. I can pinpoint the day and date that I became a proper cinephile, thirsting for more and more cinematic exposure. I began a quest to watch every Michael Keaton and every Jack Nicholson film. I’d dub rental tapes and a log them chronologically on a divided shelf. The left side for Michael Keaton, the right for Jack. There’s no other explanation for my affection for The Squeeze (1987).

batman 1989

I wouldn’t learn about the troubled behind-the-scenes production or the disastrous studio distrust of Tim Burton until much later. For many years I’d imagined a perfectly honed vision, a delicate balance of comic mania and brooding malaise. But in many ways that more recent realization almost deepens my fascination with the film — how so many incompatible voices could stumble into something so iconic.

The only thing that maybe the producers had a handle on seemed to be the casting — despite clamorous dismay, they followed through on Michael Keaton and snagged their big fish in Jack Nicholson. After that everything just fell into place, more or less, despite Tim Burton’s skepticism and the studio’s meddling.

Paul Reubens as Pee Wee Herman — the reason we have a Tim Burton Batman film.

James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Add whatever this is to that list. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

Michael Caine: The Right Man in The Wrong Box

Welcome Michael Caine Blogathonners!

Michael Caine: The Right Man in The Wrong Box

A bookish, bespectacled Michael Caine watches a girl enter the house next door, doe-eyed. An intertitle, as if drawn by Jimi Hendrix’s cover artist, appears on screen. “The Girl He Worships From Afar.” He’s called back to the bedside of his gasping grandfather Masterman Finsbury (John Mills) who says, “I believe the time has come… at last…” before falling limp. Michael Caine solemnly draws the sheet over his grandfather’s face. A moment later the man frantically throws the sheet away.

the wrong box michael caine

Masterman: “Not so fast! You’re a very quick man with the sheet, Michael!”

Michael: “You see, sir… I thought…”

Masterman: “Death cannot be assumed simply because signs of light are not present. Hasn’t that medical school taught you how to take a pulse?”

Michael: “We have touched on it, sir, but mostly we cut up things.”

The Wrong Box, The Bleakest, Blackest of 60’s Comedies

So introduces two major players in perhaps the most bleak and British of all 1960’s bleak and British comedies. The Wrong Box concerns the last two remaining brothers (John Mills and Ralph Richardson) in a family tontine and the various plots by their would-be heirs to come into extreme wealth.

michael caine john mills the wrong box

Tontine: n. – an annuity shared by subscribers to a loan or common fund, the shares increasing as subscribers die until the last survivor enjoys the whole income.

Written by Larry Gelbart (Tootsie and the M*A*S*H TV series) and Burt Shevelove (his only feature screenwriting credit) and based on an 1889 satirical novel by Robert Louis Stevenson and his son-in-law Lloyd Osborne, The Wrong Box stuffs itself full of Victorian anti-manners. British humor is best served when it explores the latent eccentricities of our dark and mangled human nature, and The Wrong Box lays bare our character foibles and exploits the human condition for giggles. Oh the hilarity of the misplaced mutilated body in a barrel gag! Murder plots! Making light of the tottering and impossible old and senile butler! High-speed horse-drawn hearse chases!

kind hearts and coronets
Alec Guinness in the classic Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949).

Act One: Kill 18 Characters

The film prefaces its narrative with a properly droll sequence depicting the unfortunate deaths of the brothers’ family members, a callback to Ealing Studio’s Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). 18 relatives are dispatched by careless queens, unstable mountain peaks, and charging rhinos.

michael caine alfie
Released only two months before The Wrong Box, Alfie (1966) made Michael Caine a star of the British screen.

At the stoic center of a large ensemble cast (including scene-stealers Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, and Peter Sellers), resides Michael Caine. Coming off a three-film run of Zulu (1964), The Ipcress File (1965) and Alfie (1966), Caine already feels bigger than the role. This owes partly to our conception of a proper prime Michael Caine vehicle, but also because of the timing of the film. He’d likely not have taken on the role of Michael Finsbury, the naïve and lovelorn straight man in landscape of eccentric and inept grifters, had Alfie (released only two months prior) elevated his status as a bankable star before the filming of The Wrong Box.

His grandfather, Masterman Finsbury, yells after him, “Nothing will upset me more than not winning the tontine and leaving you with a mountain of debts and a doubtful future as an idiot in a profession of rogues and charlatans. So go and get (my brother Joseph) and tell him I died!”

the wrong box michael caine

The families of each remaining brother are torn between forcibly keeping them alive or knocking them off to ease the burden of dealing with the tottering fools, but of course pretending they’re still alive to dupe the other family into conceding the tontine. Consider The Wrong Box a proto-Weekend at Bernie’s, except surreal, British, and much darker.

Morris (Cook) and John (Moore) believe their uncle Joseph (Ralph Richardson) has died and prop up a corpse to perpetuate the belief that Joseph’s indeed alive and kicking. Meanwhile, Michael (Caine) has falsely reported the death of Masterman, causing a chain reaction of erroneous judgment. The Wrong Box blissfully devolves into anarchic slapstick and chase sequences as the twisty narrative unfolds and the characters grow more desperate.

The Wrong Box Origins

Director Bryan Forbes (The Stepford Wives) clearly found inspiration in style and substance from the great Ealing comedies of the 1940’s, chiefly the aforementioned Kind Hearts and Coronets. The “otherwise decent people doing horrible things” genre boasts a grand (especially English) tradition, and The Wrong Box updates that formula for the 1960’s by tenuously straddling the line between good taste and outright offense. Because it’s all said with a stiff upper lip and a fine British accent, it’s hard to find fault even when the movie wanders into questionable moral territory.

Michael Finsbury (Caine) and the hilariously senile Peacock the Butler (Wilfrid Lawson, in his final screen role).

So why would I bring up The Wrong Box in a Michael Caine-centric blogathon if he merely played a dim straight man to his comic co-stars? We’d have to go back a little bit to look at the tradition of the double act comedy routine. The double act, or comedy duo, which later manifested as Abbott and Costello, Burns and Allen, and Laurel and Hardy, began in the late 19th century in British music halls and American vaudeville.

In these bawdy performance venues, the acts employed the straight man to repeat the comic lines for those that didn’t hear jokes the first time around. As the language evolved, the dynamic shifted, and the straight man set up jokes for the comic to deliver a punch line. While the comic often gets the showiest lines or gags (consider Abbott and Costello), the straight man can sometimes blend into the background.

Burns and Allen, for example, swapped roles, making Gracie Allen the comic once her stage personality blossomed. It’s easy to forget that George Burns was actually the cigar-chomping straight man of that duo. Gracie delivered all the punch lines.

dudley moore peter cook the wrong box
Peter Cook and Dudley Moore had already established the rapport of long-standing comic duo. Cook’s alcoholism would eventually cause a premature dissolution of the team.

The British form of the comic duo – even more so than the American – relied on comic timing and glib entendre. The roles of “comic” and “straight man” became blurred and often interchangeable. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore innovated by doing away with the set-up and punch altogether and weaving discourse through their routine. Cook and Moore had risen to popularity as half of the stage revue Beyond the Fringe. Their TV show Not Only… But Also had also begun a year before The Wrong Box, their big screen debut. Their immediate on-screen chemistry resulted in steady work through the end of the 1960’s in Bedazzled (1967), The Bed-Sitting Room (1969) and Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969).

The Importance of Being Michael Caine

michael caine nanette newman the wrong box
Blink and you’ll miss the wonderfully tongue-in-cheek asides between Michael and Julia (Nanette Newman).

In The Wrong Box, it’s Michael Caine’s job to anchor the film with a relatively steady moral compass (except for the bit about wooing his supposed first cousin) and a consistent, subtle (relatively speaking) comic tone. He is the mannered totter upon which the movie’s lunacy teeters. Without his steady, even performance, the farce would have become a manic, punch line competition between his more comedically trained co-stars. That’s not to suggest that Michael Caine couldn’t hold his own among proper comedians. He undoubtedly proved his comic versatility as the straight man to Steve Martin in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and the comic to Ben Kingsley’s straight man in Without a Clue.

Caine with Ben Kingsley in the fantastic (and underseen) Without a Clue (1988).

“Thank you for the tea and cakes,” he says, plainly, to his beloved cousin Julia (Nanette Newman) after an afternoon rendezvous, “I shall devour them throughout my dissection class.” As he’s leaving her house, he unwittingly helps receive a box the audience knows to contain a corpse. So it goes in The Wrong Box. Many of the best single lines in the film occur between Caine and Newman as they’re allowed to play roles dressed with proper British formality. Just wait for Julia Finsbury’s description of her parents’ untimely demise.

The pulse of Michael Caine’s performance can best be displayed in this exchange with Peter Cook’s Morris.

Morris Finbury: I know you are a medical student, cousin, so I need hardly remind you that blood is thicker than water.

Michael Finsbury: Yes. Five times as, I believe.

His abhorrent family schemes and plots all around him to take the tontine. Even when confronted with that malfeasance he still responds clinically and rationally. Morris wants to invoke an unwritten clause regarding the bonds of family and the dim Michael recites medical facts – the straight man can still deliver the straightest lines and still get the big laughs though gifted timing and charisma – two aspects of Michael Caine’s performances that have never been in doubt.

The Wrong Box Final Thoughts

It would also be an unforgivable sin not to mention John Barry’s score (his third of five collaborations with director Bryan Forbes). Barry, like Caine, dresses the film with elegant tradition but nimbly shifts into wistful romance or rollicking adventure when the situation demands. In “Tontine Box is Put On Hearse,” you’ll note echoes of Barry’s “007 Theme,” the James Bond action theme first used in From Russia With Love (1963).

Somehow the manic, bleak, hilarious film holds together despite the breakneck speed of a runaway, horse-drawn hearse. So jammed with quick verbal jabs and sight gags, two viewings of The Wrong Box might not even be enough to understand the hows and whys of this miracle execution.

The Wrong Box is available on Blu-ray from Indicator and DVD from Sony Pictures Burn-on-Demand.

Sellers’ role amounts to little more than a cameo, but his cat-loving Doctor Pratt gifts the viewer two perfect scenes in The Wrong Box.

James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Add whatever this is to that list. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

michael caine blogathon

2019 TCM Film Festival Recap

2019 TCM Film Festival Recap: The Year I Stayed at the Roosevelt

Past recaps: 2015 / 2016 / 2017 / 2018

First up, the music that soothed the savage beast (me) that returned to his room at 2am wired but exhausted and considering how little sleep one needs to function. This year I kept Weyes Blood’s gorgeous new album, Titanic Rising, at the ready for the 2019 TCM Film Festival. If you feel like branching into all of my areas of writing, I penned a review for the record on Spill Magazine.

This is also fitting because my favorite track on the album is titled, appropriately, “Movies.”

Once again a scheduled Cinema Shame podcast recording with Jessica Pickens (@hollywoodcomet) afforded me the opportunity to get out of my Lyft at the Roosevelt, fail to check in at The Roosevelt, and then haul my recording equipment all over Hollywood Boulevard with a Baja Fresh stop sandwiched (burrittoed?) in the middle. Sustenance!

The brief podcast recording in the bag (hint: subscribe to Cinema Shame on iTunes, Stitcher, or Spotify), I returned to the hotel to officially occupy my room. Alas, ’twas not to be. The room was still not yet ready and I spent much of the next hour hanging out in the Roosevelt lobby with @p2wy and @Priscilla_MR21 and staring at the Social Media monitor wondering if we could make meta performance art. Maybe next year, everybody.

I was loathe to leave the lobby because I still held out hope for a shower and wardrobe change after my 5-hour flight. Time wore on and the social media board told me with regularity that more and more people were lining up for my first film selection Night World. (Here’s a reminder of all my pre-TCMFF picks.)

Finally, I abandoned the Roosevelt lobby and made my way over to the Multiplex where I stood in line for a few minutes before I grew restless and headed over to The Egyptian with @middparent. At the very least I could do some walking to stretch the legs and hopefully see some familiar faces in line for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Of course I did — and I ended up talking to @AlanHait for a solid fifteen minutes. A solid fifteen that wasn’t really in line with the whole get back to Night World scenario. The enthusiasm for the Marilyn Monroe / Jane Russell musical overwhelmed me and how could I deny the bombshells my first slot of my 2019 TCM Film Festival. And what a way to christen 2019.

No post-flight shower. No power nap. Just a coupon for a free Roosevelt breakfast and a cocktail for the inconvenience. Commence conditioning.

(To read my thoughts about every single film I viewed at the 2019 TCM Film Festival, follow me on Letterboxd.com. I won’t bore you with thoughts about all 16 films unless you want the whole enchilada.)

TCM Film Festival

The Yearly TCM Film Festival Letter

Dear So and Sos:

So my fifth Turner Classic Movies Film Festival has come and gone. Every year they seem shorter. A far too brief immersion in classic film, a four-day window when my affection for old movies becomes commonplace and not a landmine topic with everyday Joes and Janes. (Have you tried discussing how George O’Brien would have made a great 1929 Don Draper outside TCMFF?) Too much longer, however, and would this Spring oasis lose its luster?

Pre-shaven Tom O’Brien in Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans could totally pre-boot a new Mad Men series.

Another year, another festival without a cocktail break or Sh! The Octopus (1937) as a midnight screening. Seriously, Turner Classic Movies folk, there’s no more perfect midnight screening than Sh! The Octopus. Many dozens of people would attest.

I must once again thank my wife who purchased my first ticket to the TCM Film Festival back in 2015, thus opening Pandora’s Box. She still sends me off to L.A. with a mostly genuine smile. While I’ll never convince her to join me for the festival, one of these years she might make the trip. My father-in-law once again chose not to attend, but I still missed his intermittent companionship. 

Knowing I’ll be shipping off to Rochester, NY in a couple weeks for the Nitrate Picture Show makes the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival goodbye slightly less bittersweet. Even so, NPS feels like a methadone clinic after the TCMFF addiction. 

Until next year…

The #Bond_age_ Guy will return in 2020.  XOXO

The view of the Opening Night When Harry Met Sally gala from across the street with the plebes.

2019 TCM Film Festival Final Tally: 16

*denotes never before seen

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947)
Merrily We Go To Hell (1932)*
Out of Africa (1985)*
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)*
Vanity Street (1932)*
Open Secret (1948)*
Road House (1948)*
Santo vs. the Evil Brain (1961)*
When Worlds Collide (1951)*
Tarzan and His Mate (1934)*
The Great K & A Train Robbery (1926)*
Blood Money (1933)*
Escape from New York (1981)
The Student Nurses (1970)*
Mad Love (1935)

And had I not left early to catch the non-stop mid-afternoon flight back to Pittsburgh, I also would have seen…

Night World (1932)* in the TBA slot
Cold Turkey (1971)*
A Woman of Affairs (1928)*
The Dolly Sisters (1945)*

Unnecessary Vitals

1290 minutes of movie
12 first-time watches
6 color / 10 B&W
By decade: 1920’s – 2 / 1930’s – 5 / 1940’s – 3 / 1950’s – 2 / 1960’s – 1 / 1970’s – 1 / 1980’s – 2
9 movies on 35mm film (2 on Nitrate) / 7 on DCP
1 bag of popcorn
4 ramen bowls

Most Memorable 2019 TCM Film Festival Festival Experience:

Underwater swimming in Tarzan and His Mate

Tarzan and His Mate Nude Swimming / “Tarzan Yell” Sound Effects Presentation

Even though I knew the film contained a scene featuring nudity, I wasn’t quite prepared for how *much* nudity occurs during the infamous swimming scene in Tarzan and His Mate (1934).

Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) takes a nude dip with Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan), and I expected a flash of flesh before submersion. That’s not the scene at all. In what must surely be one of the most ribaldrous scenes in all of pre-code Hollywood (during which there was great amounts of ribaldry), the nudity takes place beneath the water — and suffice to say it’s not a quick flash before a cut away. The scene features every inch of Maureen O’Sullivan’s swim-double (Olympic swimmer Josephine McKim) in a nude underwater ballet with fellow olympian Johnny Weissmuller. Maybe you’re thinking, “Well, sure. The water’s rather dark and cloaks the important bits in unfortunate shadow. Shadows not included. The skin (and the face-value absurdities of the Tarzan production itself) received a warm welcome from the TCM Film Festival crowd thoroughly enhancing the shared viewing experience.

Before the presentation sound designer Ben Burtt and visual effects supervisor Craig Barron discussed Tarzan’s technical achievements — including the inhuman composition of the famous yell. Check out my video of the presentation below:

Tarzan and His Mate is available on a Warner Brothers DVD set featuring the first four Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan adventures.

Favorite New to Me TCM Film Festival Movies:

2019 TCM Film Festival sunrise

#1. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

F.W. Murnau’s “one wild night” movie. Lovely and sinister at the same time. And then it’s just lovely. And then it’s sinister. I won’t spoil where it finally lands, but Sunrise boasts remarkable production values for a story about two peasants falling in love again in the shadow of a half-hearted murder attempt.

Nora (@NitrateDiva) recorded one of her fantastic TCMFF recaps, which includes mention of our shared Sunrise experience.

Sunrise 2019 TCM Film Festival
@joelrwilliams1, @middparent and I are wearing sunglasses or shading our eyes because Sunrise is about to happen. Get it? Nora may have missed the memo.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is available on a 20th Century Fox Blu-ray. It’s also available on a wonderful BD/DVD package from Masters of Cinema (Region B).

out of africa 2019 TCM Film Festival

#2. Out of Africa (1985)

Shocked by how much I enjoyed Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa. A beautifully simple movie about intricate, complicated humans. It’s also a meditation on our own impermanence and the connectivity between people and places. I had no interest in watching this, but I walked away enraptured. A true #CinemaShame. I would like to understand why people now hate this film. That Best Picture win can and often becomes a curse. If you wait long enough, the backlash will fuel expectations leading to a surprisingly excellent viewing experience.

Out of Africa is available on a Blu-ray/UV edition from Universal.

tom mix 2019 TCM Film Festival

#3. The Great K & A Train Robbery (1926)

Last minute change of plans found me scurrying off to visit the newest TCM Film Festival venue, Post 43, to view at least one of the two Tom Mix silent westerns. Timing dictated that I return to the Multiplex before the end of the second half of the double feature to get in line for Blood Money, which would undoubtedly be a hot ticket. I’d seen some Tom Mix shorts, but never a feature. The Great K & A Train Robbery proved to be a wonderful blend of practical stunts and humor. I can see why some have likened Tom Mix to a proto-Jackie Chan. Plus, you can’t beat a live score by the great and powerful Ben Model.

The Great K & A Train Robbert is available to view on Dailymotion. None of the YouTube versions seemed to have musical accompaniment.

Here’s some pictures of the venue:

Post 43 2019 TCM Film Festival
Exterior of the American Legion Post 43.
post 43 2019 TCM Film Festival
The queue leading into the theater. The TCM Film Festival mural lining the wall.
Post 43 2019 TCM Film Festival
The beautiful, arched ceiling of the Post 43 theater.

Most Forgettable TCM Film Festival Movie:

I’ve never seen a bad movie at the TCM Film Festival, but there always seems to be one that slips to the back of my mind before the flight home.

Vanity Street (1932)

vanity street 2019 TCM Film Festival

This dirty little pre-code depression-era noir depicts a gruff police detective rescuing a down-on-her-luck lady who chucked a brick through a pharmacy window so she’d go to prison and finally get regular meals. She winds up with a job as a dancer at the follies and falls in with the wrong crowd (after Mr. Police Dick spurns her advances). Suddenly she’s taking the blame for a murder she didn’t commit and Mr. Police Dick can’t figure where his allegiances lie. Helen Chandler’s a strong screen presence and Charles Bickford plays an amalgam of every hard-boiled undercover cop that ever walked the silver screen. Moderately competent B-Picture with base pleasures to spare. Nifty but overall rather routine.

Sony released Vanity Street on their Sony Choice Collection series of burn-on-demand DVDs. 

2019 TCM Film Festival Memorable Moments:

 

John Carpenter and Kurt Russell 

John Carpenter and Kurt Russell joined TCM host Dave Karger for a chat before the 2019 TCM Film Festival screening of Escape from New York (1981) — my can’t miss event of the festival.

escape from new york 2019 TCM Film Festival
John Carpenter and Kurt Russell introduce Escape from New York.

During the conversation, Kurt Russell discussed the origin of Snake’s eyepatch. It was his idea, although he didn’t consider the depth perception problems that would present on set. Kurt wanted to play Snake Plissken one more time and made Escape from L.A. happen because “he wasn’t getting any younger.”

The artwork in my room at the Roosevelt Hotel.

Someone tell me what this is about.

2019 TCM Film Festival

This picture in my room at the Roosevelt Hotel perplexed me. I looked at it every morning before I left. If this is a particularly important car, it’s lost on me. And the more I thought about it the more obsessed I became, rifling through all of the TV series and movies in my brain. I’m still stumped.

Bill Hader introducing the wonderfully weird Mad Love (1935).

Not to be confused with the also excellent 1946 Peter Lorre hand-horror film The Beast with Five Fingers. If I’m being honest, I’m wishing we had a double feature.

bill hader 2019 TCM Film Festival

“Wow, you guys are the hardcore nerds.” —Bill Hader addressing the 9am crowd, eager for Peter Lorre’s classic hand-horror flick, Mad Love (1935).

On Conan, Bill Hader describes an incident in the Egyptian bathroom, which feels rather on brand for TCMFF.

Midnight Madness with Beth and Miguel @ Santo vs. the Evil Brain!

Once again, @cinebeth and @HIFilmFest brought out the big guns for the midnight screenings. Last year I helped cut out hundreds of Kyra zombie heads for Night of the Living Dead (1968), but this year they pre-cut Santo heads to save me from the claw hand that almost certainly would have tried to kill.

santo 2019 TCM Film Festival
Beth Accomando (@cinebeth) passing out Santo masks before the midnight screening of Santo vs. the Evil Brain.
santo 2019 TCM Film Festival
Santo cookies. Mmmm. Santo.
santo 2019 TCM Film Festival
Me, Joel (@joelrwilliams1), Pam (@fallonthornley) and a whole bunch of Mexican wrestlers behind us (including @paula_guthat and @citizenscreen).

Advice for Future Attendees from a 5th Timer – revised and edited from last year’s recap:

If any of this sounds #amazing to you – make every effort to attend the TCMFF. It requires you to plan ahead and commit to the trip long before you actually get anywhere near Hollywood. But you won’t regret any of it. You will only regret never giving it a shot. Warning: it’s addicting. You’ll want to go back because FOMO is real and it is painful.

This past year the dates for the festival were announced in September of 2018. Passes went on sale during November and many tiers sold out. You’ll want to arrange for lodging as soon as the dates are hit the streets. If you want a room as the Roosevelt, book within minutes (seriously). Now that I’ve stayed at the Roosevelt, I must say I prefer the Loews Hollywood, which is attached to the Multiplex, making those 2am walks back incredibly convenient. Many attendees pick up Airbnb accommodations as there are plenty of nearby options!

Prioritize events you’ll never see or experience anywhere else. This includes movies shown on film, rarely screened gems, presentations, talks from famous people who knew other famous people.

Participate in social media. Get to know the people who attend so that you’ll already have a cast list of friends to save you a seat when you’re running late for a screening. As I’ve said before, you’ll go for the movies, but you’ll come back for the people. You also never know when that person you’ve been talking to on social media will pop up in the seat next to you or in the pre-film theater queue. This year I happened to line up behind @SinatrasRatPack at the Egyptian, a fellow with which I’ve been chatting on Twitter for years.

mad love queue 2019 TCM Film Festival
Documenting the queue before Mad Love on Sunday morning — just before @SinatrasRatPack turned around and said, “You’re the #Bond_age_ Guy.”

Bring a portable charger for your phone. You will need your phone for connecting with other moviegoers who are in lines ahead of you. The TCM Film Festival Schedule App helps immensely and updates you with announcements and cancellations. (The app knows everything.) You will need all the extra juice you can get. Don’t rely on being near a charging station. Bring the charger. Charge during the movie. Never run out of juice. You’ll also be popular among those who don’t bring portable chargers.

Eat breakfast every day. I don’t care when you went to sleep the night before. Get up. Shower. Eat breakfast. “Mid-afternoon you” will appreciate the small sleep sacrifice.

Experience the festival at your frequency and speed. If you want to maximize your movie return on value, by all means hit up every slot and every available talk. You won’t regret it. You also won’t regret earmarking some movies to watch later on when you get home and having a leisurely morning or getting a real sit-down meal. If you know you can’t survive the midnights, don’t force yourself. TCMFF is both a sprint and a marathon.

As far as food goes, the ultimate option is the Ramen bar outside the Multiplex. It’s quick and convenient when you’re running in and out of the Multiplex all day. In four days I had four Ramen bowls so I feel qualified to say these things. It’s also not heavy. Those burrito meals put you straight to slumberland.

That’s pretty much all I’ve got to say about the 2019 TCM Film Festival. Oh, one final thing before I put a cap on this year’s festivities. Nikki — aka @NikkiLM4 — puts on a good show (and her basement studio is impressively adorned) but I’m still not convinced she and I attended the same festival. This is where I’d place my annual cocktail picture with #FlatRaquelTCMFF — had Nikki or Flat Raquel actually been at the TCMFF. Instead I’ll just wave goodbye.

Ta ta for now.

See you at the 2020 TCM Film Festival.

1989 Flashback: Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

bill and ted's excellent adventure poster

Bill: So-cratz – “The only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing”.

Ted: That’s us, dude.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)

I didn’t have the pleasure of seeing Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure in the cinema. It snuck into theaters and snuck out of theaters before I or any of my friends really knew what to make of it. I remember, vividly, however the Friday I rented the VHS. In Marcellus, Michigan, a town of only about 2000 residents, we were blessed with as many video rental locations as gas stations/convenience stores (2). Surprised to see one copy remaining on the first weekend of release, I grabbed it and rushed to the counter.

On the following Saturday afternoon, I convinced my parents to sit down and watch this movie about high-school dimwits who travel through time. At this moment in 1989, I can say with the utmost assurance that I’d worn out my father’s patience for movies featuring dimwits. I was, after all, a devout Police Academy (and its sequels) fan and watched Three Amigos! almost every week.

bill and ted's excellent adventure

My father boasts a laugh of a certain magnitude. It’s impossible to mistake pure enjoyment from snores of indifference. If he does not care for a movie he will just fall asleep or start reading a book and then probably fall asleep, totally immune to anything happening around him. He watched Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure from start to finish. I don’t remember his exact words (he’s always prepared with an immediate post-movie assessment) but it felt like “Let’s watch it again right now.”

Why Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure Resonates

To me, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure represents the best of the 1980’s modus operandi. An inherently absurd high-concept that falls apart upon any scrutiny — but the viewer’s too entertained by the movie’s pure joy of existence (and puerile historical gags and references) to bother with anything as tedious as how an entire high school career can depend on a single oral history report. Screenwriters built and entire decade on arbitrary goals.

bill and ted's excellent adventure

The film also — and this is perhaps the most important aspect of Bill and Ted’s success — celebrates positivity rather than sneering derisively at its characters. Consider the basic differences in approach between Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and something like the certain Bill & Ted descendant, Dude, Where’s My Car?

Despite the slacker wrapping, Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted Theodore Logan are given agency that turn caricatures into fully-rendered, relatable humans. A movie in which two failures (in the near future) have already saved the world with the power of a transcendent guitar riff — but first have to pass an oral English exam by traveling back in time to collect figures of historical interest.

bill and ted's excellent adventure
Bernie Casey had a long and interesting acting career, but he’ll remain best known as Bill and Ted’s history teacher.

It’s like borrowing the 1927 Yankees to coach your kid’s T-ball game — if upon that T-Ball game the fate of the world rested. If you spend too much time dissecting the time travel mechanics of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure you will break your brain. It will also lose the magic that makes it special.

The Problem with Critics and Low Intelligence Characters

Contemporaneous critics struggled with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure because it was, as Chris Williams of the LA Times suggested, “a glorification of dumbness for dumbnesses’ sake.” The New York Times’ Vincent Canby called it “painfully inept.” WaPo’s Hal Hinson: “undernourished.”

I’m not going to give critics a pass just because they’re critics. I’ve been in their seat and I chose to walk away after a couple of years because the job of being a critic started to suck the joy out of moviegoing. If my job is to watch a movie and find fault, my focus naturally drifts toward negativity. I found reasons to dislike movies and hated the terrible movies even more. Dumb characters in a high-concept movie full of logic gaps and impossible (not just improbable) scenarios almost necessitates a killjoy hammer.

bill and ted's excellent adventure rufus
One of the most ingenious casting decisions and happy accidents of all time — George Carlin as Rufus, Bill & Ted’s “Virgil.”

How often have you read a review by a critic that acknowledged that a movie fails most standard narrative tests of success, but excels because it’s just a good time? (It happens, but it’s rare and I’m always surprised to see it.) Can you ever imagine Bosley Crowther admitting something was pretty dumb but still a ripping good time? (If you know of a review in which this happens, I’d love to read it.)

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure outsmarts its audience?

Moviegoers, however, are not saddled with the honus of specific scrutiny at the expense of the overall experience. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, like the best of the pure entertainment 1980’s, presents joie de vivre. The characters’ intelligence doesn’t pose an artificial barrier to their success. In many instances stupid characters arrest the narrative as a result of an inability to movie the plot forward.

Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter boast tremendous on-screen chemistry, as if they’re acting as displaced halves of the same brain. You could analyze Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure from dozens of different directions, but the success of the film relies on this synergy.

bill and ted's excellent adventure napoleon
Napoleon fighting a teenage girl for the last spoonful of ice cream remains an inspired narrative aside.

Though lacking in book smarts (Caesar will always remain “a salad dressing dude”), Bill and Ted demonstrate quick wits and even an ability manipulate the logic of the film, thereby outsmarting the viewer that’s assured himself of his higher intelligence because he knows a thing or two about Napoleon. One of the most magnificent moments in the film undermines that relationship and involves Ted’s dad’s missing keys.

Early in the movie, Ted’s dad asks Ted about these keys, but he has no clue to their whereabouts. When Bill and Ted need to rescue their historical figures from jail, they claim they’ll go back in time, steal the keys, and put them outside the police station. Presto! The keys appear, as if by magic behind the sign — but it’s not magic — it’s our “dumb” characters riffing on the concept of the time-travel film and playing with audience expectation. They might not know how to pronounce “Socrates” correctly, but they’re clever enough in a crisis to manipulate time and space on the fly. “Hey! It was me who stole my dad’s keys!”

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure Final Thoughts

When I revisited Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure for the first time in many years, I worried it wasn’t going to hold the same spell over me. Indeed, I started to dissect the movie to see how the nuts and bolts held it together. I focused on the time-travel fallacy and questioned how or why any of it would have worked.

It still didn’t matter.

bill and ted's excellent adventure circuits of time
The “circuits of time” have no aged well, but they still fit the scale and aspiration of the film.

I found myself enjoying the ways the movie manipulated expectation (the scene with the keys, for example, or the early meeting of the Bill and Teds) despite acknowledging the smoke and mirrors. A viewer will only care to pick apart a narrative if they’re not entertained to distraction. Pure entertainment doesn’t necessitate the “how” or the “why;” it just requires a willing ignorance… or embrace of our own dumbness as viewers. With regards to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure I’m more than happy to glorify my own dumbness if it means I can still feel childlike enjoyment while watching movies.

The face-value absurdity of Joan of Arc taking over an aerobics class or Genghis Khan attacking a sporting goods store on a skateboard, Beethoven commandeering two electric pianos. Napoleon throwing a tantrum at a water park called Waterloo. These remain simple, bordering upon lazy gags — albeit simple gags blessed with an ingenious high-concept wrapper.

Director Stephen Herek had a solid 1980’s movie career before the studios got ahold of him and ushered him into routine, forgettable fare. He began his career with Critters, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, and The Mighty Ducks (all crowd pleasers) before taking on more “grown-up” films like Mr. Holland’s Opus, Rock Star, and Holy Man. The pace of those so-called “dumb” movies just agreed with him.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure cost $10million to make and returned $40million, but it wouldn’t be made today. $10million for a dumb teen comedy (without more exploitative elements) has no place in our present day box office. Thankfully its stars and writers (Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon) recognize that the Bill and Ted chemistry remains special. Even if studios would never greenlight that movie today — at least someone had the sense to continue the Excellent Adventure.

Casting Martha Davis (The Motels), Clarence Clemons (Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band) and Fee Waybill (The Tubes) as the Leaders of the future made for great cameos that I wouldn’t totally understand until I finally recognized Clemons. And I was a big fan of The Motels.

Bill and Ted will return in the Summer of 2020 with Bill & Ted Face the Music. Not bad for two idiot teens from Sam Dimas, California that surprised us all with a deceptively smart, super dumb movie back in 1989.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is available on a Shout Factory Blu-ray set — Bill and Ted’s Most Excellent Collection — alongside it’s totally bodacious sequel, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.

bill and ted's excellent adventure

James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Add whatever this is to that list. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

1989 Flashback: The Experts

the experts 1989

The Experts (1989)

If The Experts is known for anything at all (and it’s really not, I’m being generous), it’s known as the origin of the John Travolta and Kelly Preston love affair. On a related note, if it’s known for anything else, it’s known as the movie in which Kelly Preston dirty dances the hell out of mullet-clad John Travolta.

The Experts Story

In a town inside the Soviet Union, the KGB trains future spies in a fake American town called “Indian Springs, Nebraska.” All of the Soviet residents of the town speak perfect English and adhere to American customs — except that the town’s stuck in the era of its establishment and more resembles 1950’s Mayberry than Reagan-era America.

Agent Smith (regular character actor and poor-man’s Rick Moranis — Charles Martin Smith), one of the progressive KGB trainers believes that the town needs to get hip in order to compete in this brave new  world. His bright idea? Hiring aspiring club owners and mid-30’s losers Travis and Wendell (Travolta and Arye Gross) to teach the town how to be cool cats. He hires them to run his club in “Nebraska,” sedates them, and ships them off to the good old U.S.S.R. Here they will run their own nightclub and certainly never discover that they’re behind the Iron Curtain.

the experts 1989

The Experts Bombs, But Nobody Notices

After Urban Cowboy and De Palma’s Blow Out, John Travolta released Staying Alive — a box office success but practical disaster. He followed this up with the one-two punch of Two of a Kind (1983) with Olivia Newton-John and Perfect (1985) with Jamie Lee Curtis. Other than a TV movie and an appearance in Michael Jackson’s “Liberian Girl” video, Travolta wouldn’t make another movie until 1989’s The Experts. He’s still trading on his 1970’s It-Boy status. In the late 1980’s. At the age of 35.

Made for $3million and dumped onto screens during mid-January of 1989 opposite DeepStar Six, The January Man and Gleaming the Cube, The Experts failed to reach the Top 20 ($169,000 at the domestic box office). It would have been called a bomb if anyone had noticed the explosion.

I assume the film was panned upon its “release” by critics, but good luck finding a contemporaneous review to blurb. I’m sure Vincent Canby of the New York Times would have said something like “The comedy, less amusing than the perestroika it’s attacking with a Louisville slugger, required similar ‘cool’ coaching to become anything more diverting than a half-page advertisement for Happy Days reruns in Tiger Beat.”

And yet. If you’re going to phone in a comedic premise rooted in culture clash and political aphorisms, The Experts made a fundamentally wise decision in creating a U.S.S.R. stuck in old-fashioned Main Street U.S.A. Accents? (Who needs them?) Exotic Soviet locales? (Why bother? Actors cost money.) A Tiki-inspired night club? (Absolutely!) Fun character actors that all just act like stiff white dudes no matter the color of their skin? (Done!)

This allows the film to indulge in comedic freedoms that might not have otherwise been available. The downside? The freedom they chose? Mostly laziness.

The Experts, Accidental Genius

Having just directed Strange Brew (1983) based on his and Rick Moranis’ SCTV characters Bob and Doug McKenzie, Dave Thomas manages to imbue The Experts with little of his wit and timing. What’s present feels like a first draft, but an amiable and often entertaining piece of low-aspiration entertainment. Not quite kitsch, exactly, but time has actually improved The Experts.

Thomas’ film gives his agency-free characters just enough to do so that the audience sees their attempts to succeed in this wonky endeavor as futile. Sporting rat-tail mullets and dangly earrings Travis and Wendell come off as pathetic, fad-chasing pop-culture sheeples. Success eludes them at every turn. As a result the audience’s perspective offers a very interesting relationship between them and the film they inhabit.

Among the many talented supporting actors, The Experts offers Tony Edwards and Steve Levitt. Not pictured: Brian Doyle Murray, Rick Ducommon, and James Keach.

The Soviets see them as cool Americans. The movie itself portrays them as if they’re part of some insular “scene.” As the audience, however, we know the premise and we recognize that Travis and Wendell represent studio-manufactured “cool.” Some old studio suit wanted to grasp one last slice of Cold War hilarity. The Wikipedia page even mentions that Paramount chief Ned Tannen requested several uncredited rewrites of the script.

Practically, this means that the movie stumbled into something interesting and wholly unintentional. There’s something perfect about the parallels between the pathetically out-of-touch Soviet KGB agents in The Experts and the studio execs pushing this movie through the birth canal that think this is 1989 hip. Do not discount the utility of unintentional entertainment.

Yes, the woman in the terrible hair is the amazing Deborah Foreman. In The Experts she’s forced to be a button-down Soviet stick-in-the-mud who makes out with Arye Gross. The movie’s greatest sin is wasting her effervescence.

The Experts Verdict

The Experts wants to cobble together a movie based on other more successful 1980’s films and fails, at least at face value. It wants to be a fish-out-of-water comedy like a Soviet Gung Ho, a spy comedy like Spies Like Us, and trade on the 1950’s nostalgia in the same way as Back to the Future.

It’s pleasantly xenophobic and wallows in the narcissism of its main characters to such a degree that it’s impossible to see them as pro-active humans. When the movie forces Travis and Wendell into action upon discovering their actual location in the Soviet Union, they rely upon the townspeople who’ve tasted U.S. freedom in the form of microwaves and massaging showerheads to lead them to freedom.

But because of all this — and not in spite of — The Experts becomes surprisingly likable. The Experts gives Travolta time to ooze charisma and dance sexy sexy with Kelly Preston and lip-sync a cover of “Back in the U.S.S.R.” Travis and Wendell don’t mature. They stumble through life and fail to achieve any kind of self-recognition. We don’t need moralizing here. We just need a decent way to spend 90 minutes. The Experts inadvertently complies with that dictum despite all evidence to the contrary.

The Experts can be rented or purchased on Amazon Streaming. It was released on VHS and Laserdisc, but has to date not made an appearance on DVD.

the experts 1989

James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Add whatever this is to that list. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

 

A bl-g about classic and not-so-classic movies, music and nostalgia by James David Patrick