Alan Smithee Podcast 83: The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967, Roger Corman) / Some Like It Hot (1959, Billy Wilder)

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Love is in the air and An Alan Smithee Podcast will not be spared this February. Our double feature for this month is a pair of love letters from Hollywood to the holiday, albeit obliquely. Roger Corman’s The St Valentine’s Day Massacre is a kind of valentine to the studio system which he worked outside of independently: a big 20th Century Fox movie utilizing a large, talented cast with enormous backlot sets and widescreen photography that’s workmanlike but well utilized. There’s no readily available explanation as to why Corman did work –for-hire on a relatively high profile studio movie like this in between his own low budget productions for American International Pictures, although president James H. Nicholson did move on to 20th Century Fox five years later in 1972. A sweetheart deal? Some romance behind the scenes? Typical to his legend, Corman brought the film in under budget. Unfortunately the margin of money saved wasn’t enough to compensate for the film’s financial failure – audiences in 1967 were way past gangster movies about Al Capone and the roaring twenties. Even The Untouchables had been off the air for four years, and the Playhouse 90 episode which screenwriter Howard Browne had penned was almost ten years old. Adult audiences probably felt such material was old-fashioned and young audiences wouldn’t take an interest in tommy guns until later that Summer when Bonnie and Clyde mythologized gangsterism into a glamorous countercultural myth. The St Valentine’s Day Massacre is conspicuously cynical in its depiction of Al Capone’s Chicago, filtering the strutting violence of the faded Cagney / Bogart / Robinson era through post-noir attitudes about the desperate ugliness of crime. This is especially apparent in supporting performances by Bruce Dern as a hapless mob driver with a family to feed and Frank Silvera as a recent immigrant who’s pathetically eager to please his new mob employers. While the principals are all bigger than life – Jason Robards as Capone, Ralph Meeker as Bugs Moran and George Segal as Moran’s enforcer, Peter Gusenberg – they’re never underdogs the way Paul Muni or Al Pacino came off in their respective versions of Scarface. Corman’s bleak and gritty take on the gangster genre is a real hidden gem.

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Our second film really needs no introduction – if anything, it’s a little overhyped. Some Like It Hot is the kind of film that effete closeted geezers would declare the funniest film ever made, and so they did on June 13, 2000. Their #2 pick for the funniest film ever made? Tootsie (!!!) Of course Mrs. Doubtfire placed at #67 above Caddyshack (#71) and Victor, Victoria placed at #76, just edging out Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story (#72.) AFI’s love of cross-dressing aside, Some Like It Hot manages to take the painfully hacky premise of two guys forced to disguise themselves as women and make a funny movie regardless. Billy Wilder and co-scripter I.A.L. Diamond get the most mileage out of the farcical possibilities, and the best laughs come from Jack Lemmon’s weird personal arc of realizing that marriage to the doofy rich guy who’s crushing on him, Joe E. Brown, may not be such a bad thing for a struggling musician with bills to pay. Co-star Tony Curtis isn’t nearly as funny as the ladies’ man of the duo, but gets to shine with Marilyn Monroe in the scenes where he’s leading her on as a similarly doofy rich guy – a farce within a farce.

All this gender-bending identity-swapping romance isn’t the main reason we chose Some Like It Hot for our Valentine’s Day episode, however. By the end of the film’s first 20 minutes, Lemmon and Curtis are on the run from the Chicago mob circa 1929 because they were accidentally in the garage on the day of the massacre and the ONLY way to hide out is by dressing as members of a women’s band en route to Florida, naturally. In Billy Wilder’s world, the St Valentine’s Day Massacre is never mentioned as such, and doesn’t even involve Al Capone or Bugs Moran – rather, it’s the messy result of a minor squabble by fictional gangster “Spats” Colombo, played by gangster movie icon George Raft in the first of many self-parodying gangster roles throughout the next 20 years (reaching a nadir with one of our worst Alan Smithee Podcast movies, Sextette.) Trivia: In order to gain the greatest insight into the gender identity politics of Some Like It Hot for this episode, Andrew and I recorded the second half entirely in drag. We couldn’t think of anything gangster-ish to do for the St Valentine’s Day Massacre portion, but nobody’s perfect.

NEXT EPISODES: M-M-M-MARCH MADNESS! TWO EPISODES, FOUR MOVIES IN THE MONTH OF MARCH! RED PLANET (2000, ANTONY HOFFMAN) & MISSION TO MARS (2000, BRIAN DE PALMA) & INVADERS FROM MARS (1953, WILLIAM CAMERON MENZIES) & INVADERS FROM MARS (1986, TOBE HOOPER)

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Alan Smithee Podcast 82: The Little Shop of Horrors (1960, Roger Corman) / Please Don’t Eat My Mother (1973, Carl J. Monson)

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The legend of Roger Corman could be entirely summed up by the 50-plus years longevity of The Little Shop of Horrors, a film shot under the most chintzy of circumstances which has nonetheless lived on as a musical adaptation and as a perennial staple of cult horror-comedy. What’s odd is how despite being made by his usual gang of misfits and dope addicts, it’s a real oddity in his oeuvre as a producer because he so seldom made comedies. Charles B. Griffith’s screenplay for Little Shop, however, is arguably one of the greatest comedy screenplays ever written and Corman’s few other dark comedies – A Bucket of Blood and Gas-s-s-s are quite excellent. Obviously he preferred more financially reliable b-movie genres, which is our loss.

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It’s easy to take a movie like Little Shop of Horrors for granted, but as we discuss in this episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast, irreverent and even mildly “tasteless” humor was in pretty short supply when the film was made and Griffith’s particular brand of weirdo Beatnik by-way-of Borscht Belt humor is a pretty singular achievement. The film has a unique voice and rather than feeling cramped and slapdash by the nonexistent budget, its comedy feels intimate and casual – which is to say, its flaws become its strengths and that’s the surefire miracle which redeems any film of limited means. The weirdest moments concerning the talking plant Audrey Jr, the sadistic dentist Dr. Farb and a deadpan-ad-absurdum parody of Dragnet have an integrity and conviction which wouldn’t have been present in a more polished film. Little Shop of Horrors paved the way for dozens of weird horror-comedies over the years; its influence can be felt from Spider Baby to Basket Case to less overtly “horror” type comedies that are seemingly populated by genuine crazies – like the films of John Waters or Alex Cox’s immortal Repo Man.

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Of course, for a lot of people the only noteworthy thing about Little Shop of Horrors is that it features one of Jack Nicholson’s earliest, and most twisted roles as a masochistic dental patient named Wilbur Force. His two minute scene is certainly the most important part of the film to home video distributors, who were all to glad to trick unsuspecting consumers into thinking he starred as Seymour Krerlboine.

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A lame ripoff of the Addams Family theme begins the 1973 Little Shop cash-in Please Don’t Eat My Mother, which is of all things a pornographic remake. Unlike your straightforward pornographic parody film, PDEMM straddles an uncomfortable line between being awful soft porn and simply an unfunny remake of Little Shop. Amazingly, there’s enough resemblance to the original film to strongly suggest that Carl Monson (or at least the writer) was a genuine fan of the Corman movie. Unfortunately everything run through the ringer of Please Don’t Eat My Mother comes out with a filmy, sludgy residue from which no entertainment value can be wrung, let alone titillation.

NEXT EPISODE: SAINT VALENTINES DAY (MASSACRE) SPECIAL! THE ST. VALENTINES DAY MASSACRE (1967, ROGER CORMAN) / SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959, BILLY WILDER)

Episode 51: Piranha (1978, Joe Dante) & Piranha (1995, Scott P. Levy)

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Horror franchises and would-be franchises evolve and devolve in the most unpredictable directions. The Piranha series is an illustrious and obscure one, as we began talking about in our look at Piranha II: The Spawning. In this episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast we complete our preparations for Piranha 3D, the biggest 3D horror event since the last one, with praise for the 1978 Roger Corman-produced original Piranha and abhorrence for the little seen 1995 Showtime channel remake also produced by Corman.

In 1978 Joe Dante got to direct his first film for Roger Corman after working for him as a trailer editor. Piranha announced to the world Dante’s expertise at monster movie nostalgia, a filmmaking role he was destined to practice throughout the special effects driven regressive childhood of the 80s. Alan Smithee has discussed his unjustly ignored monster and boyhood nostalgia throwback Matinee (1993). One of the few filmmakers taken under the wing of Steven Spielberg – that kindlier, cornier purveyor of boomer childhood and other people’s adulthoods – Dante must have known there’s no better way to get his attention than making a smarter and funnier competitor to that year’s Jaws 2.

Death Race 2000 or Rock ‘N’ Roll High School might have been the trash masterpiece that marked the peak of Corman’s second renaissance after the days of Vincent Price, but Piranha gave movie fans a warmup for Dante’s future stories of monster movie tropes intruding on the TV version of reality.

One of Piranha‘s secret weapons was the first genre screenplay of Johny Sayles, who’d go on to become one of the most respected independent filmmakers in America. In 1995, Corman was selling off his assets and remaking old titles for as little money and thought as possible, including the liberal recycling of the old scripts themselves. Piranha ’95 is a photocopy of the original crumbing away on cheap, brittle paper. The piranha themselves are mostly recycled as well, footage from the original film. This movie is almost guaranteed to disappoint fans of the original even more than Piranha II: The Spawning.

Piranha 3D has the good luck charm to be the third reputable follow up to the continuing adventures of good old Project Razorteeth. The cast indicates an appreciation of the original’s b movie eclecticism: Ving Rhames, Elizabeth Shue, a long lost Christopher Lloyd and Richard Dreyfuss in a Jaws spoofing cameo. Director Alex Aja knows how to pile on the grist they way they did 20 years ago. Incidentally, Dante has a 3D family friendly horror film called The Hole coming out later, so all three may now join that exclusive club inhabited by Dante and James Cameron called “What the heck do we have in common? Oh yes, piranhas and 3D.”

NEXT EPISODE: CONDUCT ZERO (2002, JO GEUN-SK) & FAR CRY (2008, UWE BOLL)

Episode 40: Gosford Park (2001, Robert Altman) / Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981, James Cameron)

With the Academy Awards once against swelling like a malignant infection, An Alan Smithee Podcast takes a completely inadvertently coincidental look this week at two films from frequent Oscar nominees: the late great Robert Altman and the not so great lately James Cameron. Altman’s career began anonymously in television before graduating to film and earning the acclaim of the academy when it was fashionable for them to do so. Only by making a film about Hollywood years later did he fall back into their favor, receiving at least the courtesy of nomination for the remainder of his life and career while the honors ultimately were bestowed upon keepers of the middle brow like Robert Zemeckis and Ron Howard.

James Cameron blossomed in the special effects boom of the 80s which drove directors like Altman into the darkness. He also did arguably more for the mainstreaming of special effects driven films than Steven Spielberg or George Lucas by making The Terminator and Aliens, blockbusters which established a permanent market for violent action films involving robots and/or aliens targeted at teenage boys instead of the entire family. Flash forward to the present day when serious Academy Award nominated dramatic actors vie to play villains in superhero movies and Cameron stands to sweep the industry’s highest self-congratulatory accolades for directing a 3D aliens and robots movie. Male adulthood has been replaced by perpetual adolescence and Cameron is truly king of the world. Yet even kings have to start somewhere as big fish in little ponds, before they spread their wings.

Gosford Park contains many of Altman’s trademarks, most prominently a sprawling cast with overlapping dialogue in the service of social satire. Ostensibly a murder mystery, the first half of this long story is spent establishing a myriad of ladies and gentlemen and their faithful servants gathering for a party in the countryside of England, 1932. Their social protocol is antiquated yet not so far in the past as to be unrecognizable, and the duality between the hosts and help is a fascinating look at the function and perception of privilege. The depiction of the servants behind the scenes is of particular interest to anyone wondering what the daily lives of maids, butlers et all were busy exchanging bon mots and stabbing each other in the back. Altman’s roving camera and Julian Fellowes kaleidoscopic screenplay create an amazing tour through the waning days of the British empire’s high society and one of the director’s most transportive works.

Roger Corman is scheduled to receive a lifetime achievement award at this year’s Oscars. The actors and directors he gave breaks to are legion and it will be interesting to see whom among them have enough self confidence to be associated with him, or even give their permission to be shown in the inevitable compilation reel alongside Jack Nicholson in The Little Shop of Horrors and Sylvester Stallone in Death Race 2000. Actually, Stallone will probably be too proud to OK the use of that clip.

Whether Cameron will give a tip of the hat to his earliest employer is a toss-up. Corman’s 70s outfit New World Pictures not only gave Joe Dante his first directorial work on Hollywood Boulevard and Piranha, but Cameron’s first special effects work on New World’s Galaxy of Terror and Battle Beyond The Stars. Surely this got Cameron the recommendation for the non-Corman produced sequel Piranha Part Two: The Spawning. Whereas Dante’s original spoofed Jaws while simultaneously making an exciting monster movie, Cameron’s sequel rather straightforwardly takes itself seriously even with the idiotic premise that some of the killer piranha have learned to fly.

If nothing else – and there really is nothing else – at least Cameron got some more special effects expertise under his belt for the future, which was only looking up. There’s a half-eaten Jamaican who looks remarkably similar to a battle damaged Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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NEXT WEEK: COMMENTARY TRACK SPECIAL! BATMAN (1989, TIM BURTON)