Bonnie Parker and the vicious circle.
The above poster is the Japanese promo for The Bonnie Parker Story, which starred Dorothy Provine in a fictionalized yarn about the famous outlaw's fast life and early death. The movie premiered in 1958 in the U.S., and in Japan today in 1960. On the surface it's a teenybopper oriented b-cheapie, courtesy of American International Pictures, but there's more entertainment value than you'd expect, especially from a movie where history dictates the ending. Quentin Tarantino famously loves the film, but we wouldn't go so far as to call it an overlooked gem. It's more of a cult curiosity. Provine says, “We got ourselves a one way ticket. There's nothing you can do once you get on but ride right to the end of the line.” The end of the line is death in a hail of bullets, but the ride makes The Bonnie Parker Story worth a look. If you want to watch it, for the moment you can catch it on YouTube (with French subtitles). You can also see a cool promo from the film here.
Pam Grier was the undisputed ruler of the blaxploitation realm.
The arc of Pam Grier's blaxploitation career is interesting. To us it seems pretty clear that once her studio American International realized they had a true star on their hands the projects they cultivated for her moved toward the cinematic center and became tame and uninspiring. We noted this when we talked about 1975's Friday Foster a while back. Sheba Baby, which was made the same year and premiered in the U.S. today, suffers from the same problem. It's too cute and too palatable, too eager to please in its attempt to draw in mainstream audiences. Grier loses her grit. She plays Sheba Shayne, whose father is harassed by organized crime hoods and needs help to fight their plot to take over his business. Grier leaves her Chicago detective agency and heads down south to Louisville, Kentucky to kick ass and take names. The hoods are black men from around the way, but the real villain is a white guy on a yacht in the river. He's archetypal. He could just as well be a white guy in a mansion on a hill, or in a penthouse uptown. Whoever and wherever he is, he's going down hard and it's going to hurt.
The importance of blaxploitation is that it centered stories on the black experience—family, neighborhood, crime, racism, and the predations of America's two-tiered policing and court systems. This focus on core black issues existed even in films that represented alternate realities, such as horror and martial arts blaxploitation. The eventual sanitization of the genre was due to pressure from two directions at once: from the mainstream to avoid alienating white audiences, and from the black counterculture to avoid caricatured portrayals of blacks. Caught between these two forces, the center of blaxploitation shifted. Meanwhile, inside the subculture, initial euphoria at seeing black stories onscreen evolved into annoyance that the control and profits belonged almost exclusively to white men. It seemed like a plantation system on celluloid, and helped take the bloom off the rose. 1976 and 1977 would remain strong years for the genre, but by 1978 blaxploitation, as it was generally agreed to exist, would all but disappear. Sheba Baby is an important film in the pantheon, but in watching it you also see the genre losing its bite.
They say the truth sets you free, but a Jaguar roadster helps quite a bit too.
A great title cannot go unborrowed forever. The Fast and the Furious would be a good name for a film noir, a war movie, or even a romantic melodrama (young and restless, anyone?). So it was a good fit for the action franchise starring Vin Diesel. But it was first used for a little crime drama released today in 1955 starring John Ireland and Dorothy Malone. In the film, Ireland, who's been framed for murder, breaks out of jail, takes Malone hostage in her convertible Jaguar XK 120 roadster, and enters a cross-border road race hoping to get into Mexico. That's a killer concept for an action movie, but this is American International Pictures, which means it's done low budget, with lots of projection efx and stock footage in the action scenes, and minimal work on the script. But while the movie isn't great, it's certainly suitable as a Saturday night popcorn muncher. Invite witty friends, enjoy the cars, laugh at the repartee, and marvel over Dorothy Malone.
The mafia are no match for Jim Brown.
In the blaxploitation flick Slaughter Jim Brown plays Slaughter—no first name—a former Green Beret captain whose underworld connected father is killed by a car bomb. He vows revenge and guns down some of the responsible parties at an airport. That's when the government steps in and turns Slaughter into an operative in exchange for dropping murder charges. All he has to do is head to Mexico and capture the top mobster. South of the border he goes, where shootings, chases, and general mayhem follow as he pretty much turns the country upside down. There are occasional interesting visual flourishes during the violence, including hallucinatory ultra wide angle shots. Maybe director Jack Starrett heaped on the style a bit heavily, but it does set Slaughter apart, and in the end doesn't really harm the final product. Another thing heaped on is the racial insults, even more than in most blaxploitation, and if there's a lesson being imparted it's that eventually n-bombs go off in your face.
Blaxploitation is nothing without its femme fatales, and in those roles Slaughter casts Marlene Clark and Stella Stevens. Clark, though talented, is mere window dressing here; Stevens gets a substantial temptress role, and she's perfectly suited for it, a dozen years after her Playboy centerfold appearance at age twenty-two, and about twice as beautiful in her mid-thirties. According to Brown, Slaughter is one of the three favorite films he starred in. Maybe Stella had something to do with that. In an interview some years back she was asked about the love scenes and said, “I was told that in the movie he did with Raquel Welch, he had a towel put between them, because he didn’t want to touch her flesh in the love scene with her.* I can tell you, we didn’t have anything between us except good feelings and fun.” Well, it looks to us like they had a good time too, and why not? Stevens is hot as hell and Brown is unadulterated manhood on a level few males can hope to reach. We think this one is well worth a watch for fans of the genre. Slaughter premiered in the U.S. today in 1972.*Jim Brown is no fool, and we doubt he ever made such a request. Welch wore undergarments, which was probably always the plan, considering she has done no nude scenes during her career.
Tips for surviving in harsh environments.
U.S. born actress Judy Bamber appeared in Dragstrip Girl, Bucket of Blood, and several other films, but was never able to achieve real stardom. It was not for lack of effort—she scored contracts with American International Pictures and Warner Brothers, owned her own modeling agency in the late ’50s, and even once managed to score a film role for her cat, but never quite made her own lasting mark on Hollywood. After a few near-breakthrough events, including a screen test for Vertigo, she eventually finished up what was a minor movie career by taking on television roles during the 1960s. There is nothing minor about this promo shot, though. It dates from around 1958.
They might catch her but they can never tame her.
There’s nothing we can write about Pam Grier’s blaxploitation thriller Foxy Brown that hasn't already been written. But our site wouldn’t be complete without an entry on this film, so above are two American promo posters, and below are some production stills. Foxy Brown was made using the same basic blueprint as 1973’s Coffy, and in fact was originally written as a sequel to the earlier film. Why American International ditched the sequel concept and denied itself a franchise is unclear, but the movie was a hit anyway. We love it, but in honesty, it’s clunkily written and badly acted, however we can also sense how visceral and different it must have felt at the time. At the very least, it’s worth seeing for Grier’s groovy opening dance number. We have some promo photos below, and sharp eyed readers may notice Grier wears the same red cut-out jumpsuit as in Coffy. We haven't mixed up our images. While Grier wears that red jumpsuit in the film Coffy and the promo shots for Foxy Brown, she doesn't actually wear it onscreen in the latter movie. Foxy Brown premiered today in 1974. |
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
In Detective Comics #27, DC Comics publishes its second major superhero, Batman, who becomes one of the most popular comic book characters of all time, and then a popular camp television series starring Adam West, and lastly a multi-million dollar movie franchise starring Michael Keaton, then George Clooney, and finally Christian Bale.
1953—Crick and Watson Publish DNA Results
British scientists James D Watson and Francis Crick publish an article detailing their discovery of the existence and structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, in Nature magazine. Their findings answer one of the oldest and most fundamental questions of biology, that of how living things reproduce themselves.
1967—First Space Program Casualty Occurs
Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov dies in Soyuz 1 when, during re-entry into Earth's atmosphere after more than ten successful orbits, the capsule's main parachute fails to deploy properly, and the backup chute becomes entangled in the first. The capsule's descent is slowed, but it still hits the ground at about 90 mph, at which point it bursts into flames. Komarov is the first human to die during a space mission.
1986—Otto Preminger Dies
Austro–Hungarian film director Otto Preminger, who directed such eternal classics as Laura, Anatomy of a Murder
, Carmen Jones
, The Man with the Golden Arm
, and Stalag 17
, and for his efforts earned a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, dies in New York City, aged 80, from cancer and Alzheimer's disease.
1998—James Earl Ray Dies
The convicted assassin of American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., petty criminal James Earl Ray, dies in prison of hepatitis aged 70, protesting his innocence as he had for decades. Members of the King family who supported Ray's fight to clear his name believed the U.S. Government had been involved in Dr. King's killing, but with Ray's death such questions became moot.
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