Altman and company get gangsta in the heartland.
Auteur and maverick Robert Altman directed several films centered around crime, but perhaps only his 1930s gangster flick Kansas City truly fits the bill as a pulp style effort. The plot tells the tale of Blondie O'Hara, whose petty crook husband Johnny is captured by gangster Seldom Seen and held at a nightclub, prompting Blondie to kidnap the wife of a local politician in an attempt to blackmail him into using his connections to free Johnny. Sounds straightforward, but Altman's approach to this is leisurely and episodic.
Kansas City is generally considered to be a lesser effort from the legendary director, but even if it's not in the class of Short Cuts or M*A*S*H*, it has some points of interest—a slithery jazz score, lots of smoky nightclub scenery, Steve Buscemi warming up for another gangster role in the brilliant Miller's Crossing, Harry Belafonte playing it cool, and Jennifer Jason Leigh giving her actorly all as the drawling, flapperesque Blondie.
Another plus is this killer promo poster. When we saw it we had to watch the movie. But what's the most important reason to watch it? Altman, of course. It's always fun to see what a director does with the 1930s. What's the main drawback? Aside from its narrative quirkiness, we suspect its racial content may be a bit much for those with millennial sensibilities. But don't fault art for holding a mirror to history. When we can't reflect the past in cinema we'll have fallen pretty far. Kansas City premiered in the U.S. today in 1996.
You oughta be in pictures.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's famed lion mascot, who roared at the beginning of every MGM picture, was known as Leo. But like an actor playing a role, the lions used in those famed openings had real names. The first lion was used by MGM's predecessor Goldwyn Pictures. He was named Slats, and you see him above in this profile shot made at Gay's Lion Farm in El Monte, California. Slats played Leo for Goldwyn and MGM from 1916 to 1928, to be followed by such luminaries as Jackie, Teller, Tanner, George, etc. Slats was the only lion that didn't roar, because he got the gig before sound was introduced into film. While he's immortal as a logo, he died in 1936. For his faithful service he was skinned and his hide was put on display. It's still around, at the moment residing at the McPherson Museum in McPherson, Kansas.
Don't! That's only for salads or desserts!
This is very nice cover work for Everett and Olga Webber's U.S. Civil War novel Bound Girl. The art is by Sam Cherry, one of the best. After a 1949 hardback debut the book came out as this Popular Library paperback in 1950. The bound girl of the novel is an indentured servant living on the Kansas-Missouri border who experiences both war and various romantic ups and downs. Possibly her love problems stem from bad manners. After all, who'd want to date someone who doesn't even know that a three prong fork isn't for meat courses?
Ever watch a movie that really makes your skin crawl?
The above poster was made to promote the Italian release of the sci-fi movie L'allucinante fine dell'umanità, which was originally made in Japan and called 昆虫大戦争, or Konchû daisensô. The chaotic Japanese poster appears just below. It's a mutant bug movie obviously, an angry bug movie, a swarming bug movie, a planes-crashing-because-of-bugs-ganging-up-on-jet-engines movie. Basically, these insects get into everything, including your sinus cavities. If you know the film at all, it's probably as War of the Insects or possibly Genocide, which were its two English titles. It is, amazingly, part of the Criterion DVD Collection, which consists of “important classic and contemporary films,” but we can't call it anything better than adequate.
It's interesting on one level, though. Japanese creations such as Godzilla are often called a reaction to being the victims of two nuclear bombs. If so, then Konchû daisensô fits that category too, as the rogue insects that turn on humans can only be defeated with a lost but undetonated American atomic bomb. Germany is worked into the plot as well, so with three major World War II powers involved there may be war psychology at work. Entomopohobia is at work too, so if you hate or fear insects, definitely give this one a pass. Konchû daisensô premiered in Japan today in 1968, and began its run in Italy as L'allucinante fine dell'umanità at some unknown date afterward.
Cannes goods take on a whole new flavor.
Today in 1976 the U.S. porno movie Sensations premiered in Japan. We talked about it five years ago and shared an amazing Japanese promo poster painted by William Stok. That piece was an alternate promo. The one you see above was more widely used. While it's no Stok, in its own way it's almost as interesting, with star Brigitte Maier seeming to fellate psychedelic emissions of unknown composition and provenance. Of course, the Japanese designers merely painted over what she was really tasting. The visual effect is rather nice, we think.
Sensations—referred to on the poster as Sensation—was well received upon release. Bruce Williamson of Playboy called it a “sensually pulsating sextravaganza” that was “the best bet of all for outright voyeurs.” The film was so highly regarded it even screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Does that mean it's good? Not exactly. Not by any normal standard. But we mention the Cannes thing because if someone walks in unexpectedly while you're watching it you are now equipped to indignantly inform them: “Porn? Porn? I'll have you know this played in Cannes!”
A case of double trouble for wrongly convicted Kansas man.
Speaking of doubles, put this one in the amazing coincidences file. A Kansas man who spent seventeen years in prison was released Monday when a judge admitted that an exact double may have committed the crime for which he was jailed. Richard Jones, the man who was released, appears on the right in both mugshots, while an almost identical man appears on the left. This doppelgangbanger is an ex-convict who lived in Kansas City, Kansas in the vicinity of where several people were robbed at gunpoint in 1999, while Jones lived with his wife and kids across the state line in Kansas City, Missouri. Since Jones was convicted only on eyewitness identification by the victims, and there was no physical, DNA, or fingerprint evidence to link him to the crime, a judge ruled that there was sufficient cause to order his release.
Interestingly, after years of failed legal appeals it was Jones himself who broke the case by finally chatting with inmates in prison, who told him that he bore an uncanny resemblance to an ex-con named Ricky. Just over a year ago Jones contacted the Midwest Innocence Project, and they located a photo of this Ricky character, who it turned out had actually been questioned about the original robbery but had denied involvement. Why his interrogators failed to notice the resemblance to the accused is a mystery that is yet to be unravelled. Maybe Ricky had a perm that day. Anyway, photos were presented to one of the victims of the robbery, two eyewitnesses, and the prosecutor of the case, and none could tell the two men apart. Jones, who maintained his innocence all along, said, “When I saw the picture of my double it all made sense to me.”
The irony is strong with this case. Consider: it was mere proximity to the thief that got Jones sent upstate, but it also turned out to be proximity that led to convicts in the same prison as Jones knowing of Ricky. If Jones had been sentenced to a different prison he'd still be behind bars, which, while he must be thrilled to be breathing the sweet air of freedom, is a thought we imagine keeps him up nights. But that's not the only irony here. Ricky will not be charged with a crime. How can he be? The victims and eyewitnesses can't be relied upon. Absent physical evidence, DNA, or fingerprints there's no way to be sure he was the perpetrator. It could have been Jones, his double. It wasn't. But technically, it could have been. The lesson here is crystal clear—if you hear of someone that looks like you, take the opportunity to commit a heinous crime and you'll get away scot-free.
Even half covered and drained of color the art is easy to recognize.
The famed French illustrator Alain Gourdon, aka Aslan, saw his work reused in the unlikeliest places, including unlicensed on bootleg vinyl sleeves for The Cure and Joy Division. Today we thought we'd show you his art recycled in his native industry—publishing. The top cover for Ludwig Krauss's Les nuits bavaroises is from Éditions Les Presses de la Nuit and appeared in 1958, and the simplified second cover for Michel de Kerguen's Concerto pour un ange is from Les Éditions Gamma and appeared a year later. You can be sure the reworked Aslan was licensed, but none of the sites we visited seemed to realize it originated with him. So we're giving him official credit. Both covers are nice, but the first is truly brilliant.
Tabloid proves it's possible to be both one-of-a-kind and run-of-the-mill.
Above, the cover and assorted scans from yet another tabloid we've never seen before—Sensational Exposés, produced by New York City based Skye Publishing. We've scanned and uploaded a couple of other rare tabloids in the last year, including Dynamite and Nightbeat. Sensational Exposés fits right into that group. Rarity doesn't make it special, though. Which is to say, it's a great little historical tidbit but it doesn't compare favorably to the big boy tabloids of the era—Confidential, Whisper, Hush-Hush, et al, either graphically or content-wise. Well, at least it cost us only four dollars.
Sensational Exposés launched in late 1957 and did not last past 1958, as far as we can tell, with this issue appearing in April of that year. Inside you get a little bit of organized crime, and a little bit of commie bashing, and a little bit of celebrity dish, with all the accompanying photos posed by models, save for an appearance from Tana Velia. We'll keep an eye out for more issues but we don't expect to find others—at least not at a reasonable price. If you'd like to see hundreds of other tabloid covers and interior scans check our burgeoning tabloid index, at this link.
The best defense is a good offense.
Four robbers knock off a bank in Kansas City with plans to split the money after the heat has cooled. The mastermind behind the job has arranged it so the crooks don't meet before the job, and wear masks during it, thus can't possibly identify each other. But each man has an ace, torn in half to create a unique mate, to match with the second half and confirm his identity when the time comes. It all sounds clever and foolproof, except the mastermind has framed someone for the robbery to throw police off their trail, and when this man is arrested but turned loose from police custody due to lack of evidence, he decides to track down the men who set him up.
This character, played by John Payne, is our anti-hero and looming wrench in theives' works. He quickly picks up the trail of one of the robbers in Mexico, but the police have too. In trying to discover who framed him, Payne could look to these lurking cops as though he's a member of the gang—if they spot him, that is. When Payne sees an opportunity to adopt one of the robber's identities—no difficult task since they've never seen each other—he leaps at it, but this draws him in even deeper. He's now in danger from the men he's playing imposter to, while to the cops he looks like a participant in the robbery.
There are more twists, including a star-crossed romance with Coleen Gray, but we'll stop there. This is a nice, multi-layered film noir, with good performances all around. Considering the risk Payne has to take we aren't sure we fully buy his motivation, but once he's made the decision there's no easy way out, and it's fun to watch him threaten and beat his way up the chain to the top guy. Coleen Gray always adds a nice element to any movie she's in, and Lee Van Cleef is good in a tough guy role. The only serious blemish here may be the silly final minute, but you shouldn't let it ruin the film for you. We recommend giving this one a whirl.
Just because they're kidnappers doesn't mean they're bad people.
This FBI wanted poster was issued for Clarence Vernon Stevens today in 1937, in connection with a kidnapping case dating back to 1933. Clearly, the FBI were having no luck finding their target. In May 1933 Stevens and three accomplices had kidnapped Kansas City rich girl Mary McElroy right out of her bathtub one night and demanded a hefty $60,000 ransom from her father for her safe return. In the end they got $30,000, but they also got caught—all except for Stevens. While his accomplices were tried and sentenced to, respectively death, life, and eight years, police scoured the state for Stevens. Eventually they decided he might have hidden himself somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. The FBI got involved in the search, resulting in the above poster.
Mary McElroy had developed a bond with her kidnappers and lobboed for more lenient sentences for the three that had been caught on the grounds that they had treated her decently. She successfully petitioned Missouri governor Guy Brasfield Park to have the death penalty handed one of her captors commuted to life, explaining in a letter, “Through punishing a guilty man, his victim will be made to suffer equally. [snip] In pleading for Walter McGee's life I am pleading for my own peace of mind.” She was very likely being truthful about her mental state—after the event she suffered from all sorts of mental disorders, problems she attributed to concern for the imprisoned men she now considered friends. We're sure a modern headshrinker would have a more in-depth explanation, something along the lines of PTSD.
Whether McElroy's problems originated from the kidnapping itself or from subsequent anxiety concerning the state punishing them on her behalf, the rest of her life did not go well. She had several nervous breakdowns—as such incidents were called back then—never moved out of her father's house, and became addicted to opium. In January 1949 she committed suicide at age thirty-two by shooting herself in the head with a pistol. She left a note that read, “My four kidnappers are probably the four people on earth who don't consider me an utter fool. You have your death penalty now - so - please - give them a chance. Mary.” But her death brought about no change in her kidnappers' status. One had already been paroled as scheduled, but the other two remained in prison. As for Clarence Vernon Stevens, he was never caught.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1934—Arrest Made in Lindbergh Baby Case
Bruno Hauptmann is arrested for the kidnap and murder of Charles Lindbergh Jr., son of the famous American aviator. The infant child had been abducted from the Lindbergh home in March 1932, and found decomposed two months later in the woods nearby. He had suffered a fatal skull fracture. Hauptmann was tried, convicted, sentenced to death, and finally executed by electric chair in April 1936. He proclaimed his innocence to the end
1919—Pollard Breaks the Color Barrier
Fritz Pollard becomes the first African-American to play professional football for a major team, the Akron Pros. Though Pollard is forgotten today, famed sportswriter Walter Camp ranked him as "one of the greatest runners these eyes have ever seen." In another barrier-breaking historical achievement, Pollard later became the co-head coach of the Pros, while still maintaining his roster position as running back.
1932—Entwistle Leaps from Hollywood Sign
Actress Peg Entwistle
commits suicide by jumping from the letter "H" in the Hollywood sign. Her body lay in the ravine below for two days, until it was found by a detective and two radio car officers. She remained unidentified until her uncle connected the description and the initials "P.E." on the suicide note in the newspapers with his niece's two-day absence.
1908—First Airplane Fatality Occurs
The plane built by Wilbur and Orville Wright, The Wright Flyer, crashes with Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge aboard as a passenger. The accident kills Selfridge, and he becomes the first airplane fatality in history.
1983—First Black Miss America Crowned
Vanessa Williams becomes the first African American Miss America. She later loses her crown when lesbian-themed nude photographs of her are published by Penthouse magazine.
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