Neglected baseball comedy reminds viewers that the American pastime was also the African American pastime.
Major League Baseball is known as America's pastime. But for decades it was really only the pastime for whites, due to the fact that black participation was banned by every team, and black spectatorship was limited by apartheid laws. But during that time African Americans formed their own leagues, and those teams and players are part of wider baseball lore. As far as we know The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, which is set in 1939, is the only major movie about black baseballers during the pre-integration era. That alone makes it worth a gander. James Earl Jones, Richard Pryor and Billy Dee Williams in the starring roles are bonuses. The plot involves various Negro League athletes who band together and barnstorm around the U.S. They're trying to get out from under bad contracts with their original teams, or bad jobs in mundane professions, but of course this break toward freedom leads to trouble.
The film benefits from excellent exterior location work. Director John Badham makes use of the old sharecropper cabins, winding rural roads, and rickety wooden stadiums of the American countryside. These would have existed in abundance when the film was made in the mid-1970s, requiring little in the way of set design. The authenticity is palpable. In other areas the film misses the mark, particularly in the tone of the performances, which are Vaudevillian and over-vernacularized. Butone aspect of the film hits a bullseye. James Earl Jones expresses it succinctly when he hears that the Major Leagues are scouting black players: “So the white man is finally moving in,” he says, as if speaking about the mafia. He goes on to predict the death of Negro League Baseball. Jones's point is crystalline: the Major Leagues broke the color line not out of altruism or justice, but in order to protect its product.
The oldest Negro League team had been around since 1885. By the 1940s Negro League players had competed against white players and proved to be capable, and in some instances, superior. MLB had a legitimacy problem. It couldn't truly claim to contain all the best baseball players. People were growing more interested in black baseball. Money was being made on the sport beyond the confines of MLB. A lot of money. Breaking the color line cemented the legitimacy of MLB's talent claims, and it obliterated competition from Negro League baseball, which died on the vine. Today black ownership in Major League Baseball is basically 0%. Only the Miami Marlins, with Derek Jeter possessing 4% of the club, can claim—and just barely—to have minority ownership. But a merger of Negro teams into the league rather than a raid of players might well have led to a different story. MLB integrated the field, but ensured future segregation of the owner's box.
Though the color line for players was broken all the way back in 1947, today MLB has another legitimacy problem. Black participation has declined over the decades. Organized baseball requires fields, equipment, sponsorship, and other elements that are scarce in poor communities. Of course, they've always been scarce, but as public money dries up and individual wages stagnate, community support for baseball and family income allowing for participation in it are lacking. African American rostering on Major League Baseball squads is at 1956 levels. Many consider that a travesty; but America being America, many don't. MLB's front office just lately has made some minimal efforts to address the problem. It will be interesting to see how those go. The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings premiered in the U.S. today in 1976.
Femi Benussi has a swinging time in the jungle.
The Italian lost world adventure Tarzana sesso selvaggio, known in English as Tarzana the Wild Girl, has one thing going for it—Femi Benussi as the titular vine swinger. As an infant she was lost in the jungle in a plane crash, but somehow survived thanks to the kindly local primates. About twenty-two years later (judging by her bodily development) an expedition is launched to find her, and of course she's now queen of deepest, darkest Africa, jiggling gloriously about in nothing but a g-string loincloth. In fact the whole production is designed to display Benussi nearly naked, and there's also a topless dance routine performed by Jamaican actress Beryl Cunningham, as well as shower time exposure from Franca Polesello. Interestingly, the movie was rated X when it played in the U.S. But don't let that fool you. Around the time Tarzana was made, the X meant “persons under 16 not admitted.” Nothing pornographic happens here, except perhaps in the minds of U.S. movie censors.
Nudity was not unusual in 1969, so what's with the rating? While Benussi never manages to be clothed, we suspect the X had more to do with Cunningham—a black woman—gyrating half naked in front of the expedition. Her dance even inspires one of the onlookers to punch another in the dick. Must be some Italian thing. She's duly eaten by a leopard for daring to tempt the white man. MPAA censors must have been torn. On one hand they probably ached for America's children to see that nature itself was segregationist, but after consideration they ditched the idea of a G rating, slapped an X on the film, then scuttled home for self-hating wank sessions. All things considered we wish the movie were better. No such luck, but it's unintentionally uproarious, especially the ending, and Benussi is a vision, exploited to the max by Romana Film Co. and director Guido Malatesta. Tarzana, sesso selvaggio premiered in Italy today in 1969.
Lizbeth Scott finds herself floating on an ocean of tears.
Playwright John Guare once compared money to life preservers. People are just as desperate for money as someone in the ocean is for a way to float. They may be swimming fine, but without that life preserver they could go down in rough water and disappear without a trace. In Too Late for Tears a married couple that are swimming fine suddenly find themselves with an excess of life preservers when a bag of money lands in their car. We mean it literally—it comes out of the night and plops into the back seat of their convertible. It's a lot of money—$100,000, which would be more than a million bucks today. The couple don't really need this cash but they can't make themselves give it up. Which leads to serious problems when the crook who accidentally threw the bag into their car comes looking for it.
The promo poster is interesting. It shows bad guy Dan Duryea trying to make Lizbeth Scott tell him where the money went. But Scott's tough. She'll endure anything to keep the hundred grand. As an allegory about greed Too Late for Tears runs on a couple of tracks, but the way it suggests that the craving for money can make a woman forgive—or perhaps pretend to forgive—the unforgivable is a pretty potent commentary. Some viewers may find the very suggestion offensive, which is where thinking of the money as life preservers helps. What price wouldn't a rational person pay to guarantee that they would never drown? Too Late for Tears asks the question and the answer isn't pretty. It premiered in the U.S. today in 1949.
There's no business like Showa business.
This steamy poster was made to promote the roman porno flick Showa onnamichi: Rashomon, aka Showa Woman: Naked Rashomon, aka Naked Rashomon, which starred Hitomi Kozue and Elmei Esumi. In case you're wondering, “rashomon” was an ancient city gate located in what is now Kyoto, which makes the title rather curious, but it's borrowed from the 1950 Akira Kurosawa period drama Rashomon, which used the gate locale as a central element. That film was famous for its four characters narrating four versions of the same terrible event.
Does Naked Rashomon have anything to do with city gates or multi-p.o.v. narratives? Well, no. When a nobleman's wife can't bear him a son, he turns to a mistress to get the job done and she gives birth to twins—a boy and a girl. The boy will be the nobleman's heir; but he orders the mistress and infant daughter killed. The bodyguard responsible for this heinous task instead secretly sends the pair away. Two decades later the daughter has grown up to be a beautiful woman and, unaware of her true ancestry, crosses paths with her father and twin brother with shocking results.
It's a bizarre premise but a good movie, considered one of director Chûsei Sone's best. And it has Pulp Intl. fave Kozue in a double role as both the mistress and her grown daughter, which can only make matters better. Compared to most Nikkatsu Studios roman pornos this one qualifies as high art, which means it's not just recommendable, but is also a reasonable place for the uninitiated to dive into the genre. But you might not want to dive too deep. It gets pretty gnarly down there. Showa onnamichi: Rashomon premiered in Japan today in 1973.
In film noir crime is always the road to ruin.
Looking at the promo poster for 711 Ocean Drive you'll notice that it claims to have been filmed under police protection. Apparently organized crime interests were so incensed by the movie they tried to quash its production. We seriously doubt this is true, but a little white lie in service of cinematic thrills never hurt anyone, we guess. The movie stars Edmond O'Brien in the story of an L.A. telephone worker who uses his genius for electronics to rise to the pinnacle of the illegal bookmaking racket. Once on top he comes to the attention of east coast operators, who move in on his set-up, cut him in for half, but promptly cheat him of his percentage. He won't accept that, but his solution to the problem leads to more trouble.
We won't go into detail, but since the story is narrated by an FBI agent you know from the opening moments that O'Brien loses. The only question is how badly. The film would be better without the voiceover, but we suppose audiences of the day needed that good ole crime-doesn't-pay lesson hammered home. Since real life doesn't provide it, at least escapist cinema can. One aspect of the movie that pleasantly surprised us, though, was O'Brien's plan to retire to Guatemala. It isn't often that mention of our former home pops up in an old flick. Audiences must have thought the scheme was ridiculous, but seventy years ago Guatemala must have been one of the garden spots of the world. Certain parts are still lovely even today. Too bad O'Brien never makes it. 711 Ocean Drive premiered today in 1950.
Get in his way and he'll roll right over you.
The movie Truck Turner was originally written to star Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, or Ernest Borgnine, but none of them were available. American International Pictures exec Larry Gordon reportedly said, “Well, we can't get any of them so now it's a black picture.” Marvin, Mitchum, and Borgnine were lucky they dodged this Truck. Isaac Hayes was signed up and he plays an L.A. bounty hunter who chases down a pimp named Gator only to end up pitted against a powerful madame named Dorinda. The movie is poorly put together, which you wouldn't guess from looking at its scores on sites like IMDB, where raters give it a 7.0. But we suspect those ratings derive from copious action and an amusingly bad script, particularly co-star Nichelle Nichols' tour de force segment in which, as Dorinda, she parades her whores before a group of pimps and describes their assets in a colorful monologue that's possibly the funniest moment from any blaxploitation movie. Here it is:
“Gentlemen, this is my family. These all prime cut bitches. $238,000 worth of dynamite. It's Fort Knox in panties. Candy did seventeen thousand last year. Velvet, Miss Sophisticate, did twenty. Used to be a Paris model. Jess and Annette each did twenty-two five. Show 'em your wares, bitch. [bitch licks lips, strikes a pose] See what you can get if you're good? That's Turnpike. She did twenty-six five. She's called Turnpike ’cause you gotta pay to get on and pay to get off. China, come here, baby. China did twenty-nine. Sweet piece a Oriental meat. Mmm, mmm, mmm. This is Frenchy. Gator used to call her Boeing 747. Show 'em why, bitch. [bitch shimmies] She did twenty-seven five. And that's sweet Annette. Show 'em that smile, you sweet thing. She did thirty thou last year. And where's my baby? That's Taffy. This bitch grossed thirty-seven thousand five hundred dollars working part time. Shit, her clients think she's too good to fuck. They call her Colonel Sanders because she's [bitch licks fingers] finger lickin' good.”
So that's pretty funny, in a horrible, un-2018 kind of way. The outtakes must have been uproarious. Nichols knocks this bit out of the park like a hanging curveball because she can act (in fact, watching how she makes those words sparkle is a clinic on the wide gap between screenwriting and an actor's interpretation). Yaphet Kotto as the pimp Harvard Blue makes his role work because he can act too. But nobody else can. Luckily, as action eventually overtakes dialogue matters improve considerably, with the last third of the movie developing enough momentum to sustain viewer interest. There's one other asset too—Hayes' groovy soundtrack. But you don't have to watch the movie to enjoy that, or Nichols' monologue, which you can watch at this YouTube link while it lasts. It starts about forty seconds in. Otherwise, we recommend giving Truck Turner a pass unless your sense of humor is—like ours—inclusive of semi-inept Hollywood obscurities. If that's the case, roll on. Truck Turner premiered in the U.S. in 1974.
All it takes is one to ruin everything.
Successful blaxploitation movies often spawned sequels which benefitted from more resources than were put into the originals. Super Fly was a surprise hit in August 1972, so the Hollywood suits bent their efforts toward riding the gravy train and Super Fly T.N.T. premiered in the U.S. today in 1973, only ten months later. This was a big deal production. Paramount Pictures financed it, future Roots author Alex Haley wrote the script, the shooting took place in Rome and Senegal, and West African/Caribbean funk superstars Osibisa provided the soundtrack. But the movie needed star Ron O'Neal in the title role. And in order to get him Paramount had to let him direct. We can just imagine the high blood pressure meetings on the Paramount lot when the suits realized a blaxploitation star was actually blaxploitating them. So how did O'Neal do? We'll come to that.
In Super Fly the character of Priest wanted out of the drug business. In Super Fly T.N.T. he's living in Rome off the proceeds of his big score, and the ghetto is just a bad memory. And the U.S. as a whole is a place he understands will never change. There's too much invested in the status quo of racism. But in Rome he has friends from all walks of life. He eats in nice restaurants and nobody throws him attitude. He rides horses. And living there has given him some perspective. His novelist pal tells him, while the two are strolling in the city center, “These people are all walking around living right here in the middle of thousands of years of history. And I mean their own history. That's what makes them different.”
But Priest is directionless. He has no idea what to do with his life. Eventually he's asked to help the struggling African nation of Umbria stockpile guns for a revolution and decides this could be his higher cause. From that point forward Super Fly T.N.T. becomes an espionage drama. And not a good one either. While O'Neal's direction isn't scintillating, the main problem is that the script was written by someone who understood history, politics, and anthropology perfectly, but didn't have a firm grasp of cinematic pace and action. Yep, we're laying this failure at literary icon Alex Haley's feet. O'Neal may not have been the best director, but there wasn't much to direct. It's a shame, because Priest was one of the best characters to come out of the blaxploitation wave. Super Fly T.N.T. wastes his cultural capital.
In the land of bad men the one eyed woman becomes queen
Above is a promo poster for the Swedish sexploitation flick Thriller - en grym film. When it was released in the U.S. it was retitled Thriller: A Cruel Picture, then edited and given the revised name They Call Her One Eye, and still later dubbed Hooker's Revenge, which we think gives a bit too much away. But what do we know? It's not like we have marketing degrees. Anyway, the poster above for the film's Thriller incarnation has an unusual shape sometimes referred to as subway size because such promos were usually displayed on mass transit vehicles. As far as we know, no standard vertically oriented poster was ever made with the title Thriller: A Cruel Picture. But if any do exist, you can be sure they're worth a fortune.
Sweden's best export Christina Lindberg stars here as a Frigga, a young woman gone mute due to a sexual assault in her youth. Terrible luck strikes again when, as an adult, she's abducted, addicted to heroin, and forced into prostitution. She resists, but after she harms a customer her pimp punishes her by cutting her eye out with a scalpel. After enduring further indignities she eventually musters the courage to try and escape. Heroin addiction is the leash her pimp counts on to keep her in line, but she's otherwise free to use her down time as she wishes. With the little money she has she secretly buys lessons in martial arts, shooting, and tactical driving, then when the moment is ripe she finally goes on a revenge spree.
There's nothing here you won't find in other 1970s revenge sexploitation flicks except lots of slo-mo, but for Lindberg's fans—among them Quentin Tarantino, who borrowed the eyepatch look for Daryl Hannah when he made Kill Bill—this is probably a must-see. As a side note, you'll sometimes find Lindberg referenced as a porn actress because of this movie. BAV Film made two versions, one with x-rated inserts and one without. The explicit stuff was done by a stand-in. Or a lay-in. In an interview Lindberg once said the hardest part of her career was resisting the constant pressure to do porn. We suspect this was a film she had in mind when she said that. After premiering in France at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973 and later playing in Sweden, Thriller: A Cruel Picture first opened eyes in the U.S. today in 1974.
G.I. foe: the rise of the cobra.
Some promo posters work exactly as intended. We saw this one for Cult of the Cobra and immediately dropped everything to find the film. We knew it was going to be a cheesy b-movie because we'd never heard of it before, and perhaps having low expectations is the key to enjoying it. In the story six American G.I.s in (presumably) India decide to alleviate their boredom by attending a local cobra cult's ritual. When they disrupt the ceremony in spectacularly boneheaded fashion the high priest curses the group. They pay no attention to this at all.
They return to the U.S. not knowing they've been tracked there, but when they start dropping dead they think, “Hey, didn't that high priest dude curse us?” Yes, he did. In fact, he specifically said the cobra goddess would kill them one by one. Missy Misdemeanor Eliot once memorably rapped in her hit song “Slide,” Behind every curtain there's a snake bitch lurkin', and that neatly encapsulates the problem for the surviving G.I.s—they realize they're in trouble but have no idea who their nemesis could be.
But we viewers don't have to guess. Their homicidal stalker is Faith Domergue, raven haired veteran of many beloved sci-fi and horror films, including This Island Earth and The Atomic Man. She also starred in the occasional decent drama such as Vendetta and Where Danger Lives. She's an unusual looking woman but here her sloe-eyed beauty really works. You can almost believe she'll turn into a snake at any moment. Check her out: Definite snakelike qualities, right?
Cult of the Cobra is a bad but fun Universal International cheapie, what we like to call a popcorn muncher, a time killer you can enjoy and forget immediately thereafter. Its main attractions are Domergue as the snake woman, the luscious Kathleen Hughes as the hero's love interest, and some amusing cobra-vision sequences. And that amazing promo poster. We also have the alternate U.S. promo and Australian promo below. Cult of the Cobra slithered into cinemas for the first time today in 1955. |
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1955—Disneyland Begins Operations
The amusement park Disneyland opens in Orange County, California for 6,000 invitation-only guests, before opening to the general public the following day.
1959—Holiday Dies Broke
Legendary singer Billie Holiday
, who possessed one of the most unique voices in the history of jazz, dies in the hospital of cirrhosis of the liver. She had lost her earnings to swindlers over the years, and upon her death her bank account contains seventy cents.
1941—DiMaggio Hit Streak Reaches 56
New York Yankees outfielder Joe DiMaggio gets a hit in his fifty-sixth consecutive game. The streak would end the next game, against the Cleveland Indians, but the mark DiMaggio set still stands, and in fact has never been seriously threatened. It is generally thought to be one of the few truly unbreakable baseball records.
1939—Adams Completes Around-the-World Air Journey
American Clara Adams becomes the first woman passenger to complete an around-the-world air journey. Her voyage began and ended in New York City, with stops in Lisbon, Marseilles, Leipzig, Athens, Basra, Jodhpur, Rangoon, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Wake Island, Honolulu, and San Francisco.
1955—Nobel Prize Winners Unite Against Nukes
Eighteen Nobel laureates sign the Mainau Declaration against nuclear weapons, which reads in part: We think it is a delusion if governments believe that they can avoid war for a long time through the fear of [nuclear] weapons. Fear and tension have often engendered wars. Similarly it seems to us a delusion to believe that small conflicts could in the future always be decided by traditional weapons. In extreme danger no nation will deny itself the use of any weapon that scientific technology can produce.
1997—Versace Murdered in Miami
Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace is shot dead on the steps of his Miami mansion as he returns from breakfast at a cafe. His killer is Andrew Cunanan, a man who had already murdered four other people across the country and was the focus of an FBI manhunt. The FBI never caught Cunanan—instead he committed suicide on the houseboat where he was living.
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