Pawn to king's palace—pawn takes queen.
They really don't make many like this anymore. We're talking about high budget adventures in an international setting, combined with romance and a few laughs. Hollywood used to specialize in international glamour, but nowadays in big budget movies Americans go abroad mainly to slaughter or be slaughtered. Gambit, which starred Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine, and opened nationwide in the U.S. today in 1966, falls into the same category as Charade, To Catch a Thief, The Thomas Crown Affair, How To Steal a Million, Bedtime Story, and numerous other immensely pleasing cinematic excursions. Too bad those are far better films.
Michael Caine plays a con man who has found in Shirley MacLaine the physical double of the dead wife of Ahmad Shahbandar, the richest man in the world. Shahbandar's wife was in turn the virtual double of the ancient Burmese queen Li Szu. Shahbandar has an immensely valuable carved bust of this queen, which he bought for its resemblance to his wife. Caine hopes that once Shahbandar gets a look at MacLaine, he'll let his guard down and invite them into his inner circle, setting himself up for a theft of the bust. If this plot premise seems a bit cluttered to you, we thought the same.
But it doesn't matter because it's not really the main gimmick in the flick. That would be Caine's fantasy of his perfect crime, versus its reality. In his imagining, which makes up the first thirty minutes of the film, MacLaine goes through the motions of the heist like a mute automaton. Then the film restarts with the real MacLaine, and this one talks. Worse for Caine, she has questions, doubts, and, most upsetting of all, opinions. If half an hour of Caine imagining the perfect crime—especially when as a viewer you have no idea it's a fantasy—seems overly long, we thought the same. Again. But we mention it specifically to keep you from turning the film off, which is definitely a possibility for any MacLaine fans dismayed that she's trancewalking through her role. Stick with it and you'll get the same lively star from The Apartment, Irma la Douce, and other hits.
Obviously, we wouldn't have placed this movie in the same category as Charade et al unless there's romance, and MacLaine and Caine—whose names, by the way, sound like a country band or a Vegas magic duo—duly fall in love. But you won't buy it. The script says they fall in love, so okay, by the three-quarters mark they adore each other, but the love spark is never there. Luckily there's also a heist, some comedy, and all the other trimmings of the adventure/romance genre, so despite the film's shortcomings you may find it enjoyable. Then after you finish you can watch any of the movies we mentioned at top and note the difference when this formula is well executed.
Hi, I'm not Chinese but I get to pretend I am in this movie. What a coincidence. I get to pretend I'm Arab. Hi, guess what? I'm white too, but Sikh and you shall find!
And me? I basically get to play myself, because, well, I'm Michael frickin' Caine. Plus I can't do accents.
Regarding the above quips about ethnicity, they aren't completely out of the blue. We happen to be doing some work on a television series that's causing consternation online because of its casting of black and latino actors. See, there's a sizable contingent out there that wants an all-white cast in this thing, because the source material (written back when no white authors were putting characters of color in their lightweight adventure novels, because, why hurt your book sales?) is ostensibly all white.
It's a headache, dealing with these folks. Most of the complainers talk about “their” territory being encroached upon, and say idiotic things like, “Why can't blacks and latinos write their own books?” They've invented a term—“blackwashing.” These intellectually deficient people forget—or never bothered to learn—that blacks and others were erased from, let's see, pretty much every Bible movie ever made (since none of the people in the Middle East of that era were white), and pretty much every western ever made (up to 25% of cowboys in the old west were black), and those films alone comprise many thousands of opportunities, both creatively and financially, wiped out by American segregation.
A look around Pulp Intl. will reveal white actors made-up yellow to play Asians and Pacific Islanders, brown to play Native Americans, Indians, Mexicans, Arabs, and so forth. We've written about maybe two dozen such films, but there were literally thousands. Hell, even stage minstrels came about partly because audiences wanted to see comedic black performances but were for the most part not about to watch actual black men do it. So we thought Gambit would be a good moment to point out yet again the century-long erasure of actors of color from lucrative opportunities in cinema, both in front of and behind cameras, and to note that diversity in media is (inadequate) redress of a hundred years of racist exclusion.
Every time someone sees the cast in this tv show we're working on and complains about white culture being encroached upon, if you were to check their music collection you'd probably find such thefts as white guys rapping, white guys playing the blues, white guys playing jazz, and white guys playing rock and roll, from Elvis on down the line. When you include clothing, style, dance, language, and more, pretty much everything people of color have invented in America has been co-opted by white culture and magically transformed into money, while simultaneously all the literature people of color supposedly don't produce was summarily ignored by Hollywood.
Despite all we've written about this today, we're basically pretty dispassionate on the subject. White casts reflected an understanding among filmmakers of the shortest path to making money. Sure, there has long been a tiny percentage of cinema about race that had performers of color, but basically, movies were filled with whites (even if they had to wear shoe polish to play characters of color) because audiences were understood to be white. So why alienate your audience? But the diverse peoples that have always existed in America are today both more numerous and more economically significant—and the younger folks who actually fuel movie industry profits are particularly diverse. Therefore yesteryear's logic still applies for studios: Why alienate your audience?
Hollywood diversity is about making money, just as yesteryear's segregation was. We don't mind that people hate diverse casts. They're racists—duh. No further explanation needed. But what irks us is racists who pretend to be oppressed, conveniently ignoring generations of exclusion perpetrated either directly by them, or on their behalf. Nobody in their family tree was ever denied economic opportunity by nationwide industries because of skin color. People in Hollywood are in essence saying today, "Hmm.. you know, maybe it would be nice for our industry to stop screwing over people of color and actually give them some opportunities here. That's fair, right?" We think it's sad that so many people either don't get that, or pretend not to, but whatever, there's our explanation for why we joked about it above. Because behind every quip there's a story, if not an unsolicited rant.
First time we’ve seen it, but hopefully not the last.
Above is the cover of an issue of Final, a publication we had never heard of before, but which is certainly big budget and hit the streets this month in 1950 courtesy of Gambit Publishing out of New York City. The cover star is model Joy Niven, who we also had never heard of, but who was photographed by famed Marilyn Monroe lensman Earl Leaf. This Final has taken a bit of wear over the last six decades, but kudos to the Denver Book Fair for acquiring it, sealing it so its deterioration stopped, and selling it to us cheap. Now we’ve carried it across an ocean, opened it, and exposed it to the elements, but all in an effort to scan it for posterity. For as we discussed before, if it isn’t digital and accessible to the masses, does it really exist at all?
Final is basically a tabloid, with a bit of crime, a bit of politics, a bit of sports, and a lot of celebrity dish. There are quite a few interesting items inside. In the Picture of the Month you see Canadian actor Rod Cameron with Portuguese model Angela Alves-Lico. They had just met earlier on the beach and, according to Final, she was driving home, and Cameronwas following in his car, when she had an auto accident. Our first thought, because they’d just met and “following her home” sounds a bit stalkerish to us, is that maybe she crashed because she was trying to get away from him. But perhaps not—Cameron and Alves-Lico soon married each other.
Later on you get an investigative report from inside Major League Baseball. What’s being investigated? Whether baseball is still prejudiced against Negroes. Short answer—yes. The reason Final was asking was because Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby and others had been playing in the Majors for a few years, prompting certain elements of the punditry to pronounce prejudice in baseball beaten. Of course that was ludicrous to even suggest, and Final’s report singles out the Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds, and Chicago Cubs as clubs that would not under any circumstances employ a black baseballer. Of those, the Phillies held out longest, employing their first African American baseball player a full ten years after Jackie Robinson had arrived with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Probably the highlight of the issue, for us at least, is an article asking nineteen prominent ministers if they think the use of a nuclear bomb by the U.S. in Korea could be justified. Of the nineteen, only three unambiguously say it would be wrong. Most of the others echo theopinion of the compassionate Rev. B. W. Hancock: “If our military feels that it would establish peace, then I would favor it.” Truly, Hancock must have spent a lot of time with his cock in his han to come up with that one. It makes us think of the famous Tacitus quote: “Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.” Or, “And where they make a desert, they call it peace.” Yes! Three years of high school Latin and we finally worked that shit into a post. Nice! Anyway, for various reasons, the U.S. never nuked Korea, so we hope the ministers weren’t too disappointed.
Elsewhere in Final you get Australian nudists, Parisian white slavers, professional seers, forced sterilization, Ava Gardner in the Mediterranean, Patrice Wymore and more. We don’t know if we’ll ever run across another issue of Final, but we will certainly be looking. And in the meantime this one will go back in its plastic and—who knows?—with a little luck, it might survive another sixty years. More scans below.
Update: Pamela writes in and says, "The best part about that Rod Cameron/Angela Alves-Lico story is that after ten years of marriage, Cameron divorced her. And married her mother. Yep...the woman on the right in that photo.
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