Welch proves indispensable to yet another ’60s caper flick.
Above you see a promo poster for 大泥棒, or “Great Thief,” made for the 1968 Raquel Welch/Robert Wagner caper flick The Biggest Bundle of Them All. The U.S. poster was painted by master illustrator Robert McGinnis, but we decided to show you the Japanese art instead because it's rare. There are two more Japanese promos below that are also rare. We'll get to the McGinnis version later. In the film, Wagner and his henchmen kidnap an elderly Italian gangster played by Vittorio De Sica and hold him for ransom. Problem is he has no money. At first they don't believe him, but when it finally becomes clear he's broke, Wagner and Co. try to cut bait. But De Sica is terrified all Italy will find out he couldn't pay his own ransom. His reputation would be ruined. So he convinces his kidnappers to join him in a swindle that will maintain his reputation, make him rich again, and earn the kidnappers more money than they ever imagined. De Sica becomes the boss of his own abductors.
For a crime-comedy, it's an ingenious premise, which makes it a shame it wasn't original. Another movie with an almost identical plot called The Happening was in production at Columbia, and when the studio got wind of The Biggest Bundle of Them All it threatened to sue. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer agreed to give Columbia a cut of Bundle's profits and a legal bloodbath was avoided, but in the same way De Sica's big caper doesn't exactly play out perfectly, Bundle's profits didn't blow the roof off MGM headquarters as planned. And no wonder. It wasn't just the script that wasn't original—the film falls into the same category as continental crime capers like Charade, To Catch a Thief, and Topkapi, and those make for crowded and treacherous cinematic waters. Bundle isn't sophisticated enough, or exciting enough, or infused with enough sexual chemistry to compete with better films of its ilk.
Speaking of sexual chemistry, Welch is naturally the big attraction of any movie she's in, and we've seen enough of her work now to understand that she was more of a persona than an actress during this mid- to late-’60s period. In film after film she basically played herself. Here she smiles and quips and poses, and it's all very Welchian in that groovy way her fans had come to expect—bikinis, lingerie, go-go dancing and all. The movie would be worth far less without her. There are also supporting appearances by Edward G. Robinson and Femi Benussi, while future blaxploitation icon Godfrey Cambridge is one of the kidnappers, so there's plenty for stargazers to enjoy here, but we can't call the movie a success. If you have nothing to do some evening, it might give you a few smiles, but not a bundle of them. After premiering in the U.S. in 1968, The Biggest Bundle of Them All opened in Japan today in 1968.
Weissmuller's jungle classic continues to look weirder as time goes by.
Above is a beautiful poster for Tarzan the Ape Man, which starred Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan and twenty-one year old Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane Parker. The plot here is simple. White explorers are desperate to find a million pounds of ivory they believe lies hidden in an elephant graveyard somewhere in the African interior. After scaling a massive escarpment (and losing a native bearer over the side), and traversing a river (and losing native bearers to rubber hippos and crocs), and stumbling across a tribe of dwarfs (and losing a native bearer to an arrow), they finally reach the right area—and promptly lose Jane to Tarzan. Although he's carried her away against her will, she and Sir Loincloth eventually establish a rapport. And no wonder—this particular Tarzan is handsome, has good hair, and a physique in top maintenance.
Tarzan the Ape Man was made way back in 1932, but it isn't the first Tarzan film, or even the fifth or the eighth. But this effort from MGM, with its somewhat detailed sets, scanty costuming, and numerous animal co-stars, was the first that was a big hit. The shooting took place in various locations around Southern California and Florida, although there is some legit African stock footage used in spots, and, according to some sources, some second unit stuff from Mexico. For the era it must have been pretty convincing, rubber hippos and all. Needless to say, this flick is not flattering to Africans, African Americans, or African anyones. As for what the little person community thinks about fifty of their number covered in shoe polish, you'd have to ask a little person. We don't know any. But we seriously doubt they like it.
As we are all part of the same human family, we all should feel empathy as we would if a brother or beloved cousin were insulted. Seems to us we've made halting progress on that front. What hasn't progressed at all is agreement about how to deal with literally trillions of dollars of stolen labor, goods, economic potential, and lives. If no recompense is to be offered, then at least we should be able to talk honestly about what happened. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas recently admitted that his country's possession of some of the priceless Benin Bronzes amounted to harboring stolen goods. The U.S. and Britain, meanwhile, refuse even to entertain conversations about their share of these looted pieces. It's the same with people: some admit to crimes of the past, while others say there were no crimes, and even if there were, they don't matter anymore.
Tarzan the Ape Man presents a fictionalized version of the real-world history of capitalists strip-mining Africa. Without an iota of reflection, the characters here plan to steal local wealth, described by head bwana C. Aubrey Smith as, “Enough ivory for the entire world.” But what he really means is, “Enough ivory for the entire world to buy from me.” Of course, colonials didn't think they were looters. But then, colonials wrote the rules. So Tarzan the Ape Man scratches the surface of a contentious history, but here's the thing: it's still just a movie, and it's possible to watch it, be aware of what it portrays, yet have a laugh. It's a 100-minute over-the-top burlesque of historical wrongs, from colonialism to segregation in moviemaking. To enshrine so many bad practices in one film is a hell of a feat. Yet within its narrative universe it's still very entertaining. Is that a paradox? Maybe. But that's art for you. Tarzan the Ape Man premiered in the U.S. today in 1932.
Pick man up. Put man down. Pick man up. Let man pose on my head. I'm about to stomp this fool. Tarzan invent shaving armpits. Tarzan smooth like eel. Great pose, Johnny! Just great. And your nuts didn't fall out this time. Excellent! Jane feet funky. Also, Jane need pedicure. OooOOOoo... what's this here, Johnny? Is that a rock hard chest? I think it is. Who's got a rock hard chest? Johnny's got a rock hard chest... AHHHH-AHAHAHAH-AHAHAHAHA! Can Maureen and I get some goddamned lunch over here!
The past is never dead. It's not even past.
Long review short—Act of Violence, which premiered today in 1949 and starred Van Heflin and Robert Ryan, is as solid as film noir gets. You have a comfortable middle class protagonist whose good life will be screwed if he doesn't take drastic action to deal with the repercussions of a past decision. You have characters whose motivations, as they are revealed to the audience, shift those characters' positions on the spectrum of good and evil. You have three female co-stars who each nudge the plot in different directions. And you have top notch film noir stylings brought to life by director Fred Zinnemann and cinematographer Robert Surtees.
The plot involves a terrible event from the war to which Heflin and Ryan are the only surviving witnesses. They're pitted against each other because of this event, and while one hopes to let the past die, the other is driven to force a reckoning. We'll leave the plot description there. Acting-wise, Heflin is good, Ryan is solid as always, and you get to see Janet Leigh near the start of her film career and Mary Astor near the end of hers, legends passing in the noir. We haven't seen Act of Violence ranked among the top films in the genre, but for our money it's up there with some of the best. See it.
Let me feel your neck for a second. Don't worry, I've gotten over your devastating betrayal.
Which is louder—his shotgun or his wardrobe?
Above you see two posters for the blaxploitation flick Hit Man, which premiered in the U.S. today in 1972 and stars NFL player-turned-actor Bernie Casey as a man from Oakland who blows into L.A. to investigate his brother's murder. His brother ran a used car lot, but had gotten on the bad side of some local criminals. How he did that, who these bad people are, and what they're up to are the questions at the crux of the narrative, and when Casey finally learns the truth he's horrified and infuriated in equal measure, which turns him into a leisure-suited revenant with murder in his eyes and a gun in his hands.
What is neither horrifying nor infuriating is that Pam Grier is in this, which makes it a must watch in our book, and she holds nothing back, sporting a quantum leap forward in afro science, and proving once again that she was a fearless performer. Nevertheless, she and Casey can't make Hit Man good despite their best efforts. But on the other hand, it isn't awful either, and in the middle isn't a bad place to be in b-cinema, considering how deeply terrible the films can get.
Hit Man has a couple of miscellaneous notes of interest. A bit of filming takes place at Watts Towers, Simon Rodia's italo folk art monument that was designated a historic site in 1990. We've seen the place in person and we loved it because its mosaics reminded us of the type you see on modernist architecture in Barcelona. The production photo of Grier in a long black dress, below, was shot at the site. It's one of the most famous images of her, and one of the most badass too.
Hit Man also makes use of a location called Africa America, an open air animal preserve of the type made famous by Tiger King. We can't find any trace online that it ever existed, so there's no way to know for sure whether it was a real zoo, an MGM set, or something in between, such as a private ranch dressed up for filming. But it plays an important role in the plot, as do its hungry lions. If they'd eaten a few of the worst script pages, and a couple of bad supporting actors, and maybe Casey's purple leisure suit, Hit Man might be better than just okay. But lions are finicky like all cats, and most amateur film critics.
MGM's sure bet didn't quite pay off.
Above is a beautiful, blindingly colorful MGM promo shot of U.S. actress Barbara Lang, née Barbara Jean Bly, someone we've shown you in black and white in the past. The accompanying text, which we've cropped out, explains that Lang “is a sure bet for stardom,” but she acted in only three movies and made about twenty television appearances on shows such as 77 Sunset Strip and Lock Up, with her entire career lasting from 1955 to 1961. Mixed in there was a 1959 suicide attempt that doubtless derailed her momentum. But once upon a time she was a contender, and this shot befits a burgeoning star.
Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night can stay her from the swift completion of her appointed seduction.
Above is a trolley card for the classic Lana Turner/John Garfield film noir The Postman Always Rings Twice, which according to the text, opened at the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles today in 1946. What's a trolley card? Pretty much self-explanatory, that. But you don't see many surviving examples, so this is a real treasure. The opening date represents new info. All the websites we checked said the movie opened in L.A. May 9. Maybe the managers of the Egyptian had connections at MGM. Awesome connections, we guess, to have helped them beat the rest of town by two full days. With that kind of juice, it's safe to assume they only had to ring once at the studio gates. We worked in the L.A. film industry. Relationships are everything. Or maybe the movie actually opened today, and the internet is wrong. Wouldn't be the first time. Not that we're trying to sound superior. We've made errors more than once. Interestingly, we were able to locate a vintage photo of the Egyptian with its marquee advertising Postman. It's a great movie. Nobody needs us to tell them that, but we did anyway, at this link.
Only a mythological creature could look this good.
Above you see Ava Gardner in an MGM promo shot that puts to rest any question of whether she was one of the most beautiful stars of her era. This image should be hung in a museum. We can't pinpoint a date on it, but we can make a reasonable guess. She looks every bit the ingénue, so it's probably pre-superstardom, say from between 1942 and 1946.
All she needed was for someone to believe.
Paulette Goddard had more false starts to her career than most Hollywood legends. During the late 1920s and early-to-mid 1930s she worked—without making much impact—for Selznick International Pictures, George Fitzmaurice Productions, 20th Century Pictures, Hal Roach Studios, and both Goldwyn Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. She turned some heads in Modern Times, co-starring with Charlie Chaplain, who was her boyfriend at the time, but her major break came with Paramount when she starred opposite Bob Hope in The Cat and The Canary. She never looked back, appearing in seventeen films in the next five years, and more than fifty over the course of her career. One of those was Northwest Mounted Police, which is where the above promo photo comes. It dates from 1940.
Some jobs you can do better all by yourself.
This photo of Lana Turner was made when she was filming the crime thriller Johnny Eager, and what's interesting about it is that co-star Robert Taylor, who played the titular Mr. Eager, was erased from an original MGM promo shot. Apparently, whoever altered the shot felt Turner didn't need Taylor in a supervisory role, so he was magically vanished. If only it were always that easy to get someone off your back. The photo is from 1941.
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.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
Pierre Laval, who was the premier of Vichy, France, which had collaborated with the Nazis during World War II, is shot by a firing squad for treason. In subsequent years it emerges that Laval may have considered himself a patriot whose goal was to publicly submit to the Germans while doing everything possible behind the scenes to thwart them. In at least one respect he may have succeeded: fifty percent of French Jews survived the war, whereas in other territories about ninety percent perished.
1966—Black Panthers Form
In the U.S., in Oakland, California, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale form the Black Panther political party. The Panthers are active in American politics throughout the 1960s and 1970s, but eventually legal troubles combined with a schism over the direction of the party lead to its dissolution.
1962—Cuban Missile Crisis Begins
A U-2 spy plane flight over the island of Cuba produces photographs of Soviet nuclear missiles being installed. Though American missiles have been installed near Russia, the U.S. decides that no such weapons will be tolerated in Cuba. The resultant standoff brings the U.S. and the Soviet Union to the brink of war. The crisis finally ends with a secret deal in which the U.S. removes its missiles from Turkey in exchange for the Soviets removing the Cuban weapons.
1970—Angela Davis Arrested
After two months of evading police and federal authorities, Angela Davis is arrested in New York City by the FBI. She had been sought in connection with a kidnapping and murder because one of the guns used in the crime had been bought under her name. But after a trial a jury agreed that owning the weapon did not automatically make her complicit in the crimes.
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