The Big Cube (1969) – The Big Cube bears the distinction of being the very first movie I recorded on our new AT&T U-Verse DVR. (And that’s about the only distinction it’s going to receive.) Okay, that’s not really fair; I heard about the film from a couple of folks on Twitter and because it sounded pretty hooty I decided to check it out for myself.
In this WTF masterpiece, Lana Turner plays Adriana Roman—a stage actress who says goodbye to the footlights because she’s found a sugar daddy in Charles Winthrop (Dan O’Herlihy). Winthrop’s daughter Lisa (Karin Mossberg—Wikipedia observes that this was her only major role and there’s a reason for that…she’s terrible) resents her new stepma, though ironically, it’s Adriana who defends Lisa’s friends to Chuck (Lisa’s coterie is made up of a bunch of damn countercultural hippie types, among them an ex-medical student turned drug dealer named Johnny Allen, played by Oscar winner George Chakiris).
O’Herlihy’s Winthrop has the good fortune to die about forty minutes into this thing (he perishes in a shipwreck, which the film is only able to show in flashbacks because most of its budget was apparently spent on the gauze for the camera lens shooting Lana’s close-ups), and under the stipulations of his will, his daughter’s fortune hinges on Lana’s approval of her engagement with drug dealer Chakiris…so in accordance with Dan’s wishes, Lana vetoes any nuptials. Bloodied but not bowed, the amoral Johnny decides to gaslight Adriana by doping her medication with lysergic acid diethylamide, causing Adriana to trip a number of times. (“This is my happening…and it freaks me out!”) With Adriana off to Happy Acres (she has no memory of any events occurring after her courtship with Danny Boy), the young couple are able to nullify the Winthrop will and host a wacky hippie wedding featuring champagne and LSD and bikers driving their motorcycles into a swimming pool.
After tying the knot with Johnny, Lisa discovers that he’s a bit of an asshole (Johnny tries to sleep with her bridesmaid on their wedding night…a sure sign your marriage isn’t going well) and has second thoughts about helping him turn Adriana insane, so she spills her guts to Adriana’s bud Frederick Lansdale (Richard Egan). Lansdale writes a play about Adriana’s situation and has her play the lead in the hopes this will cure of her amnesia. (Therapy!) It does the trick: Adriana and Lisa kiss and make up; Adriana plans to marry Fred (personally, I’d rather stay cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs); and an ambulance racing through city streets suggests that Johnny has met his ironic end sampling his own wares.
This low-budget U.S.-Mexican production—made before Lana was able to start cashing checks from The Survivors—provides a lot of laughs if you like movies that are clueless about the sixties. It’s also strong evidence that “the Oscar curse” may be more than just a myth; Chakiris looks genuinely embarrassed to be in this…though in his defense, he displays a lot of charisma in a character that’s supposed to be a real dirtbag. My favorite part of this film is when Egan (one of those actors who make you shake your head in disbelief that he ever had a career) decides that making Turner relive the tortuous experience Chakiris and Mossberg put her through would be enjoyed by theater audiences…and the doctor (Augusto Benedico) treating Lana seems okay-fine with this. (A theater marquee towards the end of the movie reads something like “20th Smash Week!”). You can’t miss this one if over-the-top melodrama is your cup of Earl Grey; it’s available on DVD as one of three movies in a “Women in Peril” collection that are designated by Warner Home Video as “camp classics” (but which actually contains a halfway-decent film, 1950’s Caged).
Voice in the Wind (1944) – Before director-screenwriter Arthur Ripley established the Film Center at UCLA, he was best known for his contributions to two-reel comedies (he was part of the team—along with Frank Capra and Harry Edwards—that oversaw Harry Langdon’s silent classics) but he dabbled occasionally in feature films, and he always lamented the fact that Voice in the Wind didn’t do better at the box office that it did. Francis Lederer plays a Czech concert pianist who is tortured by the Nazis after playing a piece that’s been banned in his country; he winds up on the island of Guadalupe with no memory of his previous life, but begins to piece things back together after a chance meeting with his dying wife Marya (Sigrid Gurie).
Originally produced at the notorious PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation) before United Artists wound up with the movie (PRC thought it “too arty”), Wind earned a great deal of critical acclaim and even a pair of Academy Award nominations (for Best Sound Recording and Music Scoring)…but as one critic observed, it “could be bluntly described as one of the pictures that is considered brilliant because everybody dies at the end.” It’s an ambitious film…but it’s also a tedious one; I had to fight to stay awake during most of it. (I did get a giggle out of the fact that J. Carrol Naish plays a character named Luigi—it’s even in the opening credits, “J. Carrol Naish as Luigi”—in light of his radio sitcom success.) The print on TCM was pretty rough, but that’s to be expected with UA releases. Ripley would later direct The Chase, a 1946 noir that has a few admirers, and the cult classic Thunder Road (1958).
A Soldier’s Plaything (1930) – Ben Lyon enlists in the Army because he mistakenly thinks he’s croaked a guy (Fred Kohler); Harry Langdon enlists in the Army because…well, he’s Harry Langdon. The two men engage in shenanigans during their hitch in World War I, running afoul of their commanding officer (Noah Beery) and finding romance (Lyon’s character marries a barmaid played by Lotti Loder). It’s a short-and-sweet concoction directed by Michael Curtiz, who went on to bigger and better things.
The reason why it’s short-and-sweet (fifty-six minutes) is that Plaything was originally a 71-minute musical comedy that was truncated by Warner Bros. when musical comedies fell out of vogue at the box office. The surviving print is nothing more than a series of vignettes that only come to life when Langdon’s onscreen (Harry plays a character named “Tim,” which seems out of place here). I’ve not changed my position when I reaffirm that Harry worked best in the medium of silent films but he does have wonderful moments here and there; his attempts to flirt with a girl in a saloon despite a language handicap are funny and charming, and he even sings a little ditty, Oui, Oui. (They should have let him do that more often.)
Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told (1964) – Speaking of actors who don’t get to sing too often…not only does Lon Chaney, Jr. warble the theme song of this cult horror comedy classic, but he stars as Bruno, the chauffeur to the Merrye Family—a clan comprised of three orphaned children who suffer from a malady (known as “Merrye Syndrome”) in which their gray matter begins to decay and they regress into an infantile (and homicidal) state. Bruno, as the kids’ guardian, has had his hands full keeping the family from wreaking havoc on civilized society (one of them, Virginia [Jill Banner], has an unpleasant tendency to trap victims in a “spider web” and dispatch them with a pair of butcher knives) and when two distant relations (Carol Ohmart, Quinn Redeker) arrive with their lawyer (Karl Schanzer) in tow, they insist on spending the night at Merrye House. (Not the wisest decision in retrospect.)
Spider Baby was made for $65,000 and though it wasn’t released until 1968 it has since earned quite a following, mostly because of its offbeat subject material and jet-black comedic approach to same. Chaney is great in his role as the family protector, and his best moment occurs during an unforgettable dinner sequence where Redeker and the lawyer’s secretary (Mary Mitchel) start gushing about their love of old horror movies; Chaney gets a panicky look on his face as he intones “There’ll be a full moon tonight.” (I also find Redeker’s laid-back approach to the material refreshing: “Ralph’s just a big kid!”) The movie is admittedly not for everyone’s taste (my sole regret is that the wonderful Mantan Moreland doesn’t make it past the first reel), but if you enjoy director Jack Hill’s work (he also helmed The Big Doll House, Foxy Brown, and Switchblade Sisters) Spider Baby is loads of fun.