Saturday, August 30, 2014


On Sunday, February 9, 1964, most of the young Beatles fans who tuned in to watch that historic live performance on the Ed Sullivan Show had only been aware of the Fab Four for a month, or so. Only the most avid pop music aficionados knew much about them before their first big hit in the USA, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (B-side: “I Saw Her Standing There”), was released on December 26, 1963. How it came to be released that day is a story for another time.

“I Want to Hold Your Hand” took off like a rocket. It hit No. 1 on the American pop chart just eight days before that first television appearance launched Beatlemania in the USA.

On the other hand, the frenzy had been underway for some time across the pond. The feature film that gathered the Beatlemania phenomenon, to present it on the big screen -- “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) -- was conceived and planned out well before the Beatles left England to conquer America, via the CBS Television network. With Richard Lester as their director the rock ‘n’ roll quartet from Liverpool was working on shooting the movie a couple of weeks later.

Prior to that, here's a smattering of history: In August of 1960 the pre-Ringo Beatles arrived in Hamburg to polish their act; in October of 1961 Polydor released "My Bonnie" in West Germany. In November of 1961 the Beatles began playing regularly in Liverpool’s Cavern Club, among other venues. On their first tour of the UK, in early-1963, the Beatles were on an eleven-act bill, headed up the 16-year old Helen Shapiro. They played a lot of live gigs during 1963, sold plenty of records and became the most important musicians in Great Britain before the year was out.

Now folks ask, who was Helen Shapiro? On November 4, 1963, at the Royal Variety Show, before real royalty, before closing with their cover of “Twist and Shout,” the founder of the Beatles, John Lennon, announced, “For our last number, I’d like to ask your help. Will the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And for the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry.”

As for America, the Beatles' timing was perfect. Their peppy, jangling harmonies and harmless sarcasm broke through the fog of depression that had engulfed the USA, following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, just a month before the Beatles double-sided hits were released here.

In the gloom of that winter, 50 years ago, America surely needed something fresh to raise its spirits. Before or since, there’s never been a popular culture explosion to equal the Beatlemania phenomenon of 1964.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Feature: Richard Lester, the Mocker

by F.T. Rea

Since receiving MTV’s first Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984 Richard Lester, 82, has been seen by some pop culture aficionados as the inventor of music videos. No doubt, his own background as a musician -- he was a piano prodigy -- helped him to have a special feel for how to use music in movies.

However, considering the Soundies and other short films featuring musical performances produced throughout the 1940s, it might be a stretch to say Lester invented anything. But with “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) he did prove the wisdom of the advice offered in the Jimmie Lunceford 1939 hit song, "'Tain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do it)." Thus, MTV probably gave that award to the right director.  

After getting his start in the freewheeling days of live local television in Philadelphia in the early-1950s, Lester fled to Europe, at first making his living as musician/performer. After a year of that he began working in British television as a director, and in making TV commercials.

Before he left Philadelphia, Lester had admired the early work of Ernie Kovacs, who hosted a show at the same television station that had employed Lester. Studying Kovacs’ absurd, experimental sense of humor helped prepare Lester for working on a couple of television shows with Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and other former Goon Show regulars.

The Goon Show was a half-hour BBC radio comedy program (1951-60) that opened the door for other surrealist British comedy such as that exhibited by Marty Feldman, the Bonzo Dog Band, the Monty Python troupe, etc. It was Lester’s work as a director with Sellers, Milligan and other comedians that led him to directing his first film, “The Running Jumping & Standing Still  Film” (1960), an Oscar-nominated short that was shot with Sellers’ 16mm camera.

“A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) put Lester on the map. It was his third feature-length film as a director; the first was a showcase for American and British pop and jazz artists with a thin plot -- “It’s Trad, Dad” (1962). It presented a lineup of second tier acts. Among them were: Helen Shapiro, Craig Douglas, Acker Bilk, Gene Vincent, Chubby Checker, Del Shannon, The Paris Sisters, The Dukes of Dixieland, Gary "U.S." Bonds, John Leyton, Chris Barber's Jazz Band. In the USA the same movie was released as “Ring-a-Ding Rhythm.”

Lester’s second time at bat as a director yielded a sequel to a popular comedy, “The Mouse That Roared” (1959). The second “Mouse” movie again had a tiny country, Grand Fenwick, mocking power, this time by claiming the moon’s surface as its territory. “The Mouse on the Moon” (1963) satirized the space race; it starred Margaret Rutherford and Terry-Thomas.

Before or since, nothing has equaled the meteoric rise to fame the Fab Four experienced in 1964. Their momentous appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show were in February of 1964. Less than a month later the Beatles started working on the film project to gather the ongoing frenzy of Beatlemania. For the movie, the Beatles, especially John Lennon, wanted Lester to direct it.


Most fads don’t last long, so there was no time to waste in producing the film. “A Hard Day’s Night” went into general release in July. It was shot in black and white and runs 87 minutes. The story has the four musicians traveling from Liverpool to London for a TV appearance. As trouble ensues the opportunities for playful gags blossom like wildflowers.

With its exhilarating pace, the look of “A Hard Day’s Night” borrowed from cinema verité films. The influence French New Wave movies had had on Lester was also obvious. For all to see, Lester demonstrated a startling mastery over the latest trends. In the Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris described the picture as “the ‘Citizen Kane’ of jukebox musicals.”

Of the plot, in an interview for Vanity Fair, Lester said: 
The boys had just recently played Stockholm. I asked John, “How did you like it?”

“It was lovely,” he said. “It was a car, and a room, and a stage, and a cheese sandwich.”

That became the script!
The spontaneity in the action was facilitated by Lester’s technique of having more than one camera on the Beatles as much as possible, recording whatever happened in a near-documentary style. That the Beatles had been spoon-fed the sarcastic sense of humor of Lester’s previous work with Sellers, et al, put them all on the same page.

Today, for what it’s worth, the film’s soundtrack is ranked as Number 4 on Rolling Stone's all-time list of the greatest soundtracks. Lester went on to make several good movies after his low-budget hit opened the door for more opportunities as a director.

Suddenly, people with money trusted him. In addition to his second film with the Beatles, “Help!” (1965), among his better films that followed "A Hard Day's Night" were:

“The Knack... and How to Get It” (1965), “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1966), “Petulia” (1968), “The Three Musketeers” (1973), “Juggernaut” (1974), “The Four Musketeers: Milady's Revenge” (1974), “Robin and Marian” (1976), “The Ritz” (1976) and “Superman II” (1980). Several of his flops were omitted from the list above.

During the shooting of “The Return of the Musketeers” (1989), Roy Kinnear, an actor/friend of Lester’s, died after falling off a horse during the filming of a scene. The accident was said to have devastated Lester.

A year later, at 58, Lester directed “Get Back” (1991), a concert film starring his old collaborator, Paul McCartney. That stands today as Richard Lester’s last directing credit. He simply walked away; the former prodigy's considerable influence on directors is still being felt.

Perhaps one line in "A Hard Day's Night" best sums up the landmark film's 1964 spirit, when a reporter asks Ringo, “Are you a Mod or a Rocker?

Ringo's reply: “I’m a Mocker.”

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Short Subject: Jake Wells' Bijou on Broad St.

Ed. Note: There are records of an exhibition of “moving pictures” having been presented at The Academy (the Mozart Academy of Music) at 103-05 N. Eighth Street in 1897. Built in 1886, that venue was generally considered to be Richmond’s most important and stylish theater, until it burned down in 1927.

It is said that in 1906 the Idlewood Amusement Park, which was across the street from the New Reservoir Park (later renamed Byrd Park) held regular screenings of “photo dramas,” open to the public for the price of a ticket.

Writing for the Richmond News Leader in 1952, George W. Rogers credited one showman, Jake Wells (pictured above), as having been the “…father of Richmond movie houses.” Early in professional baseball's history Wells had been a Major League player (1882-84). After that stint at the top he continued his career at the minor league level. With his best days as a performer behind him, in 1895 Wells became a player/manager with Richmond’s baseball team, the Bluebirds. He went on to became a dashing figure in the local nightlife scene and was one of the most popular men in Richmond.

After the 1899 season the Bluebirds left the Atlantic League (Class A) to join the Virginia League (Class D) and Wells lost his job. He liked Richmond, so at 36 years old he looked around town for what next to do. Imagining he had a bright future in show biz, Wells took the leap to convert a luggage store at 7th and Broad Streets into the Bijou Theatre. Offering selected touring and local acts that fit into the mold of what Wells called, "family entertainment," the Bijou was an instant success.

A second version of the Bijou was built for Wells on the site of the legendary Swan Tavern in 1905 at 816 East Broad. Occasionally, a short film was thrown onto a screen … eventually the films developed a following. Films continued to play a larger role as time went on.

With his brother Otto, Jake expanded into the Norfolk market, opening the Granby. In the early-1920’s the mighty Wells chain included 42 theaters in the Southeast.

From “Jake Wells Enterprises and the Development of Urban Entertainments in the South 1890-1925” by Eric Dewberry:
A former professional baseball player, Wells invested in a wide variety of public amusements, with the core of his early business centered on establishing and organizing a string of vaudeville, popularly priced, and legitimate theaters throughout the largest cities in the region, a network he later transitioned to showing exclusively motion pictures. A thorough analysis of period newspapers, trade journals, and some business records covering Wells’ career provides much-needed evidence for film and cultural historians wishing to understand the genesis and evolution of public amusements in the region, and its negotiation of traditional social and cultural institutions.

In the 1890s, Wells played and managed several professional baseball teams in the South. The sport educated players and spectators alike to both the values and creed of New South progress, and to rising tensions confronting the intersection of modern and traditional forms of culture. Using his experiences and contacts gained in baseball, Wells helped foster a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation required for the progress of media industries in the region, establishing social networks of knowledge and improving distribution flows of entertainment.   

Click here to read more from Dewberry's dissertation. 

Eventually, Wells turned his back on what had made him a powerful man. He cashed in his movie theater interests to concentrate on becoming a real estate development tycoon. In 1927, at the age of 63, Wells got caught in the undertow of a nasty spell of melancholia. He drove out to the countryside with a female companion, shot himself in the head — twice! — and died.

Richmond's second Bijou closed and reopened as the Strand Theatre in 1933. Its screen went dark for good in 1938. Then the building housed a bowling alley. The Library of Virginia now stands on that ground today.

For more on Wells, the first baseman turned impresario, click here, and here. And, for baseball fans, here’s a page with his Major League baseball stats.

-- The postcard showing the Lubin and the Bijou is from 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Five Film Favorites: Films that play in the snow (and my complaints about snow days)

by Todd Starkweather

As we march into the sweltering summer months in central Virginia, I harken back to the month of March and previous colder months when the threat of a bit of snowfall would cripple school districts. Such occurrences have become bothersome to anyone who works in an educational institution and/or has children. To be clear, there is little about the snow or precipitation that is bothersome. Most capable adults and pre-teens should be able to handle some uncomfortable, wet weather. No, what is bothersome is the insistence of school districts closing up shop at the first hint of weather that might require or jacket, sweater, or cap. Actually, having to dress in long pants rather than shorts is probably too much for some.

Truly, though, the most infuriating thing about snow in central Virginia is the litany of complaints from parents and students. If you ever want to feel depressed about humanity and the cluelessness of your fellow RVA residents, read through a Facebook thread when school doesn’t close. Remember, it doesn’t take much to close down a school district. A stiff breeze and a patch of frost will take care of that. Yet any change in the environment that might slightly increase the risk of any accident throws individuals into delirious fits of panic.

The notion that 100% safety for every child must be guaranteed is nauseating. If you actually fear for your or your child’s safety, you will never exit your home and walk outside. Do know what lives outside? Bobcats. Bobcats are essentially large feral cats on steroids, and their teeth and claws can rip flesh from bone. Really, you are safer driving in sleet than going outside and risking a bobcat attack. People freak out over a little cold precipitation, but not over the possibility that bobcats will rip flesh from their bones. If you are willing to walk outside your door and face the possibility of being devoured by a bobcat, then you and your children can go to school in some inclement weather. Remember, once they are on the boss or in school, they are encased in bobcat-free enclosures.

So, yes, central Virginians are wimps when it comes to dealing with the snow. (And rather naïve about the dangers posed by bobcats.) But there are some who can put on a brave face and deal with weather much nastier than that experienced around Richmond. And those people are all in my five favorite films that play in the snow. These people didn’t stay inside because a thin layer of sleet fell to the ground. No, for the sake of cinema, they ventured outside. And if you cannot venture outside when the temperature dips below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, then I recommend that you watch these films when you are cocooned in your hovel next winter.
This is a groundbreaking film for many reasons. And I was fortunate enough to see it with live organ music while a grad student in Chicago. The fact that individuals filmed the life of an Inuit man and his family in the 1920s is remarkable from a simple technological standpoint. The directors needed cameras and equipment that operated in those conditions, and he had to live there, in the cold, while filming.

And he did not live in the 31 degree Fahrenheit cold that frightened Chesterfield County parents and students. He lived in the -75 degree cold of Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” Nanook hunted walrus in that cold. Women gave birth in that cold. What Chesterfield County Public Schools (CCPS) refers to as cold, Nanook and his clan refer to as summer.
Death Hunt is an underrated action film starring Lee Marvin, Billy Dee Williams, and Charles Bronson. Marvin and Williams are cast as Canadian Mounties in the Yukon. (Re-read that previous sentence again, and let it sink in. Really, give it a minute or two.) They must chase down Bronson, an out of town loner who has angered too many people even though he has done nothing wrong. Marvin vows to find Bronson before the vicious mob locates him and the bounty money attached to him.

And if you had told Lee Marvin that searching for Charles Bronson in snow or sleet might be too dangerous, he would probably have punched you in the liver. Heck, he might have punched you in the liver even if you didn’t question his manliness. Lee Marvin looked mean.
I have seen this film once, back when video rental stores were in vogue. I found it on the shelf, thought it was interesting, and took it home. Pathfinder demonstrates its quality by remaining etched in my memory after twenty years. The film follows a young Laplander who must avenge the murder of his family by a marauding clan. In essence, the film is a smart, taught action film. Nothing fancy or overwrought, just solid direction and editing.

Of course, if this young man had listened to the advice dispensed by many Chesterfield County parents and students, he would have stayed home, allowed the villains to escape, and then lived a life wracked with guilt over the failure to avenge his family’s murder. The CCPS inclement weather policy currently has no means of addressing the concerns of 11th century Laplanders who must avenge their family’s murders. Contact your school board rep if you want the school board take up this issue.
  • Fargo (1996) – directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
I know that a lot of people feel that this film is overrated and that the comic tone of the film deadens the serious material with which it deals. The more I have viewed it, the less comic it becomes. Let the film’s gravity work on you, and the comedy and satire dissipate. And beyond the plot and characters, I love watching this film, particularly because of the snow. If the Coens can do anything, they can make landscapes look gorgeous. From the snowscapes from rural Minnesotan roads to deserted Minneapolis parking lots, the Coens make snow cinematically beautiful. The opening sequence of the film, with the truck rumbling along a snowy highway toward Fargo accompanied by the ominous and screeching music is one of my all-time favorite openings. 

By the way, notice how a complete asshole like William H. Macy’s Gunderson was able to navigate a roadway with some snow. If he can do it, so can bus drivers in Chesterfield County. Hopefully, though, Chesterfield County bus drivers are not scheming to have criminals abduct their spouses. But even if they are, they should still be able to drive in the snow. Being a horrible husband and father doesn’t disable one’s ability to drive.
Similar to Fargo, Away from Her does a wonderful job putting snow beautifully in the scene. Polley (of whom I am an enormous admirer), balances the composition of the snow and landscapes with the plot of a woman slowly deteriorating from dementia. The snow and the winter function as an allegory of the relationship between name and name. They are at the end, and when the snow does thaw, they will not be the same. The snow is a touching reminder of how much they have lost, and how much more they will lose once it melts.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Short Subject: 'Pull My Daisy'

Ed. Note: “Pull My Daisy” (1959) B&W. 27 minutes. Directed by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie. Cast: Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Larry Rivers, Delphine Seyrig and David Amram (who also wrote the score). Note: Written and narrated by Jack Kerouac, this is the essential beatnik movie. The casual style suggests the film, which is sort of a meandering skit, was largely improvised. But it was actually planned out with care to look that way. What passes for a plot has mischievous poets goofing on a bishop -- like, is baseball holy? -- who comes to see their friend and his wife at their apartment.  


Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Solid: Bob Hoskins, RIP

 by Peter Schilling Jr.

Bob Hoskins as Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
When you separate the name from the man -- Bob Hoskins -- it sounds like nothing more than the guy next door, some nobody shilling insurance or a real estate agent pushing you to get that split-level in the ‘burbs when you want the city instead. Thankfully, you can’t separate Bob Hoskins from the squat fellow who, in a fit of great humor, once claimed he would be happy playing the lead in a Danny DeVito biopic, such was their resemblance. Hoskins was one of my absolute favorite actors, a man who took a couple of the worst movies I’ve ever seen and made them endurable, and gave some intellectually challenging films their beating heart. He died Tuesday night of pneumonia, having suffered from Parkinson’s for many years.

An Englishman, Hoskins was raised by a man who drove a lorry, and a mum who taught children. Atheists. Communists. People who probably got a lot of grief for those beliefs, in part because people with those beliefs usually can’t keep them to themselves. And thank whatever you believe for that. They make the world a better place, in my opinion.

Supposedly, they taught young Bob to be proud of himself, but not arrogant. Bob Hoskins, then, was the result of a solid upbringing and then became one of the most solid men working on the silver screen. There’s a nice handful of great performances in his quiver, and then, like the very greatest character actors, he brought dignity and a great work ethic to the worst pictures. He was, to paraphrase critic David Thomson (describing the also amazing Elisha Cook Jr.), the glue that kept a picture together. 

Legend has it that he was recruited to star in play whilst drinking beer in a pub. Does it matter whether this is journalistic fact or entertainingly apocryphal? It’s perfect. In fact, it is so perfect that I would love to imagine the director Neil Jordan, losing his mind over who to cast in the lead of his still great Mona Lisa, wandering into a pub and staring agape at Bob, replete in his 70s outfit (which looked ridiculous in the 80s when that movie came out -- today he appears fashionable) who would, of course, be gulping down a pint. Probably he’d argue with Neil and then walk on the set and be just perfect.

Because Hoskins was perfect in Mona Lisa. The story of a man released from prison and given back his job driving by crime boss Michael Caine, who was never more slimy than here. Hoskins is George, a guy with a lot of energy but not a lot upstairs. Assigned to ferry around a high-class prostitute, Simone (played by Cathy Tyson), he resists falling for her, but of course, he can’t help himself -- she’s beautiful, and likes to listen to his probing questions. Nothing can come of this, and it is Hoskins who carries the whole film on his shoulders -- we can see a man who believes, deep down, that the underworld is the only place for a man like him, but he has no illusions, he knows it’ll be a grind, knows it won’t pay very much, but he commits to it, fully.

Hoskins seemed, at times, like a man freed from some sort of prison, and his acting style certainly suggests a man used to pacing inside small spaces. Look at him in that movie, in the original BBC production of Pennies from Heaven, in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? He seems ready to climb up the walls, his fists clenching and unclenching, eyes darting about as if hoping the bars on his cage will fall open at some point.

As I write this and think back on the man, I’m reminded that he was also a genius when it came to working with other actors. Mona Lisa is a brilliant study of the friendship between George and Simone, them walking or driving, him curious, her taking in his curiosity. I still can never forget the moment he takes the gun from her, after she’s killed her pimp and Caine, and the violence on his part and the utter heartbreak when he realizes that he is nothing more to her than all the other slimeballs she’s encountered is palpable. He won a ton of awards for that one, including an Oscar nomination.

But there’s others: Roger Rabbit features brilliant work between Hoskins and a robot -- look at it again, and it predates and informs how well this type of thing is so often used in Lord of the Rings and the newest Planet of the Apes (and Roger was no Andy Serkis.) Though he’s interesting in The Long Good Friday, the movie which put him on the map here in the states, I tend to think he’s beating his chest a bit too much -- he was best with other people with whom he could react.

This is never better than in the very weird, very troubling, made for television (BBC, but still) Pennies from Heaven. I like the Steve Martin film, enjoy how they expanded it to make the amazing dance scenes, but the television movie -- sweet Jesus. Devastating, and I mean bleak. You may have heard of this one, from writer Dennis Potter, who also did The Singing Detective -- horribly sad tales of people who are addicted to their dreams and totally incapable of success, moderate or otherwise. They’re losers.

Hoskins’ Arthur Parker is a traveling sheet music salesman. He loves music -- it is as much a part of him as his tongue and his lungs, it is how he expresses himself, what gives him sustenance. His wife wants nothing more than to be a settled housewife. Arthur is yet another of Hoskins’ utterly conflicted men, horrible men in their own way, that we have to come to respect thanks to the actor inhabiting the role. Arthur sleeps around, falls in love with a woman who is not his wife, tries to start a record store that we know is doomed, and then, through a nasty twist of fate, is accused of a murder he didn’t commit.

All the while the characters stop the story in order to lip-synch British music hall tunes from the Depression.

Pennies from Heaven is brilliant, and Potter fans will no doubt bristle when I say that without Hoskins, this would be much less of a movie (yeah, I know it’s TV), nothing more than pure bitterness. Again, the man took a role and he worked, and made it come alive with feeling, with passion.

Outside of a few starring roles, Bob Hoskins was found in any number of movies, from the execrable Maid in Manhattan with Jennifer Lopez -- again, I’ve (thankfully) forgotten that mean little movie to remember the kind older maître d’, a man urging J-Lo to better things. He was in Super Mario Brothers (the less said about that the better.) Great as a put-upon government plumber in Brazil. Wonderful as Cotton Club owner Owney Madden in the film of the same name, and doing his best Mutt and Jeff routine with the Munsters Fred Gwynne as Owney’s henchman and best friend.

Supposedly, Hoskins was slated to play Al Capone in De Palma’s Untouchables if De Niro was unavailable. I ache at the thought of what we missed -- De Niro was already slipping into bullying the camera by that point, loud and unacting, simply coasting on his legend. I don’t doubt for a minute that Hoskins would have brought the little criminal’s interior frustrations to the fore, even in that small role. Just as he did in Hollywoodland, as studio boss Eddie Mannix -- again, notice him being utterly wicked in most of his screen time until Diane Lane comes into view, and we see the motivations behind the toad, his love for her lighting up the screen, and we're privy to the emotional scars of her betrayal, suddenly as clear as the wrinkles on his forehead.

We’ll not see another like Bob Hoskins, maybe because the route to acting doesn’t include that intellectual blue collar background that used exist in this world. The man could act, and he could get you to feel his characters, to understand them, and reflect on your own pain, humiliation. You left his movies feeling thankful for the small gifts of joy life bestows upon you—even when that same life has been unbearably cruel.

Bob Hoskins was born October 26, 1942 in Bury St. Edmunds, West Suffolk, England. He was 71 years old.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Five Film Favorites: Guilty Pleasures

E.G. Marshall, Angie Dickinson and Marlon Brando in "The Chase"
by F.T. Rea

When it comes to categorizing movies for the purpose of making a list, well, there’s practically no limit to the number of possibilities. Favorite Western Movies or Film Noirs are among the most obvious genres. They've already been touched upon by the Bijou Baclkight. While creating a category for Guilty Pleasure movies is a bit more of a reach than some of the other categories previously covered in a Five Film Favorites column, I suspect a lot of film aficionados have their own equivalent of such a list, even if they haven‘t written it down.

OK, when it comes to movies, what’s a Guilty Pleasure?

For the purpose of this piece, it’s a favorite you think is good, but it's flawed. Perhaps it‘s not the director’s or the top-billed actor’s best work, but you still love it. It has a watch-ability factor that makes it just as satisfying to see, over and over, as the revered movies we all consider to be great films. So my list of five Guilty Pleasures is made up movies that may fall short of what I'd consider "greatness," but for some reason they have a special appeal to me. Each of them is way over-the-top in some way, but it doesn‘t bother me, I forgive them with ease. With each viewing they reliably distract me from boredom or a bad mood.

Also important is that even if I catch only half of them, or less, they always deliver. Maybe some readers would rather call such fare Comfort Movies. When it comes to my favorites in this category, I’m ready to watch any of them the next chance I get.

In alphabetical order, here is my quintet of guilty pleasure films:
  • “The Chase” (1966): Color. 135 minutes. Directed by Arthur Penn. Cast: Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Angie Dickinson, E.G. Marshall, Robert Duvall, James Fox. Note: A rich oil man owns the town, but when a local bad boy (Redford) escapes from prison it tests the loyalties and reveals the motives of a group of morally-challenged adults, some of which are drunk and armed. All of which sets up a scene in which Brando, the independent-minded sheriff, gets beat up by the mob. (Nobody plays getting his ass kicked better than Brando.) This overwrought melodrama puts America's booming postwar suburban lifestyle in a particularly bad light.
  • “Phantom of the Paradise” (1974): Color. 92 minutes. Directed by Brian De Palma. Cast: William Finley, Paul Williams, Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham. Note: This rock ‘n’ roll version of “The Phantom of the Opera” is a campy satire about the dark side of the pop music business that throws in some “Faust” and a dab of “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” just for laughs. Yes, it’s strange mix, maybe at times a little moody for a comedy, but it works. Although the critics didn‘t go for it, the music received Academy Award and Golden Globe Award nominations. In its initial release it flopped at the box office, but eventually became somewhat of a cult favorite.
  • "Rancho Deluxe" (1975): Color. 93 minutes. Directed by Frank Perry. Cast: Jeff Bridges, Sam Waterston, Elizabeth Ashley, Slim Pickens, Harry Dean Stanton. Note: Thomas McGuane’s script puts a pair of cattle rustlers/hippie opportunists in a pickup truck in Montana. One has a wealthy, white-bread family; the other is a Native American with no connection to status. To put off adulthood as long as possible they shoot the local cattle baron’s cows, chop them up in the field with a chainsaw and sell the fresh meat on the black market. Then they party. Throw some early Jimmy Buffet music into this offbeat send-up of cowboy movie clichés and you get a stylish, absurd ’70s Western.

John Williams and Audrey Hepburn in "Sabrina"
  • “Sabrina” (1954): B&W. 113 minutes. Directed by Billy Wilder. Cast: Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, John Williams. Note: A lightweight romantic comedy that resembles a fairy tale. The plot has zillionaire brothers both falling for the chauffer’s daughter, once she gets a French makeover. Yes, Bogey is over twice Hepburn's age, but don’t worry about how unlikely the story is, with Audrey’s striking visage lighting up the screen, who cares? The screenplay was adapted from Samuel A. Taylor’s play, “Sabrina Fair,” which was a Broadway hit in 1953. The movie was nominated for five Oscars, but only won for its Edith Head costumes.
  • “Touch of Evil” (1958): B&W. 112 minutes (restored version). Directed by Orson Welles. Cast: Charlton Heston, Orson Welles, Janet Leigh, Akim Tamiroff, Dennis Weaver, Marlene Dietrich. Note: This crime melodrama, set on both sides of the American/Mexican border, is so chock full of weird characters it feels like a cartoon. There are several uncredited walk-ons. Casting Heston to play the lead -- a wooden, Mexican drug enforcement official, who’s an officious chump -- was a stroke of genius. It opens with a famous, three-minute-twenty-second tracking shot that sets the tone for a offbeat film some consider the last of the notable film noirs of their original era.

The last two titles I cut from the longer list, to get this one down to five, were: "A Day at the Races" (1937) and “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1945).

What movies should I have put on the list, instead of those I did?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Feature: Midnight Shows

by F.T. Rea

In the 1970s, during what was the Golden Age of Repertory Cinema, the presenting of midnight shows was an integral aspect of the programming for many movie houses of that ilk. Although films are still being shown in theaters at the midnight hour, the cultural significance of such screenings has been in steady decline since the end of the ’70s. As with most pop fads, there are plenty of reasons why.

Richmond’s Biograph Theatre might be remembered for many things, some of them good. Most people, who remember it at all, probably flash back onto scenes from favorite films they saw there during its nearly 16 years of operation (1972-87).  

Perhaps the hodgepodge of double features that was central to the format of a repertory cinema had something to do with a sense of postmodern license. Although most of what was done at the Biograph was standard practice in that era for art houses/repertory cinemas, it was somewhat of a trend-setter with regard to the development of midnight shows.

As has been noted at the Bijou Backlight in previous posts, I managed the Biograph, 1972-83. While most of the basic style for what sort of product to exhibit within a repertory format had already been established when we opened at 814 W. Grace St. in 1972, we managed to get in on the midnight show phenomenon early enough to have played a small role in shaping America’s love affair with midnight shows.

Of course, late screenings were nothing new when the Biograph opened. And the term “midnight show” had been around forever. Still, the midnight show formula for how to do it consistently had not been established. Something as simple as playing the same program on both Friday and Saturday nights, only at midnight, had not yet been set in stone.

About two months after we opened, a twin bill of so-called "underground" films, “Chafed Elbows” (1966) and “Scorpio Rising” (1964), was the first special late show we presented. I think it actually started at 11:30 p.m. Moving such presentations to midnight soon proved better.

Over our initial year of operation we came to understand the sort of pictures that would work best in that special role and how to promote them. Although “The Godfather” (1972) was a critical success and a popular film the year the Biograph opened, it was not the sort of movie that would draw a late crowd. “Fritz the Cat” (1972), released the same year — but barely remembered today — was a good draw as a midnight show.

When we premiered “El Topo” (1970) during regular hours in the spring of 1973 it flopped. Later as a midnight show it did well.

A bootleg print of “Animal Crackers” (1930), a Marx Brothers romp that had been out of release for decades, played well at midnight. Some rock ’n’ roll movies worked, others didn’t. Same with thrillers and monster flicks. The most successful midnight shows needed a cachet of something slightly forbidden, perhaps underground.

In that light, a Marx Brothers title that couldn’t be seen on television or in a standard movie theater had an extra luster. We rented it from a private collector who had a beautiful 16mm print.

We promoted midnight shows with radio spots on WGOE-AM and with handbills posted on utility poles and in shop windows. We relied on little or no newspaper advertising for midnight shows in the early days. We usually didn’t list them in our regular printed programs, which displayed the titles and some film notes for the movies we exhibited during regular hours.

By showing “Animal Crackers,” we may have been breaking some sort of copyright laws. But the Fan District wasn’t Manhattan or Malibu, so no one who had any interest in the obscure battle over the rights to an old Marx Brothers feature film was likely to notice.

In our first three years of operation we occasionally rented short subjects, old TV shows and even feature films from private collectors who acted as distributors. Some titles were in the public domain, which meant no one actually had the “exclusive rights” to the rent out prints of the movie. “Reefer Madness” (1936) was such a title. Others were like “Animal Crackers,” which, due to a legal dispute, wasn’t in general release.

My bosses at the Biograph in Georgetown and I talked about the propriety of showing bootleg prints of films with murky rights issues several times. I came to agree with them that we weren’t denying the artists or the original production company any money. We weren’t denying the rightful distributor a nickel, either. Instead, we were liberating those films for people to see.

Anyway, we didn’t get caught.

A few years later the issues that had kept “Animal Crackers” out of release were resolved. So we booked a nice 35 mm print from the proper distributor. It didn’t perform at the box office nearly as well as it had before, when it was forbidden.

When the Biograph started running midnight shows in 1972 the bars in Richmond closed at midnight, so there was a lot less to do at 12:01 a.m. than when the official cutoff time was extended to 2 a.m. in 1976.

Another reason midnight shows caught on was that drive-in theaters, which had done well in the '50s and '60s, were going out of style fast. Some of the low-budget product they had been exhibiting found a new home as late-night entertainment in hardtop theaters. “Mondo Cane” (1962), “Blood Feast” (1963) and “2,000 Maniacs” (1964) all played as Biograph midnight shows. In the ’80s that sort of movie began to routinely skip a theatrical run and go straight to cable television.

By the time we booked “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (in June of 1978) going to a midnight show was no longer seen as an exotic thing to do in Richmond. Multiplexes in the suburbs ran them all the time. Which made the timing perfect for a kitschy spoof of/tribute to trashy rock ‘n’ roll and monster movies to become the all-time greatest midnight show draw.

The midnight show craze of the ‘70s could only have flourished then, when baby boomers were in their teens and 20s. It came before cable television was widely available and video rental stores had popped up in nearly every neighborhood.

Sometimes, a successful midnight show run came along in the nick of time to pay the Biograph's rent. On the other hand, as a promoter, there were times when I bit off more than I could chew.

On October 22, 1982, “The Honeymoon Killers” (1969) opened as a midnight show. I had seen it somewhere and become convinced it would appeal to the same crowd that loved absurd comedies by Luis Buñuel and Robert Altman, plus those trash culture aficionados who had adored previously popular midnight shows, such as “Eraserhead” (1977), or “Harold and Maude” (1971).

A droll murder spree movie in black and white, it turned out “The Honeymoon Killers” mostly appealed to me … when I was in a goofy mood. Unlike most people, I saw it as a comedy. Mostly, nobody else saw it at all.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Five Film Favorites: Movies released in 2013

Greta Gerwig is Frances

by F. T. Rea

This is the first year I’ve seen all of the Best Picture nominees in decades. And, I have to say I liked eight of them just fine. With the Academy Awards about to be handed out on Sunday night, for this week’s list of titles (with notes) I’m going to name my favorite films of 2013.

As far as winners are concerned, I’ll leave the predictions to others, but three of the titles on my list are Best Picture nominees, two aren’t. For basic info on the Oscar nominees, go here.   

Without further ado, in alphabetical order, here’s the list of my favorite 2013 movies:
  • “Captain Phillips” (2013): Color. 134 minutes. Directed by Paul Greengrass. Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Catherine Keener. Note: This film is so tight and suspenseful it would probably win the Best picture Oscar in most years. This year it has stiff competition. Yes, this is the story of the 2009 hijacking of an American container ship by Somali pirates. Since we know how that turned out, where’s the suspense? Details. And, by focusing on the relationship between the Maersk Alabama’s dutiful commanding officer and the determined leader of the Somali pirates, the viewer is pulled into appreciating the unbelievable stress the two men endured.   
  • “Frances Ha” (2013*): B&W. 100 minutes. Directed by Noah Baumbach. Cast: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver. Note: Frances is so delightfully scattered and hungry to get her adult life underway, it’s both funny and sadly familiar. Her whimsical adventures as a 27-year-old still-aspiring dancer, looking for a place to live, trying to juggle difficult relationships -- and needing a real job! -- flow together seamlessly through brilliant editing (by Jennifer Lame). This picture is about fleshing out a memorable character; no plot needed. And, as a bonus, it’s a beautiful homage to similar slice-of-life movies from the French New Wave. * It premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in 2012, but the theatrical release in the USA was in 2013.
  • “Parkland” (2013): Color. 93 minutes. Directed by Peter Landesman. Cast: Zac Efron, Marcia Gay Harden, Tom Welling, Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Giamatti. Note: Yes, we know what happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963. But by zooming in on the people most immediately and directly affected by the murder in plain sight of President John F. Kennedy -- the Secret Service men, the medical personnel at Parkland Hospital, the FBI agents, Lee Harvey Oswald’s family and poor Abraham Zapruder (who shot the most famous 8 mm footage in history) -- the viewer gains a fresh perspective on the crime of the century and its aftermath.  
Judy Dench and Steve Coogan
  • “Philomena” (2013): Color. 98 minutes. Directed by Stephen Fears. Cast: Judy Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham. Note: “Philomena” is based on a true story about a woman searching for the son she lost to adoption when she was a teenage girl, forced to live in an Irish convent. Philomena’s ordeal in the convent, where she went when she was pregnant and unwed, looks too much like life in a prison. Decades later, haunted by guilt, she enlists the help of a journalist to help find out what happened to her child. Thus, the movie becomes a detective story with a pair of unlikely sleuths. If Judy Dench’s performance doesn’t win her a Best Actress award it will only add to the crimes dear Philomena has endured.  
  • “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013): Color. 180 minutes. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Rob Reiner. Note: Yes, it’s too long. But when you make a movie about overindulgence, maybe it's best made by a director known for his lack of restraint. This story is about the swindlers/stock brokers who struck it rich during the go-go bubble years at the end of the 20th century. It’s about how they did it and how they lived. Talk about a lifestyle! Lots of cocaine. Lots of Quaaludes. Maybe this doesn’t sound all that funny? Well, it is. Although DiCaprio has been tedious in some of his previous roles, this time his performance is surprisingly spot-on.
The only Best Picture nominee I didn’t like?


What 2013 films did I neglect? 

Friday, February 7, 2014

Feature: A Prank for the Ages: Biograph's 2nd Anniversary in 1974

Detail from 1974 Staff Art Show sign
by F.T. Rea 

On a pretty day in July of 1971, I went to a construction site on the north side of the 800 block of West Grace Street. It was mostly a big hole in the orange ground between two old brick houses. A friend had tipped me off that she’d heard the owners of the movie theater set to rise from that hole were looking for a manager who could write about movies. Most importantly, she said they wanted to hire a promotion-savvy local guy.

Chasing the sparkle of that opportunity I met David Levy at the construction site. He was the Harvard-trained attorney who managed the Biograph Theatre at 2819 M Street in Washington. D.C.

Levy was one of a group of five men who had opened Georgetown’s Biograph in what had previously been a car dealership in 1967. Although none of them had any experience in show biz, they were smart young movie lovers whose timing had been impeccable -- they caught a pop culture wave. The golden age of repertory cinema was waxing and they picked the right town.

With their success in DeeCee a few years later they were looking to expand. In Richmond’s Fan District they thought they had discovered the perfect neighborhood for a second repertory-style cinema.

A pair of local players, energy magnate Morgan Massey and real estate deal-maker Graham “Squirrel” Pembroke, acquired the land. They agreed to build a cinderblock building just a stone’s throw from VCU’s academic campus for the Biograph partners to rent. The cinema's owners had decided to use the same longtime cinema-related name in Richmond as they had in Georgetown. If it was good enough for D.W. Griffith it was good enough for them a second time.

Some 10 weeks after my first meeting with Levy he offered me the manager’s position. I don’t remember how many competitors he said I beat out, but I can remember trying not to reveal just how thrilling the news was. At 23-years-old, I couldn’t imagine there was a better job to be had in the Fan District. At the time I was working for a radio station, so I had to keep it a secret for a while.

Levy and I got along well right away and we became friends who trusted one another. He and his partners were all about 10 years my senior.

Three years after Richmond Professional Institute and the Medical College of Virginia had merged to become Virginia Commonwealth University in 1968, there were few signs of the dramatic impact the university would eventually have on Richmond. Although film societies were thriving on campus in 1971, the school was offering little in the way of classes about movies or filmmaking. A few professors occasionally showed artsy short films in their classes.

Mostly, independent and foreign features didn’t come to Richmond. So, in 1971, the coming of the Biograph Theatre to Grace Street offered hope to optimistic film buffs that even in conservative Richmond the times were indeed a-changing.

My manager’s gig lasted until the summer of 1983. Grace Street’s Biograph Theatre closed four years later. A hundred miles to the north the Biograph on M Street closed in 1996. David Levy died in 2004.

In 2014 there’s a noodles eatery in same building that once housed the repertory cinema I managed for 139 months. Now it’s the oldest building on the block.

On the evening of Friday, February 11, 1972, the venture was launched with a gem of a party. In the lobby the dry champagne flowed steadily as the tuxedo-wearers and those outfitted in hippie garb happily mingled. A trendy art show was hanging on the walls. The local press was all over what was an important event for that bohemian commercial strip. The feature we presented to the invited guests was a delightful French war-mocking comedy — “King of Hearts” (1966); Genevieve Bujold was dazzling opposite the droll Alan Bates.

With splashy news stories about the party trumpeting our arrival the next night we opened for business with a double feature: “King of Hearts“ was paired with “A Thousand Clowns“ (1965). Every show sold out.

The Biograph’s printed schedule, Program No. 1 was heavy on documentaries. It featured the work of Emile de Antonio and D.A. Pennebaker, among others. Also on that program, which had no particular theme, were several titles by popular European directors, including Michaelangelo Antonioni, Costa-Gavras, Federico Fellini, and Roman Polanski.

Like the first one, which offered mostly double features, each of the next few programs covered about six weeks.

Baby boomers who had grown up watching old movies on television had learned to worship important movie directors. Knowing film was cool; it could get you laid.

The fashion of the day elevated certain foreign movies, selected American classics, a few films from the underground scene, etc., to a level above most of their more accessible Hollywood counterparts. As I read everything I could find about what was popular, film-wise, in New York and San Francisco I learned the in-crowd viewed most of Hollywood’s then-current products as either laughingly naive or hopelessly corrupt.

Or both.

What my job would eventually teach me was how few people in Richmond actually saw it that way in 1972. After the opening flurry of interest in the new movie theater, with long lines to nearly every show, it was surprising to me when the crowds shrank dramatically in the months that followed.

As VCU students had been a substantial portion of the theater’s initial crowd the slump was chalked off to warm weather, exams and then summer vacation. In that context the first summer of operation was opened to experimentation aimed at drawing customers from beyond the immediate neighborhood.

That gave me an opportunity to do more with a project Levy had put me in charge of developing, using radio to promote it -- Friday and Saturday midnight shows.

By trial and error we learned it took an offbeat movie that lent itself to promotion. Early midnight show successes were “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), “Yellow Submarine” (1968), “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” (1971), and an underground twin bill of “Chafed Elbows” (1967) and “Scorpio Rising” (1964).

With significant input from the theater’s assistant manager, Chuck Wrenn, who was a natural promoter, off-the-wall ad campaigns were designed in-house. There were two essential elements to those promotions:
  • Wacky radio spots had to be created and run on WGOE, a popular AM station aimed directly at the hippie listening audience.
  • Distinctive handbills needed to be posted on utility poles, bulletin boards and in shop windows in high-traffic locations.

Dave DeWitt produced the radio commercials. In his studio, Dave and I frequently collaborated on the making of those spots over six packs of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Most of the time we went for levity, even cheap laughs. Dave was masterful at producing radio commercials; the best I‘ve ever met.

Now DeWitt lives in New Mexico and is known as the Pope of Peppers. He has written dozens of cookbooks and countless articles about food.

Handbill for the event
On September 13, 1972, a George McGovern-for-president benefit was staged at the Biograph. Former Gov. Doug Wilder, then a state senator, spoke. We showed "Millhouse" (1971), a documentary that put President Richard Nixon in a bad light.

Yes, I had been warned that taking sides in politics was dead wrong for a show business entity in Richmond. Taking the liberal side only made it worse. But the two most active partners who were my bosses, Levy and Alan Rubin, who was a geologist turned artist, were delighted with the notion of doing the benefit. They were used to doing much the same up there. So with the full backing of the boys in DeeCee I never hesitated to reveal my left-leaning stances on anything political.

Also in September “Performance” (1970), a somewhat overwrought but well-crafted musical melodrama -- starring Mick Jagger -- packed the house at midnight three weekends in a row. Then a campy, docu-drama called “Reefer Madness” (1936) sold out four consecutive weekends.

The midnight shows were going over like gangbusters. To follow “Reefer Madness” what was then a little-known X-rated comedy, “Deep Throat” (1972), was booked as a midnight show. While we had played a few films that were X-rated, this was our first step across the line to hardcore porn.

As “Deep Throat” ran only an hour, master prankster Luis Buñuel’s surrealistic classic short film (16 minutes), “Un Chien Andalou” (1929), was added to the bill, just for grins. Although I can’t remember whose idea it was to play “Deep Throat” in the first place, it may have been mine. But I’m pretty sure it was Levy who wanted to add “Un Chien Andalou” to the bill.

It should be noted that like "Deep Throat," Buñuel’s first film, was also called totally obscene in its day. Still, this may have been the only time that particular pair of outlaw flicks ever shared a billing ... anywhere.

A few weeks after “Deep Throat” began playing in Richmond, a judge in Manhattan ruled it was obscene. Suddenly the national media became fascinated with it. The star of "Deep Throat," Linda Lovelace, appeared on network TV talk shows. Watching Johnny Carson pussyfoot around the premise of her celebrated “talent” made for some giggly moments.

Eventually, to be sure of getting in to see this midnight show, patrons began showing up as much as an hour before show time. Standing in line on the brick sidewalk for the spicy midnight show frequently turned into a party. There were nights the line resembled a tailgating scene at a pro football game. A determined band of Jesus Freaks took to standing across the street to issue bullhorn-amplified warnings of hellfire to the patrons waiting in the midnight show line that stretched west on Grace Street. It only added to the scene.

Playing for 17 consecutive weekends, at midnight only, “Deep Throat” grossed over $30,000. That was more dough than the entire production budget of what was America’s first skin-flick blockbuster.

The midnight show’s grosses conveniently made up for the disappointing performance of an eight-week program of venerable European classics at regular hours. It included ten titles by the celebrated Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman. The same package of art house workhorses played extremely well up in Georgetown, underlining what was becoming a painfully underestimated contrast in the two markets.

Handbill for the Richmond premiere in 1973

Even more telling, over the early spring of 1973 a series of imported first-run movies crashed and burned. The centerpiece of the festival was the premiere of the Buñuel masterpiece, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972). In what Levy and I then regarded as a coup, gambling it would win the Best Foreign Film Academy Award, he booked it in advance to open in Richmond two or three days after the Oscars were to be handed out.

We had guessed right, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” took the Oscar, but it flopped in Richmond. The one-year-old cinema’s management team was more than bummed out.

We were stunned by the extent of our miscalculation.

Money had been put up in advance to secure a print, which was in demand because it was doing brisk business in most other cities. The failure of this particular booking and the festival that surrounded it finally forced a serious reassessment of what had been the original plan. The Georgetown Biograph couldn’t prop up its Richmond counterpart forever.


To stay alive Richmond’s Biograph needed to make adjustments in it’s booking philosophy. After much fretting on the phone line between M Street and Grace Street the Faustian deal was struck -- another film was booked that had been made by the director of “Deep Throat,” Gerard Damiano. Significantly, this time the picture's distributor imposed terms calling for “The Devil in Miss Jones” (1973) to play as a first-run picture at regular show times, every night, rather than as a midnight-only attraction.

At this point no one could have anticipated what we were setting in motion by agreeing to expand the availability of “adult movies” beyond the midnight hour. As we hadn't been promoting our midnight shows in the same way we did our regular fare, for the first time the title and promotional copy for a skin flick was included on a Biograph program.

Then an aggressive young TV newsman took Biograph Program No. 12 to Richmond's new Commonwealth’s Attorney, Aubrey Davis. The reporter asked Davis what his office was going to do about the Biograph’s brazen plan to run such a notorious film, especially in light of the then-freshly-minted Miller Decision on obscenity by the Supreme Court. (Miller basically allowed communities to set their own standards for obscenity.)

Eventually, the provocateur got what he wanted from the prosecutor -- a quote that would fly as an anti-smut sound bite. Other local broadcasters jumped on the bandwagon the next day. By the mid-summer evening “The Devil in Miss Jones” opened in Richmond it had already become a well-covered story.

Once again I saw what publicity could do. Every show sold out and a wild ride began. Matinees were added the next day.

On the third day all the matinees sold out, too. By the fourth day the WRVA-AM traffic-copter was hovering over the Biograph in drive time, giving live updates on the length of the line waiting to get into the theater. The airborne announcer helpfully reminded his listeners of the upcoming show times.

Well, that did it!

The following morning a local circuit court judge asked for a personal look at what was clearly the talk of the town. Management cooperated with his honor’s wishes and the print was schlepped down to Neighborhood Theaters’ private screening room, at 9th and Main Streets, for the convenience of the judge.

As Judge James M. Lumpkin admittedly hadn’t been out to see a movie in a theater since sometime in the 1950s, this particular moving picture rubbed him in the worst way. Literally red-faced after the screening, the outraged judge looked at Levy and me like we were from Mars.

Maybe Pluto.

Lumpkin promptly filed a complaint with the Commonwealth’s Attorney and set a date for issuing a Temporary Restraining Order, to halt further showings as soon as possible.

The next day a press conference was staged in the Biograph’s lobby to make an announcement.

Every news-gathering outfit in town bought the premise and sent a representative. They acted as if what was obviously a publicity stunt was news because it served their purpose to play along. After DeWitt -- who was then representing the theater as its ad agent -- laid out the ground rules and introduced me to the working press, I read a prepared statement for the cameras and microphones. (No record of this performance is known to exist.)

The gist of it was that based on demand -- sellout crowds -- the crusading Biograph planned to fight the TRO in court. Furthermore, the first-run engagement of “The Devil in Miss Jones” would be extended -- it was being held over for a second week.

During the lively Q & A session that followed, when Dave scolded an eager scribe for going too far with a follow-up question, it was tough duty holding back the laughing fit that would surely have broken the spell we trying to cast over the reporters.

The TRO stuck, because Judge Lumpkin still had all the say-so. “The Devil in Miss Jones” grossed about $40,000 in the momentous nine-day run the injunction halted. Technically, the legal action was against the movie, itself, rather than anyone at the Biograph. Which obviously suited me just fine.

The trial opened on Halloween Day. Lumpkin served as the trial judge too. I was surprised that the person whose original complaint to the Commonwealth’s Attorney had set the whole process in motion could then hear the case. Objections to that affront to justice fell on Lumpkin’s deaf ears.


On November 13, 1973, Lumpkin put all on notice: If you dare to exhibit this “filth” to the public, then stand by for certain criminal prosecution. So it was that “The Devil” was banned by a judge in Richmond, Virginia.

The plot to answer the judge's decree was hatched in early January of 1974 in the office on the second story, next to the projection booth. Having finished the box-office paperwork, or whatever, I was browsing through a stack of newly acquired 16mm film catalogs.

As it was after-hours, the scent of recently-burned marijuana may have been in the air when a particular entry -- “The Devil and Miss Jones” -- jumped off the page. It was instantly obvious to me the title for that 1941 RKO light comedy had been the inspiration for the banned X-rated movie’s title -- “The Devil in Miss Jones.”

It should be noted that the public had yet to be subjected to the endless puns and referential lowbrowisms the skin-flick industry would eventually use for titles. This was still in what might be called the seminal days of the adult picture business. Culturally, because there was still a blur in the line between edgy underground films and outright porn the somewhat oxymoronic term "porno chic" was in currency. It didn't last long.

The prank's plan called for using the upcoming second anniversary as camouflage. Early on, DeWitt and the theater’s resourceful assistant manager, Bernie Hall, were in on the scheming/brainstorming in the office. Then, in a deft stroke -- suggested by Alan Rubin over the phone -- a Disney nature short subject, “Beaver Valley” (1950), was added to the birthday program, to flesh it out.

The stunt’s biggest problem was security. The whole scheme rested on the precarious notion that the one-word difference in the two titles, which spoke of the Devil's proximity to Miss Jones, simply wouldn’t be noticed. It was something like hiding in plain sight. We believed people would see what they wanted to see, but the staff fully understood the slightest whiff of a ruse would mean our undoing.

Thus, absolutely no one outside our group could be told anything. No one.

The Biograph announced in a press release on DeWitt’s ad agency letterhead that its upcoming second anniversary celebration would offer a free admission show. The titles, “The Devil and Miss Jones” and “Beaver Valley,” were listed with no accompanying film notes. Birthday cake would be free, too!

Somehow, a rumor began to circulate that the Biograph might be outmaneuvering the court’s decree by not charging admission. The helpful rumor found its way into print -- the street gossip section of The Richmond Mercury. I don't know if they knew what was really going on, or not.

The busier-than-ever staff fielded all inquires, in person or over the telephone, by politely reciting the official spiel, which amounted to: “We can tell you the titles and the show times. The admission will be free. No further details are available.”

The evening before the event the phones were ringing off the hook. Reporters were snooping about. One, in particular, stuck around trying to claw his way toward the key to the mystery. In the lobby, as I manned my familiar post at the turnstile, in a conspiratorial tone he said: “It has something to do with the title, doesn‘t it?”

Uh-oh! He was getting too close. To fend him off I decided to take a chance.

So, talking like one spy to another, I told the newsman that what was going to happen the next day would be a far better news story than a story of spoiling it the day before -- that is, if there really is a trick of a sort in the works.

Gambling that it would work, I asked him to leave it alone and trust that once it all unfolded he wouldn't regret it. Fortunately, he agreed to say nothing and he kept his word. His identity must remain a secret.

Feb. 11, 1974: 800 block of W. Grace St.
Up until the box office opened no one else outside our tight circle appeared to have an inkling of what was about to happen. Amazing as it may sound, the caper’s security was airtight. It was absolutely beautiful teamwork!

On the day of the event the staff decorated the lobby with streamers and balloons. We laid out the birthday cake. We tested the open keg of beer, just to make sure it was good enough for the patrons waiting in line to drink. Spurred on by hopes the Biograph was about to defy a court order, by lunch time the end of the line along Grace Street was already reaching Chelf's Drug Store -- which meant about 500 people.

It was suggested to me that we could eventually have a riot on our hands. What would happen if we lost control of the situation?

Nobody knew. That’s what made it so exhilarating!

My collaborators on the staff that one-of-a-kind night on the job were: Bernie Hall (assistant manager); Karen Dale, Anne Peet and Cherie Watson (cashiers); Tom Campagnoli and Trent Nicholas (ushers); Gary Fisher (projectionist). Some dressed up in costumes. Trent wore a clown mask. In case trouble broke out he wanted to be able to take it off and disappear into the lynch mob.

The box-office for the 6:30 p.m. show opened at 6 p.m. By then the line of humanity stretched almost completely around the block. It took every bit of a half-hour to fill our 500-seat auditorium. We turned away at least six or seven times that number.

The sense of anticipation in the air was electric as the house lights in the auditorium began to fade. Outside, on the sidewalk, many of those who couldn't get in to the first show stayed in line for the second show at 9 p.m.

The prank unfolded in layers. Some caught on and left while “Beaver Valley” was running. Most stayed through the first few minutes of “The Devil in Miss Jones.” Only about a third of the crowd remained in their seats through both movies. Afterward, there were lots of folks who said it was the funniest prank that had ever happened in Richmond.

Of course, a few hardheads got peeved. But since admission had been free, as well as the beer and cake, well, there was only so much they could say.

Even though those in line for the second show were told about the hoax by people leaving the first show, the second show packed the house, too. By then it seemed a lot of people just wanted to be in on a unique event, to see what would happen and be able to (honestly) say they were there.

The rush that came from living in the eye of that day’s storm of activity was intense, to say the least. After the second show emptied out, gloating over the utter success of the gag, as the staff and assorted friends finished off the second keg, was as good as it gets in the prank business.

The birthday cake was free while it lasted

Meanwhile, thoroughly amused reporters were filing their stories on what had happened at the Biograph. The next day wire services and broadcast networks picked up the story. We returned to business as usual with an Andy Warhol double feature.

A few days later NPR’s All Things Considered went so far as to compare the Biograph’s second anniversary prank to Orson Welles’ mammoth 1938 radio hoax. Which was fun to hear, but I had the good sense to tell the interviewer that in comparison our stunt was "strictly small potatoes."

Congratulatory mail came in from all over the country. Six months later the Biograph closed down for a month to be converted into a twin cinema. With two screens to fill the manager’s job became more complicated. As an independent exhibitor, prank or no prank, it wasn’t always easy to rent enough product to fill two screens. The repertory “mission” become increasingly blurred over the next few years.

Thinking back about what an effort it took just to keep the Biograph's doors open in those days, now it seems like it was all sort of an elaborate stunt … pranks for the memories.

*   *   *

Ed. Note: This piece is an excerpt of F.T. Rea's "Biograph Times," a work in progress, soon to be published. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Five Film Favorites: Crazy Protagonists

by F.T. Rea

For this edition of Five Film Favorites the common denominator is craziness. Not just somewhat eccentric, or sort of peculiar. I’m talking about bats-in-the-belfry crazy.

To get on this list the protagonist’s madness is what drives the picture's story. Maybe they’re trying to keep a grip on the reality around them. Maybe not. In each of the movies on the list below, the main character is as nutty as a fruitcake.

However, context is the key to this premise. Therefore, if most everybody in the story is just as strange, then which character is the one that’s off-kilter? The same goes for a plot that depicts a world of pretend. If the customary norms simply aren’t present, then the protagonist’s craziness may just blend in.

Example: David Lynch‘s brilliant surreal joke of a film, “Eraserhead” (1977), doesn’t qualify. In the dark realm Lynch puts before the viewer, Henry Spencer (played by Jack Nance), is probably not any more detached from reality on Earth than the rest of the characters. Hey, “in heaven everything is fine.”

The same everybody-is-crazy reason keeps Werner Herzog’s “Heart of Glass” (1976) from being considered for the list.

Following along that line of thought, since it's tricky to find anything like a sane world in the midst of a shooting war, movies set in that particular brand of bloody madness have been excluded this time, too.

In alphabetical order here are my five favorite films with crazy protagonists: 
  • "Network" (1976): Color. 121 minutes. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Cast: Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Robert Duvall. Note: Written by Paddy Chayefsky, the future of cable television’s soon-to-be-seen excesses in bad taste and irresponsible broadcasting is anticipated with chilling accuracy. This is the flick that gave us the line, “I'm as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Both Finch and Dunaway won Oscars.
  • "Repulsion" (1965): B&W. 105 minutes. Directed By Roman Polanski. Cast: Catherine Deneuve (pictured above), Ian Hendry, John Fraser. Note: When a shy manicurist is left alone in her flat she begins to wallow in paranoia. With her sister away on vacation the beautiful young woman descends into madness. Did I mention she’s got a dead rabbit in her purse? Could she be dangerous? You won’t forget this one.
  • “Sling Blade” (1996): Color. 135 minutes. Directed by Billy Bob Thornton. Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, J.T. Walsh, John Ritter. Note: Thornton wrote the play. The fey but lovable character he invented/plays is Karl Childers. In “The Idiot” Dostoyevsky’s character Myshkin can only tell the truth; so he’s seen as crazy. In this very unusual movie honest and gentle Karl wouldn’t kill anyone without a good reason. He told them so when was discharged from the hospital.
  • "Taxi Driver" (1976): Color. 113 minutes. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Cast: Robert DeNiro (pictured right), Jodie Foster, Peter Boyle, Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks. Note: Travis Bickle is an ignored, alienated veteran. We stare in the mirror with Travis the insomniac as he points his gun asking, “You talking to me?” We ride with him in his cab, as he steers toward becoming a protector of innocence and a vengeful assassin. This neo noir classic is still as eye-popping and haunting as it was 38 years ago. 
  • "Wise Blood" (1979): Color. Directed by John Huston. Cast: Brad Dourif, Harry Dean Stanton, John Huston, Amy Wright, Dan Shor. Note: This is an adaptation of the Flannery O’Connor story about a self-styled street preacher’s twisted efforts to fit into a world of shadows and scams. But he’s an atheist. It’s one of those movies that makes you feel a little bit guilty for laughing, but you can’t help it.

While identifying with a character on the screen is important to many viewers, some of us creative types find a special comfort in watching movies about folks we think are more loony than we are.

The last title I had to cut from the list to get it down to five?

"Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (1972) by Herzog.

Until next time, here’s a talking pig with an appropriate finish:

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Five Film Favorites: Boxing Movies

by F.T. Rea
Jeff Bridges and Stacy Keach in "Fat City"
Following up on Todd Starkweather’s piece about his five favorite sports movies, I‘m going to narrow the focus onto the sport some folks used to call the “sweet science.” And, right from the start, I’m going to say boxing was a sport at one time in history. In 2013, I’m not so sure what to call the spectacle of a boxing match.

If you go back 100 years boxing and horse racing were probably America’s most important spectator sports. People had been watching versions of both for hundreds of years. Then came newsreels and radio in the 1920s, which facilitated America’s love affairs with team sports, primarily pro baseball and college football.

Boxing was important in television’s early days. Over the last 50 years America’s best athletes have found better ways to earn a living with other sports, so the pugilism hasn’t had nearly the talented practitioners it once did. Besides, over the last decade cage fighting has become more popular than boxing with young fans of blood sports.

Since professional boxing has long been directed by the worst elements of society -- what’s the upside to it? -- to me, it’s a wonder prizefighting is still legal. But there are probably more good movies that revolve around boxing than any other so-called "sport."

My five favorite boxing movies are:
  • “Fat City” (1972): Color. 100 minutes. Directed by John Huston. Cast: Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges, Susan Tyrrell, Candy Clark. Note: In his teens Huston was an amateur boxer. This gritty tale presents two boxers in Stockton, CA. Down on his luck, Keach is past his prime. Of course, he decides to make a comeback. Bridges is the young boxer he meets who has much to learn. Tyrrell is a friend who drinks a lot of sherry. The film plods along, developing its offbeat characters without sentimentality. In a few words it’s hard to say why this film is so good, but it is.
  • “The Hurricane” (1999): Color. 146 minutes. Directed by Norman Jewison. Cast: Denzel Washington, Vicellous Reon Shannon, Deborah Kara Unger, Liev Schreiber. Note: Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was a highly regarded middleweight contender in 1966 when he was convicted for murder and went to prison. Eventually, the battle for his release made him into a celebrity. Bob Dylan’s 1975 song “Hurricane” helped to focus attention on Carter’s plight to be exonerated. Although this compelling biopic bends the truth on some peripheral details, Washington’s spot-on performance is so strong it matters little.
  • “Raging Bull” (1980): B&W. 129 minutes. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Cast: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci, Frank Vincent. Note: Jack La Motta, was a middleweight champion in the laste-40/early-50s. He wasn’t known as a stylish fighter or smooth athlete. He was seen as a fearless brawler who always charged his opponents. He was also seen by those who knew him personally as a cruel, self-absorbed jerk. After his boxing career ended La Motta turned to acting. He appeared in several bit movie roles and on television. This is the movie that De Niro gained 60 pounds to play the role convincingly. 
  •  “Requiem for Heavyweight” (1962): B&W. 95 minutes. Directed by Ralph Nelson. Cast: Anthony Quinn (pictured right), Jackie Gleason, Mickey Rooney, Julie Harris. Note: Rod Serling wrote the award-winning teleplay for a live Playhouse 90 broadcast in 1956. When it was adapted to the big screen Jack Palance, who played the boxer, was replaced by Quinn. In the opening scene, in which the viewer is looking through the protagonist’s tortured eyes, his opponent in the ring is Cassius Clay (before he became champ and changed his name to Muhammad Ali). Several other real boxers also appear in the film.
  • “The Set-Up” (1949): B&W. 73 minutes. Directed by Robert Wise. Cast: Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter, George Tobias. Note: The plot isn’t so unusual. The boxer, Stoker Thompson, is past him prime. His wife wants him to quit. His manager has lost faith in him. The gangsters bet on him to lose and try to fix the fight. Made by RKO in film noir’s heyday, this feature is lean and stylish. Ryan, who was a boxer in college (Dartmouth), is convincing as a prize fighter and as the very kind of guy who might defy gangsters. 
Yes, I liked "The Boxer" (1997), "Cinderella Man" (2005) and "The Great White Hope" (1970) a whole lot. But this time they didn’t make the cut. When “Rocky” (1976) came out, before all the sequels, I liked it, too. Now I can’t separate the original from all those awful follow-ups.

Why professional boxing remains legal in Virginia isn’t clear. It shouldn’t be. Other forms of dueling have been outlawed for a long time. Still, if somebody makes another decent boxing flick, I’ll watch it.

Ed. Note: If you’d like to submit a Five Film Favorites piece to the Bijou Backlight, please do. Take a look at a few of the previous posts in the series and then get in touch with James or me.