Vault of Secrets: Idiots Creating Problems edition!

The Stooges get moronic, the British go atomic and Frankie Avalon...isn’t funny!

As we assess the studios’ MOD (Manufactured-On-Demand) DVD output, it seems clear that themes come in phases. One month may be jungle adventure heavy while another will feature a handful of World War II musicals. But I was recently surprised at how many movies they’d released recently about lunkheads fucking everything up. Here are a few for your consideration:

 

THE BED SITTING ROOM
Dir. Richard Lester / 1969 / MGM Limited Edition Collection

I’ll openly acknowledge that I’ve always considered the term “British Comedy” to be an oxymoron. There is an occasional exception, but I can’t think of one off the top of my head. So while our enemies across the sea have rarely (if ever) managed to tickle my funnybone, I still applaud director Lester and the later members of UK comedy mainstays The Goon Show for poking fun at the tragedies of annihilation.

Released one year prior to soul-crushing British apocalypse epic No Blade of Grass, The Bed Sitting Room takes the opposite approach and just giggles us along to extinction in a series of tenuously linked vignettes. London lays in ruins following a “nuclear misunderstanding” with an unspecified nation. Rather than rebuild, the survivors are mostly content to just wander around and bump into wreckage. Families reside in the cars of an abandoned subway system, cars are towed by donkeys, and an old man rides a bicycle through acres of toxic sludge to throw a pie in a doctor’s face.

If you require nothing more of a movie than that, then you’ve found your Citizen Kane. It was adapted from the stage play of the same name, co-written by Goon Show originator Spike Milligan. Set loose beyond the restraints of a dinner theater, Marty Feldman, Dudley Moore and company seem to be having the time of their lives among mountains of discarded auto parts and smashed dinnerware. The ever-stately Ralph Richardson plays an upper-cruster who’s unhappily being transformed by radiation into a bed sitting room. If you don’t know what that is, welcome to the club. The entire film is chock full of enough Anglophile-pleasing Britishisms to shatter your teacup.

NOTE: The film’s original release poster tagline was “We’ve got a bomb on our hands,” the most fearless critic-bait I’ve ever seen.

SERGEANT DEADHEAD
Dir. Norman Taurog / 1965 / MGM Limited Edition Collection

Years before the term “deadhead” was forever ruined by a generation of unwashed dads, this forgotten cornball space romp goofed all over American screens. Sergeant O.K. Deadhead (Frankie Avalon) lands himself in a series of zany situations that cause a whole heap of headaches for his superiors. That’s about it.

The back of MGM’s DVD case reads: “Sgt. Deadhead accidentally goes into orbit with a chimp! When they return to Earth, it’s discovered that the chimp and the astronaut’s minds have switched. Complications ensue.” Sounds like fun, right? Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen in the movie. Instead, you’re treated to a cacophony of non-simian blunderings by the terminally cheerful Avalon. Which would be absolutely fine if Avalon had been replaced by anyone else, including the chimp.

I hate to pick on the guy. He’s not offensive in Skidoo, or his ‘60s surf comedies, or even in 1987’s Back to the Beach. But here he’s like a saccharine-powered Furbee, all round eyes and hammin’. His career-making work with Annette Funicello was, say, upbeat, but you have to be able to withstand a superhuman level of perkiness to stomach the display here. His talent for fun-snuffing is so advanced that he even manages to drain the yuks from his space chimp segments. Sounds impossible, I know, but see for yourself!

Maybe all the blame shouldn’t be heaped on Avalon. Director Taurog helmed 180 projects and was responsible for many of the most enduring Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis films. But his concept of hilarity must have been impacted by some unspeakable accident by this point in his career. Some unfortunate Connie Francis-style musical numbers seem tacked on for no discernible. The great Cesar Romero and an aged, addled Buster Keaton are also on hand, but it’s no damn use. Keaton is round, bald, wrinkled as a tortoise and still falling on his rump like a champ, but he disappears mid-film to make way for more moon-eyed Avalon shenanigans.

It’s only fair to mention that there are a few effective zingers, including an unexpectedly ribald towel-dropping segment that probably had 12-year-old male theatergoers shooting popcorn out of their nostrils.

THE LOST STOOGES
Dir. Mark Lamberti / 1990 / Warner Archive

Leonard Maltin narrates this patchwork semi-documentary, which follows Larry, Moe, Curly & Shemp as their vaudevillian goofballery migrated from stage to celluloid.

At the time, the fellas were called “The Three Southern Gentlemen” and played second bananas to comedically challenged straightman Ted Healy. Healy had a big grin but little charisma, and it seems like even he must have seen that his sidekicks possessed infinitely superior talent. They also had worked in a “fifth stooge” named Betty Braun, an awkward performer who was of course Healy’s wife.

The Lost Stooges charts the relatively short span when Healy and “his stooges” were appearing in bit sections of big budget Hollywood productions, shoehorned in when producers realized their films needed a little more oomph. One Technicolor segment has Larry, Moe and Curly wearing a bizarre amount of eye make-up and appearing as Healy’s misbehaving children. The guys have already mastered their craft and Healy is already poised for a downfall. It didn’t take long, but MGM eventually invited them to split off and become mega-stars. Healy was left alone, but rather than spend a lifetime embittered in his former collaborators’ shadows, he died of nephritis at the age of 41.

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….Ha ha ha! What a bunch of lovable nuts! We’ll be back in mid-June with more, focusing on some little-seen, skull-shattering ‘80s action titles. Until then, enjoy Men in Black III or suicide or whatever!

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