If current movies are an accurate representation of modern culture, we’re all doomed. But in a strike against de-evolution, several major studios are revisiting their vaults. Warner Bros, MGM and others are making digital masters of their rarest archival prints and offering them to us undeserving neanderthals on DVD. And Vault of Secrets is here to assess a sampling of ‘em twice a month, new and old, good and bad.
IT’S A DOG’S LIFE
Dir. Herman Hoffman / 1955 / Warner Archive
This is a harrowing entry in the anemic genre of Live Action Movies Narrated by a Dog. Adorable pit bull Wildfire (voiced by a young, uncredited Vic Morrow) leads us through a tumultuous year of agony and triumph. Abandoned by his father as a puppy, Wildfire is later separated from his mom and begins a tearful quest that will take him from the seediest backroom dog fights to the loftiest fringes of high society.
These dog fights are the first of many deeply unsavory subjects that the movie coats in Disney-like whimsy. Though the violence is simulated and happens off camera, each battle ends in death for one of the canine opponents, and the victor always limps away, visibly wounded. During this infuriating portion of the film, Wildfire’s de facto owner is Patch McGill, a drunken, unemployed gigolo whose fits of domestic abuse towards his dancehall girlfriend lead to heated make-out sessions. Don’t look, kids! Wildfire is eventually beaten (and nearly slaughtered) in the ring by a gigantic, bloodthirsty wolfdog named “Destruction.” In a fit of rage, Patch lifts Wildfire up by his tail and gets a long-deserved chomp on the nutzz, effectively ending their partnership.
In the movie’s second half, Wildfire unexpectedly drifts into the world of the very rich when he’s adopted by a millionaire’s groundskeeper. The wealthy employer despises the pooch and repeatedly threatens to shoot him on sight, but eventually breaks through his alcoholic haze long enough to succumb to Wildfire’s charms. This all somehow leads to heartwarming fisticuffs and record-breakingly zany antics at a dog show. Big dogs chasing little dogs. Little dogs chasing big dogs. I mean you won’t BELIEVE this shit.
Though the film stumbles a little in its opening segment, it’s impossibly entertaining throughout. The hilarious dog show climax is just one of many highlights. A pug delivers zinging one-liners. A dog catches milk sprayed directly from a cow’s udder. Humans fall on their prodigious asses. And above it all is Wildfire: sympathetic, fearless, lovable, and prone to jolting dialogue like, “I was finally going to get my chance to kill my father!” Unfortunately, Hollywood wouldn’t give our hero a second chance at the limelight, but the legacy he left behind with It’s a Dog’s Life will live on until…well, the end of this paragraph or so.
THE CAREY TREATMENT
Dir. Blake Edwards / 1972 / Warner Archive
Within one minute of arriving for his first day’s work at Boston’s top hospital, Dr. Peter Carey (James Coburn) threatens to give a sex change to one of the security guards. So begins one man’s great struggle against the flawed system. But comical fish-out-of-water moments like these quickly disappear when the 15-year-old daughter of the hospital’s director shows up dead due to a sub-par illegal abortion. The top suspect is Carey’s surgeon pal David (James “Lo Pan” Hong), and our chain-smoking, colleague-alienating hero sets out to clear his friend’s name.
Like It’s a Dog’s Life (reviewed above), this violent mystery-thriller-comedy takes several turns into unexpected darkness, especially considering who’s at the controls. Blake Edwards had dipped a toe or two into homicidal waters with his previous work, but nothing as frown-powered this. All the more shocking is that Michael Crichton’s fictional story (written under pseudonym Jeffery Hudson) unfolded in the real-life shadow of the Roe v. Wade case, which was happening concurrently with the film’s production. Hot potato!
James Coburn’s performance is strong as always, though he seems so intent on instilling his character with suavity that he ends up overselling his inherent charm. But it’s not a problem, especially after Carey ends up over his head and losing his cool. Several other actors lend considerable talent, including Pat Hingle and Dan O’Herlihy, better known as “The Old Man” in RoboCop and the scheming Conal Cochran from the underrated Halloween III. But most distracting – if not capable – among the cast is Michael Blodgett as a criminal masseuse. Bulked up and eyebrows plucked, Blodgett has one of the most hypnotically bizarre faces/heads I’ve seen in a major studio release, the closest comparison being Baby Sinclair from the ‘90s TV series Dinosaurs. Following this role, Blodgett would retire from acting, write Turner & Hooch, and then drop dead from a heart attack. Life is a total jerk!
Dirs. Richard Boleslawski, Allan Dwan, Edmund Goulding, Russell Mack, Charles Reisner, Roy Rowland, George Stevens & Sam Wood / 1934 / Warner Archive
Eight directors! Seven writers! “A cast of 1500 beauties!” Hollywood Party is nothing more than a spastically dazzling display of Tinseltown excess, but what a display! Fading jungle genre star Schnarzan (played by the great schnozzola Jimmy Durante) throws a tremendous bash to rekindle interest in his tired lion-wrasslin’ tactics. Sharing the guest list are countless luminaries of cinema’s heyday, from Laurel & Hardy to heartthrob Lupe Velez to The Three Stooges to fictional favorites of the time like Baron Munchausen. Hell, Mickey Mouse even gets in on the drunken mayhem, kicking off a Technicolor segment that elevates the film’s anti-reality even higher.
If there was any sort of plot, it voluntarily drowns itself in a sea of unfocused, totally enjoyable madcappery. Song-and-dance numbers materialize out of nowhere at the drop of a monocle, but even these are tinged with the movie’s manic abandon. Take these lyrics from the opening number:
Show up with your girl.
Go home with someone else’s!”
Hey! That’s not nice. And the morals only get looser from there. R-rated evening dresses, mirrored bedroom ceilings and failed attempts at adultery run ragged through Schnarzan’s decadent kingdom. An attending oil magnate introduces himself to each partygoer by tearing a thousand dollar bill in half: “Can’t do that unless you’re a millionaire!” Things escalate and/or deteriorate until a man in a gorilla suit is shaking his hairy ass while a fake Jimmy Durante wrestles a very real lion down a flight of stairs! All this plus a terrifyingly hideous horse that will burn its way through your eyes and into your shrieking skull. You’ll see.
This film preceded the notorious Hellzapoppin’ as one of the most frenetic film assaults from the studios’ golden age. Ridiculous, aimless and totally raging, it’s the best possible way to throw away 68 minutes of your life. Like the poster says: “Hollywood Party! - Don’t Miss It If You Can!” Wait…what??!!
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...That's it for this round, but as always, there are plenty more to come. MGM Limited Edition Collection has just released the aliens-vs.-Hitler scifi actioner Zone Troopers (1985), psychosurrealistic comedy The Bed Sitting Room (1969), military mental abuser Opposing Force (1986), the Oliver Reed detonator Hannibal Brooks (1969), lost roboparanoia epic Gog (1954) and zany whodunnit The Manchu Eagle Murder Caper Mystery (1975). Warner Archive has recently unleashed the interstellar Zsa Zsa Gabor oddity Queen of Outer Space (1958), primordial post-apocalyptic epic No Blade of Grass (1970), George C. Scott in grim rampager The Last Run (1971), the missing link mania of Trog (1969), UK chiller anthology From Beyond the Grave (1973), Martin Sheen and Linda Blair’s kidnapping romance (!) Sweet Hostage (1976), and low-nonsense 1980 slasher Night School. These titles and a whole mountain more are available for pocket change from WarnerArchive.com, Oldies.com and on Amazon.
NOTE: these aren’t shoddy DVD-Rs, but instead clean, gorgeous, high-quality DVDs in the films’ original aspect ratios, with fancy full-color covers and the whole deal. Many have never been available on any home format, and since the studios don’t have the pressure of selling thousands of units, they’re releasing the most varied and often electrifyingly bizarre titles in their vast libraries. So find out what you’ve been missing or keep missing it. I don’t give a hoot.