Hollywood makes movies, but it used to make MOVIES. In celebration of this bygone tradition, several major studios are re-opening their vaults. Warner Bros, MGM and others are making digital masters of their rarest archival prints and offering them to us undeserving wieneroids on DVD. And Vault of Secrets is here to assess a sampling of ‘em twice a month, new and old, good and bad:
THE TRAVELING EXECUTIONER (Remastered)
Dir. Jack Smight / 1970 / Warner Archive
Stacy Keach is Jonas Candide, 1918’s most free-wheeling, hard-drinking, government authorized executioner. Where most prison overlords settle for boring ol’ ropes and bullets to carry out God’s work, Warden Brodski (an unusually gentle M. Emmet Walsh) prefers the dazzling handiwork of Jonas and his electric chair, a rickety construction lined with carbon filament lightbulbs and possessed with obscene amounts of barely harnessed power.
A former convict himself, Jonas carries out each extermination with decorum and respect. In the film’s most memorable scene, he straps a whimpering felon in while whispering to him of the “fields of ambrosia that await him on The Other Side.” The terrified man slowly slips towards comfort and even something like gratitude just before the switch is thrown. It’s an incredible, haunting moment that’ll stop your breathing without you realizing it.
Jonas revels in his semi-omnipotence until he’s assigned to the disposal of dangerous female prisoner Gundred Herzallerliebst (Marianna Hill). While preparing her for the inevitable, his whiskey-soaked heart jumps back to life and he ends up head-over-heels in the very worst way, leading him down into a jumble of errors and self-sabotage. Witnesses to the insanity include Cassavetes collaborator Val Avery and an extra babyfaced Bud Cort of Harold & Maude fame. A wacky take on federal homicide may not be to everyone’s taste, but if you’re a fan of either Stacy Keach or the death penalty, this one’s definitely worth uncovering.
Dir. Michael Winner / 1969 / MGM Limited Edition Collection
In the heat of WWII, good-natured British P.O.W. Hannibal Brooks (Oliver Reed) is assigned to dung clean-up at a German zoo. A bombing destroys the animal enclosures, and Brooks is given orders to personally relocate an elephant named Lucy. He’s joined for the journey by two armed Nazi guards, one of which is a twisted, drunken psychopath (moreso than Oliver Reed!) who seems determined to put a bullet in the mammoth animal’s skull.
The adventure takes them by train and by foot, from the war-torn city to the gorgeous vistas of the Alps. Along the way, the group encounters espionage, comic hijinks and a whole lot of alcohol. Brooks’ dazed likeability easily wins over his German captors (and the film’s under-written female character), but his most impressive bond is with the elephant, which Reed spent an entire week with prior to filming in a clearly successful effort to earn its trust. Their friendship is a staggering thing to watch, and you can guess that they both shed a big gloppy tear when the shoot was over.
Reed spares the heavy melodramatic showmanship he’s known for, seemingly content to play Brooks as a light-hearted goof. Almost in contrast is a mountingly rugged performance from Michael J. Pollard, the round-headed buffoon character from Bonnie and Clyde. Pollard has spent most of his career as a grinning, gawking supporting schlub, but here he’s introduced as a neurotic captive who ultimately rises to the rank of a leading freedom fighter. It’s a tough role and he pulls it off impressively, but my favorite actor in the movie is still the goddamn elephant. Writer/director Michael Winner would go on to helm the first three Death Wish movies as well as the #1 all-time greatest Charles Bronson film ever, The Mechanic.
THE PHANTOM OF HOLLYWOOD (Remastered)
Dir. Gene Levitt / 1973 / Warner Archive
After decades of big screen magic, bulldozers are poised for the decimation of the Worldwide Films back lot. Studio head Roger Cross (bratpacker Peter Lawford) has sold the studio’s expansive property to condo developers, and the dreams of millions are about to be crushed beneath the wheels. Enter the mysterious Phantom, a vengeful shadow in medieval combat gear who’s determined to single-handedly halt the destruction by any means necessary. Vandals and construction workers alike fall victim to his spiked mace until the studio’s most heroic employees are forced to face him in a deadly confrontation.
To be honest, The Phantom of Hollywood is a ‘70s TV movie of the ‘70s TV movie-est order. It’s overlit, seems quickly written and features several slabs of extremely stale ham. But it also contains a tremendous amount of genuine affection for the golden age of movies, and is packed with recognizable stars like skittish Elisha Cook Jr, big boy Broderick Crawford and Jackie “Uncle Fester” Coogan.
You’ll feel a naggingly deep sense of loss while watching the demolition of the studio, which isn’t surprising considering the footage of the crushed back lots is very real, shot when the mighty MGM scaled back on its land and sold off its property by the square block. At that time, familiar sets from nostalgic favorites from The Wizard of Oz to The Twilight Zone were destroyed to make way for who knows what. Though the studio never confirmed this fact outright, it certainly seems like The Phantom of Hollywood was rushed into production in a lovably awkward attempt to dramatize the sadness caused by the ebbing of MGM’s empire. It doesn’t necessarily excel as a movie, but while watching these beautiful structures fall in the name of so-called progress, the viewer certainly shares the Phantom’s righteous rage.
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…That’s it for now, with more coming in two weeks. In the meantime, take a look at WarnerArchive.com, who are having a sale through Monday AND have started distributing the MGM discs as well. Hot dog!
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 BUY SOME!