Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Obscure Kiddie Matinee Movies Directed By Barry Mahon Ate My Brain!!! part four: Barry Mahon

I don't believe in guilty pleasures. This is probably because I'm a shameless hedonist. I suppose that if I did believe in guilty pleasures, though, late 60s and early 70s kiddie matinee films would have to qualify. No other film genre outside porn has produced so many inherently mediocre movies. The kiddie matinee market was, for a time, a nice way to get a good return on a small investment. Saturday and Sunday matinees turned strip mall cineplexes into convenient daycare centers for parents who wanted to shop for bras or shoe trees in peace. These kids, loaded to the gills with sugar and caffeine, and with no viable means of escape, were the very definition of an undemanding audience. So undemanding, in fact, that producers could cobble together films that were scarcely more than glorified home movies and still turn a healthy profit. Although many well-made European and Mexican children's films were imported to supply the kiddie matinee market, a good many of the movies that kids had to sit through featured production values well below the average of your local TV newscast.

And I can't get enough of them. Did I say "hedonist"? I meant "masochist".

The cheapest of these films fascinate me. Their very artlessness inadvertently breaches the boundary between filmmaker and audience. There's no suspension of disbelief possible when half of the actors are the director's poker buddies or the fairytale kingdom is clearly made out of corrugated cardboard. What's left are records of moments in time when a bunch of folk decided to make a few quick bucks by wearing silly costumes, effecting goofy accents, and gadding about like loons. The results can be rather calmative, actually. Some directors seem to dare you to give a damn about what's happening onscreen. Nothing to get worked up about.. Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream...

And as far as being calmative is concerned, Barry Mahon's kiddie matinee movies are the cinematic equivalents of extra-strength NyQuil. There's nothing quite like 'em.

Starting in the late 50s, Barry Mahon was an exploitation movie dynamo, cranking out dozens of Grade-Z nudies and roughies (he was also Errol Flynn's manager, directing Flynn in his final movie, Cuban Rebel Girls, in 1959). In the late 60s, Mahon was hired by Pirates World, a theme park in Dania, Florida that had opened just a few years previously. Besides handling the park's live entertainment and publicity, Barry also opened a film production unit (Cinetron Productions) on the grounds with which he intended to tackle the then-lucrative kiddie matinee market. The movies he produced at the park served double duty as both a means of revenue and national publicity for Pirates World. Each film opened with the title "Pirates World Presents" and closed with the Pirates World logo ("Another Fine Picture From Pirates World. Come Visit Us in Dania, Florida") which also appeared on the posters.

The four movies Barry Mahon produced with the park's facilities were made quickly and cheaply, if not to say ineptly, and it's hard to imagine kids sitting still for them, especially after the third 32 ounce Pepsi and a box of Milk Duds. Of the four, The Wonderful Land of Oz (1969) appears to be the only film Mahon had high hopes for (he intended to have Judy Garland narrate). It's a rather direct adaptation of L. Frank Baum's 1904 book, The Marvelous Land of Oz, and it appears that Mahon actually went to the Baum estate for permission (The Marvelous Land of Oz would become one of the two Oz books used as the basis for 1985's vastly underrated Return to Oz, so there are a lot of common characters and plot similarities). Despite all the good intentions, Barry Mahon was incapable of giving The Wonderful Land of Oz the production values it would have needed to become a real hit. Although the costumes are actually pretty decent, the rest of the film is like an evening of marginally above-average community theater. The sets are cardboard (complete with visible masking tape), the songs are unmemorable, and the acting is from hunger. Worst of all, the film is nothing less than a showcase for Barry Mahon's son Channy who was far and away one of the least talented child actors ever to appear in a theatrically-released motion picture. As the presumably winsome and adventurous Tip, poor Channy merely looks bored and restless, fidgeting with his costume and delivering all of his lines in a flat, emotionless monotone. Despite his shortcomings as an actor, Channy was forced to go through the paces of a genuine child star and even has a full-blown musical number, the song for which was written without the slightest consideration for his vocal range.

Barry Mahon's 1970 follow-up, Thumbelina, features floppy hippie-chick Shay Garner in the title role and although she's only marginally better at emoting than Channy Mahon, she at least projects a kind of good-natured, flower-child aura that lends her character a certain appeal. And, unlike poor Channy, Shay's singing voice is dubbed. Shay plays a Pirates World visitor (we get to see her on the log-flume and steeplechase rides at the beginning) who spaces out while looking at a cheap diorama of the story of Thumbelina and fantasizes herself into the part. Thumbelina suffers from all of the deficiencies of The Wonderful Land of Oz and adds glaringly obvious padding to the list. Rather than endanger his budget by adding more action or incident to an extremely thin storyline, Mahon decided to use the musical numbers to stretch out the running time. Unfortunately, since his camera barely moves, these musical sequences seem to drag on for ages. Mahon's reliance on padding becomes even more obvious in Jack and the Beanstalk (also 1970), which features an even thinner storyline than Thumbelina. Jack repeatedly climbs the beanstalk (slowly), approaches the Giant's castle (very slowly) and descends the beanstalk (extremely slowly). In effect, the film repeats itself at intervals with plenty of duplicated shots and the Giant singing his "Fe-Fi-Fo-Fum" number every time Jack steals back another harp, papier-mache chicken, etc.. The padding also comes from unexpected angles; there's an unbelievably long sequence in which Honest John, the jerk who sold Jack the magic beans, quietly and carefully paints a sign for his business... and that's it. For my money, this is the funniest of Mahon's kiddie matinee pictures. The sets are shoddier than ever and it looks as if most of the cast wore their own clothes to the shoot. Near the end, there's a wedding party for Jack's sister and the entertainment is supplied by a little kid who plays an accordion as if he had just picked up the instrument that morning for the very first time. Everyone applauds politely. It's not the kind of thing you usually see in movies. Jack and the Beanstalk is stolen by the actor who plays the Giant. He's appropriately burly (looking a little like a Hell's Angel), but his acting style is a bizarre combination of uncontrolled intensity and stoned vacancy. His monotone yet loud delivery makes lines like "What's that SMELL!?!?" and "I LOVE CREEPY-CRAWLERS!!!!" infectiously funny.

Besides his kiddie matinee epics, Barry Mahon also directed a film at this time aimed at a somewhat older audience. Musical Mutiny (1970) was shot almost entirely on location at Pirates World and is structured around a performance at the park by Iron Butterfly. Barry Mahon was responsible for booking acts for Pirates World and his efforts brought groups like The Jackson Five and Grand Funk Railroad to the park. Unfortunately, Pirates World also picked up something of bad reputation when rowdy rock audiences began clashing with police and park security (it took the opening of Walt Disney World to finally put Pirates World out of business). Like Mahon's fairytale films, Musical Mutiny is also overflowing with padding and budget-minded production methods. Mahon seemingly believed that teenagers in 1970 were as least as undemanding as kiddie matinee audiences in their own way and tried to turn that to his advantage. The movie's Monkees-style freeform action, for instance, freed Mahon from having to write up a complete script. And even the rock sequences themselves become a form of padding in Musical Mutiny. Iron Butterfly's entire 16 minute performance of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" is the film's climax and Mahon filmed the entire thing in one take, breaking up the monotony by randomly zooming the camera in and out a little or splicing in the occasional shot of a psychedelic poster. The story: A ghost pirate walks out of the ocean and declares a "mutiny at Pirates World!". Word of the pirate's theme park mutiny spreads among the teenagers of Dania, FL who all act as if it's something they understand implicitly ("A mutiny?? Far out!") while the pirate cons the park's employees to let everyone in for free. When the park's manager finds out about the hundreds of long-haired freeloaders in his park, he hassles the teens by threatening to withhold Iron Butterfly's performance fee. But when the gap is filled by several local groups who perform for free,The Man allows Iron Butterfly to continue. The ghost Pirate, having achieved what he set out to achieve, then walks back into the ocean. GROOVY!

In 1972, Mahon repackaged Thumbelina as a Christmas movie by bookending it with nearly 30 minutes of new footage, directed by an "R. Winer", and releasing it as Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny. This may have been a clever move on Mahon's part to make his own material look good by comparison. Winer's new footage is leagues below Mahon's own rather questionable standards as a director. Santa has gotten his sleigh "stuck in the sand waaaaay down in Florida" and he uses telepathy (or something) to summon a crowd of 70s kids to his aid. Also involved, somehow, are Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn who watch everything from some nearby bushes and never interact with anyone. The kids hook up a variety of farm animals and a man in a gorilla costume to the sleigh but it won't budge. All the while, huge nasty sweat stains are beginning to appear under Santa's arms and on his BUTT! The kids are discouraged so Santa decides to lift their spirits by telling them the story of Thumbelina, which he claims teaches a lesson about perseverance or courage or something. After that film ends, we rejoin Santa, still stuck in the sand and muttering sadly to himself. Suddenly, we hear the sound of an old-fashioned fire engine siren and, sure enough, here comes an old-fashioned fire engine, piled high with singing (chanting) 70s kids, and with a MAN IN A CREEPY RABBIT COSTUME BEHIND THE WHEEL! The Ice Cream Bunny is coming to the rescue, and coming, and still coming... In fact, it takes a hell of a long time for the fire engine to get to Santa. The engine tools around Pirates World for a bit, and then we see it on a stretch of road, and then it's back in the park, and all the while that horrible droning siren noise fills the soundtrack. Eventually, the fire engine reaches Santa and his "old friend" the Ice Cream Bunny finally meet face-to-face (the bunny has one eye which keeps winking strangely but he never says a word). After the man in the creepy rabbit costume dances around drunkenly for a bit, he and Santa ride off in the fire engine, which disappears magically. And when the kids run back to the sleigh, it disappears magically, too, and they're all very impressed. The end. One of the most striking (?) aspects of the new footage are the songs. In a frugal move, Winer or Mahon declined to hire pricey musicians so the music consists of a bunch of kids yelling lyrics while other kids play kazoos. They even hum "Old Man River" over a scene of Tom and Huck on a raft. Must be seen to be believed.

Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny was Mahon's swan song as a producer. Aside from directing one final nudie flick, Love Pirate, in 1971, he also produced and directed a pair of Christmas features that didn't require pesky, expensive actors. Santa and the Three Bears (1970) is a Hanna-Barbera-ish miracle of recycled animation which used to be a standard on UHF stations around Christmas. A filmed puppet and slide show, Santa's Christmas Elf (Named Calvin), was released the following year (surprisingly, it doesn't even have an IMDB listing, possibly because it doesn't qualify as a film). The bottom fell out of the kiddie matinee market around 1973 when big studios and theater chains worked together to kill "Weekends Only" film booking. Lovers of zen mediocrity everywhere mourned the passing of an era. Barry Mahon died in 1999 at the age of 78.


Blogger Bill said...

Whoa. . . I've somehow managed to miss Mahon's oeuvre, but it definitely looks worth checking out. Wonder why the Mystery Science Theater folks never did this guy?

4:33 AM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

Believe it or not, I had a chance to ask them myself when I did a phone interview with Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy for my university's paper back when MST3K the Movie was released. In response to my question about why they tended to shy away for comedies and fantasies (although they've done a few of the latter), Mike Nelson said those genres, when poorly done, are more sad than anything else and the writers didn't want Mike and the bots to look like bullies. "When a comedy sucks, you just feel like tossing them a quarter." he said (or something to that effect).

9:53 AM  
Blogger mb said...

Mahon didn't have to go to the Baum estate to get the rights to MARVELOUS LAND OF OZ. The copyright to the book lapsed in 1960, nine years before WONDERFUL LAND OF OZ's release.

8:21 PM  
Blogger mb said...

Also, WONDERFUL LAND OF OZ was not filmed at Pirates World (despite what the Something Weird video/DVD boxes state) but at a local studio in North Miami.

8:29 PM  
Blogger Rob Craig said...

Whoa! What a great overview of Mahon's fairy tales! You really bring them to (horrible) life with your love-hate reviews. Here at KiddieMatinee.Com, we love 'em to pieces, for all the reasons you mention and more. Keep up the good work, and if you are ready to really punish yourself, watch the full 60-minute version of Herschell Gordon Lewis' THE MAGIC LAND OF MOTHER GOOSE...

Rob at KiddieMatinee.Com

11:40 AM  
Anonymous Jessica said...

Thanx for the info. I was actually in Santa's Christmas Elf when I was 4 (I was the little girl that got Calvin)and I haven't seen it since. I just decided to look for it. It sounds terrible but I'd love to see it anyway. Barry Mahon's history is pretty interesting. I remember that my mom's friend did some nudie films for him and that's how I got into it. Most of the "cast" were puppets.

2:07 PM  
Anonymous Jerry said...

In response to my question about why they tended to shy away for comedies and fantasies (although they've done a few of the latter), Mike Nelson said those genres, when poorly done, are more sad than anything else and the writers didn't want Mike and the bots to look like bullies. "When a comedy sucks, you just feel like tossing them a quarter

9:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there any way to get a copy of of Barry Mahon's 1971 movie the love pirate? Looked all over and no luck.

6:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the love pirate, is it on dvd of vhs tape?

2:10 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home