Monday, May 02, 2005

"School's out... because I stopped time!"

Schlockmaster Herschell Gordon Lewis, the director commonly credited with the creation of the gore genre with films such as Blood Feast (1963) and Two Thousand Maniacs (1964), was unable to resist the siren song of the booming, profits-guaranteed kiddie matinee market of the late 60s. The two films that resulted are, like the majority of H.G. Lewis' movies, cheap and shoddy but aggressively iconoclastic, the polar opposites of the kiddie matinee films of Barry Mahon. Mahon's children's' films are competently produced yet bland and almost completely devoid of actors, like low-budget TV commercials extended to feature length (Mahon often hired people to play roles at the last minute without any regard to their abilities). Jimmy, the Boy Wonder (1966) and The Magic Land of Mother Goose (1967) are typically rough-edged efforts from Lewis, shot in less than a week (Mother Goose may have been shot in a single day), but featuring casts mostly culled from the Florida acting community, some better than others, but all with some measure of screen presence. Despite sloppy sound and editing, at least there are actors to keep your attention and even flashes of real ingenuity. This is particularly the case with Jimmy, the Boy Wonder.

Jimmy, the Boy Wonder is a genuine musical fantasy patterned loosely after The Wizard of Oz, which was then making loads of cash as a reissue on the kiddie matinee circuit. 8 1/2 year old Jimmy Jay (Dennis Jones) is so frustrated with being rushed by his mother on his first day of school that he recklessly wishes that time would stop. Unfortunately, his wish shatters the globe-shaped pendulum in the Great Clock that keeps time running smoothly throughout the world and time stops completely, freezing Jimmy and everyone else in place. This is bad news for the universe at large, but it's exactly what Mr. Fig, the Time Killer (David Blight, Jr.), has been waiting for. Mr. Fig hates time. He wants to destroy time! Why? Because that's the kind of guy he is! A prancing, grimacing maniac in short red slacks and a plaid jacket with greasepaint eyebrows and sideburns who wants to destroy time. The Old Astronomer (Karl Stoeber) witnesses Jimmy's selfish blunder with his telescope and instructs his daughter, the plump, matronly Aurora (Nancy Jo Berg), to escort Jimmy to the Great Clock so he can install the new globe-shaped pendulum he gives her. After Aurora leaves, Mr. Fig pays a visit to the doddering Old Astronomer who almost immediately spills the beans about Aurora and the pendulum ("Ooooooohhh!! Ah think ah said toooo muuuuch!!" says the Old Astronomer). Back in the Real World, Aurora unfreezes Jimmy and, after gently chiding him for disrupting the fabric of the universe, transports him into a budget-minded fantasy land. Aurora tells Jimmy about the evil Mr. Fig and informs him that if he shows up, Jimmy is on his own as she and Mr. Fig can never be in the same place at the same time because they're like matter and anti-matter (this eventually turns out to not be true after several later scenes where she and Mr. Fig talk face to face). After a duet between Jimmy and Aurora, Mr. Fig does arrive on the scene and Aurora takes a powder. Mr. Fig initially tries to befriend Jimmy for having made his wish and even sings him an intimidating song about himself and his hatred of time. But after Jimmy confesses that he's on his way to the Great Clock to repair the pendulum, Mr. Fig announces his intention to prevent Jimmy from accomplishing that task, which he hopes to accomplish through the most inept, roundabout means possible. Aurora shows up once Mr, Fig vanishes and their journey continues. Mr. Fig slows them up by tricking them into taking a detour through the very budget-minded Slow Motion Land and then by trying to make them fall asleep by turning everything blue through the use of a gel over the camera lens ("No one can stay awake when everything is BLUE!" says Mr. Fig). But Aurora outwits him and she and Jimmy eventually reach the Tick-A-Tock-A-Tanny Indians who are to tell them the way to World's End and the Great Clock. After unfreezing the green Indians, the tribe's medicine man (Alan Rock) threatens to sacrifice Jimmy whom he seems to blame for a drought. Aurora shows up in the nick of time (where/why had she gone?) and saves the day by making jellybeans rain from the sky and then singing a song about beans ("I don't want diamonds or limousines! Just give me lots and lots of beans!"). The medicine man, relieved, vanishes after saying "I'm going back... to Miami Beach!" and the Indians show Jimmy and Aurora the way to World's End. At this point, Jimmy starts to complain about his sworn duty to save time and Aurora sets him straight by showing him a long, very well animated cartoon, clearly cut down from a feature, with the worst on-the-fly dubbing ever seen in a theatrically-released motion picture (provided primarily by Nancy Jo Berg and H. G. Lewis himself. Lewis provides all of the male voices besides Michael and, at one point, confusedly jumbles two voices in a single line of dialogue). In the cartoon, a little boy, Michael, is seen feverishly shining shoes, selling papers, washing dishes and windows and digging through trash bins all the while saying "This must be my lucky day!" Michael's day has been so lucky, in fact, that he thinks that maybe he'll "get to see the wizard who lives up there", indicating a clock tower. Inside the clock tower, a tiny man with a bulbous red nose is putting the finishing touches on a magic globe. He uses this globe to magically transform a woman and her kid into the BVM and Christ Child (at least, that's how it looks) and to make a pair of worn shoes Michael digs from the trash into a pair of really nice shoes. Michael tells the wizard about how lucky his day has been but, suddenly, the shadow of a wolf with a flintlock appears on a wall and a gunshot punches a hole through the magic globe. All hell breaks loose. Fires break out in kids' bedrooms, kids are about to get run over by trucks or fall off balconies. The wizard stops the globe spinning and time freezes before anyone gets killed. "It's the work of the witch!" says the wizard. "Her power has returned!" So the wizard unfreezes Michael, who has "learned that there is more power in good than with evil" (presumably having tried both), and sends him on a journey to the Fairy Of the Blue who will repair the magic globe and start time again. Michael finds himself in a bizarre alternate reality, being trailed by a wolf and cat, the henchmen of the evil Witch who wishes to steal the globe and "crush it to pieces forever!" (at this point, a montage shows the globe with atomic mushroom clouds bursting from it). Michael seeks the help of the Captain of the Cats (voiced by H. G. Lewis as Warner Bros.' Sylvester) who tells the boy he'll take him to her. But the Witch transforms the cat and wolf into clones of the Captain of the Cats and his horse and, as the Captain and the Captain/wolf duel, the fake horse/cat abducts Michael and takes him to the Witch's castle. The Witch, poorly disguised as the Fairy Of the Blue, tries to convince Michael to hand it over but the real Fairy shows up, saves Michael, and repairs the globe. Time starts again, no one gets killed, and the final shot is of hundreds of kids running though the streets, all carrying their own "magic globes". This cartoon and its cryptic social commentary convince Jimmy to forge onward. Mr. Fig appears and tries to slow Aurora and Jimmy down by offering them 1960s backyard grill food. (in an homage to The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Fig disguises himself as a tree with a hot dog impaled on a branch and tries to get Jimmy to take it, using his best "How'd you like someone to pick your apples??" voice. It doesn't work. "What's the matter with you people!" says Mr. Fig as the tree. "When was the last time a tree offered you a hot dog??"). He then drugs the pond Aurora and Jimmy are drinking from with some kind of chemical that makes you laugh (I can think of a few) but ends up falling in himself as our heroes get away with little more than a case of the giggles. Finally, Jimmy and Aurora reach World's End which turns out to be, ta-dah! the extremely cool Coral Castle in Homestead, FL! Aurora tells Jimmy that she can't enter World's End/Coral Castle and he's on his own from here on out. Once Jimmy enters Coral Castle, Mr. Fig appears and chases Jimmy around. But Mr. Fig's inability to run without prancing and leaping and twirling slows him down long enough to allow Jimmy to install the pendulum/globe in the Great Clock and restart time. Mr. Fig vanishes, shrieking in unimaginable pain, and Jimmy finds himself back in his bedroom getting ready for school. But the film has one more twist in store! When Jimmy arrives at school, his teacher turns out to be Aurora! And that big, glittery globe/pendulum thing is on her desk. "You act as if you and that globe are old friends!" says the teacher. "We sure are!" says Jimmy, stroking the globe.

Jimmy, the Boy Wonder is a strange, strange film, full of cryptic moments and peculiar dialogue. The editing, cinematography, and sound are as sloppy as in any of the films H. G. Lewis made around this time (including the excellent Blast-Off Girls (1967), She-Devils on Wheels (1968), and Just For the Hell of It (1968)), but the performances are engaging, especially David Blight, Jr. as Mr. Fig, the Time Killer. Blight plays Fig to the hilt, skipping rather than walking, giggling with glee, rubbing his hands with evil delight, and playing to the camera every chance he gets. Blight is clearly enjoying himself as a manic trickster figure, and the film has no choice but to revolve around his presence. Nancy Jo Berg had previously appeared in Fail Safe (1964) as Ilsa Wolfe, the wife of one of the pilots who is about to drop nukes on Moscow. It's a small but showy part and she's very good in it. As Aurora, she's your best memories of your Kindergarten teacher, and delivers her lines like someone narrating a story on Reading Rainbow, which makes sense as she was a local kids' show host in Philadelphia at the time. The producer and writer of Jimmy, the Boy Wonder was Hal Berg, Nancy's husband. Sadly, if this was his attempt to get a fire lit under her career, it didn't work. This is her last film role. Karl Stoeber, the Old Astronomer, is a familiar face from two other H. G. Lewis films, The Gruesome Twosome and A Taste Of Blood (both 1967). His performance here is unspeakably strange and very hard to describe. There's no accounting for the spaced-out way he delivers his "Oops! I think I've said too much!" line. Alan Rock's solid performance as the Medicine Man indicates he must have been a professional comic, but this is his only film appearance. And while Dennis Jones, the Boy Wonder himself, is by no means a good child actor (or singer), he's at least convincing as an 8 1/2 year old kid who is having some fun playing around at Coral Castle. Dennis' performance glows when compared with Channy Mahon's bored, monotone fidgeting in The Wonderful Land of Oz (1968). Dennis Jones turns up again two years later in an uncredited role in H. G. Lewis' Just for the Hell Of It. Lewis' fantasyland is a picture postcard time-capsule of mid-60s South Florida attractions, primarily Coral Castle and the Monkey Jungle in Miami Beach. To make the grounds of Monkey Jungle seems more otherworldly, Lewis placed colorful paper party decorations around among the shrubs and trees, and it just about works. Coral Castle is otherworldly enough in its own right not to need cheap enhancements. Its multi-ton coral structures were constructed by Latvian immigrant Edward Leedskalnin, working alone and unobserved over the course of twenty-eight years and using methods that remain a mystery to this day. Coral Castle was a favorite shooting location of exploitation filmmakers in Florida. It can also be seen in Doris Wishman's Nude On the Moon (1962) and James L. Wolcott's Wild Women Of Wongo (1958).

The well-animated cartoon Jimmy, the Boy Wonder is structured around (and owes crucial plot, musical cues, and thematic elements to) was identified by H. G. Lewis in an interview as Italian in origin. Producer/writer Hal Berg had legally secured the American distribution rights to it, but the credits to Jimmy do not mention its makers. Rob Craig at suggests the footage is from La Bergère et le ramoneur (US title: The Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird), an excellent 1953 French animated feature by Paul and Pierre Grimault, but, although the style is similar, this isn't the case. The overall look of the cartoon and its mild atomic symbolism would lead me to date its production to sometime between 1947 and 1954, but the action of the film doesn't match the plot synopses of the animated features I know were made in Italy around that time (La Rosa di Bagdad and I fratelli Dinamite (both 1949), and L'ultima sciuscia (1947)).

H. G. Lewis' kiddie matinee follow-up, The Magic Land of Mother Goose, had its origins in a touring magic show for kids produced by veteran Midnight Spook Show magician Jack Baker, better known as Dr. Silkini, and featuring the talents of Roy Huston as Merlin. Lewis' film is nothing more than a clumsily filmed record of the act which I assume primarily played elementary schools. Old King Cole has escaped from a book of Mother Goose rhymes because he's bored with his life. "I suppose you think it's easy being a king!" says the very Tony Randall-ish King Cole to the camera. "Absolutely nothing ever happens around here! Just look what I have for amusement!" King Cole opens up the giant Mother Goose book and out collapses a woman in an extremely creepy rag-doll costume with a face that looks like a skull. "Sometimes I think it would take a magician to make me happy!" cries Old King Cole and, lo and behold, Merlin the Magician appears and proceeds with his magic act, complete with numerous on-camera foul-ups. Eventually we meet Sleeping Beauty (who becomes the subject of Huston's "levitating woman" illusion) and Prince Charming who perform a duet before announcing their engagement. At their wedding party, attended by the rest of the Mother Goose characters (people in Halloween costumes), an Evil Witch appears played by an actress who makes David Blight, Jr. look like the essence of composure. "I hate everyone!! None of you will be happy!!" she shrieks, flailing about the stage. She freezes everyone in place with her magic. "Now there will be no more STOOOORRIIIIEEEEEEEESSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!" But Merlin appears and, after the Witch feebly attempts to bribe him, he hypnotizes her, sticks her in a coffin-like box and sets fire to her! This was an illusion from Dr. Silkini's "Asylum of Horrors" midnight stage show and its presence in this kiddie act is pretty surprising, especially after Merlin opens the box and displays the Witch's smoking, smoldering skeleton (with flames shooting from a rather personal region of the skeleton's anatomy). After the Evil Witch is dead and everyone is unfrozen, Mother Goose herself arrives on the scene. She is played by the same woman who played the Witch and is only moderately less manic. Mother Goose is angry at her minions for neglecting their duties to the children of the world by leaving the confines of the book. She and Merlin don't get along well but she gains respect for him after he cuts Jack Sprat into three pieces and later punishes the hideous rag doll (for harassing and physically assaulting Little Bo Peep and Little Miss Muffet) by putting her in a box and shoving a few knives through it. Merlin vanishes and his voice, echoing from some shadowy netherworld, delivers a little speech about the importance of fairy tales and the responsibilities of fictional characters and, most importantly, that "happiness comes from the love of others". Convinced of his own selfishness, Old King Cole dutifully reenters the book and the film/magic act/stage production ends.

H. G. Lewis later got a little extra mileage out of The Magic Land of Mother Goose by shooting a brief prologue and epilogue featuring Santa Claus and re-releasing the film at Christmas as Santa Visits the Magic Land of Mother Goose. In the new footage, a seemingly tipsy Santa tells us what good friends he and Mother Goose are and then falls asleep in his chair, making the film his dream (you can actually hear Lewis say "Cut!" at the end of the shot). At the end, Santa wakes up, rambles a little about all his "old pals" in the film, and suddenly starts laughing.. a lot.. really strangely, too.. as the film fades to black. Extremely creepy.

Although H. G. Lewis had little more to do than simply point the camera at the stage and turn it on or off at strategic moments, this is undoubtedly one of his sloppiest films, devoid of any kind of care or attention. It's clear that no one on the production end had the slightest concern about turning out a film that children would find interesting. While Roy Huston's magic act would clearly have kept kids entertained in person, especially with audience participation and potential interaction with the actors, on film it's a testimony to what a brazen filmmaker could get away with in the kiddie matinee market.. for a time. As bad as this film is, however, I've still seen worse. Much worse. I have no idea what the actors' names are (aside from Roy Huston) as the credits on the print I have are so tiny and blurry that they're illegible, but the guy who plays Old King Cole is a genuine professional and rather fun to watch as he makes the best of his very silly role. His Old King Cole is comically effete, terrified of crying women ("I've had nothing but crying females today!"), petulant, and a great lover of milk ("You never outgrow your need for milk!"). He's the real star of the film, doing his best to pretend as if the cheapo nonsense going on around him is really worth reacting to. Roy Huston is no actor (he mouths his lines while his dialogue is played back on a tape recorder off-camera. Why??) but he's not a bad magician, really, and I'm sure he cashed-in on the trailing end of the Midnight Spook Show era with an act of his own (in fact, as of 2002, he was still at it).

Like a 19th century medicine show huckster, Herschell Gordon Lewis has always prided himself on his ability to sell a gullible crowd a load of goods. Sometimes this attitude led him, almost accidentally, into trailblazing new film territory, but just as often he ended up producing cheap throwaways. It's strictly buyer beware with H. G. Lewis and his two kiddie films are no exception. Although neither are a total waste of time (especially for obscureologists like myself) and chock full of inadvertent laughs, they're still prime examples of Lewis at his most cynically opportunistic, dabbling in a genre he couldn't even pretend to be interested in just to make a quick buck.


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