Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Merry Christmas!

A colossal software/hardware hiccup in December 2004 prevented me from releasing my annual Christmas music video on time, but I managed to sort out a few things over the Memorial Day weekend and here it is, a mere five+ months late. Ladies and Gentlemen, I present Santa Is Watching You (right click/save as). Enjoy... if you dare.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Wheeler addenda Woolsey

In honor of Bill Sherman's latest Wheeler and Woolsey-related blog entry, I'm posting this rare 1938 W&W comic strip from the pages of Film Fun, a UK comic weekly that also featured strips starring Laurel and Hardy, George Formby, Harold Lloyd, Abbott and Costello, and, eventually, Martin and Lewis. Interestingly, Bert and Bob are depicted as rivals here, something they never were in their pictures (especially over a woman. Bert had Dotty Lee while Bob usually had his own love interest in the form of women as diverse as Thelma Todd and Jobyna Howland). One quibble with Bill's assessment of Girl Crazy (1932); the W&W version is actually much closer to the original Gershwin musical than the 1943 Garland/Rooney version. Bert was given original Broadway star Willie Howard's Jewish cabby role, revised here for ethnicity as Jimmy Deegan. Bill's keen eye spotted Margaret Dumont in a small role (she was later to appear with the boys in Kentucky Kernels (1934) and their woeful last picture, High Flyers (1938)), and here are a few other notables to be found populating the periphery of Girl Crazy:

  • Lon Cheney, Jr. as a dancer!
  • Nat Pendleton as a cop (of course)
  • Monty Collins as a bartender (familiar face in RKO's Clark and McCullough shorts and later to be teamed with comic heavy Tom Kennedy in his own series at Columbia)

click on de pic for to make it beeg!

Monday, May 23, 2005

Q Who?

It's remarkable how, despite inextricably interlocked global economies and the ever-expanding communications network, some fairly prominent examples of pop media never quite jump the border between East and West. Take Lao Fu Zi or "Old Master Q" for example. Master Q is the most popular and enduring comic character in Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan; the subject of six movies in Mandarin and Cantonese, a high-profile CGI/live action feature in 2001, various live action and animated TV series, plays, and countless strip collections, but it remains almost completely unknown outside the Chinese community here in the US... and this despite the fact that OMQ is primarily pantomime.

Created by cartoonist Wang Jia Xi in 1964, Master Q is both a well-defined personality and a utility character designed to be dropped into countless gag situations. Master Q, unmistakable in his caricatured traditional Chinese garb, is a scrappy and somewhat childlike middle-aged man; mercurial but often kindly and possessing an innocent sense of curiosity. Most of Wang Jia Xi's gags are highly original, insightful, and occasionally surreal. At times he depends upon tried and true gag motifs such as the venerable "stranded on a desert island", "magic carpet", and "jailbreak", but his gags usually have an engagingly random, daydream-like quality, and even timeworn formula are used as springboards for original ideas. Wang Jia Xi is as facile a draftsman as he is a gag writer. His meticulous artwork and staging reflects the inescapable influence of Herge while also maintaining aspects of traditional Chinese brushwork. Having dipped into a couple hundred of these very accessible strips on the official English-language homepage, it's not hard to understand Old Master Q's popularity in Asia. What's hard to understand is why OMQ isn't better known here.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Hearts and Minds

What is it going to take? The $9 billion in Iraqi reconstruction money our government lost while they clamp down on "costly" social services at home? How about systematic torture? From today's New York Times:

The prisoner, a slight, 22-year-old taxi driver known only as Dilawar, was hauled from his cell at the detention center in Bagram, Afghanistan, at around 2 a.m. to answer questions about a rocket attack on an American base. When he arrived in the interrogation room, an interpreter who was present said, his legs were bouncing uncontrollably in the plastic chair and his hands were numb. He had been chained by the wrists to the top of his cell for much of the previous four days.

Mr. Dilawar asked for a drink of water, and one of the two interrogators, Specialist Joshua R. Claus, 21, picked up a large plastic bottle. But first he punched a hole in the bottom, the interpreter said, so as the prisoner fumbled weakly with the cap, the water poured out over his orange prison scrubs. The soldier then grabbed the bottle back and began squirting the water forcefully into Mr. Dilawar's face.

"Come on, drink!" the interpreter said Specialist Claus had shouted, as the prisoner gagged on the spray. "Drink!"

At the interrogators' behest, a guard tried to force the young man to his knees. But his legs, which had been pummeled by guards for several days, could no longer bend. An interrogator told Mr. Dilawar that he could see a doctor after they finished with him. When he was finally sent back to his cell, though, the guards were instructed only to chain the prisoner back to the ceiling.

"Leave him up," one of the guards quoted Specialist Claus as saying.

Several hours passed before an emergency room doctor finally saw Mr. Dilawar. By then he was dead, his body beginning to stiffen. It would be many months before Army investigators learned a final horrific detail: Most of the interrogators had believed Mr. Dilawar was an innocent man who simply drove his taxi past the American base at the wrong time.

Bad apples? A fish rots from the head down. Now that the WH has spent some quality time using Newsweek's Koran story to throw the Fear of God into a largely suppliant press, how will they react to this decidedly indisputable NYT bombshell? Let me guess. "This kind of story doesn't help." "We're investigating."

Wake up, America.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

RIP Frank Gorshin

In the final tally, I'm sure Frank Gorshin is going to be remembered for two things: Batman and impressions... but mostly Batman. This is a shame because Frank Gorshin really was one of the best impressionists of all time. Gorshin's impressions were superior to those of, say, Rich Little, because he would give his characters a purpose and a soul. Gorshin could give life to his impressions because he was also a skilled comic actor. Who is Rich Little without impressions, anyway?

As far as Batman is concerned, Gorshin's uncanny ability to shift gears between manic glee and brooding rage at the drop of a hat made him the villain to watch. Unlike Cesar Romero (who wouldn't even shave his mustache!) as the Joker, or Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, Frank Gorshin made the Riddler an honest-to-god menace. He always seemed as if he were one step away from dropping the silly riddles and jamming a switchblade into the Caped Crusader's head. And while John Astin is another extremely underrated comic actor, his two appearances as the Riddler only served to throw Gorshin's total mastery of the role into sharp relief (even Jim Carrey had to defer to Gorshin's superior characterization). Bluntly, while Batman gave Frank Gorshin his lasting fame (and the typecasting he could never shake off), he was better than the show deserved. Amidst all the high-profile performers who used the show as something of a paid vacation, Gorshin actually acted.

Frank Gorshin always seemed on the verge of stardom. He certainly had the talent to back it up, but the fame he deserved never quite happened. He had several extremely showy roles at the start of his career in movies such as the excellent Hot Rod Girl (1956), Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957), and Studs Lonigan (1960), but the mid-60s saw him become everyone's favorite TV guest star and his film career was unfortunately allowed to dry up. Towards the end of his life, while he still appeared in the occasional high-profile feature (such as Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys in 1995), Gorshin's talent was wasted in things like Beethoven's 3rd and Mail Order Bride. Ironically, just months before he died, he had finished shooting Angels With Angels, an extremely rare starring vehicle. Angels With Angels, a fantasy about George Burns and Gracie Allen attempting to get back together in the highly bureaucratic afterlife, also happens to be Rodney Dangerfield's last film. Gorshin's performance as George Burns had apparently been honed to perfection in the Vegas one-man show he had been appearing in for the last couple of years, Say Goodnight, Gracie. I doubt Angels With Angels was/is a classic in the making, though, especially if the shockingly sloppy poster mock-up on its IMDB entry is any indication... but, hey.. any film that co-stars Adam West and Soupy Sales can't be all bad.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Bob Woolsey? Cyclonic?

The Pop Culture Gadabout has a grifty post up about Wheeler and Woolsey's would-be last feature, Cracked Nuts (1931). RKO did split the team briefly, giving each comic one feature apiece, but really only intending to keep Bert Wheeler around. Oddly enough, the lesser-talented Robert Woolsey's solo tryout, Everything's Rosie, turned out the better of the two. Film comedy vet Clyde Bruckman (who eventually committed suicide with a gun borrowed from Buster Keaton) directed Woolsey in this extremely predictable but likeable carnival farce which owes tremendous debts to both W. C. Fields' Poppy and Joe Cook's Rain Or Shine. Woolsey plays sideshow huckster Dr. J. Dockweiler Droop, a lovable conman who has adopted and raised Rosie, a lovable orphan. Rosie falls in love with lovable and handsome Billy Lowe, and Dr. Droop just about wrecks her romance when he cons a few of the Very Influential guests at Billy's 21st birthday party. A tearjerker ending sees Dr. Droop leaving his adopted daughter behind with Billy rather than let her ruin her life by sticking around the carnival scene with an old reprobate like him (sob!). Woolsey almost pulls off his role as huckster with a heart of gold, but the emotional requirements of the script are just out of his reach as an actor. Hey.. he simply wasn't that type of comedian (ever seen Groucho Marx try to play a straight role?). But as predictable and bland as Everything's Rosie is, it's comedy gold compared to Bert Wheeler's virtually unwatchable solo effort, Too Many Cooks (1931). Leave it to RKO to showcase Bert, their star comic, in a stale domestic comedy where he doesn't get to sing or dance or tell jokes. An unbelievable waste of talent and highly-flammable nitrate stock. Needless to say, Bert and Bob got back together in a hurry and continued making profitable pictures for RKO until Woolsey's tragic and premature death in 1938.

And, gosh, aren't these handpainted glass slides purty? In the 1930s, these "coming attractions" would have been projected onto the screen while audience members took their seats.. I think that's still being done in some theaters today, but not with graphics as nice as these!

When was the last time you saw a composer and lyricist get equal billing with a film director?

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Gorilla? What Gorilla?

Hey! Guess what! Bush lied! For all of you who knew in your hearts (and, much more importantly, in your brains) that the Iraq War was an illegal and predetermined act built upon a network of cheap BS, the Downing Street Memo is a bittersweet vindication, especially in the wake of the thousands of deaths and the general chaos that have resulted from neocon blundering. The American corporate press is only now waking up to the Memo's existence after it has been taking center stage in the UK media for over a month. It's not going away, and the longer it sits there like the proverbial 800 pound gorilla in the living room, the greater grows the cognitive dissonance over Bush's illegal war. Certainly, the American public may be much more immune to the Real World than the rest of the planet's population, but there has to be a tipping point. Not even in my most cynical moments do I really believe this Administration is going to get away scot-free with the monumental crimes they've committed. The only questions are "when" and "at what cost". And many thanks to Rep. Conyers for being responsible enough to jump on this issue.

www.DowningStreetMemo.com has more. And here are the complete contents of the Memo.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Olsen and Johnson: Comedy Salesmen

One of the cardinal rules of comedy is never to laugh at your own material. It's usually taken as a sign of disrespect for your audience's ability to determine what they find funny for themselves. In the world of comedy etiquette, it's the equivalent of vomiting on the waiter and then neglecting to leave a tip. Happily, Olsen and Johnson didn't just ignore the comedy etiquette rulebook, they burnt it and then roasted comically oversized prop hotdogs over the flames. Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, both hyper-thyroidal, both pathological pranksters, both musician/songwriters, both buried in Palm Memorial Park, Las Vegas (next to each other), flouted all the rules, especially the one about laughing at your own material. Chic Johnson, the chubby one, was brilliant at it, making his laughter seem far less a desperate plea to win an audience's approval than an in-your-face act of anarchistic defiance rather like Chico Marx's strange insistence that puns are funny. Johnson's chronic need to laugh at his material is usually far funnier than the material itself, and it was such a part of his character that he'd even let loose a few manic giggles when surprised or frightened. Ole Olsen, the team's ostensible straightman, was only just by a matter of degrees. Olsen wouldn't think twice about slapping a pie in someone's face, but Johnson would slap himself in the face with a pie, or two, and then dump a glass of water over his head. Unfortunately, they never really quite found their niche in films despite truckloads of talent and, more importantly, energy. O&J's fifteen year on/off flirtation with Hollywood saw them working at three different studios:

Warner Bros.
: During the early 30s rush to bring established stage comedians to the screen, the fledgling Warner Bros. studios hired vaudeville stars Olsen and Johnson for three pictures, most probably because they were affordable, and billed them as "America's Funniest Clowns".. a debatable claim in 1930. Although Johnson's laugh serves as a memorable hook, Olsen and Johnson are little more than utility comics in these early talkies. They've also dragged their methodical stage timing along with them so their delivery is, consequently, slow and not very effective on film. After headlining in Oh Sailor Behave! in 1930, the team was demoted somewhat to semi-headliners in Fifty Million Frenchmen (co-starring William Gaxton), and took a complete backseat to Broadway star Winnie Lightner in Gold Dust Gertie, an innovative farce comedy that flew in the face of tradition by exclusively featuring extremely unlikable, unpleasant characters you couldn't give a hang about. After two years at Warner's, O&J headed back to the boards.

Republic: In 1936 and 37, O&J starred in two peculiar B-comedy potboilers at Republic, a studio known almost exclusively for westerns and serials. Country Gentlemen and All Over Town are actually more enjoyable than the team's bigger-budgeted WB pictures, but Olsen and Johnson still haven't found their footing. While their delivery and timing have become much sharper, the films are far from ideal vehicles for them. Country Gentlemen shoehorns the team into a plot-heavy, character-driven story about conmen and oil wells that feels as though it were written for someone else (Ole plays the romantic lead for godsake!). The backstage whodunit All Over Town comes closer to the mark. O&J have plenty of opportunities to open up their bag of vaudeville routines and even get to pick up their instruments and play for once (both men were classically trained musicians; Ole on the violin and Chic on the piano. For some reason, these skills never really figured in their movies). The director, James W. Horne, was a Hal Roach veteran who had just recently wrapped up work on Laurel and Hardy's best feature, Way Out West. Familiar Hal Roach faces also appear in supporting roles (most notably Jimmy Finlayson, every comedy team's favorite stooge). But All Over Town never quite comes together, largely because it isn't very funny. Olsen and Johnson set Hollywood aside once again in 1938 when they finally hit it big with their Broadway hit Hellzapoppin', a free-form smorgasbord of gags, prop comedy, and musical numbers that fixed O&J in the public mind once and for all as comedy maniacs.

Universal: By 1941, Hellzapoppin' had run for a record 1,404 performances and Olsen and Johnson were nationally famous. Universal bought the screen rights to the revue and O&J were finally set free to be as dangerously madcap as they cared to be. Unlike the stage revue, the film Hellzapoppin' was saddled with a rather convoluted plotline concerning a romantic triangle, but screenwriter Warren Wilson was wise enough to shove this stuff into the background and concentrate on Nat Perrin's gag material from the stage show. Any discussion of the plots of Olsen and Johnson's four films for Universal would be meaningless. What matters here are the quality and quantity of the gags. For instance, in Hellzapoppin's best moment, O&J give away the ending of Citizen Kane! At the beginning of the heavily cartoon-inspired Crazy House (1943), O&J are shot from cannons though a wall and into the office of a Universal movie executive, whom they hand a lit stick of dynamite. There's actually a story about their attempts to make a movie around in there somewhere between all the gags, but it's more than made up for when Chic Johnson picks up a machine gun at the end and kills the obligatory Young Couple In Love. "This is one picture that isn't going to have a happy ending!" he says. Ghost Catchers (1944), the team's only scare comedy, was partially written by cartoonist Milt Gross and features a musical number, "The Customer is Always Right", which is funny due to its sheer audacity rather than the merit of its material. Ghost Catchers also features some surprisingly contemporary humor. In one scene, O&J are following two dwarves (complete with pointy hats) through a haunted house:

Olsen: I wonder where they're going..

Johnson: Maybe they're taking us to Snow White!

Dwarf (turning on O&J, shaking his fists with rage): Snow White?? SNOW WHITE?!? Everywhere we go!!! EVERYWHERE WE GO!!!!!

After one more film, See My Lawyer (1945), Olsen and Johnson quit movies for good and went back to the stage and a string of Hellzapoppin'-ish revues (including Hellzasplashin', Sons O' Fun, Jerks-Berserk, Crazy House, Pardon Our French, and others). In 1949, they tried their hand at early TV with Fireball Fun-For-All, an unsuccessful attempt to translate their revue format to video. While the episodes I've seen have their moments, Fireball really highlights how much of the effectiveness of O&J's revues depended on you actually being there in the audience. It was cancelled after a mere four months and Olsen and Johnson continued performing, rather inevitably settling in Las Vegas. The seemingly endless ride was finally cut short by Chic Johnson's death in 1962 at the age of 66. Ole Olsen followed a year later at the age of 71.

In a 1959 interview, Chic Johnson summed up the team's approach to comedy. "We never made any pretense at being glib, satirical standup comics. We manufacture gimmicks and gags that are about as basic as you can get. We are salesmen. We sell laughs. We have never tried to be subtle. Apparently people all over the world still like that sort of thing."

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Sometimes a Cigar is Just A Cigar...

.. And sometimes it's a highly suggestive piece of pre-code movie memorabilia. The publicity department at Radio Pictures knew precisely what they were doing when they drew up this graphic for Wheeler and Woolsey's 1933 feature Diplomaniacs. A lot has been said over the years about the phallic nature of the classic comedians' omnipresent cigars (Groucho Marx, George Burns, Bobby Clark, and just about every burlesque comic who ever lived, including Lou Costello before he started making films) but this image really does drive the point home, so to speak.

Believe It or Not...

The battle to teach Fundamentalist Christian dogma as "science" in Kansas public schools is heating up again.

"The hearings in Topeka, scheduled to last several days, are focusing on two proposals. The first recommends that students continue to be taught the theory of evolution because it is key to understanding biology. The other proposes that Kansas alter the definition of science, not limiting it to theories based on natural explanations."

If they're willing to go this far, I can only hope they'll be kind enough to open their classrooms to every known kind of pseudoscience, not just their own preferred brand. By these criteria, Black Magic must be viewed as similarly valid. Spiritualism, Raelianism, Scientology, the theories of Wilhelm Reich.. I want to see ALL of it in those classrooms. Maybe Kansas can open the first American branch of Hogworts (think of the tourist trade!). Granted, dark ages-style ignorance is a valid lifestyle choice in America, but this smacks of desperation; a full-out assault on centuries worth of progress led by people who find it much easier to lock out contradictory viewpoints and beliefs than think about them. If I truly hated America, I'd be rooting for these folks to attain positions of real power ASAP because the sooner they do, the sooner this country dissolves into multiple squabbling theocracies, each armed to the teeth and aching to kill over various interpretations of "God's Word". As retired schoolteacher Kathy Martin says in the article, "We can't ignore that our nation is based on Christianity — not science." I can imagine our Founding Fathers, being products of the Age of Enlightenment, taking more than a little issue with that assessment. Mrs. Martin, a member of the Kansas state board of education, is residing over the hearings that will determine whether Kansas decides to remain a part of the real world or help usher in the new Age of Militant Ignorance. Thanks, Kathy! We'll be back to public stonings in no time!

Friday, May 06, 2005

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Mostly Shyte

The late Douglas Adams' biographer, M. J. Simpson, has this to say about Disney's new Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie:

"It’s as if someone had filmed
Gulliver’s Travels but had made the Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians normal-sized and turned the Houyhnhnms from talking horses into yellow triangles."

Actually, he has much, much more to say about this clumsy abortion of a hamfisted travesty of a series of brilliant novels but, in short: "Douglas Adams had a fatal stroke getting THIS into theaters???" Adams dies after struggling for over TWO DECADES to get a feature film version made, leaving Disney free to dance on his grave. And the Cosmic Joker laughs heartily. Oh.. this has been a bad year, indeed.

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 KiddieMatinee.com 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.