Cool Cinema Trash: The Big Cube (1969)

Cool Cinema Trash

poster1Poor mama. She stood in the way of a $3,000,000 inheritance. So they spoiled her medicine with the big cube. Poor, poor mama.

Less than a decade after such career highlights as Imitation of Life (1959) and Portrait in Black (1960) Lana Turner headlined The Big Cube (1969) a silly, trippy, LSD-soaked tale that tries to mix classic Hollywood melodrama (familiar territory for Turner) and the swingin’ sexed-up drug culture of the late 1960’s. The result is a colorfully spectacular mess, making it a savory treat for bad movie connoisseurs.

What it’s all about: It may seem like you’ve put the wrong disc into your DVD player, but the scenes from the low-rent historical epic in the opening moments of The Big Cube are merely the closing night of a play featuring glamorous stage star Adriana Roman (Lana Turner). After taking her final bows, she announces that she is “saying good-bye to the theatre forever” in order to marry wealthy business tycoon Charles Winthrop (Dan O’Herlihy).

After the groovy opening credits (featuring the muzak-style theme “Lean on Me”) you may think that Turner has already begun to partake in the mind-altering drug referenced in the film’s title. It’s the only logical explanation for her awkward performance in a scene where her character tells her husband-to-be that she’s worried how his teenage daughter will handle their impending nuptials.

Lisa Winthrop (Karin Mossberg) can’t stand her new stepmother. With her perfectly coiffed blonde hair and pretty pink party dress, Lisa looks to be the perfect all-American suburban debutante, but in an odd juxtaposition, actress Mossberg makes no attempt to hide her thick European accent. Her best friend Bibi (Pamela Rodgers) is of little help. “Sweetness, baby, float with the tide,” she suggests. “Let’s call half a dozen guys and have an orgy.”

Adriana tries to bond with Lisa after the civil ceremony. “We’re going to be the best of friends,” she insists, “we have the same good taste in men.”

That taste is put into question when Lisa starts hanging out with Johnny Allen (George Chakiris) and his thrill-seeking beatnik friends. Their first excursion is to club Le Trip, the kind of kinky, psychedelic dance club that only exists in movies from the 1960’s. “Sugar, in beer?” Lisa questions as all the hep cats start dropping The Big Cube.

A mysterious woman called the Queen Bee arrives with a muscular escort. Lalo (Carlos East) one of Johnny’s artist pals, wants revenge on the muscle head for some imagined indignity. “I’m gonna cube that mother, but good.”

They spike the guy’s beer with a heavy dose of LSD and it isn’t long before a full-scale freak-out ensues. “My face. Don’t steal my face!” the guy shouts as he goes into a psychotically spastic (and enjoyably hilarious) fit.

While investigating the drug-induced death at Le Trip, the police accuse Johnny of making LSD in the college chemistry lab. Kicked out of med school and with no other prospects, Johnny sets about wooing Lisa full-time. He moves in with Lalo, who is preparing for an exhibition of his third-rate artistic renderings. Lisa procures money from her father and buys one of the paintings. To celebrate the sale, Johnny and his dead-beat pals throw a swingin’ party at Lisa’s place. Bibi entertains the crowd with a strip tease and drops her top just as Lisa’s father arrives home. Everyone is thrown out and a family fight ensues, the argument ending with Lisa receiving a slap from her father.

“She turned my father against me,” Lisa complains to Johnny, “And now they’re trying to keep me away from you.”

In the next scene, Adriana washes ashore and we find out (after an amusingly stylized flashback) that she is the only survivor of a storm at sea. When she finally awakens in the hospital, she is given the tragic news that her husband has drowned.

At the reading of the will, Lisa is awarded a trust fund. One million dollars will be hers on her 25th birthday or, if she chooses to marry, she will receive the funds immediately. The only condition is that Adriana must approve of her choice of husband. Adriana does not approve of Johnny.

With dollar signs in his eyes, Johnny continues to manipulate Lisa, “I don’t give a damn about the money or anything. What gets me is everybody gushing about poor Adriana. If it was my father she’d killed, I’d make her pay for it.”

Their weapon of choice? Sleeping pills laced with LSD.

Voices and vivid psychedelic colors begin to haunt Adriana’s sleep. “A nightmare, pure and simple,” offers playwright and friend Frederick Lonsdale (Richard Egan).

Lisa suggests she and Adriana spend more quality time together. While on a drive to the coast, Adriana (under the influence of her tainted medication) has another freak-out. Johnny appears on the side of the road and, with Lisa’s help, drags Adriana towards a cliff. With colors whirling and lights flashing, she manages to escape, but no one believes that Lisa and Johnny tried to kill her. Her psychiatrist thinks her wild stories are simply the result of hysterical grief—a widow unable to deal with the death of her husband.

Lisa, who is feeling guilty about gaslighting her stepmother, agrees to put Adriana through the ringer one last time. On a particularly dark and stormy night, Adriana takes a sleeping pill and immediately begins tripping. A tape-recorded message (You killed my father. You’re going to die.) helps push Adriana to the brink of insanity. Colors and patterns dance across Adriana’s chi-chi bedroom set as images of Johnny beckon her to jump from the balcony. Lisa keeps her from jumping, but the damage is already done.

Adriana’s trip was so severe that she can’t recall her past (including her marriage to Charles or his death) and must be institutionalized. “Maybe there’s no perfect murder,” Johnny muses, “but I think we figured the perfect freakout.”

Once Adriana is legally declared incompetent, Johnny and Lisa get hitched in a bikini-clad backyard blowout. Lisa is shocked when Johnny suggests a four-way on their wedding night and kicks him out when he calls her, “a square, a cube, a jerk”.

Lisa tells Frederick the whole sorted scheme. Determined to help Adriana, he comes up with the most outrageously cockamamie scheme in cinema history. “Suppose she relived the part of her life she’s trying to forget?” To cure Adriana of her acid-induced amnesia, he plans to, “Write a play based on her experiences, then convince Adriana to play herself.”

At a read through of the play, Frederick and Lisa watch expectantly as Adriana performs a monologue from the play in which her character wistfully reminisces about her husband who was killed in a shipwreck. Adriana doesn’t crack. As rehearsals continue, she gets occasional flashes of her former life, but continues to work all the way up until opening night.

As Adriana performs the movie we’ve been watching for an appreciative audience, Lisa frets backstage, “She has no reaction at all. It’s useless. It’s not going to work!”

As Adriana begins the third act, you’d think she would’ve figured something out by now. She’s performing on a set that’s an exact replica of her own bedroom! Desperate, Frederick decides to pull out all the stops. As the psychedelic stage effects begin, he plays the same tape recording Lisa and Johnny used to push her over the edge: You killed my father. You’re going to die.

Turner really chews the scenery as Adriana relives her freak-out and finally remembers her past. Lisa shatters all sense of verisimilitude and takes the place of the stage actress playing her. “It was Johnny and me. It was us,” she confesses. “With drugs… We did it.”

Upon hearing this, Adriana lets loose with a particularly memorable bitch slap and then shrieks, “Oh, my God. I’m not mad. I’m not mad!” The audience applauds wildly as the curtain comes down. Meanwhile, Johnny has hit rock bottom with a little help from the Queen Bee. He pours an entire vial of LSD into a bowl of sugar cubes and begins to pop them like candy. Vivid colors and images of death haunt him as be begins a fatal acid trip.

With Frederick and Lisa as her escorts, Adriana exits the theatre surrounded by appreciative fans and enthusiastic members of the press. For an actress, this is perhaps the ultimate happily ever after. She gives a queenly wave as her chauffeur driven car pulls away.

In conclusion: Lana Turner always strived to look her very best onscreen. As with many actresses of Turner’s era, the veneer of Hollywood glamour was helped along with diffused lighting and careful costume choices. In The Big Cube, there’s plenty of soft-focus to keep Lana looking her best, but some of the outrageous costumes by Travilla are truly a sight to behold. In one scene Lana appears in an ornate gold caftan. But as unflattering as some of the gowns are, they can’t compare to the towering hairpieces she burdened with. The various curls, braids and bouffants look all the more ridiculous since none of them come close to matching Turners own blonde hair.

The Big Cube marked one of Lana Turner’s final starring roles. It may seem like an inauspicious way to wrap-up a Hollywood career, but several other leading ladies were making similarly themed projects around the same time. Academy award winner Jennifer Jones was featured in Angel, Angel, Down We Go (1969) and two-time Oscar winner Shelley Winters played the mother of twenty-something tyrant Christopher Jones in Wild in the Streets (1968).

George Chakiris won Oscar gold in 1961 for West Side Story, but after The Big Cube, the majority of his roles came from television guest appearances.


Cool Cinema Trash: By Love Possessed (1961)

Cool Cinema Trash

936full-by-love-possessed-posterThe story of a woman who was By Love Possessed!

In one of the most successful films of her career, Lana Turner played a woman facing possible scandal in a small town called Peyton Place (1957). After facing her own real life scandal and trial, she returned to familiar cinematic territory with By Love Possessed (1961), a melodrama based on the James Gould Cozzens best seller about the secret passions bubbling beneath the surface of a picturesque New England community.

What it’s all about: The soapy plot revolves around the interconnected lives of three local lawyers who work at the same firm. Jason Robards helpfully describes how the local townsfolk perceive each of the partners. Thomas Mitchell is “the grand old man,” Efrem Zimbalist Jr. is “the pillar of the community” and Robards labels himself the “Egghead.”

Zimbalist’s son, George Hamilton, is home from Harvard and resentful of the life that lies ahead of him. “Living in your town, working in your law firm, marriage to the girl of your choice.”

That girl is virginal Susan Kohner, who also happens to be “the richest orphan in Winner County.” She knows that Hamilton has had success with girls more worldly than she, “You never even once tried with me.”

“I wouldn’t have succeeded now would I?”

“No… you might have had the decency to try.”

Hamilton also disagrees with his father about a case that they’re preparing for trial. Hamilton argues that it would be in the client’s best interest if he lost the case, but for Zimbalist the law is black and white. He is unable to bend the rules and is seemingly incapable of compassion.

Boozy society wife Lana Turner interrupts a private hearing at her husband’s office. Turner drunkenly stumbles around (an act she’d later perfect in Madame X, 1966) before begging Zimbalist to help her divorce Robards.

He assures Turner that he’ll “give her a divorce any time she asks for it… sober.” He goes on to explain that his wife is, “miserably unhappy, so she gets drunk.” It seems poor Lana has “urges and needs” that he can’t satisfy because an auto accident has left him crippled.

A big city lawyer meets with Zimbalist to inform him that Mitchell has improperly handled twenty thousand dollars of a client’s estate. When Zimbalist visits the hospital to see wife Barbara Bel Geddes (who’s laid up for a week because of a fall on the tennis court) he breaks the news that they’ll have to force Mitchell into early retirement. Since Mitchell is her father, she’s understandably upset. It just one more issue to add to the marital problems between them.

Before Robards leaves for Washington on business, he warns Turner that, “If you keep on the way you’re going, they’re going to label you the lovely lush.”

She reiterates that her problems stem from her “human wants and needs”.

“Well go out and get what you need.” He bellows, “Just don’t let me know!”

In the kind of dramatic monologue she excels at, Turner recounts the tale of the night he came home from his accident. “You pushed me away. You made me feel like an animal, before I knew I was one,” she sighs, wringing every ounce of pathos out of the moment. She asks again for a divorce, but he refuses.

While on the way home from the country club, Turner spots Zimbalist out for an evening stroll. With Elmer Bernstein’s dramatic theme underscoring just how verboten their meeting is, they stand beside a gazebo and ponder their attraction. With an artfully painted backdrop for their scenery and carefully positioned arc lights for their flattering blue moonlight, they share a forbidden kiss. They hop in the car and drive to a nearby stable for a satisfying roll in the hay.

Meanwhile, Hamilton has his eye on trampy diner waitress Yvonne Craig. Even the town doctor pronounces that this petulant gal from the wrong side of town has “Been around more in her twenty years than the moon in it’s millions.” When Hamilton offers her a drink, she vamps the memorable line, “If I get drunk and pass out… it’s no fun for me. If you get drunk and pass out… it’s no fun for me.”

They drive to a wooded area where’s there’s plenty of fun to be had by all. When he gives her the inevitable brush off, she slaps him and reads him the riot act while habitually referring to herself in the third person,”Nobody treats Veronica like a tramp but Veronica!” She smacks him a few more times for good measure.

Bel Geddes arrives home from the hospital in time to learn that Craig has accused her son of rape. Hamilton admits that he had carnal knowledge of the girl, but didn’t force her. Zimbalist doesn’t believe him and lectures Hamilton in a Perry Mason-style rant about love and lust, two things Zimbalist knows quite a lot about.

Good girl Kohner is upset when she hears the news about her fiancé, but is prepared to stand by her man. He knows he doesn’t deserve her support and comes clean with the truth, “I don’t love you. I wish I did, but I don’t.” Hamilton then skips town before his scheduled hearing.

Kohner makes preparations to go away, “Sometimes on a trip, they say you find yourself.” She ends up going on a trip, the eternal kind. She commits suicide (tastefully off camera) by swallowing cleaning fluid.

With all that is going on, Zimbalist and Turner get philosophical about their affair. “We needed something… an escape.”

“An act of defiance.” He agrees.

While wearing a wildly unflattering orange dressing gown, Turner prepares to leave her husband, but is interrupted by Hamilton’s return to town. She tells him of Kohner’s suicide and he naturally feels guilty. Turner helpfully points out, “You didn’t kill her. She killed herself.”

Robards also returns to town and while going over Kohner’s will with Zimbalist, they take a closer look at the ledgers kept by Mitchell. As it turns out, he wasn’t incompetently handling the accounts, but embezzling funds… for a good cause. Zimbalist is willing to keep the whole thing quiet. Robards marvels at the sudden change in his idealistic partner, “Last Tuesday you wanted to tell Noah that he was incompetent, too old, too feeble to run the firm.”

“That was Tuesday, this is Friday.”

“What happened in between?”

“Wednesday and Thursday.”

With his new, slightly more forgiving take on life, Zimbalist tepidly tells his wife how much he cares. When Hamilton walks in the front door, only a few words are needed for the family to be reunited.

With a similarly brief exchange, the bad years between Turner and Robards are forgotten. Since she conveniently forgets to mention the affair with his business partner, their reunion goes quite smoothly. He tosses his cane aside and moves in for a final romantic clinch.

In conclusion: Though Turner receives top billing, By Love Possessed is much more of an ensemble piece than the kind of star vehicle tailored to fit Turner’s specific talents. If anyone might be considered the star of the film, it’d be Zimbalist. Not only does he receive the most screen time, but it’s his character that represents the emotional center the story revolves around. This isn’t to say that Lana enthusiasts will come away disappointed. By Love Possessed may not be as glossy as Portrait in Black (1960) or Love Has Many Faces (1965), but Turner still has several moments in the film that assure her place in the pantheon of classic movie soap queens.


Cool Cinema Trash: Jubilee Trail (1954)

Cool Cinema Trash

posterSprawling, grand and epic are not the usual adjectives used to describe the product put out by Republic Pictures. Modest, but successful, westerns were the studios bread and butter. More money was spent on the acquisition, production and promotion of Jubilee Trail (1954) than any other Republic film up to that time. The posters even lauded it as, “The greatest American drama since Gone With the Wind”. One look at Jubilee Trail and it’s pretty obvious that this is no Gone With the Wind.

What it’s all about: Jubilee Trail opens with Vera Ralston prancing and flirting her way across a stage as the headliner in a New Orleans music box revue. This opening production number puts to rest any question as to who the real star of the film is. Florinda (Ralston) sings a French ditty, though ‘singing’ may be a bit of an overstatement. Ralston is barely able to keep up with the audio track, her mouth never quite matching up with the lyrics of the song she’s supposedly singing.

Moments after the show, Florinda changes from her sequined stage costume into an equally ostentatious gown and comes to the rescue of Garnet Hale (Joan Leslie) who is being harassed by a pair of riverboat gamblers. After a few moments of pleasant chitchat with the newlywed bride, Florinda disappears.

A detective is searching for Florinda. Though Garnett knows nothing about the flashy showgirl’s mysterious past and possible criminal history, she takes Florinda under her wing and hides her upstairs in the honeymoon suite. Garnet’s husband Oliver (John Russell) throws the detective and nosy hotel manager off Florinda’s trail. The Hales even go so far as to disguise the wanted lady and arrange for her safe passage out of town.

The newlyweds continue on to the California territory, stopping in Santa Fe. While Oliver goes to check on the wagon train transporting some of their supplies, Garnet hangs out with Florinda, who has also made her way westward. Florinda has found temporary work as a housekeeper for a fire and brimstone-spouting tradesman, whom everyone laughingly refers to as Deacon.

Late one night, the wagon train pulls into town. Trail boss John Ives (Forrest Tucker) has a special message for Oliver. In a detailed letter from his brother, it is explained that upon Oliver’s arrival in California, he will marry the local girl who has given birth to his child. One wife on the trail and another one waiting for him at home… what’s a poor guy to do?

Everyone gathers at the tavern that evening. Florinda is unable to resist entertaining the local yokels and bursts into song. With her obvious saloon-singing past exposed, the Deacon calls her a strumpet. Them there’s fightin’ words and since this is a western, Jubilee Trail needs at least one old fashioned bar brawl. Punches are thrown, fists begin to fly and stuntmen crash through prop furniture.

The next day it’s back to the trail. After trekking across picturesque desert vistas, they make camp by a watering hole. While pitching her tent, Garnet finds her husband’s letter and reads of the bride and baby awaiting him in California. Suddenly, Indians attack! Everyone, including the women folk, fend off the savages. Garnet is wounded by an arrow, but bravely pulls through, proving that it takes a spirited kind of gal to make it in on the wild frontier.

The wagon train soon arrives at the Hale hacienda. While preparing for the homecoming fiesta, Garnet asks Florinda the purely hypothetical question whether it’s better to know some bad news, or remain blissfully in the dark. “Oh, it’s better to know about it honey, that way you can fight it. And when you think you can’t fight, just feel that wound and remember… if you lived through that, you can live through anything.” At the party, Florinda takes a shine to bombastic Siberian fur trapper Nicolai (Buddy Baer) whom she lovingly nicknames ‘handsome brute’.

When Charles (Ray Middleton) learns of his brother’s marriage to Garnet, he is furious, “Your impertinence comes as easy as your follies. We would have controlled more land than any Americans out here if you’d married Carmelita.”

Oliver must finally tell Garnet. She foregoes the usual hysterics, “I feel sorry for you Oliver… and sorry for the girl and her child.” Garnet may be handling the situation stoically, but others… not so much. Word arrives that Carmelita has ridden off a cliff with her bastard child in her arms. The Velasco men storm the Hale ranch seeking vengeance and kill Oliver.

Now a widow, with a baby of her own on the way, Carnet continues with the wagon train to Los Angeles where she can start a new life, living in a little room above the saloon where Florinda works as bartender. Garnet waits patiently for her child to be born. Though “her time is not far away”, you’d never know it. Apparently, saying a woman was pregnant in 1954 was one thing, but showing said pregnancy was another thing altogether. John Ives tells her that California has officially become a state, “Now, if the baby’s a boy, when he grows up he can be president someday.”

Sourpuss Charles shows up demanding that Garnet return with him to the ranch, “I will not have my brother’s child born in a place like this!”

“You’re not going to have anything to do with this baby, you’re not going to have a chance to ruin his life like you did your brother’s!” The strain of her confrontation with Charles sends Garnet into labor. While Texas (Pat O’Brien), the loveable drunken doctor, delivers the baby upstairs, Florinda helps out the best way she knows how… by leading a saloon sing-a-long. After her number, Nicolai croons the title song, everyone in the bar eventually joining in.

The baby is strong and healthy and everything seems to be going well for our merry band of western misfits, at least until Charles comes riding back into town with a pair of hired guns. One of the ruffians tries to force himself on Garnet, but John Ives comes to her rescue with guns blazing, following the man out back for a moonlight shootout. John is clearly crazy about Garnet, but he’s never one to settle for too long and decides to hit the trail again. He leaves her with a single heart-felt kiss goodbye.

After a drunken fall, Texas lays on his deathbed. Garnet watches over her friend with her baby by her side. When Charles bursts in threatening to take the baby away forever, Texas shoots him dead, the last redeeming act of a dying man.

After all the excitement, Garnet and Florinda have a heart-to-heart. Florinda suggests that she go back east where it’s safer and she can marry a rich man. Garnet couldn’t possibly leave. She’s too in love with John Ives. Florinda admits that she too once loved a man, telling the tale of a husband who started a blaze in a fit of jealous rage, “The whole place was burning. As we fought, he fell into the flames. They say I killed him, but I didn’t. He died in the fire he started himself.”

With the villainous Charles taken care of, it’s time for the ladies of Jubilee Trail to decide their futures. Florinda is so distraught to learn of Nicolai’s return voyage home, that she prays for guidance. “Dear God, this is my first prayer, so don’t expect too much. I don’t know whether I want the handsome brute to come back here or not. So, I guess I’ll leave it up to you. But let him be happy, the way he is now, as long as he lives.” To be extra sure that her message doesn’t get lost in God’s in-box, she signs off, “…Florinda.”

Just then, John returns with news of a nearby gold strike. Florinda quickly forgets about Nicolai and plots her next venture, “Let them splash around in streams and break up rocks. When they’re cold and hungry and tired, then they can bring their gold into a little place I’ll have up there. I’ll carry the best food in town. There’ll be music and fun and I’ll get gold without digging for it!”

John finally professes his true feelings, “Every turn of the trail I came to, I hoped you’d be around the next bend.” He wants Garnet and the baby to join him in the adventure of the California gold rush.

“I don’t want to settle down and be safe any more than you do,” she tells him as they join Nicolai and Florinda in a toast to the bright future that lies ahead. In the closing shot of the movie, a heavenly chorus sings the praises of the Jubilee Trial as a wagon train heads onward into history.

In conclusion: By all accounts, Jubilee Trail is an average western (though it’s more soap opera than horse opera). The film would have faded into obscurity if it were not for one thing. It’s leading lady. Vera Ralston has developed a cult following as one of the worst actresses of all time. While calling her the absolute worst is a bit harsh, there is a certain mediocrity in her acting that is sure to appeal to any bad movie fan.

Born in Czechoslovakia, Ralston was a figure skater before she came to the U.S. in hopes of becoming the next Sonja Henie. She signed with Republic Pictures in 1943 and became the protégé of Herbert J. Yates. The studio head would later leave his wife to marry Ralston, spending the rest of his tenure at the studio trying to turn his young wife (Yates was 40 years her senior) into a star. Though she reportedly worked hard at her craft, Ralston never managed to be anything more than competent in the roles she played. No expense was spared in the making of Jubilee Trial, a film created entirely as a showcase for Ralston. The film did fine, though it certainly wasn’t the sensation that Yates was hoping for. He continued to give Ralston lead roles in films alongside such luminaries as Erich von Stroheim, Jimmy Stewart, Fred MacMurray and John Wayne. But audiences never took to her. With her heavy accent and limited acting range, Ralston never quite reached the heights Yates envisioned.

Ralston retired the same year that Yates left Republic.

 Jubilee Trail is not yet available on DVD. It is currently available (as of 2015) on Amazon’s Instant Video streaming service.


Cool Cinema Trash: The Giant Claw (1957)

Cool Cinema Trash

poster1An endless array of low-budget atomic beasts, oversized insects and invaders from space assaulted movie houses and drive-in screens during the 1950’s. But it’s hard to imagine any single threat more preposterous that the goofy, winged wonder at the center of The Giant Claw (1957).

What it’s all about: Somewhere in the great frozen north (location courtesy of stock footage), Mitch MacAfee (Jeff Morrow) pilots a jet fighter as part of a test run for a new radar tracking station. On the ground, foxy mathematician Sally Caldwell (Mara Corday) and several air force personnel scrutinize his progress. A narrator (director Fred F. Sears) helps set the stage, “An electronics engineer, a radio officer, a mathematician and systems analyst, a radar operator, a couple of plotters. People doing a job, well, efficiently. Serious, having fun. Doing a job. Situation normal… for the moment.”

A mysterious, shadowy object streaks past Mitch. Despite the importance of the moment (it sets up the entire plot), dialog is disregarded in favor of more narration, “Something, he didn’t know what, but something as big as a battleship had just flown over and past him at speeds so great he couldn’t begin to estimate it.”

Mitch is later told that, despite what he may have seen, no radar picked up anything unusual. On the flight back to New York, something unknown forces Mitch and Sally’s plane down. A wonderfully obvious model plane on wires makes a fiery crash landing. Mitch and Sally pull Pete the pilot from the flaming wreckage. After the pilot is taken to the hospital, Mitch and Sally spend the night with helpful Canadian woodsman Pierre Broussard (Louis Merrill). Their host becomes terrified after seeing what he believes is the legendary La Carcagne. A state trooper tells them that, “According to the story they tell, if you see this big bird, it’s a sign that you’re gonna die real soon.”

Our hero and heroine are soon on a commercial flight bound for NYC and Mitch takes the opportunity to smooch mademoiselle mathematician. “You almost overwhelm me,” Sally coyly hints as they proceed with some romantic banter (or what passes for romantic banter for these two). After running a baseball metaphor into the ground, Mitch gets a flash if inspiration and asks to see a topographical map Sally happens to be carrying with her. He plots out the spiral pattern of sightings and recent aircraft disappearances. Sally finds it hard to believe that one single thing could be responsible for all the odd occurrences. “Mitch MacAfee, flying Sherlock Holmes.”

The next day, an investigative team flies out to the site of the earlier plane crash. They never reach their destination. After nearly thirty minutes of screen time, we finally get a good look at the title creature and boy, is it a doozy! The Giant Claw is an outlandish cross between a turkey and a buzzard. This googly-eyed creature, with its frizzy topknot and gap-tooth grin, is hands-down, one of cinema’s most ridiculous monsters. Ever.

With a squawking battle cry, the Giant Claw attacks the plane. To see the rubbery marionette chasing after the model plane is to experience unadulterated bad movie bliss! It just doesn’t get any more ridiculous than this. The passengers bail out, only to be gobbled up by the ferocious flying fiend.

Sally and Mitch are brought before General Buskirk (Robert Shayne) to help figure out the cause of the recent disappearances. Planes continue to vanish without any trace of what may be snatching them from the sky. Though there is still no tangible evidence, one of the pilots radioed that, “A bird as big as a battleship circled and attacked the plane.”

Sally chooses this moment to remember that she was doing some “Earth curvature calibration work” and that perhaps one of the cameras in an observation balloon caught the creature on film. As they click through the slides, Sally gasps in horror when one of the photographs reveals the giant buzzard smiling for its close-up.

In Washington, General Considine (Morris Ankrum) assures them, “There’s a general air alert on this very minute. We’ll find it all right. Never fear.” They soon receive word that the bird has been spotted and he gives the order to shoot it down. “This should be the end of the big bird who was there… but wasn’t.” Sitting in the general’s office, they listen on the radio as the attack takes place.

To create the scene, footage of the bird puppet was spliced together with plane footage from Mission Over Korea (1953) a film also directed by Fred F. Sears and released by Columbia. The Giant Claw destroys or eats each of the jet planes. Both Buskirk and Considine are visibly shaky and a little bit bitchy when Mitch asks what they’re going to do next. “Ten million dollars worth of radar can’t track it. Enough firepower to wipe out a regiment can’t even slow it down.”

At a government research facility, the deadpan Dr. Noymann (Edgar Barrier) explains his cockamamie theory concerning the creatures origins, “The bird is extraterrestrial. It comes from outer space, from some godforsaken antimatter galaxy millions and millions of light years from Earth. No other explanation is possible.”

Umm, okay. Sure, whatever.

The bird is enclosed in an antimatter shield that makes it undetectable to radar and impervious to any known weapon. While the military consults with the president, the narrator chimes in, “The bird revealed itself to the world at large and complacency quickly turned to panic. Panic, terror and horror. No corner of the earth was spared the terror of looking up into God’s blue sky and seeing the feathered nightmare on wings.”

Mitch and Sally bounce bird theories back and forth, like some kind of intellectual foreplay (or what passes for intellectual foreplay for these two). With female intuition on her side, Sally figures it all out, “Gen. Buskirk told me they found the mark of a giant claw on a field next to Pierre Broussard’s farm, and I know why. The bird came here to build a nest.”

Mitch then makes a brilliantly astute and succinct observation, “Nest… eggs… more birds.”

After a quick jaunt back to Canada, they find the big bird tending its nest. “You shoot gun, make big noise,” Pierre frets in his broken English, “La Carcagne come and we all die.” They blast several holes in the giant egg and incur the wrath of the buzzard from another world. Pierre is killed, but there is no time for mourning.

“With that bird around it’s too dangerous to fly,” Mitch reasons, “We’ll leave the chopper and take Pierre’s car. He won’t be needing it.” A quartet of thrill-seeking teens passes them on the road. The Giant Claw swoops down, plucks up their hot-rod, and carries them away.

Back in Washington, Mitch regales Gen. Considine with his latest idea on how to thwart the big bird, “Now, if this thing of mine works and we get close, real close, and bombard that bird’s antimatter shield with a stream of mesic atoms… the bird would be defenseless, except for beak, claws and wings.”

While Mitch, Sally and Dr. Noymann get to work, the bird terrorizes a toy train chugging its way across a miniature tabletop landscape. The scientist experience failure after failure until an explosion rocks the laboratory. “The explosion was no accident,” Mitch insists, “I did it on purpose. I used the mesic atom projector!” They quickly outfit an old bomber with the weapon and take to the air just as the creature begins its attack on New York, tearing the top off the Empire State building. They manage to lure the bird away from snacking on the U.N. as panicked extras flee from the crumbling New York skyline (footage courtesy of 1956’s Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, yet another film directed by Fred F. Sears).

In the cargo hold of the bomber, Mitch finishes hooking a pair of massive vacuum tubes to his atom projector and lets the big bird have it. A simple puff of smoke signals the disabling of the creatures antimatter shield. A few rockets are all it takes to bring down the big bird. With their mission accomplished, Mitch and Sally happily embrace as The Giant Claw sinks beneath the waves.

In conclusion: The Giant Claw is a dubious cinematic achievement by anyone’s standard. Yet no careers were harmed in the making of this picture. Jeff Morrow continued to work steadily in film and television throughout the 50’s and 60’s. Some of his other genre credits include This Island Earth (1955), The Creature Walks Among Us (1956) and Kronos (1957). Mara Corday got her start as a model before moving on to films with Universal International, where Morrow was also under contract. Some of her other memorable films include Tarantula (1955) and The Black Scorpion (1957). Despite his relatively brief tenure in the business, director Fred F. Sears was prolific, garnering an impressive list of credits, working in several different genres (sci-fi movies, westerns, J.D. flicks). Though he passed away a few months after The Giant Claw came out, he’d completed five more films that were released in the year following his death.

Low-budget producer Sam Katzman worked in every conceivable film genre beginning in the 30’s and continuing through the early 70’s. A hundred box sets wouldn’t even begin to cover the output of this seemingly inexhaustible showman. Presumably, animator Ray Harryhausen, who Katzman had worked with successfully on Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), would have handled the special effects for The Giant Claw. Harryhausen was busy with another project (20 Million Miles to Earth, 1957) leaving cost conscious Katzman to make the inspired choice to hire a model-maker based out of Mexico City. The rest, as they say, is history. No one involved with the production saw the final cut of the film (with all those very special effects) until it played in theaters. Jeff Morrow has told the story of how he attended the premiere of The Giant Claw in his own hometown, his friends and family laughing out loud at the bizarre bug-eyed buzzard flapping across the screen. He snuck out of the theatre before the final reel so he wouldn’t have to answer for any of the films obvious shortcomings.

The Giant Claw is one of the four films featured in the two disc DVD set Icons of Horror Collection: Sam Katzman. Disc one of the collection contains The Werewolf (1956) and The Zombies of Mora Tau (1957). On the second disc, The Giant Claw is paired with Creature with the Atom Brain (1955), a crime thriller that features a mad scientist who uses atomic zombies to do his evil bidding. All of the films look and sound terrific despite their age and poverty-row origins. The Giant Claw is presented in its original aspect ratio (1.85:1). Extras on the disc include an episode of the Katzman produced serial Mysterious Island and a collection of trailers (The Giant Claw, Creature with the Atom Brain, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and It Came From Beneath the Sea).

So, is the big bird in The Giant Claw the absolute worst movie monster ever? Well, there is the walking carpet creature from The Creeping Terror (1964) and Tabanga, the South Seas tree God in From Hell It Came (1957).

A flapping, squawking, turkey marionette would definitely make the Top 5 though.

Cool Cinema Trash: Butterfly (1982)

Cool Cinema Trash

butterfly 1982 poster2From the author who gave you “The Postman Always Rings Twice”, “Double Indemnity”, “Mildred Pierce”. Now, his most powerful and daring love story comes to the screen!

Honest and hard-working Jess Tyler (Stacy Keach) arrives home one blistering afternoon to find a pouty sexpot (Pia Zadora) sitting on the front porch of his modest desert shack. “Something you want?” he asks.

“How can I tell, till I know what you got?”

And we’re off and running on the sexed-up rollercoaster ride that is Butterfly (1982) the neo-noir melodrama based on the James M. Cain novel.

What it’s all about: The ‘purty young thing follows Jess around as he goes about his daily chores.

“Don’t it get lonely out here?” the mystery gal asks, “Or is milkin’ that cow good enough for you?” After taking a sip of fresh cream, she licks her lips and purrs, “I like it warm with foam on it.”

With the shameless flirtation out of the way, she finally reveals that she’s Kady… his daughter. “You didn’t think I’d still be a little girl did ya?” No siree, Kady’s all growed up, that much is for certain. She has more news. Jess is a grandfather. After having her baby out of wedlock, she escaped the judgmental stares of her hometown and headed to the desert to reunite with her estranged father.

That night, with a jerry-rigged sheet as a room divider, Jess takes more than a fatherly interest in Kady’s shapely silhouette as she undresses for bed. The next morning he finds her outside near the entrance of the old silver mine, the mine that its Jess’s job to protect. It soon becomes apparent that a family reunion isn’t the only reason for Kady’s visit.

“Is there enough silver in there to make one, maybe two, people rich?” When Jess tells her that indeed there is, she asks the inevitable, “What’s to stop us from tryin’ to get it out?”

Jess won’t even consider her plan until she reveals that the father of her child is Wash Gillespie, the son of the man who owns the mine. “They owe me and my baby! If I take that silver, that’s payment and that’s right and that’s good.”

With all the sincerity of a high school drama student reciting Scarlet O’Hara’s ‘I’ll never go hungry again’ speech, Zadora launches into Kady’s sad tale of growing up in her mother’s boarding house. It may be the best bad movie monologue ever.

“Jess, the first time I ever had a paper dollar bill in my hand I was twelve years old. I let one of the boarders spend the night with me. Maybe that was bad, but the things I bought with that money was good, and I want more for me and my baby. I want good things for him, and if that’s bad… then I wanna be bad!”

Jess’s answer? He drags her to church.

As you might expect, it doesn’t go particularly well when fire and brimstone preacher Stuart Whitman directs his lust and fornication sermon directly towards Kady. She flees and the preacher rather untactfully reminds Jess, “You can only be a daddy to her, nothin’ more.”

Kady arrives home the next morning as unrepentant as ever. At the mere mention of her leaving, Jess agrees to her plan and they head to the mine. After a day of pounding hard rock, Jess prepares a soaking tub for Kady. “Is it gonna be like this everyday?” she asks as she strips down and steps into the water, giving her daddy an eyeful, “Hurtin’ all over and not a thing to show for it? My shoulders feel like somebody’s been mining them.”

She requests a backrub and Jess willingly complies. When things start to heat up, Jess hesitates. “It’s all right if it’s good,” Kady tells him, repeating a mantra that seems to be her answer for just about everything.

“But you’re my daughter Kady.”

“I’m a woman too.”

Much to her dismay, Jess pulls his hand from the soapy water.

They continue to work the mine and find enough silver fragments for a celebratory trip into town. Jess leaves her to do some shopping and comes back later to find her at the local roadhouse in the arms of a randy cowboy. When she decides to leave with not one, but two local boys, Jess does everything he can to protect what little honor Kady has left.

After the ensuing bar fight, Jess and Kady must stand before the local judge on charges of disturbing the peace. Judge Rauch (Orson Wells) takes a shine to jailbait Kady and has her approach the bench for a closer inspection. With a nominal fine and the threat of reform school, Kady and Jess return to the solitude of their desert shack only to find a family reunion (of sorts) in progress.

Kady’s sister has brought Kady’s infant son Danny for a visit. Her baby’s daddy soon comes a callin’ too. Wash Gillespie (Edward Albert) doesn’t have much backbone, but he is awfully rich. Kady plays hard to get at first (“I got one baby suckin’ on me, I don’t need another.”) but quickly accepts his marriage proposal.

Things are going real good until Jess’s tubercular ex-wife Belle (Lois Nettleton) shows up with the man who stole her from Jess years before, Moke Blue (James Franciscus). Nettleton hacks and wheezes with all the subtlety of a silent movie queen and soon takes to her sick bed. As her last dying act she tries to kill Moke with a hatpin, but he’s a slippery snake and escapes with only a flesh wound.

As Belle is laid to rest, Moke’s motives for returning to the desert become clear. Jess finds him toiling in the mine, searching for what’s left of the silver. Jess notices that Moke has a butterfly shaped birthmark that is identical to one that little Danny has. Jess jumps to the conclusion that Moke must have fathered Kady’s baby and blasts him with a shotgun. With his dying breath Moke reveals the truth. Danny has his hereditary birthmark because he’s Moke’s grandson. Kady isn’t Jess’s daughter, she’s Moke’s. Jess drags his rival deep into the mine and leaves him to die.

With the latest information about his complicated family tree, Jess goes into town to visit Wash and his parents (Ed McMahon and June Lockhart). Since he wants her all to himself, Jess lies, telling Wash that Danny’s birthmark is proof that the child belongs to Moke Blue.

Left at the proverbial alter, Kady doesn’t waste any time moping, “I don’t want nothin’ from the Gillespie’s but what I came here for in the first place… the silver.”

Jess is ready to give her everything she wants and more. They can barely keep their hands off of one another as the race up the mountain to the entrance of the mine and finally consummate their desire. Remember, Kady still believes that Jess is her father. She boinks him anyway.

A meddlesome mine scavenger witnesses their copulation and it isn’t long before they’re arrested for incest. At their hearing, Jess asks the judge what would happen if he pleaded guilty. The garrulous judge tells him that he’d immediately go to prison, “save the taxpayers the money and me the time, trouble and spiritual disgust.”

“Then I’m guilty and I forced her,” he declares.

Before he’s carted off to jail, Kady wants her say. “He didn’t do anything to me that I didn’t want to happen.”

On the stand, she tells her tale. “What we did was bound to happen from the first day we met… and when it did… it was good for both of us.” It seems doubtful that testimony of mutual orgasm will get them off the hook, but you can’t blame a gal for trying.

With the threat of jail time for him and reform school for her, Jess finally reveals that they are not father and daughter. Danny’s birthmark is offered as evidence of Kady’s true lineage. The judge asks why he didn’t save everyone the trouble and just tell her in the first place. “Because she never really had a father,” is his wacky explanation.

“I wanted to be everything I could to you,” Jess tells her, “because I love you.”

The case is dismissed.

“You’ll always be my daddy. Always.” Kady tells him on the steps of the courthouse. The wayward lovers sadly part. Kady leaves with Wash, presumably for a less complicated and melodramatic life, and Jess returns to the solitary desert life he once knew.

In conclusion: They say that money can’t buy you love, but apparently, it can buy you a Golden Globe Award. Business mogul Meshulam Riklis, who was Mr. Pia Zadora at the time, not only financed Butterfly, but also paid for the pricy ad campaign that would win his wife the Golden Globe for “Best New Star of the Year”. New star is a bit of a stretch. Though her on screen billing in Butterfly reads: Presenting Pia Zadora as Kady, Zadora made her actual film debut decades earlier in the low-budget Christmas classic, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964). The same year that Zadora won her Golden Globe for Butterfly, she also received the dubious honor of two Razzie Awards, one for Worst Actress and one for Worst New Star.

Sadly, Zadora’s film career would quickly befall the “three strikes” rule. After Butterfly, two more flops followed, Fake-Out (aka Nevada Heat, 1982) and The Lonely Lady (1983). Her career seemed dead. But you can’t keep a good Pia down for long. Zadora found success within the music industry, earning a Grammy nomination in 1984 and singing with Jermaine Jackson on the hit single, “When the Rain Begins to Fall”. She’d later go on to a successful stint in Vegas, opening for Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra.

The picture and sound quality of the DVD release is quite good, though it should be noted that the grainy/soft-focus look of the film has to more to do with the style in which Butterfly was shot and less with the quality of the DVD. Extras include a trailer, audio commentary by the cast and the documentary Butterfly: The Steamy Saga of a Cult Classic. Director Matt Cimber, producer Riklis, Zadora and Keach all share their memories of the film, including its inception, the filming on location, its premiere at Cannes and the Golden Globe debacle.

Zadora sings Butterfly’s theme song, the appropriately titled, “It’s Wrong For Me To Love You”. Well, if lovin’ Pia Zadora’s deliciously bad movies is wrong… then I don’t wanna be right.

Cool Cinema Trash: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

Cool Cinema Trash


Santa brings Christmas fun to Mars!

Kiddie matinees were a weekend mainstay in many small town movie theatres from the early 50’s until the mid 70’s. Mom could drop the kids off at the picture show while she ran errands and did the shopping. These matinees were often filled with second run family films, animated classics (mainly Disney) and low-budget fare. The holiday film Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) definitely belongs in the latter category. It was produced specifically with the kiddie matinee and television market in mind.

What it’s all about: After the bouncy theme “Hooray for Santy Claus” (featuring a children’s chorus that sounds like it was on loan from Peter Pan records) we go straight to a pre-holiday news broadcast from KID TV. The on-the-spot reporter makes a few lame North Pole jokes before a live interview with Santa Claus (John Call). The Big S is as jolly as you might expect, though the frenzied pace of the holiday season has left him so scatterbrained that he refers to one of his reindeer as “Nixon.”

On the planet Mars, Kimar (Leonard Hicks) worries that his children are spending too much time in front of the video set. Bomar (Chris Month) and Girmar (Pia Zadora) placidly watch earth programs. They won’t eat and they won’t sleep. “Something is happening to the children of Mars.”

In a smoky Martian forest where the alien trees are made of two by fours draped with synthetic angel hair, Kimar and members of the counsel consult Chochem (Carl Don). The ancient one appears in a magical puff of smoke and proclaims that Martian kids are just too serious. “They must learn what it means to have fun,” he croaks, “We need a Santa Claus on Mars.”

“Desperate problems require desperate deeds,” declares Kimar, “Earth has had Santa Claus long enough.” Kimar and his crew blast off in their rocket ship but are confused when they find a Santa Claus on nearly every earth street corner. “With so many, they won’t miss one.”

Voldar (Vincent Beck) the mustachioed Martian antagonist gripes, “All this trouble over a fat little man in a red suit.”

When the Martians land, they encounter young Billy (Victor Stiles) and Betty (Donna Conforti). “What are those funny things sticking out of your head?” precocious Betty asks.

“Those are our antennae.”

“Are you a television set?”

Precocious it seems, but not too bright.

Voldar calls them nincompoops before dragging them along to the North Pole. When the children hear of the Martian’s kidnapping plot, they make a quick getaway in hopes of warning St. Nick. A guy in a shabby polar bear costume briefly menaces them before Torg the futuristic robot (played by a guy in an even shabbier cardboard robot costume) captures them. Billy and Betty are taken back to the spaceship while the Martians use Torg to raid Santa’s workshop.

The oversized toy doesn’t threaten Santa, though after a close inspection he declares that Torg is “very well-made”. Voldar uses his Wham-o air blaster to freeze Santa’s helpers. “We don’t want to hurt you Santa, so come along quietly.”

The kidnapping of a seasonal icon makes international news on earth. Voldar can’t stand that the jolly old elf handles his abduction with such a cheery disposition. After some expositional dialog that clearly spells out the jeopardy they’ll soon face, Voldar places Santa, Billy and Betty into the ship’s air lock and blasts them into space.

An embarrassingly hokey fistfight ensues when Kimar learns of Voldar’s treachery. But he needn’t fear, Santa and the children escape certain death with the help of Santa’s magical yuletide powers.

Kimar brings Santa to his space age Martian home (complete with a tower of crystal fountain by Dawson of N.Y.C.). Santa does a meet and greet with Kimar’s family, “I’m not accustomed to entering people’s homes through the front door, but you have no chimney.” At first Bomar and Girmar eye Santa suspiciously, but the holiday spirit proves to be contagious. They’re soon laughing it up for no apparent reason.

Holed up in a cardboard cave, an excommunicated Voldar plots his revenge along with his dimwitted compatriots. “We cannot eliminate Santa Claus, but we can discredit him.”

Meanwhile, Santa oversees toy production in his high-tech Martian workshop. With the push of a button, toys roll off an assembly line. “That’s automation for you.”

Once Santa has retired for the evening, Voldar and his crew engage in some tepid slapstick before sabotaging the toy machine. When Santa and the children arrive for work the next day, the machine spits out defective toys.

Droppo the Martian (Bill McCutcheon), whose only purpose so far has been to provide annoying comic relief, shows up dressed like Santa. Voldar mistakes him for the real Santa and takes him hostage. Voldar soon realizes that he’s got the wrong earthling and returns to the workshop to get the genuine article. Billy, Betty and the Martian children fight him off with a barrage of toys that they let loose with gusto. Despite the fact that he’s carrying a Wham-o freeze gun, Voldar is easily defeated. The only thing left for everyone to do is have a hearty good-natured laugh.

When Santa sees Droppo in his signature seasonal attire, he declares that, “You don’t need me here. You’ve got a wonderful Santa Claus of your own.” With the Jeudo-Christian holiday tradition firmly established on another planet, Santa’s work is done. “Merry Christmas everyone…Away!” he dramatically declares as if he were making a magical exit. Instead, he just walks out the door.

A reprise of the theme song follows as the rocket ship with Billy, Betty and Santa returns to earth. Once the end credits finish, karaoke lyric appear on the screen so that the young (and the young at heart) can sing along with all the happy children of the world.

S-A-N-T-A C-L-A-U-S. Hoo-ray for Santy Claus!


In conclusion: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians has always maintained a certain level of notoriety among cult film buffs. It experienced a mainstream surge in popularity when it was featured on a memorable episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Aside from the nostalgia it offers to those who spent their holidays in front of the warm glow of a console TV, the movie’s biggest claim to fame is that it marks the film debut of a young Pia Zadora. Who could have guessed that the adorably chubby little girl Martian would grow up to bare it all in the pages of Penthouse and in cult films like The Lonely Lady (1983).

Another charming part of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is its rock bottom production vales. All of the sets have a two-dimensional feel, as if they were once part of a grade school Christmas pageant. Every scene in the film (including those that take place outdoors) was shot at the Michael Mayerburg Studios in New York. In actuality, the “studio” was a retrofitted aircraft hanger on Long Island. It’s hard not to admire the filmmaker’s can-do attitude.

The original copyright for Santa Claus Conquers the Martians long ago fell into the public domain. Countless companies have distributed it on video and DVD over the years and most of them used the same worn-out source print. The battered nature of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians adds a certain retro appeal, like you’re watching it on the late, late show on a local UHF channel.

But if HD is more your thing, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians made it’s Blu-ray debut in 2013.

Equal parts holiday, family and low-budget sci-fi film, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians has a genre defying charm that can be enjoyed any time of the year.