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‘What’s The Matter With Helen?’ (or remembering Debbie Reynolds the DM way!)

Okay, where do I begin?

First my respects to the amazing and kooky Miss Debbie Reynolds, a great and truly iconic Hollywood star.

Although most obituaries chose to skip over this (in every sense of the word) incredible moment in Reynolds’ career, What’s the Matter with Helen? is definitely worth a look. The film was directed by the bizarre Curtis Harrington, who began and ended his career by making the same short film version of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. The first when he was just sixteen years old in 1942, and the second at age 73 in 2000. Like Kenneth Anger, Harrington started making short experimental films in his teens in the 1940s. He befriended Anger and was featured in his 1954 film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome playing Cesare, the Somnambulist. Harrington would later shoot Anger’s Puce Moment.

The young Curtis Harrington was a charter member of the Hollywood underground which revolved around people like Anger, witchy artist Marjorie Cameron (the subject of Harrington’s short film “The Wormwood Star”), silent movie actor Samson De Brier and other druggy, gender-bending, rule-breaking free thinkers. Satanists, homosexuals, witches, freaks, drag queens, artists, murderers, millionaires and bums, the whole gamut of Hollywood Babylon as we know it today long before things of the sort became popular in the sixties. In the 1950s this was as far underground as Hell itself. The most amazing part of this is, of course, that so many of the biggest stars of the day were enamoured with these people, had to have them at their parties and had different levels of social (and sexual) involvement that will provide facts, info and weird stories to obsess on for decades to come. Unlike Kenneth Anger, Curtis Harrington headed for the hills (Hollywood, that is), and had a decent career making mostly odd horror films (and TV shows like Dynasty) while continuing to do his short experimental art films. What’s The Matter With Helen? is one of the best of his feature films.
By 1971 there was a already an established trend in Hollywood horror films, dubbed the “Grande Dame Guignol Cinema,” it’s something that has also been called the “hagsploitation” or “psycho-biddy” genre. I refer to films like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte and What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?. Although Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard could technically be said to be the first, the advent of the hag genre exploded of course with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? starring the aging Bette Davis and Joan Crawford letting their hair (and their faces) down. Way down. Which was the entire professional requirement other than being a former leading lady. Since Curtis Harrington knew so many big stars from the 1930s and 40s who were growing into their fifties and wondering what to do with their careers, he made a few hagsploitation movies himself.
Another thing Curtis Harrington had in his pocket by 1971 was his choice of the cream of the crop of old Hollywood’s wildest, weirdest and campiest actors, as well as some of new Hollywood’s most annoying child freaks, especially since the plot of What’s The Matter With Helen? included Reynolds playing a children’s tap dance teacher in 1930’s Hollywood. So many cheese-eating hamster hambones in this one.

To quote Shelley Winters:

It’s about two women during the thirties who run a school to turn out Shirley Temples, and in my next scene I have to stab Debbie Reynolds to death. Poor Debbie — they’d better not give me a real knife.”

Harrington’s cream of the crop, being the eccentric that he was, was just incredible. A who’s who of a pop culture obsessive’s dreams. On the top end of What’s The Matter With Helen?‘s credits we have, of course, Reynolds, Winters and future McCloud actor Dennis Weaver joined by the very old time super actor Michael Mac Liammóir (whose name had at least three different spellings), described in a IMDB bio as:

... a theatrical giant who dominated Irish theatre for over 50 years. Actor, designer, playwright and brilliant raconteur he was very much his own creation. He cut an imposing figure under the spotlight and in real life dressed flamboyantly wearing full make-up at all times and a jet black hairpiece. When he died in 1978 aged 79 The Irish Times wrote that ‘Nobody can assess the contribution that Micheal MacLiammoir made to Irish theatre’....Sir John Gielgud commented “Designer, wit, linguist and boon companion as well as actor, he was a uniquely talented and delightful creature.”

As What’s The Matter With Helen?‘s credits roll they further reveal a string of incredible characters: Agnes Moorehead (who had an unforgettable Hollywood career but is mostly remembered as Endora on Bewitched), wild fifties (very) bad girl Yvette Vickers (Attack of the Giant Leeches, Reform School Girl, Juvenile Jungle, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, and more), and Timothy Carey (possibly the single most out there Hollywood actor in the history of film, who saved his money from movies like The Wild One, East of Eden, The Killing, Naked Gun, Rumble on the Docks, Poor White Trash/Bayou, Beach Blanket Bingo, Head and so many more, to make his masterpiece, The World’s Greatest Sinner with soundtrack by a young Frank Zappa. [Carey spent his later years going on TV talk shows and shooting a movie with his son Romeo called The Devil’s Gas about the importance of farting. Yes that’s what I said]. But beyond them, it also features Pamelyn Ferdin, the most annoying fingernails-on-the- blackboard child actress of the sixties and seventies (who turns up in odd films like The Christine Jorgensen Story and was seemingly on every TV show ever made back then such as My Three Sons, The Monkees, The Paul Lynde Show, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters and too many more to mention.)

What’s The Matter With Helen? was written by Henry Farrell who wrote both What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (most of these Hollywood hag films had titles that were full sentences or questions) the plot concerns a Leopold and Loeb-type thrill murder committed by the sons of two women who are drawn together by these horrible events. Destroyed by the trial, the shame and being attacked mentally and physically, they decide to run away to Hollywood, where they can change their names, reinvent themselves and start all over. There are quite a few amazing twists and turns in the story, gory murders (even a few bunny murders, the shame!), plus beautiful and weird cinematography that make it worth seeing more than once.

The insanity of some of the goings on behind the camera are legendary and hilarious. At first they couldn’t find a big name star to take the lead, but Debbie Reynolds eventually took the role of Adele. To quote her biography Unsinkable:

Eventually, Debbie Reynolds took the role of Adelle. She had a contract with NBC to be an uncredited producer of a film, so she chose this, taking no salary. “They put up $750,000 and hired Marty Ransohoff to be on the set, but I actually produced it.”

Incredibly—or not so incredibly considering who we’re talking about—Shelley Winters was in the middle of a nervous breakdown:

According to Reynolds, Winters’ psychiatrist advised her not to portray “a woman having a nervous breakdown because she was having a nervous breakdown! But nobody knew that, and so all through the film she drove all of us insane! She became the person in the film.” Reynolds witnessed Winters’s questionable mental status off of the set. The two had been friends many years before, and Reynolds offered to chauffeur Winters to and from the set. “I was driving one morning on Santa Monica Boulevard and ahead of me was a woman, wearing only a nightgown, trying to flag down a ride,” recalled Reynolds. It was Winters, who claimed, “I thought I was late.” According to a Los Angeles Times article published while the film was in production, Winters was so difficult on the set that the studio threatened to replace her with Geraldine Page.

More after the jump…

Posted by Howie Pyro
02:09 pm
World’s Greatest Sinner on public access: Cult actor Timothy Carey on ‘Art Fein’s Poker Party’

Timothy Carey in The World's Greatest Sinner
In the landscape of television, public access has always been the equivalent to the wild, wild west. You will see and hear things that you would never see on “regular” or “for pay” television. It’s a field that many an artist and personality has created and prospered in. One man that fits this bill oh so nicely is Art Fein and his long running Los Angeles access show, Art Fein’s Poker Party. Billed as a “rock & roll talk show” and running since 1984, Fein’s likable personality coupled with a history of stellar guests, including Brian Wilson, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Richard Carpenter and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy have all helped make Poker Party a cult favorite. But like a Cajun dancing Elvis from Hell, it was one guest in particular that made Art Fein’s Poker Party history.

On June 12th, 1989, along with Paul Brody, Richard Blackburn (director of Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural, a film I cannot recommend enough) and host Fein himself, was the man, Timothy Agoglia Carey. Carey, famous for his unforgettable turns in films like Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing and Paths of Glory, as well as John Cassavetes’ Killing of a Chinese Bookie, had already long-earned the reputation of wild card by the time of this episode’s taping. This nearly six minutes of pure brazen gold plays out like a gift for anyone in the know of this not nearly heralded enough artist and true blue genius. In fact, it is so good that it is also a great introduction to the charisma and beautiful madness that was and forever is Timothy Carey for the uninitiated.

Here, Carey talks about his work with Cassavetes, as well as briefly his own film, the incomparable rock & roll religious parable of sorts, The World’s Greatest Sinner. Even better is Carey’s recollections of his work in both the campy AIP (American International Pictures) classic, Beach Blanket Bingo, as well as his last mainstream feature film, Echo Park. While neither description is entirely accurate, both actually would have made said films even better, between his talk of murder-by-bongos or women literally weeping from the painful indigestion after eating his character’s pizza. It makes one yearn for an entire universe as seen through Timothy-Carey-Vision. Dreaming is free but in the meantime, we at least thankfully have this great clip courtesy of Art Fein’s Poker Party.

Bonus video after the jump with Timothy Carey talking about missing out on being in The Godfather Part II.

Posted by Heather Drain
10:01 am
Tonight in Austin: A rare 35mm screening of ‘The World’s Greatest Sinner’
01:38 am

Tonight, Tuesday the 12th, Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse is presenting a “monumentally” rare 35mm screening of Timothy Carey’s delirious mindbender The World’s Greatest Sinner. With a soundtrack by Frank Zappa.

Alamo Drafthouse programmer Zack Carlson is nuts about Carey’s jaw-dropper of a movie:

In 1962, a visionary Hollywood wildman named Timothy Carey unleashed THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER upon an unprepared world. The 77 minute movie defied description; a shockingly sacrilegious mishmash of rock & roll, megalomania, comedy, horror and sexual insanity that practically blinded anyone who watched it. Audiences were stunned and critics were vaporized in their seats. Centuries ahead of its time, the film disappeared from theaters quickly and was never released on video.

Carey was a brilliant, towering non-stop meltdown of a man who’d forged a character actor career for years, but his lone effort as writer/director/producer/editor is like no other experience you’ll ever have in a theater. His lead performance is one part thunder and one thousand parts maniac, an unforgettably fearless assault on acting and the cinematic arts in general. Venerable filmmakers like John Cassavetes and Martin Scorsese have praised SINNER for its near-terrifying uniqueness, and Carey for his staggering presence. After watching the film in an otherwise empty theater, Cassavetes later cast Carey in two of his movies.

Despite these high-caliber supporters and multiple articles on SINNER in respectable forums like Film Comment Magazine, the movie has spent the last 50 years languishing as a notorious legend. But on Feb 12th, we’ll be screening it in all of its 35mm glory, thanks to a generous print loan from Carey’s own son.

Tickets can be purchased here.

Here’s a rough-looking clip from The World’s Greatest Sinner. Trust me, the 35mm print is exquisite compared to this. But even in a bootlegged video, Carey’s manic energy shines.

Posted by Marc Campbell
01:38 am
Blood of a Dreamer: John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

The phrase, “gangster film”, immediately brings to mind images of iconic, uber-male actors (James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Brando, Pacino, DeNiro, every actor in The Sopranos, etc) immersed in a near-operatic morality tale. Everything is big. The crimes are big, the characters are big and yes, even the violence is big. But what about the crime film that breaks it down to the utmost human level? Not only that, but focuses on the other end? Life is not always a cops and robbers show and nowhere is that more purely evident than in John Cassavetes’ often unappreciated masterpiece, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.

Gone is the romance of crime, only to be replaced by the story of our hero, Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara), a burlesque club owner/dreamer who becomes beaten but not broken. The plot by itself is basic. Cosmo, after paying off one gambling debt to the mob, ends up accruing a more massive one in one fateful evening. It is this particular debt that has the underworld figures, including such thespian heavyweights as Timothy “The Man” Carey and Seymour Cassel, all but forcing Cosmo to carry out a hit on our titular bookie. Everything that I just wrote is part of the danger of solely relying on plot descriptors, because this film is more than just a-b-c-d and crime, it’s about a regular guy, not perfect but good hearted, trying to live his dream out in a world full of sharks, vultures and parasites.

Cosmo is not just a man, however, but a breathing metaphor for any artist who was ever backed into the corner of moral compromise. In a lot of ways, you are seeing a thinly veiled story of what Cassavettes himself had been put through as a filmmaker. He’s lauded now but life was never easy for the man and the fact that Bookie was released to mixed reviews and bad box office back in 1976 is partial proof of that. The real testament of Cassavetes’ genius was not just in making great cinema but the fact that the 1978 version, which he re-edited for a second stab at success was actually superior to the original cut. A tactic like that never works creatively but with a guy like Cassavetes, all bets are off.

The centerpiece, the heart and soul of this film is shared with the rich performance by Ben Gazzara. We recently lost Gazzara on February 3rd, 2012, which is a heartbreak. (In a spooky bit of fate, Cassavetes died on the same day, 23 years earlier, which is fitting for the anima/animus factor.) His Cosmo is a charismatic who has elevated what is essentially a strip club into a spectacle that integrates the spirit of vaudeville with T&A. He loves, lives and treats all of the ladies in his life with respect. This is a good man whose one mistake ends up leading him down one hellish road with an uncertain outcome. Gazzara is so naturalistic and nuanced with his performance that this character stays with you long after you have finished watching the movie. Sure, he is tough and masculine but the vulnerability and weariness shows through in the smallest of gestures. Seeing him alongside another screen titan, Timothy Carey, is one of the best cinematic gifts one could ever ask for. Anything you have seen cannot touch the mastery these two actors provide.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
is ripe for rediscovery. It is one of the smartest crime films ever made and features some insanely stellar acting work from both Gazzara and Carey. If you have an open mind and an understanding heart, then you too will see the perfection that is this film.

Both the 1976 and 1978 version of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie are currently available on the Criterion Collection’s lush box set, John Cassavetes: Five Films.

Posted by Heather Drain
11:51 pm