When Corman Taught Bogdanovich How to Mine the Past

Peter Bogdanovich built his best works on the sturdy shoulders of nostalgia. Titles like The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, and (March’s Movie of the MonthWhat’s Up, Doc? all gaze backwards to cinema’s cobwebbed past for their tragic, romantic, and comedic thrills. To be able to earn the opportunity to go on that major studio hot streak, though, Bogdanovich had to pay his dues under the wing of a producer who jump-started the careers of many New Hollywood hotshots, living legend Roger Corman. Corman found Bogdanovich while he was a young film critic & historian and eased him into filmmaking as a craft through the editing room before affording him the opportunity to direct his first two features in dirt cheap productions that eventually became Targets & Journey to the Planet of Prehistoric Women. While films like What’s Up, Doc? find Bogdanovich working unrestrained in his nostalgic love letters to the past, Targets asks what happens when he’s pressured into making a violent, exploitative thriller in a contemporary context. Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women asks even more of the director, having him cobble together a barely coherent picture out of premade Soviet sci-fi films. The resulting discomfort Bogdanovich shows for his material in both cases might be antithetical to the spirit of his usual M.O., but they do bring an interesting contempt for and disinterest in modern culture to the surface, a seething, disgusted anger that in part informs his usual choice to live & work in the past.

“To whom it may concern: It is now 11:40 A.M. My wife is still asleep, but when she wakes up I am going to kill her. Then I am going to kill my mother. I know they will get me, but there will be more killing before I die.”

One of the most immediately interesting things about Targets is the boundaries Roger Corman put on the project from the outset. Bogdanovich was instructed that he could make any movie he wanted as long as he cast horror legend Boris Karloff, who owed Corman two days’ work, and used footage from the (utterly incomprehensible) Corman production The Terror. Knowing the way Corman used to plan & promote his films at the time, I assume Bogdanovich was also expected to include some kind of exploitative element, of either the sex or violence variety, to get some coveted butts in seats. The fact that Targets is even half as great as it is, despite these parameters, points to a tremendous talent on Bogdanovich’s end. Corman was no stranger to cannibalizing scraps of his own work to squeeze a quick picture out of little more than thin air (which is largely why The Terror exists in the first place), but the results were rarely, if ever, as good as the minor miracle a young Bogdanovich pulls off here. Karloff was so impressed with the film’s script that he put in an extra three days’ work unpaid to see it to completion (which would sadly be his last appearance in a widely-distributed Hollywood film). Instead of distributing the film independently through AIP, Corman pushed to have Targets picked up by a major studio player for a wide release, a decision that paid off wonderfully. Bogdanovich turned the crumbs of films he seemingly didn’t even like into an enduring work that’s still discussed favorably decades later. And he did it with an open contempt for a culture he seemed to see as spiritually bankrupt.

Targets is essentially two films running simultaneously, but separately, until they violently clash in the third act. One film is the recognizable Peter Bogdanovich work that drowns in its own rose-tinted nostalgia for the past. The director himself plays a young filmmaker begging Boris Karloff’s aging horror actor to make one last film before retirement. Within this meta context, the two old-timers (one in his 70s and the other in his 20s) spout nostalgic platitudes about why cinema is dead and how modern culture has gone to shit. You can hear background characters exclaiming things like, “Antonioni is a genius.” Bogdanovich himself complains, “All the good movies have been made,” and goes out of his way to point out 1931’s The Criminal Code as it plays on TV, declaring, “Howard Hawks made this! He really knows how to tell a story,” a precursor to his full length love letter to Hawks in What’s Up, Doc?, I suppose. Karloff, who appeared as an actor in The Criminal Code, echoes these sentiments, lamenting that his style of old school horror is now treated as high camp and that Vincent Price had more or less replaced him in the public consciousness (which would become especially true once Price also started starring in meta works like Madhouse Theatre of Blood). The second, competing film that runs in tandem with this Back In The Day gab fest is a cold-hearted gun control thriller about a Vietnam veteran who snaps and calmly murders his family (once leaving the note transcribed above) before moving on to murder large numbers of complete strangers, seemingly just because he can. It’s a dialogue-light subplot that deliberately recalls then-recent national tragedies like the University of Texas sniper & the assassination of JFK, while addressing both gun control laws & the mental toll of war on the nation’s youth. While the Karloff/Bogdanovich half recalls a culture that supposedly used to be robust and nostalgia-worthy, the titular half of Targets (excuse the expression) takes aim at exactly why modern culture is such a sickly, inferior alternative.

“The motion picture you are about to see can be called today a fantasy of the future, but one day, maybe not too far distant, audiences will be able to look back on it in the same spirit in which we view pictures about the first covered wagons crossing the plains.”

Before Bogdanovich could move onto the big studio successes that followed Targets, Corman squeezed one more rapid fire production out of the director. With an even cheaper production budget and even more ludicrous restraints & conditions, Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women is likely the most passionless effort Bogdanovich has ever put in as a filmmaker. It’s a quick, dirty job, far from the spirited political skewering of modernity in Targets, that only helps to define the then-budding auteur as someone completely disinterested in genre films & camp. When Corman first hired Bogdanovich, he employed the young critic in the editing room for Soviet sci-fi pictures he purchased for distribution in American drive-ins. Bogdanovich & then-nobody Francis Ford Coppola would re-edit the Soviet schlock to remove any obvious anti-American sentiment from its Space Race imagery and retell their central stories through drastic editing & dialogue-dubbing. It’s through this process that Corman asked Bogdanovich to direct his second feature. The young filmmaker was tasked with combining footage from two Soviet pictures, Planet Bur & Nebo Zovyat, into a single narrative and then adding new footage of attractive women to the formula, since AIP refused to distribute it otherwise. The result is a tamer version of Nude on the Moon by way of the incomprehensible production The Terror, a compromised mess so dispassionate Bogdanovich wouldn’t even accept credit for the work, billing Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women as being “directed by Derek Thomas.

Here’s Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women‘s plot synopsis according to IMDb: “Astronauts landing on Venus encounter dangerous creatures and almost meet some sexy Venusian women who like to sun-bathe in hip-hugging skin-tight pants and seashell brassieres.” The reason the astronauts almost meet the Venusian beauties, of course, is that the women’s scenes were filmed & inserted after-the-fact. There was no danger of them ever coming in contact with the astronauts in a shared space. Like Targets, this work feels like two entirely separate films running their course simultaneously, except in this case they’re afforded no opportunity to collide for any thematic significance. In the futuristic space exploration timeline, the 1998 space travellers fight a wide range of alien terrain monsters (with some legitimately cool special effects work backing them up), which eventually include a pterodactyl. This flying dino is the talisman meant to connect the film’s two disparate storylines, as the sunbathing Venusian babes worshipped the now-dead pterodactyl as a god. They declare the invading Earth men to be “demons” and vow their revenge for that rude-at-best faux pas of god-killing, but they obviously never follow through on that impulse. Lead by Marilyn Monroe knockoff Mimie Van Doren, the women mostly just lounge on a seaside beach in their clam shell bras & cheap blonde wigs, patiently waiting for the film to end & looking cute doing it. Corman initially didn’t want to pay for sound mixing in the picture, so Bogdanovich had the women communicate through body language & facial expression, a choice that reportedly turned the film into incomprehensible garbage. To help make a clear storyline at all intelligible, the director later added voiceover “telepathy” to their communication dynamic as well as an overall narration track (recorded by Bogdanovich himself) that often plays simultaneously with the film’s dialogue. Overall, it’s a half-hearted mess of a picture Bogdanovich barely imprinted any of his own personality on (outside his voice and love for young, busty blondes), but obviously took a lot away from in terms of how to build a story in the editing room and how to assemble entirely new pictures out of the scraps of already-produced media.

Bogdanovich is not at all subtle about his distaste for modernity and his nostalgia for The Good Old Days in Targets. Nor does he attempt to hide his disinterest in sci-fi schlock in Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women. When passionately singing the praises of Bringing Up Baby in What’s Up, Doc?, he lovingly conjures images & comedic tones of the past with such a soft hand it could nearly go unnoticed that his Barbara Streisand comedy is practically a beat for beat remake of the Katherine Hepburn classic. With Targets, he’s much less tactful. He announces himselfon camera, that Howard Hawks was a great filmmaker and then proceeds to deliver a slice of self-loathing exploitation cinema where a young, handsome, square-jawed killer snipes unsuspecting movie-goers at a drive-in theater. Shots of the killer’s guns & ammo are directly juxtaposed with images of whirring film strips in the projection booth. And if his feelings on the subject weren’t already clear, he directs a literal specter from the Old World, Karloff, to stop the killer by physically slapping some sense into him, thus saving the day. Targets finds Bogdanovich young & angry, ready at a second’s notice to throw a punch at a culture he felt he was decreasing at value at an exponential rate. It’s fascinating to see someone who usually works with a much softer hand lashing out within the confines of a genre he likely has no personal interest in: the ultra-violent thriller. Instead of making the violence of his film tantalizing or entertaining, he delivers what must have been uncomfortable trip to the drive-in, considering the location & the cold brutality of Targets‘s bloody climax.

It’s amazing that Targets is even watchable, taking into account the limitations of its production, but the film was so good that it launched Bogdanovich’s career, making works like What’s Up, Doc? financially possible. Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women is much less successful in its triumphs over production restraints and finds Bogdanovich in the rare position of uncaring workman filmmaker. Besides the obvious novelty of the director of What’s Up, Doc? having ever made a violent thriller or a sexed-up sci-fi adventure pic in the first place, both films are interesting in the way they likely informed how Bogdanovich would continue to mine past, already-established works for a new, recycled purpose. The Roger Corman film school process was infamously a sink or swim, learn by doing affair and it’s fascinating to watch Bogdanovich learn how to put his obsession with the past on film through the lens of two especially-cheap Corman productions before he even knew how to tread water.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, the throwback screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc?, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and this look at how it found inspiration in Bringing Up Baby (1938), and last week’s discussion of why it’s the spiritual inverse of Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968).

-Brandon Ledet

Bringing Up Petey: Hawks’s Immeasurable Influence on Bogdanovich

When I first read that our Movie of the Month, What’s Up, Doc?, was directly influenced by the classic Howard Hawks comedy Bringing Up Baby, the connection instinctively made a lot of sense. Bogdanovich’s nostalgic eye is a large part of his filmmaking aesthetic, so it’s only natural that his big budget screwball comedy starring Barbara Streisand as a chaotic hellraiser would look back to lavish big studio comedies of the 30s & 40s for direct inspiration. Bringing Up Baby just seemed like a recognizable title to cite that typified the era. What I didn’t realize until I revisited Bringing Up Baby after watching What’s Up, Doc? was just how deep its influences run. In fact, the first two thirds of the Howard Hawks classic makes What’s Up, Doc? look like a beat-for-beat remake. Bogdanovich didn’t look back to Bringing Up Baby for just its sense of comedic tone. It also mined the work for its basic narrative plot.

Instead of watching the chaotically whimsical Barbara Streisand wreck the life of hunky nerd Ryan O’Neal, Bringing Up Baby follows the chaotically whimsical Katherine Hepburn as she wrecks the life of hunky nerd Cary Grant. A nagging fiancée more interested in financial success than genuine romance pressures Grant’s pushover scientist into chasing grant money from a big shot financial donor to fund his research. The potential marriage & awarding of the grant are disrupted when the reclusive nerd is steamrolled by the chaotic presence of a total stranger, played by a breathlessly energetic Hepburn. This is more or less the exact same plot as What’s Up, Doc? except that instead of collecting rocks, Grant’s scientist studies dinosaur bones and instead of invading his hotel room, Hepburn steals his car. After the first two acts, the films part ways in their respective plots. Bringing Up Baby gets distracted by the comings and goings of its titular leopard, while What’s Up, Doc? gets wrapped up in a Bullit-spoofing car chase and both films have varying interest paid to the shrewish fiancée threatening to cool off the central romance. (She more or less disappears from Bringing Up Baby, while Madeline Kahn’s performance as Eunice is afforded a more humanizing dose of screentime.) However, by the time their central mix-ups are sorted out by perplexed authorities in their overly chatty stabs at denouement (in a police station and before a judge’s bench, respectively) the two films’ mildly varied plots sync back up for a final bow.

Initially a financial flop, Bringing Up Baby was derided by The New York Times for being cliché-ridden, derivative drivel. Hawks was dropped from his RKO contract & Hepburn was labeled “box office poison.” The esteem for the film has obviously risen since then and extends far beyond Bogdanovich reflecting its mirror image in What’s Up, Doc?. What I find funny about that initial backlash, though, is that Hawks’s work was already being shot down as too traditionalist and derivative at the time of its release, yet the film has endured as a consistently cited landmark of comedic cinema. I think that kind of cultural longevity is entirely dependent on the manic energy of Hepburn’s breathlessly frantic performance, which is all wreckless chaos and no pause for concern. Streisand does her best to match that energy in What’s Up, Doc? (with a little bit of Bugs Bunny thrown in for good measure) and she’s charming in the role, but even she can’t approach what Hepburn achieves in what seems to be an effortless act of constant destruction. By looking back to that performance and the chaotic film that barely contained it, Bogdanovich was not only recreating a work he fell in love with as a youngster, but also participating in a tradition Hawks was also consciously keeping alive his own work.

Before he got his start in filmmaking under the guiding hand of legendary producer Roger Corman, Peter Bogdanovich was already a film critic & historian. As such, he has been loudly vocal about his appreciation of Bringing Up Baby since the release of his Barbara Streisand comedy and has made that film’s deep-running influence on the work as well known as he can. In an interview between the directors collected in the book Who the Devil Made It?, Hawks even joked, “You made a mistake in telling ’em where you stole it from. I didn’t tell ’em where I stole it from.” What’s Up, Doc?‘s blatant appropriation of Bringing Up Baby‘s basic structure extends far beyond minor details like ripped coattails & tormented academics in lavish hotel settings, though. Bogdanovich gets to the real heart of the Hawks film in his admittedly derivative work. In his commentary track for the Bringing Up Baby DVD, he explains, “That’s what the movie is: Cary’s downward spiral into normality. In Hawks’s view, she’s the one who’s more normal, in the sense that he’s living a completely closed life and she’s at least engaged.” Most actual remakes that announce themselves as faithful cover versions of an already established work don’t bother to get that kind of spiritual essence of the film they’re recreating down. Bogdanovich nailed the exact tone & romantic dynamic of Bringing Up Baby in What’s Up, Doc? and does such a subtle job of borrowing from & updating the formula that you have to watch them back to back to catch exactly how deep Hawks’s influence runs.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, the throwback screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc?, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 5: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

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Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 28 of the first edition hardback, Ebert lists films he recalls seeing in the theater with his parents. In that passage he remembers preparing to clap his hands over his eyes during a screening of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes because the local church paper reported that the film was “racy”.

What Ebert had to say in his review:Ebert never officially reviewed the film, but he mentioned in his memorial blog post for director Howard Hawks that “Marilyn Monroe was never more sexy or more vulnerable than she was in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

From what I gather, the common wisdom at the time when Marilyn Monroe was on top of the world was that the actress wasn’t necessarily super-talented, just beautiful enough to get by on looks & charm alone. There’s no denying that the camera loved Monroe. She was a gorgeous woman & it showed in every vivacious frame of celluloid. However, the idea that she was all bosom & no brains is selling her talents insultingly short. Monroe was not an airheaded bimbo of an actress; she was just remarkably adept at playing airheaded bimbos on screen. If she had been offered any other kind of role we might’ve seen a completely different side of her personality, but throughout her career she seemed to be eternally typecast.

In a lot of ways Gentlemen Prefer Blondes‘s gold-digging showgirl Lorelei Lee is the ultimate Marilyn Monroe character. The Howard Hawks musical often positions Lee’s intelligence vs. her breathtaking beauty as the butt of a joke. However, under that airheaded blonde surface lurks a cunning schemer, shrewd in her dealings with men of various levels of wealth. As Lee puts it, “I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it.” The breathy, aggressively delicate performance Monroe brings to he screen as Lee suggests that the character is a pushover for any “gentleman” with a sizeable wallet, but that stereotype couldn’t be further from the truth. Lorelei Lee might be in desperate search of a sugar daddy throughout Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but that search is a keenly orchestrated attempt at obtaining lifelong financial stability, a goal she’s willing to manipulate, drug, and seduce an endless procession of male suitors to achieve if necessary (or convenient). Much like Monroe, Lee is a severely underestimated talent with the brains to take full advantage of every opportunity her bosom affords her. They’re a perfect match in terms of Old Hollywood typecasting, whether or not Monroe had been asked to play Lee’s exact role in countless other works.

With all of this talk about Monroe’s particular screen presence,  you’d think that she were the protagonist in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, hut the truth is that she’s the protagonist’s scene-stealing best friend. From the opening scene were Monroe & Jane Russell enter the film as a Vegas-style showgirl act decked out in Technicolor sequins, it’s all too apparent who the real star is here. Even Monroe knew she as far more than a supporting actress in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, responding to an interviewer who asked her how she felt not being the film’s star with the retort, “Well, whatever I am I’m still the blonde.” She’s not wrong. If there’s any question who’s in charge in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, just look to the painfully unfunny scene in which Russell bleaches her hair & impersonates Monroe on the witness stand of a larceny trial. Without Monroe’s inherent magnetism, Lee’s eccentricity is downright annoying. It’s also telling that nearly every scene featuring Russell’s “protagonist” concerns Lorelei Lee’s search for a rich husband. This movie is 100% The Marilyn Monroe Show.

One of my favorite things about Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is that it completely avoids committing the morally bankrupt atrocity I just indulged in all last paragraph: pitting its two female leads against each other. Despite what the film’s title (or even more so the title of its novelized sequel But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes) suggests, the plot of this film does not concern women in competition. One woman chases lust & a good time. The other chases money. They both find true love at the end of their journeys (as all characters in comedy musicals inevitably do) without ever once conspiring against each other. They consistently have each other’s backs in a world where men are looking to take advantage of them at every turn. Plot-wise, its depiction of showgirls scheming to marry rich might not seem like the end-all-be-all of cinematic feminism, but the two leads’ friendly love & support is surprisingly refreshing within that framework.

In his memorial piece for Howard Hawks, Ebert mentions that the writer/director/producer, who had a hand in iconic works as varied as The Thing from Another World & Bringing Up Baby, never consciously aimed for Art in his films & was often surprised when people found it there. The songs aren’t particularly great in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (which was adapted from the stage musical). The sets can be downright laughably cheap. Characters often fall into pathetic caricature, such as a wealthy diamond mine owner with a monocle who exclaims “By George!” constantly & refers to himself as “Piggy”. Still, despite Hawks’s no frills approach to crowd pleasing cinema, there’s plenty of Art lurking in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes if you know where to look for it. An early musical number featuring a men’s Olympic gymnastics team is like a classic beefcake photo shoot come to vivid life. I appreciated a shot where Lorelei mentally replaces Piggy’s head with a gigantic diamond. Most impressive all is an the film’s centerpiece: Monroe’s iconic rendition of “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”. This musical number is stunning with or without narrative context. Its stark red backdrop, BDSM-themed chandeliers, suicide humor, and diamond fetishization all amount to a singularly memorable aesthetic that puts the rest of the film’s relatively flat visual representation to shame. Whether or not Hawks was looking for “Art” in his Gentlemen Prefer Blondes adaptation, he found a bottomless wealth of it in that scene alone.

In case you couldn’t tell by now, it’s Monroe’s performance that elevates Gentlemen Prefer Blondes above by-the-numbers musical comedy mundanity. Ebert’s not wrong when he says that she was at her sexiest & most vulnerable in the film. There’s a whole lot of Monroe reflected in Lorelei Lee (both physically & personality wise). Whenever she drops the gold-digging bimbo pretense to reveal her true, shrewd self, there’s something truly personal that plays out on the screen. Lines like “It’s men like you who have made me the way I am. If you loved me at all you’d feel sorry for the terrible trouble I’ve been through instead of holding it against me” cut through her faux airheaded persona like a hot knife through butter. This probably isn’t Monroe’s best picture (for my money, that would be Some Like It Hot), but it very well might be her most personal & that dynamic makes Gentlemen Prefer Blondes much more than the empty trifle it could’ve been without her.

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Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating: (3.5/5, 70%)

threehalfstar

Next Lesson: Bwana Devil (1952)

-Brandon Ledet

 

The Thing from Another World (1951)

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three star

In a lot of ways John Carpenter’s 1982 technical marvel of a creature feature The Thing is a one of a kind movie. If nothing else, the titular creature in the film presents itself in many uniquely complex-grotesque forms, each worthy of being preserved & displayed in a museum. As unique of a picture as it is, Carpenter’s The Thing is just one of several adaptations of the same novella, Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr. Three decades before Carpenter got his hands on the story, prolific Hollywood producer Howard Hawks had already loosely adapted the work in a film titled The Thing From Another World. Carpenter was undoubtedly a fan of this older incarnation, as he borrowed its title & the look of its title card, but the two films are fundamentally different in their approaches to telling Campbell’s space invasion story. While Carpenter’s The Thing dazzles viewers with complex, constantly evolving forms of its alien beast, Hawks’ The Thing From Another World keeps its monster mostly under wraps until the last third of the film, instead building its narrative more around the paranoid infighting that plagues the crew dealing with the otherworldly presence.

Set on the exact opposite side of the globe as Carpenter’s The Thing, the film begins in Anchorage, Alaska, where a crew of poker-playing, dame-talking military men are sent on an expedition to the North Pole to investigate a potential UFO sighting, a newspaper man in tow. Once there, they discover a massive flying saucer buried in the ice & attempt to melt it free, accidentally destroying the ship in the process. What they manage to preserve instead is a frozen alien being, one roughly shamed like a human male, except over 8ft tall. In Carpenter’s The Thing, the crew’s paranoid in-fighting revolves around the creature’s ability to imitate other life forms, thus making every team member a suspect for being “the thing”. In The Thing From Another World, the conflict is more concerned with balancing the need for scientific research with the more immediate concerns for self-preservation. As the gigantic humanoid alien monster proves itself to be a threat to the crew, they must decide whether to destroy it for their own safety or to attempt to peacefully contain it for further research, as instructed by the military higher ups.

Although the titular thing in Hawks’ production isn’t quite as visibly alien as Carpenter’s eerily unrecognizable shapeshifter, its humanoid form is merely a deception. The beast is eventually revealed to be a highly evolved form of plant life, one that feeds off of blood rather than water, like Aubrey II in Little Shop of Horrors. There’s a great sense of unnerving ambiguity in the gradual way the film’s isolated crew of scientists & military men piece together exactly what makes the thing ticket. There are also a couple of moments of special effects spectacle in the film, like in a sequence involving a severed arm and an extreme scene of violence in which the thing is set aflame & escapes into the snow. For the most part, though, where Carpenter established the terrifyingly alien nature of his creature’s biology through visual technique, the 1951 adaptation of the same story builds the same effect through a slow burn of dialogue, saving its creature feature surface pleasures for the final half hour. It’s not quite as exciting or satisfying as Carpenter’s picture, but fans of The Thing are likely to get a kick out of The Thing From Another World, both for the surprisingly adept dialogue and for the  fun of comparing & contrasting.

-Brandon Ledet