Post-Jaws and Close Encounters, Steven Spielberg emerged fresh from having ‘Wunderkind’ installed as a middle name to tackle a genre for which he’d hitherto exhibited little affinity – the ensemble slapstick comedy. Thus an all-star knockabout romp amid the onset of post-Pearl Harbor war hysteria was dragged kicking and screaming – literally screaming – into being. Spielberg equated ‘loud’ with ‘funny’, and strung endless set-pieces (Ferris wheel collapsing, tank running amok in paint factory) together with film-buffy in-jokes (slightly smug parodies of Dr Strangelove and Jaws). Punters took one look at this queasy blend of Tora! Tora! Tora! and Animal House and kept well out of it. Costing a whopping $35 million, it nevertheless managed to claw its way back into profit some time during the 1990s. Still things could have been worse – at one point during production, according to Spielberg, he considered reworking the whole thing as a musical.
N is for…
Once you get beyond the opening Pig in the Poke sequence – and that’s only worth watching because of the Blessed John Astin – there’s not much to be had here. There are funny moments but they’re usually associated with the sort of humour that Talbot Rothwell would have dismissed as puerile. It also manages to throw up every stereotype of every nation involved including America, but the scenes in Britain are the funniest (even if the bit where they reverse into Stonehenge and topple it domino style was something we were sure had been confined to the comedy dustbin forty years ago). Chevy ‘generalissimo’ Chase leads the clan and the special guests (beware any film that bills anyone as a ‘special guest’) include Mel Smith and Eric Idle.
TV CREAM SAYS: QUITE A NICE GAG ABOUT BRITISH DAYTIME TELLY OF 25 YEARS AGO CONSISTING OF THE SAME DOCUMENTARY ABOUT CHEESE OVER AND OVER, BUT THAT'S IT
Let’s put our sneaking affection for Chevy Chase aside for a moment and admit it – National Lampoon is rubbish, isn’t it? Here’s a trio of tepid overlong spoof sketches of Dallas and other hackneyed targets. God knows what the magazine was like. Richard ‘Madigan’ Widmark, Candy ‘Mary Lou’ Clark, Robert ‘Greatest American Hero’ Culp, Christopher ‘Jim’ Lloyd, Rhea ‘Carla’ Perlman, Dick ‘Bucket of Blood’ Miller, Julie ‘Marge’ Kavner, Robby Benson and Harry ‘Deep Throat’ Reems all call in, on their way either to or from better things (except maybe those last two).
TV CREAM SAYS: DISASTER SPOOF WITH KENNETH MARS CUT FROM FINAL PRINT. BUT THAT SOUNDS QUITE GOOD!
First – and, meaningless statement ahoy, best! – of Chevy Chase’s one-joke family road trips. That said, there’s still little to recommend it to non-Anthony Michael Hall fans except Lindsay Buckingham’s cute theme song, Holiday Road.
TV CREAM SAYS: IS 'GRISWOLD' A FUNNY NAME IN AMERICA? THERE MUST BE SOME POINT TO IT
Peter Finch has a mid-life crisis because he works in American telly and it’s all rubbish. Another of those films we keep changing our opinion on whether it’s any good or not every time we see it. It seems great one viewing, crap the next. Peter Finch is good but not brilliant, the satire is, let’s be honest, not “becoming all the more prescient by the day” but is starting to look very dated indeed in the particulars, with its audience participation discussion show event horizon and ’70s economic preoccupations, and the global conspiracy endgame is a bit of a nihilistic copout. On the other hand, it’s got a crazed, manic energy you just don’t get in Oscar-nominated flicks as a rule, which is a good enough reason to keep its flame alive. Of course, one of the best bits of this is the scene where Faye Dunaway has her meeting to hear the proposals from Universal for the new season on UBS, a series of dismal pilots – The New Lawyers, etc. – all constructed around precisely the same formula which, as any daytime film watcher will know all too well, is more real than real.
TV CREAM SAYS: WE'RE AMBIVALENT AS HELL AND WE'RE NOT GOING TO COMMIT OURSELVES TO A DEFINITIVE OPINION ANYMORE!
‘Unofficial’ but still rather dull legal-loophole rehash of the not-that-good anyway Thunderball. There’s a bit of fun to be had with unfamiliar names in familiar roles, viz. Max von ‘Tim Tyler’ Sydow as Blofeld, Edward ‘VII’ Fox as M, Alec ‘Mr. Palfrey of Westminster’ McCowen as Q etc., but otherwise you’ll have to be content with Rowan ‘Bu-harclaycard??!’ Atkinson, Pat ‘no-one’s grabbed Bomber’s arse!’ Roach, Prunella ‘Kinvig’ Gee, Ronald ‘Radio 4′ Pickup and someone getting piss thrown in their face. Charming.
TV CREAM SAYS: NOTE RECYCLED PORRIDGE DIALOGUE. AND WHILE YOU'RE AT IT, CONNERY'S COMPLETE LACK OF COMIC APTITUDE
The best movie release of glam rock’s annus mirrorballis of 1975 was this delirious sci-fi oddity. Launched by GTO Records as a no-frills showcase for their glam bands of the moment, it lashed disparate performances unceremoniously together with a ‘let’s do the show right here (and then take the afternoon off)’ plot premise so perfunctory as to make its spangly cinematic stablemate Side by Side look like Crime and Punishment.
In a hazily defined near future, or maybe just a very well-defined near present with the calendars altered, pop music has been outlawed. Peter ‘Dennis off Please Sir!’ Denyer converts an ice cream van into a ‘group detector van’, enlists curmudgeonly old silver band fan Mr Rockbottom (Freddie Jones) to drive it and generally grumble, and goes out into the British countryside to, er, find some bands for a concert. What he comes up with is Mud starting a food fight in Sheila Steafel’s transport cafe, Bob Kerr’s Whoopee Band arsing about in an old house, the Rubettes doing Tonight on the back of a lorry travelling up and down Borehamwood High Street at roadmending speeds, and best of all, a pre-Tiswas Sally James smiling.
All the above strike a photogenic contrast in their DayGlo glam duds against the deep greens and sludgy browns of the good old 1970s British countryside, giving the lie to a fraught cultural tension that was stalking the land in those Wilson-administrated days… Only joking! The tatty glam just looks tatty in this overcast, rain-sodden trudge up and down the outer suburbs. If the bedraggled visuals evoke anything, it’s a hitherto undiscovered tranche of Public Information Films based around glam paraphernalia. (“Polish a floor and put Dave Hill’s wig on it? You might as well be setting a mantrap…”)
It’s a non-film, undoubtedly, but there’s something endearing about the opportunistic ‘cross platform’ nature of these celluloid vinyl plugathons. If this was a TV special with, say, Noddy Holder undergoing the daft sci-fi setup with a wink in his eye that says “yeah, we know, but bear with us, Hello are on in a sec!” no-one would bat an eyelid, and it’d be the biggest slice of agreeably idiotically contrived “pop meets transport” knockabout fun since Tom Jones signed up to The Special London Bridge Special (1972), which had Tommo leap onto a time-travelling London bus manned by Terry-Thomas and Hermione Gingold, which took him across the pond to the Arizona State Park. “Wooh! Well, since I’m here, might as well play tennis with Charlton Heston eh, kids?” See, that’s how to do it – knowingly ramshackle. Sadly Peter and Freddie are actors, this is a film, and the ramshackleness lacks that essential self-awareness that could have prevented this film going down in a hail of semi-masticated Butterkist.
One thing works on the abovementioned silly terms, though: while not holding a candle to Slade in Flame‘s magisterial closing rendition of Far, Far Away, this film’s final song’s a belter – an ensemble performance in a knackered ballroom of Denyer’s specially-written anthem of rockular defiance which neatly sums up the determinedly inoffensive ethos of the GTO films in 6½ words – Bless My Soul, It’s Rock ‘n’ Roll.
TV CREAM SAYS: THINK ONCE, THINK TWICE, THINK 'DEBUT SINGLE FROM SLIK'
Well, this gives us the measure of Columbia Pictures boss David Puttnam’s commitment to ‘family’ cinema. A Swedish co-prroduction based on the strangely famous books about a girl with crap tights, those turned-up-pigtails-with-wire-down-the-middle, and an ‘irrepressible spirit’ to bring out the inner Politburo in the most warm-hearted viewer. There’s clearly a bit of Euro-snobbery going on here – cod-folk-taley cobblers is being pushed as ‘legitimate’ entertainment for tots, not like that culturally barren American guff, oh no. Problem is, Putto fails to put his money where his mouth is. There’s $4.5 million up there on screen, but that’s quite clearly not enough. As seems to be the law for anything labelled ‘The New Adventures’, it looks cheap. Very cheap. Sub-Poppins speeded-up effects and wirework meld with flat lighting and an awful Casiotone-backed soundtrack to create that vaguely disturbing appearance only lumpily-directed, micro-budget children’s fantasy can muster. (If it has any redeeming feature, you could say it shows how hard it is to get this sort of thing right, by getting it so blatantly wrong. Whether you’d be in a mood to be so generous after sitting through the thing, though, is unlikely.) Director Ken Annakin, who’d done some marvellous work in his time, never made another film for seventeen years after this.
TV CREAM SAYS: CHILDREN'S FLIM-FLAM FOUNDATION
So bad they re-edited it twice. Martin Scorsese manfully attempted to revive the golden age of the Hollywood musical with a knockabout tale of actress Liza Minnelli and sax player Robert De Niro’s torrid romance in the swing era. Big production numbers and bigger sets jarred somewhat with the prevailing economic thriftiness of the times. The cast’s improvised method acting jarred with the rigid musical structure. De Niro started turning into Travis Bickle. Minnelli, shooting on the same stages Judy Garland once hoofed over, started turning into her mum. The cast-of-thousands opening scene is brilliant, but it’s all downhill from there. Scorsese fudged the romantic ending. Audiences fancied it not. The film barely covered its $14 million costs.
TV CREAM SAYS: STILL, GREAT THEME SONG, EH?
The Marx Brothers’ first MGM effort, derided by the dafter variety of Marx fan for the admittedly strenuous dramatic plot imposed by studio magnate Irving Thalberg, with the drippy Allan Jones’ career as a rising opera star supposedly more worth rooting for than Harpo demolishing the stalls. But there were good things introduced, too – more money, which means better sets and camerawork than the slapdash Paramount flicks, and a massively worked-over script. Not just a question of a couple of rewrites here – this was an odyssey. Originally a less-than-inspiring treatment by a former sports writer (imagine Martin Kelner penning a Vic and Bob screenplay) it passed through almost a dozen writers’ hands and changed beyond all recognition – at one point someone cooked up a version of the old “overselling a surefire flop show” urban legend that Mel Brooks used for The Producers, which Groucho loved, but Thalberg didn’t (“You can’t build comedy on top of comedy,” he said – to the Marx Brothers!) Then, when all parties of all parts were reasonably satisfied with the script, it was tested out on stage – a gruelling, cross-country, eight-week, five-shows-a-day tour to be exact, with duff lines excised, new lines rewritten on the spot (the writers came along too), bits of business hyper-rehearsed, and pauses checked with a stopwatch (imagine the cast of Extras performing their material at Northampton Roadmenders prior to filming). Then, and only then, did they get behind a camera, helmed by no-nonsense, twenty-takes-of-every-shot journeyman Sam ‘They Learned About Women’ Wood. To briefly resurrect a generally meaningless cliche, they really, honestly, don’t make them like that anymore. And, in the bits that aren’t opera singing, harp solos or dreary scenes of exposition with the straight leads, you feel sorry they don’t. Everyone knows three bits from this even if they haven’t seen it – the infamous contract scene ‘twixt Groucho and Chico (“Well, you win the white carnation!”) the scene where Groucho invites an endless stream of odds and sods into his tiny stateroom (“And two hardboiled eggs!”) and the inevitable final on-stage havoc (“How would you like to feel the way she looks?”). There’s much more, though – the hiding of the beds from Henderson, plainclothesman (“You look more like an *old* clothes man to me!”), the bizarre Three Great Aviators (“Of course, you know this means war!”), and anything with Margaret ‘I was like this in real life, apparently’ Dumont.
TV CREAM SAYS: BEHIND THAT SPAGHETTI IS NONE OTHER THAN HERMAN GOTTLIEB
Once again, everyone save a few well-sheltered Californian teens and sinister boffins have been wiped out by the titular celestial encounter (they turn into red dust this time, for the sake of variety). Rather sensibly, with the risible Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome on the horizon, the makers saw the writing on the wall for the post-apocalypse genre, and play it for for none-more-eighties headband-toting teen laffs while Cyndi Lauper provides a rather less haunting musical backing.
TV CREAM SAYS: ALSO ON THE SOUNDTRACK: REVOLVER! WHO THEY?
Directed by Jacques Tourneur with input from Ken ‘too many monitors’ Adam, this might have a none-too-great lead in Dana ‘confirmed alcoholic’ Andrews but it’s still one of the best of those atmospheric black and white supernatural thrillers of the fifties. As we say, the top of the bill might not be anything special but there’s plenty of help from the likes of Maurice ‘four legs good’ Denham, and Brian ‘Wyatt’s Watchdogs’ Wilde.
TV CREAM SAYS: SNAKES AND LADDERS - AN ENGLISH GAME, YOU WOULDN'T KNOW IT!
It’s Brando again, clad head to toe in slimming black and heading up a bungled attempt to kidnap Pamela Franklin, while Rita Moreno keeps falling asleep. As things fall apart and the cops close in, Brando spends ages chatting fart with a bowler-hatted Richard Boone on the beach. The final, cop-out twist was allegedly ‘inspired’ by Dead of Night. The requisite Mardy Marlon Moment occurred when Brando tired of the director and, because he could, got chum Boone in to finish off the film.
TV CREAM SAYS: MUMBLE MUMBLE, ETC
The proper Titanic film, of course, in which Kenneth More, Honor Blackman, Kenneth Griffith, David McCallum, Geoffrey ‘Catweazle’ Bayldon, Bee ‘are you saying ‘Ni!’ to that old woman?’ Duffel, Gerald ‘Adamant’ Harper, Andrew ‘Quatermass’ Keir, Stratford ‘Barlow’ Johns, Desmond ‘Q’ Llewelyn, Derren ‘Special Branch’ Nesbitt and Norman ‘Simon Simon’ Rossington all conspicuously fail to wear white trousers with racoon-tail key rings on their belts, invent the moonwalk and stiffly mime pouring a drink in front of a bunch of bewildered-looking teenagers who only came to see Depeche Mode.
TV CREAM SAYS: THEY PROBABLY SPENT MORE ON SMASHED CROCKERY IN THAT OTHER ONE THAN THIS COST TO MAKE.
Atoll K. Love Happy. Kook’s Tour. The history of comedy acts is littered with sad, misbegotten career sign-offs, and this Morecambe and Wise endpiece is a prime example. Even the staunchest Morecambe-ite has reservations about their three ‘proper’ films, but this comes in way below even The Magnificent Two. After their lacklustre Thames series, Euston Films put together this extended Agatha Christie spoof, with Lysette Anthony as Eric’s neice inheriting a vast fortune, with the resultant attempts on her life taking place on the titular nocturnal locomotive. Like a ‘Play What I Wrote’ extended to near-feature length, this misjudged the atmosphere by making the plot lead the duo’s slapstick like never before, leaving just the odd recycled exchange poking out from a dreary thriller plot. It’s as if Ernie the playwright had finally got the upper hand over Eric, and we get to see the fruits of his artistic labour almost uninterrupted. What humour there is is so tragically muted you could play The Last Post on it. Director Joe McGrath did no further films after this. In a face-saving plea, Eric insisted Thames only ever showed the film in mid-afternoon slots. To be honest, even that’s too good for it.
TV CREAM SAYS: THERE'S NO ANSWER TO THAT...
With British portmanteau horror films down and out, the Americans somehow kept going, producing average stuff like Cat’s Eye (1985) and the EC Comics-inspired Creepshow (1982). This entry, however, is indicative of the sorry state of disrepair things had fallen into. It goes back to the genre’s cobbled-together origins, in that it’s little more than an excuse to release various remnants of aborted or left-on-the-shelf projects (including a story about a secret society who willingly wire themselves up to a killer computer) linked by a white-suited God and Brylcreemed Satan discussing various soul-selling cases in a train carriage as a Kids From Fame-style rock band rehearse in the next compartment.
TV CREAM SAYS: YOU CAN'T DO THIS SORT OF THING ANYMORE. WELL, THEY COULDN'T
Can we take this for granted, with your eyes over us? In this place, this wintry home, John Hurt knows there’s always someone in, while Suzanna ‘Brimstone and Treacle’ Hamilton faces the wall, turns her back against it all. They’ll pull the bricks down one by one, leave a big hole in the wall, just where Richard Burton is looking in. Scenes all filmed, though we’re not entirely sure why, on the exact days of the year they were meant to have taken place in Orwell’s book. Also with (dooo-dooo-do-do-do-do-dooo!) Gregor Fisher, (dooo-dooo-do-do-do-do-dooo!) David ‘Mr Bentley’ Cann and (dooo-dooo-do-do-do-do-dooo!) Roger ‘Trigger’ Lloyd-Pack. The comedy zeitgeist deems The Eurythmics infra dig once more, it seems, reminding us of director Michael Radford pulling a massive BAFTA hissy fit when Smiling Dickie Branson slotted their music into his sombre Orwellathon. Well, fair enough, Sexcrime *is* bloody terrible, but that sort of precious over-seriousness is exactly what made this film such a brittle, airless chunk of O-level textbook ho- hum in the first place. Happily, Radford seems to’ve lightened up since, rumoured as he is to be working with the Jim Henson Company. The Muppets’ Two Minutes Hate, anyone? (Stadler: “They say you should imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever!” Waldorf: “They’ve saved us the bother, the bear’s on next!”)
TV CREAM SAYS: YOU HEARD IT HERE LAST.
Written, directed and produced by William Peter Blatty of Exorcist fame, this stars Stacey ‘Hammer’ Keach as a psychiatrist who comes to a remote castle and sets about helping former soldiers interned there as seemingly hopelessly insane cases. With music by Leslie Bricusse and choreography by Bob Fosse this enchanting musical…only joking! As Keach grapples with both his and his patient’s internal demons there is much darkness on show here, and much acting on the part of Keach who is always excellent anyway. Called by some a cinematic masterpiece (notably one WP Blatty), though not by us we must admit.
TV CREAM SAYS: "NEARLY" HAD NICOL WILLIAMSON IN IT. WHICH IS LIKE SAYING WE "NEARLY" WON THE PREMIUM BONDS. IT JUST DIDN'T HAPPEN!
Actor Cornel Wilde mans the camera for this adaptation of John ‘Tripods’ Christopher’s grain shortage apocalypse, with Nigel Davenport leaving a doomed London en famille and pegging it up to his brother’s farm in Scotland, blasting everyone who gets in his way, among them Ruth Kettlewell and Wendy Richard. As well as the Trevelyan-baiting violence, there’s Wilde’s modish editing to deal with, full of flash-forwards, random coloured filters and an opening quarter-hour of peripatetic cutting that makes Performance look like a Party Political Broadcast. And there’s acres of factory chimney/murky stream footage to really hammer that ‘we’re choking the planet’ message. Still, it’s chipper stuff in the ever-popular Survivors mould.