Islands In The Stream: Week Twelve

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/09/20 00:49:08

Welcome back, my friends, to the show that apparently never ends--in this case, another week's worth of streaming suggestions to help pass the time. Come back every day for a new suggestion and if you have a suggestion of your own, send it to me at

With the possible exception of free popcorn with an extra ladle or three of real butter, there are few things that have the potential to excite a film fan more than getting a chance to see a movie that, for one reason or another, they were never intended to see in the first place. For an example of just such a movie, look no further than "The Great Morgan" (1945), a film with one of the strangest pedigrees for any film to emerge from the super-efficient MGM factory system during the Forties. Here is a film that was never intended to be seen by American audiences in the first place, was then considered to be lost for several decades and, when a print finally turned up in 1980, it caused a stir because of a rumor (alas unfounded) that it contained one of the most sought-after deleted sequences in Hollywood history. The film stars Frank Morgan, the veteran character actor best known today for playing the title role in "The Wizard of Oz" (1939) as himself and as the story opens, he has decided that he no longer wants to be a mere actor--he wants to produce his own films. When he harangues studio executive K.F. (Leon Ames), with his demands, his wish is granted, mostly to call his bluff since he seems to think that producing a film is so easy. Needless to say, Morgan is kind of a screwup--he struggles to get a production before the cameras, embarrasses himself before such actual MGM stalwarts as art director Cedric Gibbons, sound head Douglas Shearer and costume designer Ireme and cannot even remember his own story ideas. He does get one project, the historical melodrama "The Burning Secret," rolling but it goes wildly over schedule and when it is finally completed, Morgan insists on editing it himself. Alas, when it comes time to screen the film for K.F., it turns out that due to some editing room screwups, Morgan has inadvertently spliced a ton of extraneous material into his own film, including three compete short subjects--"Musical Masterpieces," "Our Old Car" and the Pete Smith Specialty "Badminton"--as well as musical numbers featuring Eleanor Powell, Virginia OíBrien and Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra that had been deleted from the release version of the 1942 film "Ship Ahoy." Needless to say, K.F. is bewildered by what is unspooling, which is pretty much the same reaction that most people will have while watching this. Perhaps realizing that even entertainment-starved audiences in America might rebel at the notion of a movie consisting mostly of previously shot (though never seen) material strung together almost at random and clocking in at just under an hour, MGM elected to only release it overseas. As a result, it received little notice in America and after a while, it was considered to be a lost film. However, the combination of the circumstances of its production and its then-current unavailability gave way to a rumor that thrilled the hearts of movie buffs around the world--was it possible that this film might, amid its other reclaimed footage, include the long-discussed but never-seen "Jitterbug" number that was shot for and then deleted from "The Wizard of Oz"? Alas, when a print was finally uncovered in 1980, that proved not to be the case. However, whatever disappointment movie fans may have felt by its absence was at least partially alleviated by what actually was there. The movie is, at best, an in-joke hodgepodge and nothing more but considering that it came from MGM, a studio where even the cheapest and grubbiest of projects had a slick sheen to them that left the top efforts of most other studios seem wanting by comparison, it does hold a certain interest, even if that interest is not entirely justified in the end. (Suffice it to say, the deleted material is entertaining enough but none of it is especially revelatory.) Casual moviegoers will probably regard it with a shrug at best but if you are the kind of movie buff whose favorite "That"s Entertainment" film was the third one, which consisted mostly of scenes deleted from many of the big MGM musical spectaculars, "The Great Morgan" is worth a glance. (Turner Classic Movies)

Yes, I confess that some of the movies that I have selected for this column have tended to lean towards the weirdo side. However, when it comes to the ultimate in head-scratching lunacy--the kind of film that should be rated "WTF" by the MPAA--John Boorman's infamously strange "Zardoz" (1974) not only takes the cake, it empties out the entire goddamn bakery. I recall one time when I took a friend of mine who had never heard of it to a midnight show in the dead of January at Chicago's beloved Music Box Theater. About 20 minutes or so into it, the film broke and the lights went up while the problem was being fixed and while that was going on, the audience (the majority of whom apparently had never seen it before either) began an impromptu discussion group to try to make sense of what they had seen while I kept quiet and avoided telling them that they had not seen anything yet. Hot off the triumph of "Deliverance" and stymied in his attempts to make a film version of "The Lord of the Rings," Boorman developed an original fantasy that took a theme that he would return to throughout his career--observing a person as they enter a strange new world, attempt to learn its unique customs and forms of communication and watch as the whole thing is destroyed, only to hopefully create a newer and better world in its wake--and presented it in the maddest manner imaginable. Set in the year 2293, the film is set on a post-apocalyptic Earth that has split into two faction--the mortal Brutals and the immortal Eternals. The Brutals live a hardscrabble existence that finds them growing food for the Eternals and suffering at the hands of Brutal Exterminators who take their orders from a giant flying stone head known as Zardoz. The Eternals are the elite class that lives inside the Vortex and live a life of hedonistic pleasure with a couple of exceptions--although immortal, they can be forcibly aged as a punishment and since procreation is no longer necessary for them to surprise, sex exists only as a concept to them. Sean Connery, in one of the strangest of the roles he took on in the Seventies to break away from his James Bond persona, plays Zed, a Brutal Exterminator who one day sneaks onto Zardoz and makes a number of startling discoveries before landing inside of the Vortex. There, he is subdued and becomes the focus of a conflict between Eternals Consuella (Charlotte Rampling), who wants him destroyed, and May (Sara Kestleman), who wants to use him as a subject of further study. Zed proves to be smarter than anticipated and finds himself being used as a pawn in the various disagreements between several of the top Eternals and he also single-handedly helps rejuvenate their baby-making industry. He also passes the time by delving further into the secrets of Zardoz and the Eternals and even thaws out Consuella in the process. This is all prelude to a wildly over-the-top climax and a startlingly effective final moment, both of which I will leave for you to discover. Needless to say, those looking for a film that "makes sense" in conventional terms should steer far away from this one as possible--not only am I not certain that I could fully explain the film's plot (though I would be willing to give it a try over many drinks some night when the pandemic has subsided), I am not convinced that Boorman could either and he wrote the damn thing. That said, if you just sit back and let it wash all over you, it is easy to appreciate the offbeat storytelling that kind of makes sense as long as you donít think about it too much, the sly and sardonic humor, the sight of Connery spoofing his macho image, the always-compelling presence of Rampling (whose has spent much of her career seeking out strange projects like this) and the incredibly trippy visuals. Although it has since gone on to become a cult item, the infamously bad reception that "Zardoz" received when it was first shown to uncomprehending audiences has stuck and even today, anyone willing to recommend it to people is apt to receive some wary looks in response. Case in point: years ago, I had the honor of interviewing Boorman for the first time in a talk that covered his entire career and when the time came to talk "Zardoz," I excitedly told him that it, along with the even more delirious "Exorcist II: The Heretic," was my personal favorite of all his films. Let me just say that it took a few minutes before I finally convinced him that I was not kidding. No joke--it is one of the boldest and most unique of all sci-fi/fantasy films from the Seventies and it continues to dazzle and bewilder in equal measure to this day. (Hulu)

"In a nameless city, deluged by a continuous rain, three rabbits live with a fearful mystery." Granted, those words in that particular order may not exactly make a lot of sense but they are certainly enough to pique one's curiosity. This was the logline for "Rabbits," a series of short films written and directed by David Lynch that were originally produced for his now-defunct DAVIDLYNCH.COM website in 2002 and this is one of those rare occasions where not even Lynch's name is enough to fully encompass the weirdness in store. Billed as a "sitcom," the series consisted of a series of sequences set inside a grim apartment--the kind of place where you might imagine a "Hostel" film suddenly breaking out--inhabited by a trio of anthropomorphic rabbits named Jack, Jane and Suzie. As the moody musical contributions of Angelo Badalamenti hum away in the background, the three rabbits exchange bits of non-sequitur dialogue that are punctuated by long pauses and occasional bursts of laughter, presumably from a live studio audience, despite the fact that nothing especially amusing has been said. (Among the laugh lines are "What time is it?," "There have been no calls today" and "Do not forget that today is Friday.") And just in case all of the preceding just does not quite sound strange enough for you, consider the fact that the three characters are played by Justin Theroux, Laura Elena Harring and Naomi Watts--all of whom had just worked with Lynch on "Mulholland Drive"--in rabbit costumes. The series of shorts would later appear in an edited form in a Lynch box set and some of the material was used by Lynch in his 2006 masterpiece "Inland Empire" but now Lynch is presenting a new edit of the material on his YouTube channel, David Lynch Theater, under the title of "Rabbits 1" (since this segment covers roughly 15 of the 45 produced minutes, it stands to reason that "2" and "3" will be forthcoming). The whole thing is strange, discomfiting, awkward, creepy, inexplicable and will probably live most viewers either confused or wigged out. In other words--it could be perhaps the most completely on-the-nose entertainment of the summer. (YouTube)

"Just Imagine" (1930) is a pre-Code science-fiction musical-comedy spectacular of such stupendous strangeness that even as you are watching it, you can hardly believe that such a thing could possibly exist. The film was designed in part as a starring vehicle for the infamous El Brendel, the once-popular vaudeville performer whose claim to fame was a dialect-based routine in which he impersonated a Swedish immigrant and who had appeared in a handful of movies, including "Wings" and "The Big Trail." Here, he plays a guy who is struck by lightning and killed in 1930 but is magically revived by scientists experimenting in the unthinkable future world of New York circa 1980, a world where numbers have replaced names, small aircraft have replace cars, booze and food come in pill form and donít ask about where babies come from. Now known as Single O, he is befriended by RT-42 (Frank Albertson) and J-21 (John Garrick), the latter of whom is having troubles of his own. He wants to marry the beautiful LN-18 (Maureen O'Sullivan) but his appeal to the marital application tribunal has failed and she now has to marry the repellent MT-3 (Kenneth Thomson), much to the delight of her snob father J-21 is soon contacted by scientist Z-4, who has built a craft for him to pilot to Mars, which he does, accompanied by RT-42 and stowaway Single O. Will there be mad adventures? Will true love prevail? Will space orangutans and evil twins be involved? These are questions I will leave for you to discover but it is likely that you will be too distracted by the stunning Art Deco design employed by director David Butler to depict the future to notice--the film was deservedly nominated for an Oscar for Art Direction, making it the very first sci-fi film to be nominated. (Clips from the dazzling cityscapes would be later employed in the "Flash Gordon" and "Buck Rogers" serials.) The whole thing is pretty spectacular from a visual standpoint, which is a good thing since the characters and the storyline are not exactly compelling. As the nominal central figure, El Brendel demonstrates that he was better as a supporting player since a little of him goes a long way. (That said, his reaction when he discovers how the mechanics of procreation have progressed in the last half-century is pretty funny.) Alas, audiences in 1930 were evidently in no mood for weirdness on this scale because not only was it a massive flop, it would be the last sci-fi film produced by a major studio until "The Day the Earth Stood Still" more than two decades later. "Just Imagine" is definitely a curiosity but if you have a hankering to see a vision of the future as envisioned nearly a century ago, this one certainly takes the cake-pill. (YouTube)

Hey, I like a good sex comedy as much as anyone else--emphasis on the "good," of course--but I am not exactly telling tales out of school when I suggest that many examples of that particular genre have not exactly stood the test of time, thanks to changing standards regarding both sex and comedy. (If you doubt me at all on this point, try sitting through the likes of the Warren Beatty vehicle "Promise Her Anything" (1966) or the Jane Fonda movie "Sunday in New York" (1963) sometime.) Therefore, when one of the most successful and influential of all sex comedies, Blake Edwards's "10" (1979) popped up on cable a few days ago and I decided to check it out for the first time in a while, I confess that my expectations weren't that high--it seemed as if the attitudes that made it such a hit at the time it came out would almost inevitably come across as a little dated today at best. Surprisingly, not only did it prove once again to be absolutely hilarious but it also showed itself to be smart, stylish and sophisticated enough to easily pass muster today, with the exception of a couple of punchlines that now come across as jarring rather than funny. In the role that boosted him from British cult favorite to international superstar, Dudley Moore plays George, a songwriter who seems to have it all--money, fame, prestige and a spectacular romantic partner in singer Samantha (Julie Andrews, in her first screen appearance after a five-year hiatus)--but still finds himself yearning for something more. His mid-life crisis is exacerbated by his 42nd birthday (making him one year older than the film itself at this point) and while he tries to cope with it with such gauche gestures as training his telescope on the seemingly never-ending orgy occurring at a neighbor's house, nothing seems to click until he is out driving one day, sees a bride-to-be (Bo Derek in her star-making role) in the car next to him at a traffic stop and becomes instantly infatuated with her--not just her beauty but her youth and the promise of something fresh and exciting. When his relationship with Samantha hits a rough patch following a dumb argument, George begins an extremely painful pursuit of the woman, Jenny, that finds him following her to Mexico on her honeymoon and, after an unexpected chain of events, he actually winds up meeting the girl of his dreams, only to find his illusions shattered when confronted with her reality. Now while the idea of a rich man obsessively pursuing a woman half his age in a manner that might now be defined as "stalking" may not seem especially amusing today, Edwards gets away with it because as he is observing George's actions, you never get a sense that he is endorsing them at all--his tartly observant screenplay recognizes this sort of behavior and critiques it throughout even as it is also mining it for laughs. Speaking of laughs, there are some absolutely spectacular gags here that still slay--the extended scene in which George pursues Jennyís car after that fateful traffic stop alone is practically a master class in staging a purely visual joke with absolute perfection. As George, Moore takes a potentially loathsome character and makes him into a likable and sympathetic person without letting him off the hook for his narcissistic, self-pitying behavior and also brilliantly sells the physical humor as George undergoes any number of agonies in his pursuit. The rest of the cast is great as well--Andrews is excellent as the woman who loves George but who will only tolerate so much of his shit, Derek was obviously cast for her beauty but demonstrates a comic touch that was overlooked in later films that focused entirely on making her a sex bomb, and there are nice turns from Robert Webber as George's collaborator, Dee Wallace as a lonely divorcee George meets and the late Brian Dennehy as a sympathetic bartender. After all this time, "10" continues to be as sharp as a bee sting, sweet as the voice of Julie Andrews and as long-lasting as a certain Ravel composition of note that turns up on the soundtrack. (Turner Classic Movies)

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