November 18, 2022

The Growing Juvenile Delinquency Problem: Village of the Giants

Poster - Village of the Giants (1965)
Now Playing:
Village of the Giants (1965)

Pros: Interesting cast made up of former child stars, future stars and sons and daughters of acting royalty; Striking images; Catchy music
Cons: Variable special effects and abrupt changes in mood and tone make for a head-scratching experience

Movie blogger Rebecca Deniston at Taking Up Room has done it again with her Fake Teenager Festivus, an opportunity for the blogging community to celebrate all those egregious instances of 20-something-plus actors portraying teenagers in movies and TV.

As she points out in her call for submissions, employing older actors as teenagers has long been a filmmaking tradition for a number of reasons, not the least of which are those pesky child labor laws that limit the number of hours a real teenager can work. And then there’s the need to hire a tutor for the little darlin’s schooling if the production is a particularly long one and commuting is impractical. What a bummer!

Another consideration is the actor’s competence. Like any complex skill, acting requires patience, perseverance, and time to perfect. In many cases, it takes a more mature professional to credibly portray an angst-ridden teenager.

But it’s something of a tight-rope act. Go too far, and you risk turning your “teenager” into an unintentional parody. I was curious about how far filmmakers have pushed the envelope, so I googled “Older actors who have played teenagers in movies.”

Since it’s such a fun topic there are plenty of lists out there, but the most comprehensive one I found was on IMDb with 186 (count ‘em!) entries. According to the list, the all-time age disparity record-holder is O.Z. Whitehead, who was 51 (?!) when he played a school boy in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Other notorious cases are there, like 30-year-old Olivia Newton-John playing 17-year-old Sandy in Grease.

O.Z. Whitehead, the oldest movie teenager ever!
(Seen here in The Grapes of Wrath, 1940)

While mid-to-late 20s is pretty old to be playing a teen, there are 33 actors and actresses on the list who were 30 or older when they were asked to channel their inner teenager. Yikes!

There are no 30+ actors pretending to be teenagers in Village of the Giants, but it does boast several 20-somethings. I chose Village for several reasons:

  1. My specialty on this blog is looking at plucky low- or no-budget genre movies that strive to overcome their limitations (or at least thumb their noses at them);
  2. It features an intriguing cast, including two childhood heroes of mine, Disney child star Tommy Kirk and Johnny Crawford of The Rifleman fame; Beau Bridges, son of Lloyd and brother of Jeff; and Ron Howard, who at the time was still making cute as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show;
  3. Village was written and directed by Mr. B.I.G. himself, Bert I. Gordon, who famously made do with limited budgets and modest special effects in his obsessive quest to make pictures about REALLY BIG people and animals. 

In the spirit of the original Festivus, I plan to air my grievances against this movie (but not in an overly derogatory manner, as this would violate the rules), and demonstrate feats of mental strength in analyzing plot and character development (dinner and the Festivus pole are not included). If you decide to perform your own feat of mental toughness by sticking with this post to the bitter end, just be aware that there will be a quiz. 

Where to begin? First of all, Village of the Giants is a cinematic examination of the tendency of even freedom-loving societies to succumb to authoritarianism in the face of extreme power differentials and high levels of inequality. It also highlights the difficulty in a high-tech society of ensuring that inventors are suitably rewarded while at the same time the benefits of new technologies are fairly distributed. Lastly, it examines the age-old generation gap, and the balancing act that a healthy society must perform between encouraging the enthusiasm of youth and respecting the wisdom of maturity. But more on that later.

Before I get into the airing of grievances, I will try to sum up the plot as succinctly as I know how to.* On the outskirts of Hainesville, Anywhere, USA, a group of spaced-out juvenile delinquents** run their car into a mudslide, and after celebrating the occasion by dancing sensuously in the mud, they hike into the nearby town.

Meanwhile, the town’s child prodigy, “Genius” (Ron Howard) accidentally creates a compound in his basement lab that can grow animals to enormous size, which he not-so-creatively dubs “Goo.” When Genius’ big sister Nancy (Charla Doherty) and her boyfriend Mike (Tommy Kirk) watch a cat and then two ducks accidentally eat the Goo and grow into giants, they immediately recognize the money-making potential, not to mention the implications for the world’s food supply.

Lobby card - Genius' basement lab from Village of the Giants (1965)
Opie, er, um Genius patiently explains the amazing properties of Goo.

A little while later, anybody who’s anybody under the age of 20 (wink, wink) has converged on the local dance club to rock out, including Mike and Nancy, Mike’s friend Horsey (Johnny Crawford), and the delinquent gang led by Fred (Beau Bridges).

Everyone is freaked out when the two giant ducks crash the party and “dance” alongside the kids. Mike dopily spills the beans that the ducks are his, and hints to another delinquent (Harry, played by Kevin O'Neal) that they’re the result of a “million dollar” secret food additive. Harry reports back to Fred, who tasks his girlfriend Jean (Tisha Stirling) with pumping Mike for information, while he tries his charms on Nancy.

The delinquents fail to pry any more information out of Mike or Nancy, but later that night, they sneak over to Nancy’s house and one of the gang (Pete, played by Tim Rooney) breaks into the basement lab. He manages to grab the Goo, but not before setting off a burglar alarm of Genius’ that, among other things, shoots fireworks into the sky.

Mike, Nancy, Horsey and other assorted good kids race over to Nancy’s to confront the delinquents, but in the ensuing altercation Fred and the gang make off with the Goo. The gang retreats to their makeshift hideout in an abandoned downtown theater, where they argue over what to do with the stuff. Peer pressure being what it is, they all succumb to curiosity and eat the Goo, turning into 30-foot-tall giants. (The girls, demonstrating that even delinquents have limits, modestly cover themselves as they quickly outgrow their clothes.)

They fashion toga-like costumes for themselves out of theater curtains, and decide to make a huge impression at yet another teen party at the local park. One of the giant girls grabs Horsey, and he holds on for dear life to her makeshift top straps as she dances around. When Mike objects, Fred sends him crashing into the bushes with one sweep of his hand.

Soon, the sheriff (Joe Turkel) and his deputy show up and demand that the overgrown teens vacate the park. (Somehow, none of the partygoers or the sheriff seem particularly alarmed at the presence of a group of giant delinquents, as if they were more a nuisance than a threat to life and limb.)

Lobby card - The gang of teenaged giants in Village of the Giants (1965)
The giant teens look down on the puny citizens of Hainesville with disdain.

The next day the sheriff confronts the overgrown youths at their theater lair and tells them to get out of Dodge (er, Hainesville). But they’ve got an ace up their giant toga sleeves: they’ve kidnapped the sheriff’s young daughter and are holding her hostage. Fred announces that it’s a new regime -- adults are out and giant teens are in.

He issues a list of demands, including a 9 pm curfew for adults, public speech must be pre-approved by the group, a work party of adults is to be formed to bring the group food, all communication with the outside world must be suspended, and all guns and ammo are to be rounded up and delivered to the theater. Uh-oh. As they say, power tends to corrupt, and being a giant corrupts absolutely.

Will Mike, Nancy and friends rescue the sheriff’s daughter and overthrow Fred’s tyrannical regime? Will Genius come up with an antidote to the Goo to save humanity from the threat of petulant 30-foot somethings with hormonal attitudes? These are monumental questions.

And now for the airing of grievances…

Extraneous dance numbers. At the risk of sounding like one of the dour town elders from Footloose, there is a lot of dancing in Village of the Giants. I mean… a … lot … The bad teens dance in slow motion in the semi-psychedelic titles sequence, then there’s the sensual mud dancing, then there’s the big party at the dance club with everyone, including the two giant ducks, shimmying to the tunes of the Beau Brummels ***, then there’s a close-up of a go-go dancer (Toni Basil as “Red”), then there’s a reprise of the giants dancing in slo-mo in the park, and then there’s Red dancing in front of Fred and the boys to distract them while some of the good kids try to rescue the sheriff’s daughter… whew! I get it that this is a youth picture, but most of these scenes could have been cut down to size.

On the upside: The slow-motion dancing with the kids decked out in make-shift togas is almost hypnotic, the theme-music has a nice beat, and the Beau Brummels dance club song isn’t bad either.

Lobby card - The giant teens dance in Village of the Giants (1965)
There is sooo much dancing! So very, very much...

Shifting tone and mood. IMDb lists Village as first and foremost a comedy, but this is not your ‘60s era light fantasy-comedy like The Shaggy Dog or The Absent Minded Professor. Village’s tone veers wildly from light (e.g., cute little Ronnie Howard patiently explaining his experiments using polysyllabic chemical compound names) to dark (kidnapping the sheriff’s daughter with an implied threat of violence) to light again, causing whiplash of the brain. The worst instance is showing the giant ducks happily dancing and flapping their wings at the dance club (cute!), and then in the next scene displaying their giant plucked carcasses on a barbecue spit as the teens gather round to munch on them. Oh the humanity!

Lobby card - The giant ducks from Village of the Giants (1965)
Little do they know that they will soon be guests of honor at a community barbecue.

Variable special effects. As mentioned above, filmmaker Bert I. Gordon’s reach for all things BIG in his movies often exceeded his grasp. Gordon reached for the sky in Village, featuring, in addition to the giant teenagers, a giant cat, dog, two ducks and a big-ass spider. In his autobiography, Gordon described a number of techniques he used on Village, including traveling mattes, rear projection, and wide angle shots from a low angle to force the perspective. [Bert I. Gordon, The Amazing Colossal Worlds of Mr. B.I.G.: An Autobiographical Journey, 2009, pp. 72-85]

Unmentioned is the film’s cheesiest and most laughable effect: A pair of 10 foot tall legs, complete with simulated hair, constructed for a scene in which some of the town’s teenagers, riding around on motorcycles and in hotrods, try to lasso and trip up Fred as he steps outside. The legs, which look like they’re made out of paper mache, don’t move at all during the way-too-long scene, making them unintentionally comical (at least I think it’s unintentional).

Another pseudo-effect is filming the giant teens in sloowwww-moootion, emphasizing their ponderous size, while intercutting with shots of the town’s normal-sized citizens scurrying around at normal speed. This makes the normies look like Keystone Kops tripping over each other. It's funny in an odd sort of way.

On the upside: The shots of a panicked Johnny Crawford dangling from the giant girl as she swirls around are memorable (if you're into that sort of thing). Mr. B.I.G. apparently liked this effect a lot, as it’s prominently featured on the original poster.

Still - The teens lasso Fred from their hot rods in Village of the Giants (1965)
Fred's giant legs are down for the count after the Hainesville Hot Rod Rodeo.

And now for the Festivus feat of mental strength and acuity…

It’s your turn! From the cast list, can you guess who was an actual teenager at the time and who was not?

  • Mike - Tommy Kirk
  • Nancy - Charla Doherty
  • Horsey - Johnny Crawford
  • Fred - Beau Bridges
  • Rick - Robert Random
  • Merrie - Joy Harmon
  • Jean - Tisha Sterling (daughter of Ann Sothern)
  • Pete - Tim Rooney (son of Mickey Rooney)

I dare you to witness the far-out grooviness on display here:

Where to find it: The MST3K version is available on multiple streaming platforms; For a rad Blu-ray copy, try here.

* In other words, not very succinct.
**Juvenile delinquency is not so much a thing anymore, since today’s pressure to cultivate and protect one’s social media image means that a teenager (or pre-teen for that matter) can scarcely put down his/her smart phone long enough to get into trouble.
***The Beau Brummels was a San Francisco rock band formed in 1964. When Village was released in 1965 they were red hot, with smash hit singles Laugh, Laugh and Just a Little debuting that year.

November 13, 2022

Film Noir's Most Wanted: Raymond Burr

Years before Raymond Burr became a good guy defending the innocent as Perry Mason and fighting crime as Ironside, he gave new meaning to the word heavy in a string of crime pictures and film noirs from the late ‘40s through the mid-’50s.

Canadian by birth, Burr was born in 1917 in New Westminster, British Columbia. When still a young boy, his mother moved the family to Vallejo, California. Raymond was sent to military school, where he was mercilessly teased because of his weight. At 17 he quit school to join Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which gave him the opportunity to work a variety of jobs.

Burr soon gravitated to acting, working summer stock in Toronto, traveling to Europe for a stint at a UK repertory company and a singing gig at a Paris nightclub (!?), then heading back to California for more acting work at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Raymond Burr, one of film noir's leading villains

With that experience under his belt, Burr decided to try his luck on Broadway. By 1943, good reviews for his performance in the play The Duke in Darkness attracted the attention of Hollywood, and he soon had a contract with RKO.

After the war, Burr’s film debut was in an RKO comedy, Without Reservations (1946). But the physically imposing, intense-looking actor was quickly destined for villain roles, appearing as the bad guy in three 1947 films: San Quentin (as an escaped convict), Code of the West (as a typical western black hat), and Desperate (as a revenge-seeking mobster). A new (dark) star was born.

The star of Desperate, Steve Brodie, took credit for starting Burr down the villainous path:

“Ray was… testing for a biblical part, so I suggested his name to the producer, Michael Kraike, for our picture.” … Kraike liked the idea, and for the next decade villain roles were about the only parts Raymond Burr played.” [Karen Burroughs Hannsberry, “Raymond Burr,” in Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir, McFarland, 2003, pp. 70-1.]

Those who only know Raymond Burr as the unflappable defense lawyer Perry Mason might be surprised at how flappable and violent he could be in these early roles. If anything, Burr was heftier than in his later Perry Mason days, an intimidating brick wall of a man in a bulky suit and fedora and wearing a permanent scowl for good measure -- the perfect noir antagonist.

Anyone doing villain roles in Hollywood during this period would have been hard pressed to avoid the kinds of crime pictures that came to be known as film noir. In her book Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir, Karen Burroughs Hannsberry counts nine noirs on Burr’s resume. IMDb lists 21 noirs and near-noirs to his credit.

Without further ado, here’s a “rap sheet” of some of Burr’s more notable film noir appearances:

Poster - Desperate (1947)
As Walt Radak in Desperate (1947)

Wanted for:
Grand larceny
Transportation of stolen goods
Attempted murder

Case file summary: Steven Randall (Steve Brodie), a hard-up truck driver, needs work fast because his wife is expecting a baby. He signs up for a driving gig with an old childhood acquaintance, Walt Radak, but soon learns that he’ll be transporting stolen goods. Randall is coerced into going through with the job, but at the staging area, he manages to get the attention of a nearby policeman.

In the resulting shoot-out, the policeman is killed, and Walt’s kid brother Al (Larry Nunn) is charged with murder. Al is sentenced to death, and Randall flees town with his pregnant wife to avoid Radak’s wrath. The gang leader relentlessly tracks down the frightened couple, determined to kill Randall at the same time that his brother is executed in prison.

Walt Radak [to Randall]: “In fifteen minutes they're going to throw the switch on Al, and you're going with him... both of you at the same time. It's not very much to do for my own brother, but it's something. It's all I can do now, I guess. Guess Al's already had his last dinner. You might as well have yours too.” [IMDb

Raymond Burr as Walt Radak in Desperate (1947)

Poster - Raw Deal (1948)
As Rick Coyle in Raw Deal (1948)

Wanted for:
Aiding and abetting
Aggravated assault

Case file summary: Joe Sullivan (Dennis O’Keefe), is serving time in prison for a botched robbery masterminded by his boss, Rick Coyle (Burr). Coyle, fearing Sullivan will rat him out, arranges for Joe to escape, but sets him up to be shot during the attempt.

Against the odds, Sullivan makes good on the escape with his girl Pat (Claire Trevor) and his lawyer’s assistant Ann (Marsha Hunt), in tow. Learning of his boss’ attempted double cross, Sullivan decides to go after Coyle for the $50,000 he’s owed.

Coyle: “He [Sullivan] was screaming he wanted out. When a man screams, I don’t like it. He might scream loud enough for the D.A. to hear. I don’t want to hurt the D.A.’s ears. He’s sensitive.” [Hannsberry, p. 72]

Raymond Burr in Raw Deal (1948)

Poster - Pitfall (1948)
As J.B. MacDonald in Pitfall (1948)

Wanted for:
Conspiracy to commit murder

Case file summary: The humdrum middle-class life of married insurance investigator John Forbes (Dick Powell) takes a sharp turn into danger when he meets beautiful and alluring Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott), girlfriend of convicted embezzler Bill Smiley (Byron Barr). Originally intending to retrieve stolen items from Mona for his company, he falls hard for her instead.

Complications ensue when J.B. MacDonald (Burr), an unbalanced private eye working for the insurance company, becomes obsessed with Mona and wants her for himself. He stalks Mona, and plans to set up Smiley, who is soon to be released from prison, to eliminate his competition for Mona’s affections.

 MacDonald: “She probably doesn't appeal to you but for me, she's just what I told the doctor to order.” [IMDB]

Publicity Still - Lizabeth Scott and Raymond Burr in Pitfall (1948)

Poster - His Kind of Woman (1951)
As Nick Ferraro in His Kind of Woman (1951)

Wanted for:
Conspiracy to commit murder
Assault with a deadly weapon

Case file summary: Crime boss Nick Ferraro (Burr) has been deported to his native Italy, but plots to return to the States. Ferraro has his henchmen offer down-on-his-luck gambler Dan Milner (Robert Mitchum) $50K to stay at a toney Mexican resort, where he plans to kill Milner and assume his identity.

En route to Mexico, Milner meets wealthy heiress Lenore Brent (Rosalind Russell), who wows him with her beauty and vivaciousness. At the resort, the initially clueless Milner encounters a cast of eccentric characters, including has-been actor Mark Cardigan (Vincent Price), any one of whom may or may not be in on the dastardly plot.

Ferraro: “I want him [Milner] to be fully conscious. I don't like to shoot a corpse. I want to see the expression on his face when he knows it's coming.” [IMDb]

Still - Robert Mitchum and Raymond Burr in His Kind of Woman (1951)

Poster - The Blue Gardenia (1953)
As Harry Prebble in The Blue Gardenia (1953)

Wanted for:

Case file summary: When Norah Larkin (Anne Baxter) learns that her fiancé stationed overseas has fallen in love with someone else, she goes on a blind rebound date at the Blue Gardenia nightclub with Harry Prebble (Burr), a cheesecake photographer and professional lounge lizard. Harry gets Norah drunk on multiple cocktails, and takes her back to his apartment with less than honorable intentions.

Norah fends Harry off with a fireplace poker and flees back to her apartment. Waking up the next morning with no clear memory of the previous night’s events, she is shocked to discover that Harry is dead, and the police are looking for a mystery woman who just happens to be her. Norah realizes her only hope is to enlist the aid of a newspaper columnist, Casey Mayo (Richard Conte), who has dubbed the mystery suspect “The Blue Gardenia murderess.”

Harry Prebble: “These aren't really drinks. They're trade-winds across cool lagoons. They're the Southern Cross above coral reefs. They're a lovely maiden bathing at the foot of a waterfall.” [IMDb]

Still - Anne Baxter and Raymond Burr in The Blue Gardenia (1953)

Bonus Burr: Two Gorilla-noirs

Poster - Bride of the Gorilla (1951)
Bride of the Gorilla (1951)

Written and directed by Curt Siodmak, creator of The Wolf Man, this entertainingly cheesy B features Burr as Barney Chavez, the manager of a remote South American plantation. Barney is in lust with beautiful Dina Van Gelder (Barbara Payton), wife of the plantation’s owner. Barney kills his boss to get to his wife, but his crime is witnessed by a local witch-woman (Gisela Werbisek), who puts the curse of the “Sukara” on him, whereby he turns into a rampaging gorilla by night. Is Barney truly a were-gorilla, or is it all in his head? The local police commissioner (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and doctor (Tom Conway) are on the case.

 Police Commissioner Taro (narrating): “This is Jungle - lush, green, alive with incredible growth - as young as day, as old as time. … Isn't it beautiful? But I have also learned that beauty can be venomous, deadly, something terrifying, something of prehistoric ages when monstrous superstitions ruled the minds of men … something that has haunted the world for millions of years rose out of that verdant labyrinth.” [IMDb]

Stills - Barbara Payton and Raymond Burr in Bride of the Gorilla (1951)

Poster - Gorilla at Large (1954)
Gorilla at Large (1954)

This simian pot-boiler, filmed in 3-D, features Burr as Cy Miller, owner of a carnival called “The Garden of Evil.” The main act features a beautiful trapeze artist, Laverne Miller (Anne Bancroft), who teases Goliath, a killer gorilla, as she swings dangerously close above his head. Cy comes up with the idea of having carnival barker Joey Matthews (Cameron Mitchell) dress up in a gorilla suit and catch Laverne each night as she falls from the trapeze. Soon, various carnies are turning up dead -- could it be Goliath, or someone dressed in the gorilla suit? Detective Sgt. Garrison (Lee J. Cobb) has to sort out the mystery amidst a love quadrangle consisting of Cy, Laverne, Joey and Joey’s fiancée Audrey (Charlotte Austin).

Sgt. Garrison: “You've always been this alert, Shaughnessy?”
Shaughnessy: “Always on my toes!”
Sgt. Garrison: “Well, get off 'em. You're a cop, not a ballet dancer.” [IMDb

Lobby card - Gorilla at Large (1954)