Thursday, July 10, 2008

Two More MST3K’s: “Moon Zero Two” and “Untamed Youth”

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I settled in for a movie, and I picked out the next in sequence in the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 disc that contained the episodes that included Radar Men from the Moon chapters — though, alas, there wasn’t one on this disc. More’s the pity, since the movie that was included, Moon Zero Two, was a real snooze-fest, abysmal even by the standards of MST3K film choices and an embarrassment to the Hammer studio in Britain, which made it, and Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, which distributed it in the U.S. Made in 1969 and released in the U.S. in 1970 (Hammer had shifted its distribution in the U.S. from Warners to Universal but apparently had later moved it back), Moon Zero Two seems to have been thrown together to capitalize on the enormous publicity surrounding humans’ actual first landing on the moon — at one point we see a set containing a series of metal rods looking like a stack of Pick Up Sticks and we’re told in the dialogue that this is a memorial to Neil Armstrong — and a few of the visual effects (notably the space vehicles, including the lunar craft that actually does the landings as well as the bus that transports people over the lunar surface from one part of the moon to another) recall either the real Apollo landing or the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Aside from that, this film has virtually nothing to offer; almost none of the actors in it were ever heard of again and the only people in the credits whom I recalled from other projects were producer Michael Carreras (the studio head of Hammer at the time), director Roy Ward Baker, composer Don Ellis (whose loud, usually overbearing electric-trumpet music really overloads the soundtrack — from hearing him here it’s hard to believe I ever liked the guy and, indeed, went to see him “live” at the Fillmore West one time) and Carol Cleveland, who played the bit part of “Hostess” (I don’t recall exactly what she was the hostess of) and who’s best known as the girl from Monty Python, the person they called in when they needed a genuinely attractive female rather than a Python member in (bad) drag were the only people in the credits I’d actually heard of before. Carreras also wrote the final script from a story by Martin Davison, Frank Hardman and Gavin Lyall, and apparently both he and director Baker said they had consciously set out to create a lunar Western. You can say that again!

The best sequence in the film is a clip from John Ford’s Stagecoach, inserted to represent the in-spaceflight movie the characters (or some of them) are watching on their way to the moon. The second best sequence is an animated title scene, in which American and Russian astronauts engage in a cartoon-slapstick battle over the moon and the names of the people involved in making the film explode on screen as they beat each other. (One of the MST3K robots joked that it looked like an astronauts’ training film, and when the other asked, “Then why is it a cartoon,” the first one said, “So the astronauts will understand it.” That was their best line of the night!) That title sequence suggested that the plot of the film would be about Cold War skullduggery and the contest between Americans and Russians over the riches of the moon — and that, quite frankly, would have made a much better movie than the one we got.

The one we got really was a Western, tapping into the ancient device of a mining claim which the good guys have staked and the bad guys want to grab; in this film, the miner is a man named Taplin (whom we see only as a skeleton inside a space suit once he’s found dead about two-thirds of the way through the film) who’s discovered a rich nickel deposit and invited his sister Clementine (Catherine Schell) to help him register and work it. The baddies are led by J. J. Hubbard (Warren Mitchell) — and with all the stuff I’ve been reading lately attacking Scientology I rather liked the idea of watching a movie in which the principal villain was a man named Hubbard! — and they’ve killed Taplin and sent a goon squad of hit people in different colored space suits (“raspberry red,” “lemon yellow” and “lime green,” the MST3K people call them) to knock off Clementine (after the song, obviously, with its references to a miner’s daughter!) and the film’s male lead, a bald, visibly middle-aged and excessively boring actor named James Olson who plays Capt. William H. Kemp, who in the backstory was the first human being to land on Mars but had since fallen out of favor with “The Corporation” that runs everything on the moon (and everywhere else humans exist, we get the impression, a bit of mild anti-capitalist satire far, far more trendy in 1969 than it is now !) and been reduced to running his own private moon shuttle in competition with the big, fancy, expensive ones run by The Corporation.

The villains’ plot is mildly interesting — they want to capture an asteroid filled with sapphires, land it on the moon right on Taplin’s claim, then take the claim over and proclaim themselves the rightful owners of the gemstones. The film might have been exciting with a livelier script and director, but as it is it just plods along at a v-e-r-y slow pace and one wonders how, out of all the ways a Hammer film could have been bad, you’ll never have thought “boring” would be one of them until you see this. Some of the MST3K episodes featured relatively decent movies with just an element or two out of whack; this one was so dull from the get-go that even with the MST3K characters cracking jokes about it (notably the all too accurate comparison of the appearance of the “Moon Buses” to the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile), it remains relentlessly unentertaining and seemed to have been designed to make Radar Men from the Moon look good by comparison. — 7/6/08


I ended up running him the last film on our current disc of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 shows: Untamed Youth, a 1957 non-epic from producer Aubrey Schenck and director Howard W. Koch (not the Howard Koch who co-wrote the script for Casablanca!), who this time shifted their distribution from United Artists to Warners and left audiences (this audience, anyway) wondering how a studio that just two years earlier had made a masterpiece on the same theme, Rebel Without a Cause, could put its name and logo on something this utterly dreadful.

The star is Mamie Van Doren — which probably explains a lot right there; she had all Marilyn Monroe’s peroxide and chest volume and almost none of her talent. She plays Penny Lowe, half of a nightclub act with her sister Jane (Lori Nelson), who on their way across the country to take a club gig in Los Angeles and hopefully break into the movies are caught skinny-dipping by sheriff Mitch Bowers (Robert Foulk) outside a small southwestern town (“played” by Bakersfield, which had previously impersonated Louisiana for the first All the King’s Men). Busted not only for bathing naked but also for hitchhiking, they’re hauled before judge Cecelia Steele (Lurene Tuttle, veteran radio actress who gives the closest thing to a genuine performance in this movie) and given 30 days with a choice to spend it in jail or on a farm working as cotton pickers.

They pick the farm (why?), not knowing that they’re letting themselves in for a miserable existence as part of a crooked scheme Judge Steele has worked out with her new husband, Russ Tropp (John Russell), who owns the cotton fields: Judge Steele sentences people to work at the Tropp farms, Tropp pulls the old sharecroppers’ gags to make sure they “owe” him money and therefore can never leave even after their sentences are up, so he gets a workforce for free while other cotton growers in the neighborhood have to give him 60 percent of the sale price of their crops to get him to supply workers — which he does, once he runs out of prisoners, by working with Mexican smugglers (they were called coyotes even then, though the actors in this non-epic mangle the pronunciation of the word and it comes out sounding like “KY-oats”) to bring in undocumented immigrants. As if this isn’t bad enough, Tropp also cherry-picks the female inmates and picks one at a time to be his “housekeeper,” really his sexual slave, threatening her with being returned to the cotton fields if she misbehaves or tries to date anyone else.

The filmmakers — which include some writers with decent credentials (the script is by John C. Higgins based on a story by Stephen Longstreet, who wrote the final script for The Jolson Story) — clearly mean the cotton farm to be hell on earth, but director Koch actually makes it look more like a summer camp than anything else, especially since the inmates seem to have a rock ’n’ roll party every night in their bunkhouse, with Mamie Van Doren crooning half-rock, half-pop songs surprisingly well (is it her own voice? doesn’t list a voice double) and a genuinely great rock ’n’ roller of the period, Eddie Cochran, stuck with a God-awful song called “(I Don’t Want to Be a) Cotton Picker” written, like all the songs in the film, by its musical director, well-known rock star Les Baxter. (One commentator gave Untamed Youth a much better review than it deserved due to Cochran’s presence, but if you want to see him you’d be better off watching The Girl Can’t Help It, where he’s not only seen in color but gets to do one of his own songs, “Twenty Flight Rock” — which was also Paul McCartney’s audition piece for the Beatles.) Baxter was not only a quirkily popular musician of the period but occasionally a quite good one (I still think his arrangements of South American folk material for Yma Sumac’s album Voice of the Xtabay rival Canteloube’s Chants d’Auvergne for the artful “classical” treatment of folk songs), but his idea of rock ’n’ roll was to stick a backbeat and an obnoxiously loud electric guitar behind what was otherwise ordinary, formulaic big-band swing.

What plot there is in Untamed Youth (whose youth seem all too well tamed to me) comes from the appearance of judge Steele’s son Bob (Don Burnett, a rather chunky-looking guy with a nice basket) and his realization that his mom and stepdad are running a vicious, seedy racket which, like the nice, honest guy he is (he’s depicted as having just got out of the military, which was definitely supposed to give him points with a 1950’s audience), he determines to break. Eventually judge Steele pardons all the inmates and then resigns, Bob takes over the cotton farm and he and Jane become a couple, while Penny finally makes it as a big star — the final scene shows her on TV singing a calypso song, reminding us that in Bop Girl Goes Calypso (a movie that looks like a masterpiece compared to Untamed Youth!) Schenck, Koch and a different pair of writers (Hendrik Vollaerts and Arnold Belgard) made the spectacularly wrong prediction that calypso would permanently replace rock ’n’ roll as America’s most popular music. At least the MST3K crew did a predictably funny number on this one, and Untamed Youth was the sort of movie that fit their formula best: not so good that we don’t want to see it mocked, not so bad that even their mockery isn’t enough to make it entertaining. — 7/10/08