Friday, August 15, 2008

Mystery Science Theatre 3000 "Oddities"

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

I watched a couple of my husband Charles' Mystery Science Theatre 3000 downloads with him. These were from a disc called “Oddities” and the two segments we watched were an appearance by Joel Hodgson on an HBO comedy special (he was funny — I especially loved his invention of the first Braille bumper sticker, which of course said, “If you can read this, you’re too close” — but a good deal less funny than he was on the show with its elaborate supporting cast) and a rather crudely filmed interview with Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy (who turned out to be a heavy-set bear type and not at all the body you’d expect to find behind the voice of Tom Servo) on the origins of MST3K and how some of the effects were done — with a lot of gaffer’s tape and wood screws and other ultra-cheapo technology. The famous tracking shot of the camera bursting through the six gates between the space on the Satellite of Love where the sketch routines were done and the theatre where they screened the movies was done by mounting a camera on a 12-foot long 2 x 4 and shoving it through as just about everyone connected with the show worked the doors on their cheap sets.

The show started as a local show on the worst-rated UHF station in Minneapolis, Channel 23, which went bankrupt just as they cut a deal with the Comedy Central channel to put it on nationwide cable. (It was sold to a Christian broadcaster and Nelson and Murphy joked about how they couldn’t have tweaked the show to fit their format.) At the time they went on Comedy Central, there were two “comedy” cable channels — that one and the short-lived Ha! — and both were showing the lamest sitcoms of all time just to fill out their schedules, and what made MST3K appealing to Comedy Central was that it was two hours long and therefore there was that much less time they had to fill. Mike Nelson was working as a waiter at T.G.I. Friday’s when he was hired to type up the scripts for the shows, and since in the great Mack Sennett tradition the writing sessions were open-ended gagfests in which anyone there was allowed to chime in with their two-cents’ worth, Mike started throwing out lines of his own and they were so good he eventually became the head writer.

Their weekly schedule was to do the gags about the movies on Mondays, write the sketch routines on Tuesday, return to the movie on Wednesday and hone the gags (they had time breakdowns on the movie, like those on modern editing equipment, to time their lines exactly to specific frames in the film), shoot the sketches on Thursday and the movie comments on Friday. Mike mentioned his wife Bridget, who got used to his almost random schedule — at times he’d call her at 5:30 and say, “I’m going to be working late, don’t expect me home for a while,” and then there’d be a change of plans and he’d show up at 6:15! (If his life really were a bad movie, he’d have come home early and caught her with the iceman — now.) — 8/8/08


Charles and I ended up watching some more of an unusual Mystery Science Theatre 3000 disc called “MST3K Oddities,” which we’d started watching a few days before. It consisted of an HBO comedy special clip by Joel Hodgson, a rather crude interview segment with Kevin Murphy (the large, bear-ish man who sounds a bit jarring as the source of the voice for Tom Servo), a long file containing several shorts the MST3K crew riffed on to have something to stick into a show when the movie itself was too short to fill the time slot, and at least one full-length program from the Mike Nelson years, a Thanksgiving show based on a movie called Night of the Blood Beast (one of those titles that seems to guarantee a bad movie).

We skipped that one (it was late and Charles had a fairly early work call — early enough that he set the alarm) but did watch the short that preceded it, Once Upon a Honeymoon, that seems to have been produced by RKO in the dog days of its existence (it’s billed as being in SuperScope, RKO’s name for CinemaScope — remember that the CinemaScope name was trademarked and couldn’t be used without paying royalties, but the anamorphic lens technology itself was in the public domain and so anyone could make a CinemaScope movie as long as they didn’t call it that — and as long as they made or contracted out the production of their own lenses, which turned out to be a good deal trickier than a lot of people in the business thought it would be) and actually had some reasonably prestigious people involved on both ends of the camera: the director is Gower Champion and Alan Mowbray stars as an unscrupulous Broadway producer who tries to get songwriter Ward Ellis to crank out a new song for his latest show, “The Wishing Song,” even though Ellis and his wife (Virginia Gibson) were just about to leave on the honeymoon they’ve already delayed for over a year due to Mowbray’s machinations.

A guardian angel intervenes to save Ward Ellis’s failing savings-and-loan and show him that he really has fr- — oops, wrong movie. Instead the guardian angel sits on the couple’s rooftop and sprinkles “angel dust” all over everything (which the MST3K crew had a lot of fun with: “Honey, you left your coke all over the living room again!”), which inspires the wife to improvise a “Wishing Song” of her own in which all her wishes are for new appliances and wallpaper. (The existing wallpaper is bad enough but the “new” wallpaper it’s magically replaced with is even worse.) Needless to say, her song is so great that her husband picks it up (though there’s never any sign that either he or anybody else bothers to write it down or record it) and plays it over a speakerphone for the producer and his temperamental star, and he and his wife get to go on their honeymoon as scheduled. It’s a dippy short but a not altogether incompetent one and certainly better than anything on the “Mr. B.’s Lost Shorts” file we’d seen previously, which included:

Mr. B Natural: A color promotion short for the Conn band instruments company, featuring a woman in (male) drag performing Peter Pan-style as the “Spirit of Music,” who gets into the pants (figuratively, not literally!) of a seven-year-old boy (or was he 12? Actually, come to think of it, I believe he was supposed to be in junior high school and just acted as stupid and naïve as a seven-year-old) and gets him to take up the trumpet. The makers of this movie fortunately didn’t have him become Louis Armstrong or Miles Davis overnight — in the final sequences he plays as wretchedly as you’d expect from someone who’s just starting out — but the rest of the conception was so lame it didn’t matter much that they got that one point right, and for me the delight was the gender ambiguity of the actress playing the (male) “Spirit of Music” and the MST3K crew’s logical assumption that a woman who looked like that (even pretending to be a man) would more likely evoke sexual than musical thoughts in a boy just hitting puberty. (“Spirit of Music, you’re hot!” one of the robots had the kid say to her/him.) The idiotic effect of the “Spirit of Music” descending from a grandstand-like arrangement that’s supposed to be a musical staff was unintentionally entertaining, too.

X Marks the Spot: A thoroughly gruesome (in both senses: bloody and awful) short produced sometime during World War II (you can tell because gas rationing coupons are mentioned), produced by the New Jersey Office of Traffic Safety and introduced in a positively sepulchral style of narration by that office’s commissioner, Arthur W. Magee. His appearance was obviously inspired by MGM’s Crime Does Not Pay series, though at least MGM got either character actors or people with some charismatic on-camera appeal to introduce their films: this guy looked like they just thawed him out on the autopsy table and managed to get him a jolt of lightning to bring him back to the barest semblance of life.

The central character is one “Joe Doakes,” who’s killed in an auto accident (so ineptly staged we have a hard time believing it could even have hurt him, much less killed him) and ends up in that Big Traffic Court in the Sky, going through an experience much like the one of the recently deceased person in that comic-book tract who ends up before God and is condemned to hell for every dirty joke he ever told in life. This one was so stupid and so grim — it even ends with the actor playing the celestial judge turning to the audience (i.e., the camera) and asking us to be the jurors in Joe’s case, and also solemnly warning us that we need to make sure we ourselves are “qualified” to be good drivers and good pedestrians (maybe that’s going to be the next step for this cash-strapped state: we won’t restore the car tax but we will slap a tax on pedestrians!) — there was little the MST3K crew could do to (or for) it.

Hired!: I’m not sure what they were thinking to spot this one right after a grim movie about traffic safety and how badly most people drive, but they did it: it was a promotional short made by the Chevrolet people in the early 1950’s (judging from the look of the cars involved) and detailed the life of a young man who’s just been hired as a Chevrolet salesman only to find that he’s unable to sell a single car. He’s shown going door-to-door — did car salesmen go door-to-door to get orders in those days? I have a hard time believing it — and at the end an old-codger character who’s either the father or the grandfather of the boss laments that “young people today just don’t work the way we did.” (Back when he was this film’s protagonist’s age they probably didn’t have cars!) MST3K showed this one as part of the episode in which they did Bride of the Monster and actually got more mileage (pardon the pun — or not) out of it in creating their sketch material than they did out of Ed Wood’s legendary messterpiece, including an hilarious musical adaptation of Hired! that was the funniest thing on the show.

Design for Dreaming: Also produced by General Motors, this was a Technicolor vision of the future that included huge freeways on which slot cars ran (the fact that they were using slot cars in their model work was way too obvious!) complete with a singing, dancing heroine whose exploits seemed to be aiming towards Metropolis: The Musical. For sheer entertainment value — inherent and otherwise — this was the best film on the tape, especially during the dippy sequence towards the end that was a combination auto show (featuring what the mid-1950’s thought would be “futuristic” cars, none of which look even remotely like anything on the road today) and fashion show.

Johnny at the Fair: A promotion for a Canadian world’s fair in the late 1930’s, this is a grim tale about an unspeakably cute seven-year-old (I think) kid named Johnny who gets separated from his parents at a world’s fair when they want to take him to the art museum, and he runs off and spends the day elsewhere on the fair’s grounds. The film advertised special guests Joe Louis (then the world’s champion boxer), Barbara Ann Scott (then the world’s champion figure skater) and the comedy team of Ole Olsen and Chick Johnson, who at their best were considerably funnier than you’d think by the jokes the MST3K crew made about them. Most of their gags were centered around how differently this film “reads” now than it did then; what undoubtedly came across to contemporary audiences as a hymn to the irrepressible independent spirit of a child now seemed like a monumental put-down of parental irresponsibility.

Are You Ready for Marriage? One of those infamous Coronet Instructional Films to which high-school children of the 1950’s were routinely subjected, this one features a young man who’s a sophomore in college (where he’s studying engineering) and a young woman who’s just finishing high school and planning (at her parents’ behest) to go to community college. They’ve fallen in love — or at least got a bad case of the hots for each other — and now they plan to get married as soon as their school years are over. Only her parents object, and so they end up seeing a counselor, Reuben Hill, Ph.D. (playing himself), research professor in family life at the University of North Carolina.

Coming off like a gene-splicing experiment that sought to combine Fred MacMurray and Ronald Reagan, Dr. Hill interrogates the young couple and subjects them to “Cupid’s Checklist,” a list of three conditions they should think of before they get married — similar backgrounds, real friends (i.e., are they that with each other) and whether they truly understand marriage and how it takes two people and turns them into one family unit. He also subjects their relationship to a contraption he calls his “Marriage Development” board in which they’re represented by wedding-cake figures with strings tied to them, and the object is to pull the strings closer together as soon as their original sexual attraction (diplomatically referred to here as the “boing!,” after an experiment in which Dr. Hill represents their physical interest with a rubber band that snaps and flies through the air, and where it lands nobody knows … nobody in this film, that is) fades, ending up with the strings making a bell curve-like shape as they get older and leading one of the MST3K group to joke, “Their marriage looks like the Eiger Sanction!”

There’s also a rainbow graph called “Chance for Happiness” which is supposed to prove that they’ve got a better chance of making their marriage work if they wait a few years (and, this being a 1950’s film, of course they’re not allowed to have sex while they’re waiting!) and, instead of being engaged, just agree to “get engaged to be engaged,” whatever that means. At the end, her dad starts spouting off Dr. Hill’s pseudo-psychobabble and offers to send her to college where he goes, marked by a harp glissando that suggests that the Spirit of Music has visited them and decreed she should study harp, even though I don’t think the Conn music company ever made harps … — 8/13/08