Friday, April 24, 2009

Catalina Caper (Crown International, 1967)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles another Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episode, this time based on a 1967 film called Catalina Caper which they originally ran between the Jungle Goddess and Rocket Attack U.S.A. episodes. There are a few things that can be said in favor of Catalina Caper: it began with a Warner Bros. logo (though this seems to have been a reissue label; Clive Hirschhorn’s The Warner Bros. Story doesn’t list it and credits the original production to our old friends, Crown International), it featured Catalina Island as itself for a change instead of masquerading as the South Pacific or some other bit of beachfront geography, it had a lot of nice-looking young actors of both traditional genders (and the guys in it were showing some quite nice baskets — especially the impossibly blond Brian Cutler as the irresistible girl-magnet Charlie Moss), and it also featured some genuinely imposing musical talents.

The credits announced the presence of Little Richard, Carol Connors and the Cascades as musical guests, and though I’d never heard of Carol Connors before she turned out to be a quite capable singer, belting out a mediocre song (something called “Book of Love” — not the hit of that title by the Monotones but a piece by herself with frequent Brian Wilson collaborator Roger Christian) with worthy abandon and making me wonder where her career might have gone if she’d gotten material worthy of her (as Dusty Springfield finally did around the same time when, after years of singing some pretty sorry songs, she got to record the Burt Bacharach-Hal David classic “Anyone Who Had a Heart”). I knew the Cascades through their only hit, “Rhythm of the Rain,” and the song they sang here wasn’t in league with that classic but was an interesting one on the cusp of psychedelica called “It’s a New World” — written by, of all people, Ray Davies (though I’m sure that if Davies recorded it with the Kinks, that version would be considerably better than this one).

Little Richard, who never recovered the sheer energy and vitality of his classic 1950’s recordings on Specialty (though he came close a couple of times, notably that quite good mid-1960’s album that was reissued as Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix even though Hendrix wasn’t on it, and the 1986 album Lifetime Friend that took advantage of his appearance in the film Down and Out in Beverly Hills), was shown early on singing a nice bit of pseudo-soul called “Scuba Party” he co-wrote with the film’s musical director, Jerry Long — it hardly has the energy of “Tutti Frutti” or “Good Golly, Miss Molly” but it’s still easily the best thing in this film. (The MST3K crew agreed; they mostly shut up during Richard’s number — their biggest comment on it was to say, “Prince, eat your heart out” — and when it finished they said, “There goes Little Richard, the only real talent in this movie,” which was all too true.) There’s also another soul heavyweight represented here: Mary Wells, who sings a rather lame title song called “Never Steal Anything Wet” (also a working title for the film) over a cartoon title sequence by Murakami-Wolf Animation, but she’s almost unrecognizable and it underscores once again what a horrible mistake she made leaving Motown Records right after recording her masterpiece, “My Guy.”

Otherwise, Catalina Caper is mostly a dull teen beach movie with an even duller crime film grafted onto it. It begins with the theft of something that looks like a piece of gilded wallpaper being stripped from a museum frame — the museum’s security arrangements seem to have been done by the same incompetents responsible for protecting the Soviet missile base in Rocket Attack, U.S.A. — and the theft is masterminded by Arthur and Annie Duvall (Del Moore and Sue Casey), who plan to copy the scroll, sell the copy to fabulously wealthy Greek shipping tycoon Lakopolous (Lee Deane), then return the original to the museum wall and hope nobody has noticed it missing in the meantime — even though the local Catalina newspaper has announced its theft with banner headlines. This is one of those movies in which the two plot strands don’t intertwine and certainly don’t help each other along; they just sit on each other, mindlessly alternating until by the end of the film we’re wondering which one we’re less interested in.

The “star” is Tommy Kirk, who plays the nerdy guy who gets the girl away from the babe-magnet — he might have been glad to get away from the Disney plantation but at least Disney gave him legitimately amusing (not laugh-out-loud funny, but at least amusing) roles in mild kiddie comedies, which is more than the makers of this film, producers Bond Blackman and Jack Bartlett, director Lee Sholem (who got his start as Ernst Lubitsch’s assistant on That Uncertain Feeling and evidently learned absolutely nothing from the experience — it’s like finding that a composer of especially treacly 19th century salon pieces had once apprenticed under Beethoven!) and writers Sam Pierce (story) and Clyde Ware (screenplay), could manage to give him. To the extent that any of the young people in this movie show any signs of acting skill, the one that does is Dan Duryea’s son Peter, playing the honest son of the con artists trying to stage the art caper — genes will out, I guess — and the film just kind of lumbers along and turns into a chase scene underwater with two of Lakopoulos’s minions (since this is a diving movie, sort of, the good guys in the white swim trunks get chased by the bad guys in the black wet suits) chasing the teens for the red tube that’s supposed to contain the stolen scroll, which previously had been heaved into Catalina Bay (wouldn’t it have got wet and ruined the scroll? We’re told it was waterproof but it sure doesn’t look it!).

Eventually Peter Duryea’s con-artist parents get arrested, Lakopoulos gives up in disgust and goes away, the teens continue their long-term party, the scroll “mysteriously” reappears on the museum wall and the comic-relief character, Fingers O’Toole (Robert Donner, doing inept versions of the kinds of pratfalls the far older and infinitely more talented Buster Keaton did in his guest appearances in some of American International’s beach non-epics in the mid-1960’s) turns out to be an insurance investigator (yeah, right). The biggest mystery surrounding Catalina Caper is why it exists at all; there doesn’t seem to have been any crying market out there for a beach-movie-with-con-artists — for all the badness of Rocket Attack, U.S.A., at least it was made by people who clearly cared about its message, whereas Catalina Caper could be written off as a rank attempt at commercialism except that it’s impossible to discern who the filmmakers thought were going to buy tickets to it!