Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mr. B Natural (Kling Films/Conn Instruments, 1957)

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

I dashed home after the movie and when Charles got here we ended up running a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation of War of the Colossal Beast, a sequel to The Amazing Colossal Man — originally titled Revenge of the Colossal Man, which would have made more sense (there really isn’t much of a “war” going on in this one), which they prefaced with their marvelous takeoff of an unwittingly surreal promotional film from the Conn musical instruments company in 1957, Mr. B Natural. The MST3K crew really went to town on this bizarre band short, whose oddest aspect was the transgender casting of the title character.

The film opens with a giant white cut-out representing a musical staff with notes on it, only one of the notes comes to life and introduces himself as “Mr. B Natural,” also known as “The Spirit of Music.” Only Mr. B Natural is actually played by actress (if, in the immortal words of Dwight MacDonald, I may use the term for courtesy) Betty Luster, who combines an annoyingly chipper manner, a voice that sounds like Beverly Sills on helium and a voluptuous figure that is all too obviously female — if the breasts that show through the musical-note jacket she’s wearing (which looks like something she picked up at Liberace’s garage sale just before he started wearing sequins) didn’t “out” her as a woman, her ample hips and big butt (revealingly encased in blue denim) would be enough to do so. The plot, if it can be called that, calls for Mr./Ms. B Natural to emerge from the locker of junior-high student Buzz Turner (Bruce Podewell), who’s complaining that the “in” crowd at school has ostracized him, and tell him that if he learns to play an instrument and gets in the band he’ll be considered cool.

Mr./Ms. B appears magically in several other places in Buzz’s life, including his bedroom (if she tried that now she’d be arrested on suspicion of child molestation!), and finally persuades him to take up trumpet and badger his dad to buy him one. There’s a scene at a music store in which the unctuous store clerk fields the question of Papa Turner, “Is quality really important?” with an insistence that it is (“Of course!” I imagined him saying; “The Conn company isn’t spending all this money to make this movie just so you can buy him a Selmer!” — though the production budget didn’t look like it was more than about $12.98) and an assurance that they can buy the horn on installments. The final sequence shows Buzz playing a trumpet solo at a school dance, and one thing I’d give the makers of the film credit for is they didn’t make him sound too good — he plays like what the character is supposed to be, a kid who’s just started lessons and developed a basic technique but is still a little uncomfortable with the horn, not an accomplished virtuoso — but the rest of the movie is just silly when it isn’t hitting heights of unintended surrealism, notably in the gender ambiguity of the title character.

The MST3K crew had a field day with this one, not only ridiculing the transgender casting (”Mr. B Natural, you’re hot!”) but also the uniform Caucasian-ness of the dramatis personae (“We’re white, we’re so white, we’re white as can be,” they sing along to one of the pieces played on-screen by the two real-life school bands featured, the Miami Senior High School Band and the Waukegan Elementary School Band) and the overall dorkiness of the production even by the meager standards of 1950’s industrial films. They also did an hilarious sketch in which robots Tom Servo and Crow hold a formal debate over Mr. B Natural’s true gender.