Thursday, August 12, 2010

Mondo Balordo (Crown International, 1964)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Mondo Balordo (literally “A Crazy World,” though the “official” English title on is A Fool’s World), one of the many documentaries on the kinkier sides of human life churned out with Italian titles following the surprising success of Mondo Cane — which was a surprise hit in the U.S. and generated an Academy Award-nominated theme song, “More,” which also became a hit. There was a short spate of follow-ups, some by the original filmmakers of Mondo Cane and some, like Mondo Balordo, from others — I remember reading a Reader’s Digest article from 1964 announcing the success of a campaign to pull one of them, Malamondo (described in its publicity as “a frenzied, fantastic ride on this wide, wide world”), from a small-town theatre in upstate New York by grass-roots picketers who carried signs outside the theatre reading, “Filth Is Not Art!”

I’ve never seen Malamondo and I haven’t seen Mondo Cane since it screened at the College of Marin in the early 1970’s and most of my fellow students were literally sickened by the bullfight sequence — the movie presented it in the old Hemingwayesque mythological way but all this audience saw in it was utterly disgusting cruelty to animals — but I remember Mondo Cane as having fewer sequences and doing more justice to each topic than Mondo Balordo, which cut so frantically from subculture to subculture and country to country it was hard to discern any narrative thread, even a documentary one. I got a copy of this film as part of the Passport International Entertainment boxed set Boris Karloff: 15 Frightful Films, because Karloff narrated the U.S. release by Crown International, and he managed to sound courtly throughout and refreshingly non-judgmental even when the text of the narration (by Ted Wilde) sounds awfully moralistic — yes, this is one of those movies (from the dregs of the Production Code era) that manages to show a lot of sexually kinky stuff by presenting it as an absolutely horrible way to live.

It begins with a couple in Italy getting into a parked car with a flat tire, getting into its back seat and starting to make out (the car is a Fiat 600, and the damned things were so small this constitutes a pretty amazing feat in and of itself), whereupon either as a routine privacy precaution or because they realized a camera was eavesdropping on them, they start putting newspapers over the car windows so whatever they’re going to do next is obscured from public view. The best sequence in Mondo Balordo occurs early on; it’s the performance of a rock band called (at least if I’m reading the inscription on the drummer’s bass drum correctly) “Les Amantes,” featuring a 27-inch lead singer with a flair for impressions (the song presented is “I Ain’t Got Nobody” and he does it in the style of Louis Prima) and a spectacular dancing talent good enough to evoke comparisons with James Brown and the young Michael Jackson. He’s Franz Drago, born in Tokyo of a Spanish father and a Sicilian mother, “and as Japan is the land of miniatures,” the narration explains in one of the dubious jokes in which this film abounds, “you can see what pre-natal influence did to Franz!” Though he was undoubtedly presented “live” as a freak to be exploited — which is certainly how this film uses him — he was also a spectacular talent, as is shown later in the film when the same band is seen, only this time fronted by a normal-sized but considerably less charismatic performer (in a scene that intercuts them with a Haitian voodoo ritual to suggest that rock ’n’ roll is a throwback to primitive ecstatic dancing).

Alas, it’s pretty much downhill from there, and probably the worst scene is one in which Arabs are shown collecting camel piss because they believe it can be useful in dyeing black hair blonde — though the “blonde” hair the women subjected to this treatment sport at the end of it actually comes from pretty obvious wigs far less convincing than the ones sported by drag queens in earlier sequences! Much of the kinky thrill of Mondo Balordo comes from envelope-pushing sexuality, including shots of a Hong Kong photographer staging scenes of women in bondage which we’re told are intended for porn magazines aimed at the Chinese market (though Charles pointed out that the printing on the magazine we see is actually Japanese — not that people in any country buy these sorts of magazines for the text, anyway) and quite a lot of footage of Queers, mostly from Germany (though given the Cuisinart editing style it’s hard to keep track of just which German city — Munich, Hamburg or Berlin — each Gay or Lesbian sequence is in).

I’d shied away from watching Mondo Balordo until now because Donald F. Glut’s entry on it in his Karloff biography/filmography made it seem considerably more homophobic than it is, and while the narration to the scene showing the back room of a Lesbian bar (in which the customers are in such widely varying stages of butchness — and the butches are not automatically pairing off with the femmes, or vice versa — it’s refreshingly difficult to tell who is who and what they’re likely to do once they go home together) has a bit of the they’re-destroying-all-morality line about it, for the most part these scenes, and the ones showing Gay men as well (including a Gay bar sequence in which some of the men are in full drag, some are in normal male attire but are clearly affecting an effeminate style, and some of them are in what later came to be called genderfuck or slag-drag, wearing some makeup and/or women’s clothing but also showing enough male characteristics there’s no doubt about their true gender), come off with a decent level of respect surprising for a mid-1960’s exploitation documentary. (At least part of that may be due to Karloff’s courtly, matter-of-fact delivery of Wilde’s lines; the text may tell us we’re supposed either to condemn these people or feel sorry for them — at one point Wilde tells us that the men in the Gay bar have worn their disguises so long they no longer know what parts of their personalities are authentic and which are role-playing — but Karloff is so quiet, gentle, nice and kind, as he almost always was when he came out of character, he softens the condemnatory aspects of the narration and treats the freaks on screen with the gentility and grace they deserve as human beings.)

Another particularly noteworthy scene shows a Berlin cabaret featuring a transvestite performer doing a surprisingly good impression of Marlene Dietrich, singing and dancing around a chair the way the real Dietrich had done in The Blue Angel (the film that obviously inspired his act!) and Liza Minnelli would do later in Cabaret; the scene is genuinely entertaining despite the oddity that the film carries Italian subtitles translating the German lyrics of his song, but the U.S. distributor didn’t see fit to supply any English! Otherwise Mondo Balordo isn’t much as a movie, a real period piece that cuts frantically from one aspect of human (or animal) behavior to another — and for all its documentary pretensions a lot of it seems staged: the great procession of the Maharajah of Mysore on elephant-back through his kingdom seems to be stock footage from the 1953 Sabaka (another Karloff item that ended up in the 15 Frightful Films box) and the sequence of lions hunting down a zebra for food was probably also stock from a Wild Kingdom-type nature documentary.

The direction is credited to Roberto Bianchi Montero and Albert T. Viola (though I suspect Viola had nothing to do with making the original film and only supervised the English-language version, including Karloff’s narration) and there are also a couple of stentorian theme songs — obviously Crown International was hoping for a surprise hit on the level of “More,” which this film didn’t deliver — and Mondo Balordo emerges as a real period piece (and piques my curiosity to see the original Mondo Cane again, especially since it was recently in the news in connection with a New York museum exhibit of the avant-garde artist Yves Klein, who eagerly agreed to participate in the film thinking it would rehabilitate his reputation; instead he came off as a freak and he had a heart attack while he was watching its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, then had two more heart attacks in the following three weeks, the last of which killed him at age 44 — his death is often blamed on his horror at the way he was caricatured in Mondo Cane).