Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Skydivers (Coleman Francis Productions, 1963)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie Charles and I finally ended up watching last night was The Skydivers, the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation we had started the night before but had burned out on out of sheer exhaustion (especially mine). It was the second of three films produced, directed and written by (mostly) actor Coleman Francis, after The Beast of Yucca Flats and before Night Train to Mundo Fine, a.k.a. Red Zone Cuba, who’s acquired a reputation as one of the legendarily bad directors of all time. He was the sort of person who could make a movie on an ultra-low budget and make it even worse than you’d expect. The Skydivers takes place at an aviation school in the middle of the California desert, and their main business is taking people up to skydive — only one of their customers dies in an accident early on in the film, so an official from the Federal Aviation Administration (“a faa-man!” one of the MST3K crew joked) shuts them down and so we get to see precious little skydiving (aside from some stock shots at the beginning) until the very end of the film, when the school hosts a big party and group skydive (I’m not making this up, you know!) at which time the various romantic complications are more or less resolved.

The school is owned by a married couple, Harry (Anthony Cardoza, Francis’s friend and fellow “actor,” if — in Dwight Macdonald’s words, I may use the term for courtesy) and Beth (Kevin Casey — a girl named Kevin?) Rowe, only Harry is fooling around with a blonde bimbo, who disappears quickly about a third of the way through the film, and also another woman, Suzy Belmont (Marcia Knight), who’s got dark curly hair and is a bit slimmer than his wife, who has dark straight hair. Meanwhile, the wife decides that what’s sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose, so she cruises at least two other men, Jim (Keith Walton) and Joe Moss (Eric Tomlin) — and she plots with one of her paramours to knock off her husband by pouring acid on his parachute before he goes up on the big group jump at the end (“Double-D Indemnity!” was the MST3K joke about this particular plot twist). About the only genuinely entertaining part of the film is a performance by a rock band called Jimmy Bryant and the Night Jumpers (they appear to have a pedal steel guitar player, though no such instrument is visible on screen) which the MST3K crew mostly shut up during (according to the “soundtrack” listing on it’s an instrumental called “HaSo — Stratosphere Boogie,” though they’re also heard on a snatch of a record of a silly vocal song called “Tobacco Worm”).

Otherwise one sits through a series of jump cuts — in one scene one set of principals are in a car and then another set is in a speedboat driving around Lake Mead, which when it docks has magically turned into a sailboat (“The boat’s a shape-shifter!” one of the MST3K’ers exclaimed) — and insufferably dull dialogue delivered in such slow, evenly paced monotones by all the cast members that, whereas some particularly bad race movies make us wonder where all the Black people who could act were, this one makes us wonder where all the white people who could act were. In the early days of the talkies Coleman Francis’s directorial style and in particular the vocal performances (if you can call them that) he evoked from his actors (if you can call them that) would have been completely au courant, and despite all the advances in sound film in the intervening 34 years Coleman Francis still wanted to party (and direct) like it was 1929. At the end our two murderous lovebirds get gunned down by a guy in a helicopter — apparently one of Francis’s weird directorial trademarks (along with airplanes and coffee) was having the villains dispatched by a guy with a gun, with none of that phony Left-wing nonsense about due process of law — perhaps not surprising for someone whose best-known credit as an actor was John Wayne’s infamously Right-wing Viet Nam propaganda film The Green Berets, and one a far more talented filmmaker, Clint Eastwood, also seems into (the vigilantism with which Eastwood ended Mystic River seemed to have been a half-thought-out carryover from one of his Westerns into a modern-dress milieu, where it didn’t really work).

There’s a group of people on who are bound and determined to keep The Skydivers rated on the site as the worst film of all time, but sorry, Coleman Francis, you don’t even get that distinction: though boring, stupid and with virtually no redeeming qualities (aside from that hotshot guitar instrumental by Jimmy Bryant and the Night Jumpers), it’s not downright offensive the way Shriek of the Mutilated (my choice for the worst film of all time) or Manos: The Hands of Fate (its principal rival for the worst-of-all-time title on were: it’s just a waste of celluloid that manages to make the idiotic audio-visual short MST3K prefaced it with, a show about “industrial arts” (i.e., shop) classes and how they’re not just for dummies, but they can prepare you for all sorts of careers including architecture, engineering and professional sports, seem like a highly professional and even insightful film by comparison (though, alas, its anonymous makers cut it short just as it was getting interesting — when we were seeing a whole bunch of basketball players in the locker room displaying an enviably hot amount of pale white skin … that’s nostalgia for you, when white people still played basketball). It did evoke some particularly brilliant wisecracks from the MST3K’ers, including one in which one of the characters is getting plastered on beer after beer after beer in the local bar (one of Coleman Francis’s brilliantly realistic cardboard-and-plywood sets) and the voiceover says, “We had Dylan Thomas in here and he didn’t drink this much!,” and again later on when one of the ’bots asked where was the guy in a black hoodie representing Death and playing a chess game with the lead.