Thursday, July 28, 2016

Kentucky Fried Movie (KFM Productions, 1977)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I watched a surprisingly entertaining DVD of a 1977 film called Kentucky Fried Movie, one of the last items in an odd cycle of compilation comedies released in the 1970’s that featured a series of sketches lampooning other movies and TV shows (and commercials, and newscasts) that were a sort of template for Saturday Night Live. This was one of the last in the cycle but it was important for some of the careers it launched: the director was John Landis (and it was after screening this Ingrid Wansomeone at Universal thought Landis would be the right director for National Lampoon’s Animal House, a blockbuster hit and the making of Landis’s reputation) and the writers are David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker (that’s the sequence in which the names were always billed), who later created and directed the Police Squad! TV series, the Naked Gun films derived from it, and the Airplane! movies. The first scene is of a newscaster telling the audience, “The popcorn you are eating has been pissed in. Film at 11.” I groaned inwardly at that one, expecting that we’d be subjected to a whole run of scatological jokes I wouldn’t find amusing, but the film turned out to be genuinely funny and not overwhelmed by its tastelessness the way more recent raunchy “comedies” have been. The “plot,” to the extent there is one, is about a young man (dressed in one of those puffed-out hairdos that definitely mark this film as a 1970’s product) who watches a lot of TV and goes to a movie theatre, where he gets to see a film in “Feel-a-Rama,” which means that a theatre usher stands behind him, blows smoke in his face when one of the on-screen characters smokes, sprays perfume when the male lead references the perfume the woman is wearing, kisses the man when the on-screen characters kiss (there are quite a few joking references to same-sex love in this movie that play quite differently now than they did in 1977), and spills water in the poor guy’s lap when an on-screen character spills their drink.

He also gets to see a movie called A Fistful of Yen, which is quite the longest sketch in the film, and whereas from the title I was expecting it to be a spoof of Clint Eastwood’s “spaghetti Westerns” with an Asian cast (would that be a “ramen Western”? Just asking … ), in fact it’s a spoof of Bruce Lee’s martial-arts movies, in which Evan C. Kim as “Loo” is assigned by British intelligence to bust a Chinese super-villain called “Klahn” (Bong Soo Han), who’s obviously based on Sax Rohmer’s Dr. Fu Manchu. It’s got plenty of laughs, including one in which Loo meets up with Ada Gronick (Ingrid Wang), the hot nuclear physicist he’s supposed to spirit out of Klahn’s compound before she builds him a nuclear bomb, and as the two of them try to have a confidential conversation they keep coming across the multitude of microphones with which Klahn’s people have bugged the room — including one in which, just after they’ve talked about bribing Klahn’s people to let them go, Loo grabs the mike and says, “But it would be wrong.” (It’s a reference to the Watergate scandal, specifically the White House tape of March 21, 1973, in which President Nixon was confronted with E. Howard Hunt’s demand for hush money and he insisted that the money be paid, but then said, “It would be wrong, that’s for sure” — a line Nixon’s defenders seized on to say he was against the cover-up even though the full context showed Nixon only thought it would be strategically, not morally, wrong to pay Hunt because he’d just ask for more.) The producers of Kentucky Fried Movie scoured the martial-arts studios of L.A. for participants for these scenes, though their role was mainly to “look right” as Loo took on entire armies of martial-arts practitioners and defeated them single-handedly. There are some bits of surprisingly anti-corporate satire — especially a mock commercial about all the sleazy energy projects pursued by something called the Argon Corporation (“Here at our multi-billion dollar refinery in Fairbanks, we’re extracting 2.5 billion barrels of crude oil each day from teenagers’ faces”), whose final statement of their corporate purpose is, “At Argon, we’re working to keep your money!” (This is especially surprising since the writing team of the Zucker brothers and Abrahams later became some of Hollywood’s most outspoken political conservatives.)

There are also mock trailers for movies, including one called Cleopatra Schwartz that spoofs the Blaxploitation craze of the time (bad-ass Black action heroine Cleopatra, played by Madeline Joy, marries rabbi Schwartz, played by Saul Kahan), as well as one for an out-and-out porn film called Catholic High School Girls in Trouble (“Never before has the beauty of the sexual act been so crassly exploited!” boasts the narrator in that breathless style we’ve come to associate with mainstream movie ads), and a commercial for a “Joy of Sex” record album that comes complete with romantic mood music, step-by-step instructions and, if the male has a premature ejaculation, a substitute boyfriend called “Big Jim Slade” (made up to look like the height of 1970’s muscleman tacky-chic and introduced by, of all pieces of music, a Jewish song called “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem”). There’s also a surprise ending to the Fistful of Yen sequence that turns it into, of all things, a parody of The Wizard of Oz (with the Bruce Lee action hero coming to from his “dream” in full drag as Judy Garland’s Dorothy), and another black-and-white sequence called Courtroom! that’s a pretty obvious parody of Perry Mason and features the two brothers from Leave it to Beaver as older characters (though Jerry Mathers, the original Beaver, turned down the opportunity to re-play his part here, Tony Dow, who’d been his older brother on the TV show, eagerly took his role). Incidentally, the Courtroom! sequence is in black-and-white in the actual film, but the clips of it in the movie’s own trailer are in color — the trailer, which appears on the DVD as a bonus item, also begins with a “G”-rated placard even though from what we’ve just seen this is one film that couldn’t have got a “G” unless the entire ratings board was put under mind control. (The trailer ends with the actual rating, “R” — though at least one contributor said that today standards are tighter and it would be an NC-17.) Kentucky Fried Movie started slowly but turned out to be a delight, with enough non-raunchy jokes (as well a few that were raunchy but also genuinely funny!) one could forgive the ones that were raunchy but not funny, and for me the turning point came during a mock TV talk show interview between host Paul Burmaster and guest Claude Lamont, an undersea adventurer obviously patterned on Jacques Cousteau. The gag in this one was that the boom mike kept working its way into the picture, at one point falling into the water pitcher on the set and making gurgling noises, and at the end lighting Burmaster’s cigarette in the sort of physically impossible gag Stan Laurel loved (and the Laurel and Hardy producer, Hal Roach, hated).

There are also a few lines that anticipate the Airplane! movies — in the Fistful of Yen sequence Loo asks Klahn to “show me your operation,” and Klahn raises his shirt and shows off his surgical scar; elsewhere during the Courtroom! sequence an attorney asks for time to “check my briefs,” he opens his belt and looks down at his underwear, then says they can continue; and in one scene a public-service announcer says, “This is not a drill — drills go Black-and-Decker-Black-and-Decker-Black-and-Decker...”. There’s also a rather sick but still screamingly funny segment with Henry Gibson as himself promoting a charity called the United Appeal for the Dead, which essentially pushes the idea that just because your relatives are dead doesn’t mean you can’t keep them around and still enjoy their presence. Kentucky Fried Movie is the sort of wild, rambunctious comedy they really don’t make anymore — though in the 2000’s there was a marvelous film called The Independent which melded the sensibility of Kentucky Fried Movie with an actual plot (about the comeback attempt of movie producer Morty Fineman, played by Jerry Stiller — Ben Stiller’s considerably funnier dad) and had even more mock movie trailers for equally absurd projects (including Fineman’s breakthrough movie, Brothers Divided, in which a hard-core military man who insists on serving in Viet Nam and an equally hard-core peacenik who actively resists the war are also conjoined Siamese twins) — and it’s genuinely funny, which all too many movies today that are clearly intended to be comedies actually aren’t. Oh, and did I tell you about the industrial film promoting zinc oxide (possibly a parody of The Tree in a Test Tube, a 1943 industrial short produced by the federal government to promote plastic) which shows vividly all the disasters that would occur if zinc oxide didn’t exist?