Drugs, Dwarfs, Tong Wars, Sex Slavery, and Vincent Price

8

“Oh! just, subtle, and mighty opium! that to the hearts of poor and rich alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for ‘the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel,’ bringest an assuaging balm; eloquent opium!”

Now we could argue all day about whether or not this film is actually good. Whether it was politically correct in its portrayal of Asians and Asian-Americans. Whether it was sensitive to the actual tragedies of real human sex trafficking. Whether it even accurately depicts the effects of opium. At the end of the day Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962), starring Vincent Price (Theater of Blood, House of Wax, Comedy of Terrors, House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, Edward Scissorhands) and a mostly Asian cast, it’s just too weird of a movie not to geek out about.

4

De Quincey meets the mysterious Ruby Lo.

Confessions of an Opium Eater, directed by exploitation director Albert Zugsmith and apparently very liberally inspired by the memoirs of Thomas De Quincey, is a weird bit of exotic thriller pulp. It should rank alongside Coke Ennyday and the Mystery of the Leaping Fish* (1916) for weird, vintage drug movies or Big Trouble in Little China (1986) for Chinatown-is-magic action movies.

*Oh, it’s a real movie. Douglas Fairbanks plays a pseudo-Sherlock Holmes spoof with super Popeye crime-fighting powers whenever he snorts cocaine. The best bits are when he makes the bad guys O.D. and they shoot through the roof. For 1916, it’s hilariously cavalier about drug use.

7

One alternative American title for this movie was “Souls for Sale.” Fitting.

The movie begins with a somber, reflective voice-over narration as we see a Chinese junk drifting in the mists of a murky, bathtub sea. We get the credits and a skeleton washed up on a forgotten beach. Then we get almost 10 straight minutes of no dialogue; just drugged up Chinese women being loaded into a net and transplanted from ship to shore, where a small hook-filled battle erupts. There’s a lot of desperation and suspense and mystery already. Also a bad guy gets murdered by a random horse, which is always great.

Vincent Price (perhaps woefully miscast, but just maybe his out-of-place poetic, world-weary melancholy and hammy energy are actually what makes this movie so deliciously strange) plays Gilbert de Quincey, a mysterious turn-of-the-century sailor man with a cryptic tie to the Orient. De Quincey, a passive character who wanders about as if in a sort of dream, gets mixed up in the Tong wars going on in the nineteenth century streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown. He meets a host of culturally sensitive Chinese characters such as the sneaky, deceitful merchant; the manipulative dragon lady; the bribe-able opium dealer; and the helpless lotus flower waif who needs a white man to save her from sex slavery. Like I said, it might not be the most P.C. flick, but, to its credit, the cast is nearly all an authentic Chinese cast (minus one dwarf, but we’ll get back to her later). The cheesy broken English is made even weirder when they awkwardly speak it when Vincent Price is not around (it’s sad because you know actors like Philip Ahn speak perfect English and they have to dumb it all down) and even sillier when Vincent Price talks to them using flowery Shakespearean language meant to evoke deep philosophical sophistication. Price waxes poetic like a jackass while his Asian co-stars are lacking definite articles and proper verb conjugation. Yet never a miscommunication.

2

A grateful Lotus embraces De Quincey.

De Quincey gets captured and lackadaisically falls for a lovely Chinese girl named Lotus (June Kyoto Lu) whom he rescues from axe-murderers. A nice secret dumbwaiter getaway and sewer battle ensues. He also meets a power-hungry Asian seductress, Ruby Lo (played very well by Linda Ho). She is the true puppet master of the devilish proceedings of Chinatown’s seedy underbelly and, once she gets enough treasure and opium, she will return to China and lead an army…that will do…something.

It goes without saying that Ruby Lo is a way more interesting that Lotus (and, by de facto, much sexier), but the real intriguing character is the fearless, tough-talking Chinese midget named Child (played by Yvonne Moray who also appeared in Wizard of Oz and Terror of Tiny Town). She’s like Zelda Rubinstein and Linda Hunt with even more chutzpah. She’s seen it all and doesn’t really care what the world has to say. She’s feisty and optimistic—even when facing certain death. She’s pretty much the best character ever. I liked the movie a lot before she shows up (arriving floating down a dark corridor in a suspended bamboo cage), but after that I loved the movie. And she’s not the only little person in this movie. Angelo Rossitto (Freaks, Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome) has a bit part as a newspaperman in the beginning.

3

Yvonne Moray as Child.

Vincent Price is known for playing spooky killers and tortured killers and obsessed killers (he’s got a bit of a persona), so seeing him as a butthole action guy is kind of surreal. Anyway, this movie is weird for a number of reasons, Vincent Price being an action guy not least of them. The majority of the cast being Asian is unique for an early ’60s Hollywood movie (almost no objectionable “yellow-face”). The dialogue has only two modes: Vincent Price ham poetry and stilted Chinaman-ese. It really sort of fetishizes human sex trafficking and by that I mean it doesn’t exactly condone it (only the bad guys are involved in it), but at the same time the film tries to make it sexy. Between the floating bamboo cages, steamy dance numbers, seeming disposable nature of women, it’s all rather fetishistic. It’s hard to say your film is condemning using women as sex props when your movie pretty much uses them as sex props. I like secret trapdoors and hidden passageways and cool torture devices, but maybe it’s all too campy for something as serious as human sex trafficking. The atmosphere of the movie, aided by Price’s creepy, condescending line delivery and narration readings, is very eerie and dreamlike. The musical score helps that feeling too. The music sounds like vaguely hypnotic theremin tones. Then occasionally all music and sound will drop out and it’ll feel even weirder. There is really only one scene where our hero actually smokes opium…AND THAT SCENE IS ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT.

5

You’re tripping balls, man…

 Skulls and sawfish parade by along with a host of other phantasmagoric imagery and nightmarishly distorted countenances during his trip…and then he wakes up and we get a 1960s soundless stoner action scene with Chinese axe-throwers and Vincent Price running around in late 1800s ‘Frisco. It’s way too cool to even be real. Even the ending of this movie feels bizarre, like we’re all stuck in suspended animation. Does he die? What happens? Where are they going? Did they kill the bad guy? What’s happening? Who was the random guy at the end who was in disguise? Is it over?

1

I’m beginning to think this is not a Edgar Allen Poe adaptation.

I really don’t know what else to say. Watch this movie if you can find it. It’s weird. If you’ve read any of my reviews of other old movies you’d know I’m exceedingly forgiving of racism, sexism, and cheesiness in my vintage pulp. Take it all for what it is. Don’t be offended. It’s a peculiar and unflattering history lesson to watch these old movies. Moral of the story: locate Confessions of an Opium Eater and enjoy all it’s weird, uncomfortable, erotic dreaminess. Maybe make it a double feature with Reefer Madness (1936).

Picture References:

http://www.coffeecoffeeandmorecoffee.com/archives/2013/10/confessions_of.html

http://www.midnightonly.com/2013/04/21/confessions-of-an-opium-eater-1962/

http://scalisto.blogspot.kr/2013/06/albert-zugsmith-confessions-of-opium.html

6

Just Imagine…1980

This one came out of nowhere.

The year is 1880. A crystal baritone narrator reminds us of how far we’ve come in 50 years. No more horses and buggies cluttering up New York City. No more frilly clothes. And no more drunks stumbling in and out of saloons. No, siree. We’ve come a long way since 1880. Now in 1930 we are at the very height of style, efficiency, and modernity.

…or are we?

Our narrator quickly challenges our perceptions of modernity and dares us to see 50 years into the future: 1980!

just imagine 1

Yes, folks, that grand, stream-lined future utopia with flying cars over Manhattan, government arranged marriages, flights to Mars are underway, immigrants from the past are being thawed out in laboratories, you can order a baby like ordering a sandwich, and we’re that much closer to ending Prohibition. Yes, folks, the possibilities are endless. Remember, this is the year 1980!

Just Imagine (1930), directed by David Butler, is exactly what you’d expect from an obscure vintage science fiction musical romantic comedy rife with racial stereotypes and bizarre space-age predictions. I think. It’s hard to think of what that wild genre-bending combination might look like without some semblance of precedent.

I’ll square with you. The movie isn’t half as good as its premise. It’s actually a bit of a mess, but that might be part of the reason I liked it. There’s a reason why this movie is largely forgotten, but there’s also quirky anthropological reason enough to watch it today.

just imagine 5

Here’s some of the plot. J-21 (everyone in the future has numbers instead of names) is in love with Jane Parker from the Tarzan movies (Maureen O’Sullivan), but the government will not approve their marriage and so she is sentenced to marry another fellow. Enter one recently thawed immigrant from 1930 (El Brendel) to help our lovestruck protagonist. I like that the scientists who wake him up don’t have any further interest in him. It’s like they just did it as part of a science wager. His savior even threatens to kill him again when the dazed relic inquires as to what he should do now that he is awake and 50 years in the future.

The immigrant guy is given the name Single-0. He befriends J-21 and thus a solid comaraderie is forged. Some forgettable songs, awkward Vaudeville era jokes*, and then somehow we wind up in a spaceship to Mars. Naturally it is inhabited by scantily clad women. Seems to have been an epidemic in films from this era. Every other world is ruled by near-naked feminists who need a wooden male character to set them free from their own oppression.

*Not to besmirch Vaudeville but the writers and performers in this movie are just not up to Marx Brothers/Laurel & Hardy/W.C. Fields standards.

just imagine 4

I honestly have already forgotten most of the plot and what the characters actually did. But I do remember flying cars, a trip to Mars, and one or two shots that look to be inspired from Metropolis. It’s not that substantial or memorable of a movie apart from its premise, but it’s not bad. It’s just dated. But its datedness is what makes it so interesting. Just Imagine is a fun alternative view of a space-age world that is both their (1930’s) optimistic future and our wildly inaccurate past. And that makes it kind of cool.

The most fascinating aspect of this weird movie concerns the view on Prohibition. In 1930 Prohibition was still on. It would be only three more years before the Twenty-first Amendment, but they didn’t know it in 1930. In their version of 1980 Prohibition is still in effect and people keep hearing that it’ll end in another few years. Single-0 says that’s what they said back in 1930. The best song in the movie concerns astronauts being able to drink in space. I mentioned this film’s future outlook as optimistic, but it’s actually a bit more of a give and take. Some things are better while others are not. We have gained efficiency but lost a little humanity along the way, but the human spirit carries on with effervescence and optimism.

Just imagine 2

So what is Just Imagine? It’s an awkward transition into talkies. It’s an underwhelming musical. It’s a creaky romance. It’s not a great comedy. But it does have enough of its own quirky energy to keep you entertained. It’s fun to think about the future and it might be even more fun to think about what previous generations thought the future would be.

Brace Yourself. It’s “Song of the South”

This ain't exactly going to be W.E.B. DuBois.

This ain’t exactly going to be W.E.B. DuBois.

One of the most inflammatory movie titles one can utter is Song of the South (1946). Am I racist for liking this movie? Some people might think so. I concede that Song of the South is not Roots (1977) nor is it Amistad (1997), but it’s sensibilities are far less prejudiced than say Birth of a Nation (1915). It’s probably more artistically comparable to Birth of a Nation in that it was a surprising technical achievement, but I submit that Song of the South is not quite as racially insensitive as is commonly perceived (or at least, it doesn’t mean to be), rather it is merely uninformed and maybe not that bad of a movie.

Don't do the review, man. It's not worth it.

Don’t do the review, man. It’s not worth it.

It’s been banned in its entirety for years and Disney still hasn’t released it. Frederick Douglass would undoubtedly be appalled by Disney’s apparent lack of understanding of the plight of the American slave showcased in this film. In fact, it is in this department that the film gets the most flak, and perhaps deservedly so.

It depicts the jolly slave affably singing and toiling in the fields for his masseh. No one is discontent with the fact that they are living in human bondage. Naturally, the slave owners themselves are kind-hearted and good people too. Kindly old Uncle Remus is only too happy to oblige his masseh in any task and there are really no consequences for disobedience. I concede all of these things, but I honestly was not expecting a serious look into the harsh realities of this dark hour in American history. I watched it for the cartoons. This is a family Disney film from the 1940’s. Maybe they were ignorant and oblivious to what actually went on, but even had they known and still chosen to water it down it would still be the Disney way. In a children’s fantasy film from the Walt Disney studios you don’t show the bloody stripes on the backs of your jovial protagonists. You have to wait until the 80’s for that.

Shh...be vewy, vewy quiet. I'm hunting wabbits.

Shh…be vewy, vewy quiet. I’m hunting wabbits.

Song of the South is not attempting to be Johnny Tremain (1957) or Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955), which may take some liberties but are still trying to represent an historical time. Song of the South was an attempt to bottle some of the magic of Uncle Remus’s tales of Br’er Rabbit and I’d say they succeeded in doing that much. In fact the only real reason to watch Song of the South is for the animated segments and for James Baskett’s charismatic performance as Uncle Remus.

Well, this is a fin how do you do.

Well, this is a fine how do you do.

Some might say that Baskett was playing a stereotype just like Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind (1939), but they still both crafted lovable, endearing characters that outshone the rest of the respective films they were in. Maybe they didn’t get the complex juicy roles because the prejudices of the times would not give them much more, but they did what they could with the material given to them. It’s a damn shame McDaniel really only ever got to play slaves or maids, but don’t sell her talent short. I think she deserved that Oscar. Baskett also did receive an honorary Academy Award for his performance in Song of the South and Walt Disney himself fought very hard to get him nominated. Ironically (and sadly), Baskett was unable to attend the premiere of his film in Atlanta because of the segregation laws at the time. Let’s not forget how hard it was for ethnic actors back then.

The film itself is your typical uber-saccharine tale of a young boy who learns life lessons. The child performances are nothing to write home about and much of the live-action stuff gets boring whenever Uncle Remus isn’t around, but be patient.

Tell us the story of Django again!

Tell us the story of Django again!

Poor little Johnny (Bobby Driscoll) is hoodwinked into thinking his little trip to his grandmother’s plantation is a delightful vacation…until he learns that his parents are separating (still not too sure why, but I suppose that’s not important).  This actually might have fed the controversy too. If a kid’s movie is edgy enough to attack the stigma of parental separation on children, might it at least have the guts to depict racism and slavery with a little more accuracy? Instead there is no racism, only bullies, and slavery is just a footnote because the story happens to take place in Georgia in the 19th century. Ah, well.

Back to Johnny. Fortunately for Johnny he makes friends with wise, old Uncle Remus who “edutains” with stories of Br’er Rabbit and how he outsmarts Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. Johnny’s mother disapproves of the stories because she feels it has a negative impact on her son and she forbids Uncle Remus from telling him any more. Throughout the movie Johnny finds a puppy, makes friends with a girl, deals with bullies, wrestles with anxiety over his parents, almost gets killed by a bull, and always tries to sneak back to his friend Uncle Remus to hear more. The story is sweet and innocent enough and if it didn’t feature slaves as content watered-down Stepin Fetchits it would probably be another much celebrated film in the Disney canon. Alas, it suffers from controversy…which I think actually makes it much more interesting and more important.

What now?

What now?

The scenes that combine live-action with animation are wonderful. Uncle Remus sings as he strolls down a dirt road and all of the adorable anthropomorphic animals sing along. It has been parodied much, but these sequences are really well done and they were huge technological breakthroughs at the time and although Song of the South might not be Mary Poppins (1964), I’d say it’s a far more stimulating accomplishment than Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971). The three main animated segments featuring Br’er Rabbit are magical and as finely drawn as anything the Disney studios ever produced. They brim with peril, humor, and wisdom and each tale delivers another important lesson for Johnny (and us all), but they are told with such playfulness and gusto that they are a delight to hear again and again. Br’er Fox, Br’er Bear, and Br’er Rabbit are charming characters and the film develops them quite well. Even if you’ve never seen the movie, you are probably already familiar with them from the Splash Mountain log-floom ride at Disney theme parks. And almost everyone has heard the songs “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and “How Do You Do?”

So what exactly do we have here? A great technological accomplishment, a fine story, some very enjoyable performances, great iconic songs, and splendid animation thrust amidst some blindly optimistic time capsule with extreme naiveté regarding race relations and overwrought with classic Disney sentimentality. All in all, I’d say it’s nothing most people wouldn’t be able to handle with some maturity. Song of the South is guilty of depicting the happy black man who is perfectly content with his subservient status beneath whitey’s thumb. It does show a clean and delusionally optimistic version of life on the southern plantations. It is a product of its times. It was also a huge passion project for Mr. Disney. And you know what? I liked the movie. I found myself being captivated by Uncle Remus’s enchanting yarns and the beautiful animation. I also loved Dumbo (1941) too. People always told me as a kid that the crows were racist. They may portray stereotypical black speech and characteristics, but they’re really the only decent folk in the movie apart from Dumbo’s mom and Timothy Mouse.

Over there! Justin Bieber is doing something!

Over there! Something controversial!

I remember reading the stories of Br’er Rabbit and his adventures when I was a little kid. I enjoyed the stories then and I enjoyed them being retold in the movie. He was way more interesting than Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit to me. He was smart and savvy, and although his wise-alec attitude got him into trouble, he always could think up a way out. The film stays true to the original characters and its not nearly as racist as the thousand other racially insensitive cartoons and movies from that era and earlier (and I’d still advocate their preservation too). So will watching Song of the South today promote racism? I’d say no. If anything it can give us an insightful glimpse into American history. Not the sad history of American slavery in the 1800’s, but the unfortunate history of 1940’s Hollywood. It’s a pretty good film on its own, but I’d say the controversy and historical context actually enhances it and provides more to discuss. Check it out if you can find it.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” February 15, 2011.

Satellite of the Simians: Blowing It All to Hell

Do you believe in de-evolution? I do. Watch the Planet of the Apes series and you will too. More than a story of apes developing human-like culture and the subsequent domination of the human race, the franchise offers a glimpse into a world of merchandising hell. Each sequel is a little bit worse and exponentially more ludicrous than its predecessor. Such a shame as the original 1968 film is such a brilliant masterpiece of science fiction and allegory. Revisiting the entire series of five movies was like watching a beloved friend being pummeled into the ground by a parade of increasingly dumber people. I kind of enjoyed it.

A nice spaceship crash preceded this moment.

A nice spaceship crash preceded this moment.

The first Planet of the Apes (1968) focuses on lost astronaut, Taylor (played by Moses himself, Charlton Heston), as he travels to the distant future to a world where everything is run by damn, dirty apes and humans are primitive and mute underlings used primarily for sport in this society . Taylor is tormented by the stiff dogma of ape society that embraces tradition over facts and science. Taylor’s primary primate foe is a rigid, but highly intelligent orangutan named Dr. Zaius, played by Maurice Evans (Rosemary’s Baby). He is helped by two chimpanzee scientists, Cornelius and Dr. Zira, played by Roddy McDowell (The Legend of Hell House) and Kim Hunter (A Streetcar Named Desire). It’s a fascinating story that can be read on multiple levels. It can operate as a comical metaphor for the Scopes Monkey Trial and the battle between science and religion or it can function as a racist parable of white fears and prejudiced paranoia of what the world would turn into if the blacks were given too many rights. Edgy and controversial and lots to think about and discuss. Of course, I’d love it. The film also has one of the greatest twist endings of all time (sorry, Shyamalan). You can really see the Rod Serling watermarks on the script. Also Nova is hot.

Dawkins must feel like Heston every day...that would sound really ironic if I wasn't referring to his character in this movie.

Dawkins must feel like Heston every day…that would sound really ironic if I wasn’t referring to his character in this movie.

The makeup and acting is good and the frustration endured by the main characters is compelling. It’s everything great science fiction should be and it was directed by Frank J. Schaffner (Patton, Nicholas and Alexandra, Papillon, and the kinda screwy Boys From Brazil). So where did it go all go so wrong? Answer: the sequels. If you think all the lousy sequels and remakes Hollywood cranks out by the bushel is a new trend, think again. Remember Spielberg’s classic Jaws (1975)? Remember Jaws 4: the Revenge (1987)? Yeah. Unlike the Jaws franchise, however, that really didn’t have much place to deviate from a plot about a shark that eats more people, the Planet of the Apes had a really novel concept (from the Pierce Boulle novel) and a lot of potential to expand. But instead of evolving like the great apes in this series, Apes got raped, cinematically speaking.

Damned dirty what? Dude! That's our word.

Damned dirty what? Dude! That’s our word.

It starts gradually. You almost think for a brief, fleeting instant that maybe Ted Post’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes [or : how I learned to stop having a face and love the bomb] (1970) might go somewhere that’s not a total waste of time. After all, it picks up right where the first movie left off and hey look, there’s Charlton Heston again…oh, wait. No. He just disappeared into a boulder. Here we go.

At least we still have Nova.

At least we still have Nova.

The director of Hang ‘Em High seems ill-equipped to deal with the Apes series and the movie devolves into a cheaper production with thin elements oversimplified from Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp fiction and wanton rehashing of the original. After Taylor disappears in the Forbidden Zone (not the Oingo Boingo movie), Nova (the lovely and scantily clad Linda Harrison) is left alone until she finds another astronaut from another failed space mission (the one that sought to rescue Taylor…and ONLY Taylor, because forget those other guys). This new fella’, Brent, played by James Franciscus (Valley of the Gwangi) is a tedious replacement, but Linda is still foxy as ever. He spies on ape society and the film decides to portray ape society more at odds with the dimwitted, militaristic gorillas rather than the dogmatic orangutans that plagued the more scientific chimpanzees of the original. 

God is an all powerful atom bomb.

God is an all powerful atom bomb.

Zira and Cornelius return (briefly) to help Brent escape and Dr. Zaius leads an aggressive expedition into the Forbidden Zone where we meet a race of subterranean mind-controllers who worship an atom bomb and like to peel their faces off. Very Burroughs. It’s hokey in a kind of stupid yet enjoyable way but it feels like this is the sort of film more suited to Doug McClure (The Land That Time Forgot) than Heston. SPOILER ALERT: at the end everybody dies—even Nova!!!—and the whole world blows up. The end. Well, if all the characters are dead and the world done got blowed up and crap then we can’t possibly have another movie, right? Dead wrong.

It challenges everything we think we know about our own evolution...shouldn't that bus be like dust by now?

It challenges everything we think we know about our own evolution…shouldn’t that bus be like dust by now?

Next came Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971) directed by Don Taylor (The Island of Dr. Moreau). Nova is missed. Who am I supposed to look at now?! Cornelius and Zira (once again, Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter) evidently found Taylor’s spaceship and somehow got it to fly back in time to earth in the 1970s (not sure how). They just miss the explosion that obliterates earth in the future. All of this information is really only mentioned in passing. It never deals with the actual escape part! The bulk of the film concerns Cornelius and Zira reenacting scenes from the first film only in reverse—apes studied by sympathetic scientists while misunderstood by the general public. The film chiefly features Cornelius and Zira doing press conferences and special events and shopping for clothing.

Double mask!

Wouldn’t they stretch out the sleeves a little?

Although the ape society they came from was pretty basic and they were living in rocks and didn’t have much technology beyond cages and nets, they are never impressed by TVs or cars or anything or even by how much more gracious and accepting humans are of them than they themselves were of Taylor. They continuously believe 1970s earth to be dim and primitive because apes are treated like animals here despite our technology being centuries ahead of theirs and apes actually being animals here. This drove me nuts!

The apes conceal their knowledge of the destruction of earth because they just know that human society will see that apes blow up the world and thus will try to exterminate them to prevent the ape revolution of the far distant future. I know what you’re thinking. It disrupts the laws of cause and effect. You can’t go back in time to be your own grandfather and expect to be in the same timeline. Well, an evil human scientist (who is a self-professed expert on time) misses this detail as well and sends the government out to stop them.

Boasting almost as many conference meetings as Star Wars Episode I.

Boasting almost as many conference meetings as Star Wars Episode I.

Cornelius becomes a fugitive after he kills a hospital orderly by knocking a tray out of his hand. Also Zira is pregnant. Eww. SPOILER ALERT: all the monkey characters die, but not before Zira’s baby is switched with a baby chimpanzee at a circus run by a kindly Ricardo Montalban (Wrath of Khan). Everything Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home did right and had fun with is handled so ridiculously in this movie it defies description. The tone is all over the map. You don’t have happy, campy ape shopping montages and then the brutal slaying of these characters (along with a regular baby chimp) in the finale.

My god. When I go back I'm gonna pitch an idea for an ape Price Is Right.

My god. When I go back I’m gonna pitch an idea for an ape Price Is Right.

The last shot isn’t bad and it’s a decent twist. Zira’s baby in the circus grabs the bars and says “mama” over and over and the credits roll. Chilling.

Mama...mama...mama...

Mama…mama…mama…

So the last two sequels were getting progressively silly, but there was still a bit of odd appeal to them. This time things get so unbelievable and stupid that you feel bad for even laughing at it. For Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) Don Taylor leaves the directing chair and hands over the franchise to J. Lee Thompson. How could the guy who directed The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear screw up so bad? Well, he also did King Solomon’s Mines. It doesn’t help matters that Paul Dehn who wrote the last two sequels is still attached. Wait! Paul Dehn has been writing these things? The guy who wrote the scripts for Goldfinger, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and Murder on the Orient Express?! What is going on? It’s a mad house! A MAD HOUSE!

See the symbolism? That means it's a good movie.

See the symbolism? That means it’s a good movie.

Anyway, here’s the big, dumb story in a nutshell: all of the world’s cats and dogs have died in a plague therefore the human race makes apes our slaves, so ostensibly in this distant future [1991] there are only two jobs: fascist ape-hating leaders and people who violently train the apes to do every other job. Everyone else just pickets to try and get their jobs back. You have not lived until you’ve seen grown people dressed as apes dressed as waiters and barbers. Another humorous point is the way they train them is so primitive and bizarre. They hold bananas out and then blast them with fire sometimes, but mostly they sit them in front of any given task (pouring a glass of water or operating a computer) and simply bellow the word “do!” at them and then whip them when they don’t comprehend English. The funniest thing about this whole mixed up society is that the apes are actually comically terrible at most of these jobs and the economy is evaporating and a lot of people seem to be jobless and unhappy, but they stay the course (because the dogs and cats are dead).

Gorillas = dumb. Got it.

Gorillas = dumb. Got it.

Enter Caesar (played by Roddy McDowell who really couldn’t seem to get out of this series), the son of Zira and Cornelius. He leads a revolution because he discovers that he can tell apes to do things via telepathy. A battle ensues and so begins the conquest. There are so many insultingly dopey elements to this film, but perhaps the most insulting of all is the ape makeup. Up until this fourth movie I was under the impression that the civilized apes looked the way they did because they were more evolved or mutated. This film tells me that this is simply what all apes would look like if we put clothes on them. Chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas would all have the exact same proportions as people and I am supposed to accept this because there is a serious commentary about racial oppression in the subtext.

Where do monkeys fit into all of this?

Where do monkeys fit into all of this?

There are too many silly and stupid things in this movie to count. I do wonder about Caesar’s motives too. He is an ape, but can reason and communicate as well as the humans, but he still identifies with the oppressed apes who are still dumb beasts. I wonder if I went back in time and witnessed the enslavement of neadertals by a race of lizard people—who I could actually relate to—if I would lead a caveman revolution. Ultimately it’s sad because it could have been so good. A lot of the societal ideas the movie wanted to explore were fascinating, but poor execution killed it (there is a serious indictment of racism…but it’s a littler racist itself to compare the black Civil Rights movement with the oppression of dumb apes).

Boys and girls, this corpulent, bearded man with the goofy ski goggles is our villain.

Boys and girls, this corpulent, bearded man with the goofy ski goggles is our villain.

Finally comes Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). Thompson directs again and Dehn writes again, but this film is actually slightly better than Conquest. There is just one gargantuan logical leap you will have to make at the very beginning. This leap is so big that it pretty much destroys any fragment of respectability Battle was hoping for. The leap is this: the film takes place about 10 years after the events of the previous movie and in that time there has been nuclear warfare and all of the great apes have evolved and developed a complex culture, military, educational system, history, morality, hierarchy, and can speak English perfectly. At first I thought maybe Caesar (again, Roddy McDowell) just banged everybody and their kids got his smarts, but no. Caesar has only one child and many of the apes were part of the revolution when they were still non-sentient beasts with no civilization. Some humans are subservient to apes and others try to work with the apes, but many apes are much smarter than people. Don’t make sense, do it?

Not the best matte painting, but we get the idea.

Not the best matte painting, but we get the idea. I think it’s the blue skies.

They live in the forest and build a town and a strongly defined caste system is established along with dogmatic principles of society. The chimps are the brainy ones, the orangutans are wise keepers of law and religion, and the gorillas are dumb and love violence (the gorilla stereotype was hinted at in the original, but ever since the second movie they played it up more and more). There is one really bad gorilla named General Aldo who wants to kill all humans (Bender!), but Caesar wants to keep them around and learn from them.

These films just further the stereotype that gorillas are dumb.

These films just further the stereotype that gorillas are dumb.

When a human tells Caesar that recordings of his parents might exist in an irradiated ruin of a city, they go on the first journey to “the Forbidden Zone.” One new character, Virgil, an orangutan, is a nice addition (interestingly Virgil is played by Paul Williams who voiced The Penguin on Batman: the Animated Series while Roddy McDowell voiced the Mad Hatter). In the destroyed city they discover a warped subterranean culture of radiation-poisoned humans (the seeds of the skinless, mind-controlling, atom bomb worshipers of Beneath the Planet of the Apes???). Caesar’s intrusion is unwelcome and they launch a very underwhelming attack that plays like a poor man’s Road Warrior. A very poor man’s Road Warrior.

Why ARE there so many songs about rainbows?

Why ARE there so many songs about rainbows?

SPOILER ALERT: Aldo kills Caesar’s son—disobeying the first rule of ape society, “ape must never kill ape”—and so Caesar kills Aldo and then we see in the far off future the Lawgiver (John Huston. I know, right!) narrating the events to a group of ape children and human children. So we all live in harmony together in this alternate universe and the first movie never happened. Interesting to note that Caesar claims that throughout all of ape history no ape has ever killed another ape and that only humans kill members of their own species. I think Caesar (or Paul Dehn) should have watched the Discovery Channel.

Ape must never kill ape was a good policy...until you never devise a penalty or deterrant for disobeying the policy.

Ape must never kill ape was a good policy…until you never devise a penalty or deterrant for disobeying the policy.

It didn’t end there, I’m afraid. There was a live-action series and an equally short-lived animated series (the likes of which rival Clutch Cargo for sheer production value deplorability). Roddy McDowell was also in the show. The funny thing is that for all the crap the Tim Burton Planet of the Apes (2001) got, it’s actually a far superior accomplishment in comparison to most of the series. It’s not good, but it’s not laughably bad. How did the franchise fall so far?

This is illegal in 46 states.

This is illegal in 46 states.

Planet of the Apes was a cultural phenomena. It was such a popular science fiction series that they just couldn’t stop. The Apes were on lunchboxes and toys and everywhere. It’s just a darn good thing Star Wars came along. The first Planet of the Apes is still a great movie several decades later and watching the whole series can be fun (if you’re like me and like bad cinema sometimes just as much as good cinema), but man did they wreck it. The new film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) is actually a bit of a remake/re-imagining of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. 43 years later and the Apes ain’t dead yet…no matter how many bad movies they make. I’d still say they already blew it all to hell.

Almost as ill-fittingly iconic as "Soylent Green is people." At least the end to "Omega Man" was kept safe...and once you see "Omega Man" you will never see the intro to "Friends" the same way again.

Almost as ill-fittingly iconic as “Soylent Green is people.” At least the end to “Omega Man” was kept safe…and once you see “Omega Man” you will never see the intro to “Friends” the same way again.

A parting shot. We miss you, Nova.

She doesn't speak. She doesn't wear much. She's very devoted without expecting anything in return. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Chauvinist's Perfect Woman.

She doesn’t speak. She doesn’t wear much. She’s very devoted without expecting anything in return. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Chauvinist’s Perfect Woman.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 20, 2011.