erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 1970s posts

Tuesday October 08, 2019

Movie Review: Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976)


Is “Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood” the worst movie ever made?

It’s a comedy that has zero laughs. Zero. And it has Madeline Kahn in it. I didn’t think it was possible for Kahn to be this not-funny but everything she does here falls flat. Kudos to Michael Winner, who took time off between directing rape scenes in “Death Wish” movies, for directing her in this.

It’s a heartless film. Every human being in it is worthless. Women want stardom, and will do whatever to get it; men want power and women, and will do whatever to get both. Near-rape scenes are treated lightly, as are two instances of near-child porn. We get jokes at the expense of the Chinese, Eskimos and “faggots.” Stepin Fetchit makes a cameo as a tap-dancing butler. I’d say the thing is racist and homophobic—it is, of course—but the greater insult is to the whole of humanity. It insults and condemns us all.

Everyone’s awful
It’s 1923 and Estie del Ruth (Kahn) is a starving actress in silent-era Hollywood. She doesn’t even have enough money for the bus to go to a studio for an interview with a director, so she hitchhikes in the manner of Claudette Colbert in “It Happened One Night”—by lifting her skirt. Except, since it’s Winner, and filmed in the 1970s, she’s much less discreet. Full thigh. One car screeches to a halt but he’s rear-ended by the guy behind him, who is rear-ended by ... etc. Four-car pileup. And as the soundtrack gives us a Keystone-Comedyesque rag filtered through ’60s sex comedies, Kahn mugs, hides behind some garbage cans, and mugs some more, while the drivers, all dressed in white for some reason, fight each other. It’s supposed to be reminiscent of slapstick comedies, but it’s so poorly choreographed it’s just confusing. Kahn’s reactions are just confusing. Is she amused? Self-satisfied? What’s going on here?

That’s when, from the garbage can she’s hiding behind, a German Shepherd—whom we’ve seen engineering an escape from a dog pound—rises and licks her nose. That’s our title character. And that’s their meet-cute.

Except almost nothing about their relationship is cute. He loves her but she wants stardom. Does she even like the dog who does everything for her? It’s kind of sad.

When she gets to the studio, for example, the director she meets is actually a stagehand who gets her in a back room, where his intentions are obvious. She’s willing to go along if she gets a starring role—but she wants the quo before she surrenders her quid—and since he’s just a stagehand, he can offer nothing; so he attacks her. It’s the dog to the rescue. In doing so, he becomes a star—this universe’s Rin Tin Tin. And since he only follows Estie’s instructions, she has to be his onset trainer. She resents this. She’s kind of awful about it.

So is her vagueish boyfriend, grifter-director Grayson Potchuck (Bruce Dern), who takes credit for the Won Ton Ton phenomenon while promising Estie he’ll get her a big role in his next production. He never does. Or just as he’s doing so, just as he’s convincing the studio boss, J.J. Fromberg (Art Carney), to include Estie in a movie with Won Ton Ton and Rudy Montague (Ron Leibman)—this universe’s Rudolph Valentino—Estie, in an amazingly stupid coincidence, runs into Montague at a theater where one of his pictures is playing. He’s in drag. To avoid fans? No, he’s a drag And he’s so taken with Estie he demands she co-star in his next picture.*

(*The pitch is that Montague will play Gen. Custer and he and Won Ton will save the regiment. Which leads to a conversation that is only interesting post-Quentin Tarantino:

JJ: Wait a minute. Custer got killed at the end.
Potchuck: So what?
JJ [pause]: You’re right. History’s not the Bible.)

So is Montague an OK dude? Nope. At the press conference introducing the Custer movie, Estie and Won Ton get more attention so he puts out a hit on his co-stars. As one does. That phone call is a master class in gratuitous vileness. When the hit man, Nick (Victor Mature), hears who it is, he turns to his moll and says, “It’s the fag.” Then when the call is over, we see, in the room with them, tied to a chair with thick ropes, a half-naked 2-year-old girl. He tells her he’ll let her go when the ransom is paid; then he puts her gag back in. It doesn’t have anything to do with anything—it’s just tossed in there. It’s like Winner thought, “This scene isn’t awful enough: What can I add?”

The hit doesn't go off, of course. Or Estie gets the upper hand and it turns cartoonish—with speeded-up motion and big “BOING” sound effects. Meanwhile Won Ton, in an attempt to rescue her, tries to jump through the wall like he’s able to do in his movies. Instead he just bangs off and whimpers. It feels like a stagehand just threw the dog actor against the wall. It’s painful to watch.

Then the Custer movie bombs and fortunes turn 180 degrees. Potchuck (and Estie and Won Ton) lose the mansion and are forced to live in a cramped studio apartment with her friend Fluffy (Teri Garr). They try a Mexican porno film, but that bombs, too. So Fluffy and Estie simply become prostitutes. 

Reminder: This is a comedy.

Since Won Ton Ton will attack any man kissing or pawing at Estie, she leaves him with a kindly older man (Edgar Bergen), who, it turns out, is a vicious dog trainer with a shitty two-bit show. She doesn’t tell the man that her dog is Won Ton Ton, the most famous dog in the world, and he doesn’t figure it out. He just whips Won Ton and locks him in a closet and has him sprayed with seltzer on stage. Won Ton, or the dog actor, looks genuinely hurt and confused here, probably because he was. Before long, he becomes a stray.

Reminder: This is a comedy.

Then Estie’s fortunes turn again. On the set of a Keystone-y cop comedy, Mark Bennett (read: Mack Sennett) extols the virtues of Estie in the Custer flick and makes her a star. But now she wants Won Ton back. She holds press conferences and offers $5,000 rewards. Then she and Potchuck get married.

At the wedding, guess who shows up? Won Ton! Yay! The end. No, sorry, we haven’t descended far enough yet. Despite her very public search for him, not to mention the fact that he’s the most famous dog in the world, Won Ton is shooed out of the chapel; and despite his normally resilient personality, he accepts it; he slumps away with head bowed. Then we see him being fed liquor by cackling bums in a dark alleyway. Then he tries to kill himself by:

  • putting his head in a gas oven (Keye Luke tosses him out of his kitchen)
  • lying in the middle of the road (a car runs over him without touching him)
  • putting his head in a noose and knocking the chair away (he slips and falls to the floor)

Reminder: This is a fucking comedy.

Winner’s taste
Ironically, I’ve wanted to see this movie for a long time. I think I wanted to see it when it was released in 1976—being dogless, I liked dog books and dog movies—but it came and went so fast I didn’t get the chance. I was thinking about it again after reading Susan Orlean’s excellent bio of “Rin Tin Tin,” and then again when I'd do deep IMDb dives on the likes of Joan Blondell or Huntz Hall or Eddie Foy, Jr. and discovered they were all in “Won Ton Ton.” Hey, must be something there. How wrong I was. 

The cameos from long-in-the-tooth stars was supposedly one of the movie’s selling points, and, sadly, “Won Ton Ton” wound up being the last screen appearance for many of them. From IMDb’s trivia section:

  • Final film of Stepin Fetchit
  • Final film of Rudy Vallee
  • Final film of George Jessell
  • Final film of Ann Rutherford
  • Final film of Andy Devine
  • Final film of Johnny Weismuller
  • Final film of William Demarest

It’s like a hit list. It’s like Michael Winner killed them all. 

Why do I keep blaming Winner, by the way? Why not screenwriters Arnold Schulman (“Goodbye, Columbus”) or Cy Howard (“Smothers Brothers”)? Or someone at Paramount Pictures? Because by his own admission Winner was a bit of a martinet. “You have to be an egomaniac about it,” he said of directing. “You have to impose your own taste. The team effort is a lot of people doing what I say.” Some actors have gone further; they say he was a virtual sadist on set.

In the end, of course, Estie and Won Ton are reunited, but it’s just so stupid. Won Ton shows up at Estie’s new place overlooking the ocean, but their butler—again, oblivious—shoos him away; then he throws rocks at him. Won Ton whimpers; then he tries to kill himself again by running into the surf. That’s when Estie finally spots him, and they’re all reunited, and cavorting in the surf. The press gets wind, talks up the next Won Ton Ton picture with Estie, but she says the dog isn’t Won Ton; it’s another dog. She lies so he won’t have t do movies anymore. Because that was always the problem.

This stupid movie can’t even get its movie history right. It keeps referencing Clara Bow as the industry’s big star when that was later—1926 or '27. It shows Keystone Cop movies being filmed when that was earlier—the 1910s. Potchuck has a recurring gag pitching movie ideas that get shot down even though they’re the plots of later box-office hits: “It’s about a giant shark terrorizing an entire New England town,” he says, or “A little girl gets possessed by the devil.” He also pitches a musical about a girl who “gets caught up in a tornado and she winds up in this strange land with a scarecrow and a guy made out of tin.” Immediate thought: Musical? In the silent era? And why doesn’t anyone say “You mean ‘The Wizard of Oz’?” Since, you know, it was known. It was a famous series of books that had already been made into a movie three times: 1910, 1914 and 1925.

I haven’t even mentioned how “Won Ton Ton” gets his name. Early on, Potchuck is pretending the dog is his even though he keeps calling him different things: Rex, Fido, etc. So J.J. asks for his name.

Potchuck: Well, his name is .... All right, I mght as well tell you the whole story. When I was working on the railroad back there in ’21, there was this Chinaman bit by a rattlesnake right here in the throat. He lay dying in my arms, and just before he died, he looked up at me so sadly and said, [in pigeon English] “You take care of my dog, no matter what happen. Because he like my velly own boy.”
JJ: Look, I’m not interested in Chinamen, they don’t go to many movies. What the hell is the dog’s name?
Potchuck [dazed]: Won Ton Ton.
JJ [dubious]: Won Ton Ton.

And that’s the joke.

At the Custer screening, one fed-up moviegoer shouts, “This picture could kill the movie business!” Truer words, brother.

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Posted at 07:09 AM on Oct 08, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 1970s   |   Permalink  
Thursday April 27, 2017

Movie Review: The Great Waldo Pepper (1974)


Patricia made a face the other night when I suggested watching Robert Redford in “The Great Waldo Pepper,” but it turned out she’d never seen it. I had. Three times? Five? More? Never in the theater, just on TV or cable, but probably not in 25 years. Most of the story was still in my head but I was curious how it had aged. Or how I had.

“Waldo” is lesser Redford from his glory period. He was the biggest movie star in the world, and from’73 to ’76 he starred in the following:

  • “The Way We Were”
  • “The Sting”
  • “The Great Gatsby”
  • “The Great Waldo Pepper”
  • “Three Days of the Condor”
  • “All the President’s Men”

The Great Waldo Pepper movie reviewOnly “Gatsby” sucked. Redford was all wrong to play a man hopelessly in love; that’s not his character. He’s the one women are hopelessly in love with. Think Barbra in “The Way We Were,” Mary Tyler Moore weekly stuttering his name, and the prison guard’s wife in William Goldman’s book “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” who tells her husband she would gladly “get down on her hands and knees and crawl just for the chance to fuck him one time.” Again: She tells her husband this. So, yeah, not Gatsby.

Which raises a question: What was the essence of the Redford character during his heyday? Into his late ’30s, he was still playing the ingénue, still being shown the ropes by the like of Paul Newman and Jason Robards. And Barbra. His character has promise and his character often fails. That happened to be the essence of America at the time—how we viewed ourselves. “The Way We Were” actually makes the comparison explicit: “In a way he was like the country he lived in: everything came to easily to him.” And then it didn’t. That’s the point of the ’70s. When everything stopped being easy.

Pepper vs. Kessler
“Waldo Pepper” begins in the late 1920s, and while life isn’t exactly easy for the title character, it is freewheelin’. He’s a young blonde-haired hunk of man barnstorming around Nebraska, and selling simple folk on the thrills of aerial adventure. For some reason the movie posits him as a kind of charlatan, a bullshit artist. He’s supposed to come off a bit like Redford’s grifter in “The Sting,” but when you think about it he is actually selling something worthwhile: a chance to see the world from the sky. In the 1920s, that’s the stuff of gods.

The bullshit comes when he tells the local yokels about his dogfights during the Great War against German ace Ernst Kessler (cf., Ernest Udet): how he and four other guys had him in their sites but Kessler shot them all down, all except Pepper, whom he fought to a standstill until Pepper’s guns jammed. Kessler saw this, saw his opponent was helpless, but he didn’t take advantage. There was honor in the skies. He pulled up alongside him, saluted, and continued back to Germany. A great story. A true story. But not Pepper’s story. He didn’t make it into battle; he was still training recruits at the time. When he’s caught in the lie by his rival Axel Olsson (Bo Svenson, surprisingly good), his lament is: “It should’ve been me.”

That’s the tragedy of his life when we first meet him: He thinks he’s one of the best but never got the chance to prove it. The tragedy of the rest of the movie is that that life, the life we first see him living, disappears. He becomes increasingly saddled—first with a partner (Axel), then a flying circus (Doc Dihoefer’s), then federal regulations (former pal Newt, played by Geoffrey Lewis). But the real problem is other people’s ennui. Planes become everyday, so the crowds disappear, so the stunts have to become bigger and more dangerous to draw them back. The tension is between the crowds, who demand blood, and the feds, who demand safety, with our heroes caught in the middle.

The crowd gets what it wants. Axel’s movie-loving girlfriend, Mary Beth (Susan Sarandon), is pulled into wing-walking to add sex to the stunt; but despite her visions of grandeur, of becoming the “It Girl” of the skies, she freezes on the wing. Despite Herculean efforts to save her, she falls. (Patricia was legitimately, vocally shocked by this; she forgot what ’70s movies were like.) More gruesomely, Pepper’s pal, Ezra Stiles (Edward Hermann), finally finishes the plane that might be the first to perform an outside loop, but at this point, because of the Mary Beth tragedy, Waldo is grounded by the feds, so Ezra tries it himself. He’s not pilot enough to pull it off, and on the third try crashes. Trapped by the plane, the yokels gather around, some with cigarettes, and the leaking gas is ignited. Ezra is burned alive while everyone watches. This traumatized me as a kid, not least because I didn’t get it. Why did everyone just stand there? My father tried to explaining it to me, but, to be honest, as an adult now, 54, I think it’s part of the movie’s bullshit. It was the era’s extreme anti-populist message, and it feels false to me. And I’m a cynic.

Eventually, Waldo follows Axel to Hollywood, becomes a stunt man, then finally meets the great man, Ernst Kessler (Bo Brundin), on the set of a “Wings”-like aviation epic about Kessler’s dogfights. They talk, lament the passing of better days, then go off-script in the skies so they can dogfight without the guns in one final moment of freedom. They essentially kill themselves in the skies. It’s a dumb ending. It makes Thelma and Louise seem like they were really thinking it through.

A regular August Wilson
You know what I kept thinking watching this? Charles M. Schulz. He grew up in the Midwest (St. Paul, Minn.) in the 1920s. He could’ve been that kid getting gasoline for Waldo’s plane. He certainly bought into the romance of it all, then updated it in the 1960s with Snoopy and his Sopwith Camel, which is where I picked it up. Everything I learned about the Great War I learned from a beagle.

Was it Redford specifically, or the popular cinema at this time, that kept looking backwards, ceaselessly, toward the past? From ’73 to ’85, his only movies with contemporary settings were the two political thrillers above and “Electric Horseman” in 1979. Otherwise he’s a regular August Wilson:

  • 1910s: “Out of Africa”
  • 1920s: “The Great Gatsby”; “The Great Waldo Pepper”
  • 1930s: “The Sting”; “The Natural”
  • 1940s: “A Bridge Too Far”
  • 1940s-50s: “The Way We Were”
  • 1960s: “Brubaker”

A man out of time.

“Waldo” isn’t bad. Redford’s gorgeous, Bo Swenson is remarkably good, so is Sarandon. Writer-director George Roy Hill, a real aviation buff, gets the details right. It’s fun for an evening—Patricia liked it—but it doesn’t quite resonate. Like the bi-planes it’s filming, it just kind of drifts away. 

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Posted at 04:28 AM on Apr 27, 2017 in category Movie Reviews - 1970s   |   Permalink  
Thursday March 02, 2017

Movie Review: The Towering Inferno (1974)

The Towering Inferno


People often talk about the worst best picture Oscar winners of all time—I’m often one of them—but rarely do we get a discussion of the worst No. 1 box office movies of the year. The former indicts the Academy, the latter all of us. It’s so much more fun pointing fingers.

But if we were going to have such a discussion, the list would surely include the following:

And this one.

On some level, this one feels more unforgiveable, since the No. 1 movies surrounding it chronologically are still regarded as, you know, pretty fucking good: “The Godfather” in 1972, “Exorcist” in ’73, “Jaws” in ’75. We still watch those, own those, discuss those. “The Towering Inferno”? Part of that Irwin-Allen-produced, All-Star Cast, disaster flick era, with “Airport” (No. 2 in 1970) “The Poseidon Adventure” (No. 2 in 1972), “Earthquake” (No. 4 in 1974), and “The Swarm” (died at the box office). And you say it was No. 1 in 1974?* Whaddaya know.

(* Box Office Mojo now lists “Blazing Saddles” as the No. 1 movie of 1974, but that’s only because the money it earned during a 2013 re-release. For decades, “Inferno” was No. 1.)

As a teenager in the 1970s, I didn’t see any of these disaster flicks. Maybe I caught bits when they showed up on “edited-for-television” TV, but I don’t think I sat through any of them. Particularly “Towering Inferno.” Planes and upside-down boats were one thing, but fire? The Fire Safety Program in 5th grade made me terrified enough. “Inferno” was the last thing I wanted to see.

Forty years later, though, I was curious. Just how bad was it?

When an “All-Star Cast” meant something
Pretty bad. It’s a soap opera. It’s like what “Love Boat” would become: different people come on board with their own little micro-dramas, then disaster strikes. Here it’s fire, there Gavin MacLeod.

As All-Star casts go, this one is pretty tight. The key is to mix old-timers and up-and-comers with current stars. Every decade after the silents is represented: 

  • 1930s: Fred Astaire, loose and athletic at 75.
  • 1940s: Jennifer Jones, looking shellacked by plastic surgery; it’s her last film.
  • 1950s: William Holden as the movie’s developer-villain, but apparently the nicest guy on the set.
  • 1960s: Our headliners: Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway.
  • 1970s: dishy newbie Susan Blakely and everyone’s favorite football player O.J. Simpson.

We also get TV stars of the ’60s (Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner and Richard Chamberlain), along with one from the ’70s: Bobby Brady himself, Mike Lookinland, acting in scenes with Newman and Dunaway. OK, “acting.”

The micro-dramas: Newman is the architect of “the world’s tallest building” in L.A., but he’s ready to go off in the desert, or some such, disappointing the developer, Holden, as well as his paramour, Dunaway, who’s just been offered a managing editor gig that she can’t turn down. Except almost immediately after some afternoon delight with Faye, Newman has to track down wires in the building that are short-circuiting because his specs weren’t followed. The culprits? Holden, cutting corners, and Holden’s ne’er-do-well son-in-law, Richard Chamberlain, who’s married to Susan Blakely.

Meanwhile, Astaire plays a con artist with a heart of gold who is trying to bilk Jennifer Jones out of her money; Robert Wagner is some exec who’s sleeping with his secretary, Susan Flanner. A deaf woman with two kids and a cat also live in the building.

The kids are saved by Newman, the woman and the cat by O.J., our football hero. Wagner and Flannery are the first to die, post-coital. There’s almost a sadism to these scenes, a lingering over their pain and deaths. The lesson is clear: Don’t sleep with your secretary, kids, even in the ’70s when that shit was totally cool.

The one who doesn’t have a micro-drama attached to him? Who isn’t part of the soap? Steve McQueen, playing the fire chief. He’s also the best thing in the movie. By far. He’s the man doing his job and looking after his men. He’s no-nonsense. It’s shocking how good he is. Even Newman comes off as a cardboard figure in comparison.

Who lives who dies who tells your story
The story goes like you expect it to. There’s a party on the top floor, the developer ignores the warnings until it’s too late. Eventually a breeches buoy is strung between buildings to rescue the women. A scenic elevator gets caught in the flames and dangles by a cable. Plenty of flaming people fall from the building. 

Mostly you wonder who will live and who will die. Chamberlain will buy it, of course, as well as the other villains: the developer, the politician (Vaughn), and Jennifer Jones (too old?). The only death that made me upset was when Gregory Sierra, playing Carlos the bartender, is killed off it at the 11th hour. I actually screamed “Noooooo!” out loud. Chano, we hardly knew ye.

The dialogue is awful, the romantic dialogue worse (Newman: “I'm not a cheeseburger”/ Dunaway: “No, you're way better: all protein, no bread.”). The day is saved when the water tanks on top are blown and smother the fire for 50 floors. It works so well, it makes you wonder why they didn’t do it before everyone started dying. 

Throughout, the lesson is a ’70s one: Watch out for greedy bastards. But at the very end, back on the ground, McQueen the fireman blames Newman the architect, who seems to accept responsibility:

McQueen: One of these days, you’re gonna kill 10,000 in one of these firetraps, and I’m gonna keep eating smoke and bringing out bodies until somebody asks us how to build them.
Newman: [pause] Okay, I’m asking.

Wait, so Newman designed the building poorly? Then why did we all cheer when Richard Chamberlain bought it? The further in we get, the less he sounds like an architect. Back on the ground, he dismisses the record-breaking monument he designed like a typical '70s cynic:

I don't know. Maybe they just oughta leave it the way it is. Kind of a shrine to all the bullshit in the world.

He thought that was bullshit? He had no idea what was in store. 

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Posted at 08:19 AM on Mar 02, 2017 in category Movie Reviews - 1970s   |   Permalink  
Saturday March 29, 2014

Captain America (1979): The Slideshow Review

  • Was there a worse time to make a Captain America movie than January 1979? Jimmy Carter's malaise speech was six months away, the Iranian hostage crisis 10 months away. Patriotism was at a low ebb and superheroes were something geeky kids like me read. So how to do make a story out of Captain America?

  • At least there were more muscle-bound actors like Reb Brown populating Hollywood. The question remained: Could he act?

  • Or draw? This is what Steve Rogers does here. He's an ex-Marine, sure, but he's through with that shit, man. Now he wants to roam the highways and biways of the land on a never-ending mission. Sorry, wrong '70s superhero. He just wants to be. Dig? He just wants to find himself.

  • That's what he tells Dr. Simon Mills (Len Birman, the best thing in the TV movie). Mills is basically Cap's Oscar Goldman: the bland, benevolent government man who guides the protege along. He also injects him with the super serum (FLAG: Full Latent Ability Gain) that Steve's father invented from his own adrenal gland. That's why only Steve can use it. Everyone else dies of cell rejection. 

  • Here, Steve is told all about FLAG and rejects the idea.

  • Here, he realizes he's been injected with it anyway.

  • Here he's just realizing ... something. Like maybe he should've taken acting lessons.

  • But the suit is delivered.

  • Along with the clear plastic shield ... which is also the windshield to his bike ... which he keeps in his Chevy van. And that's all right with me.

  • But they really should've rethought the helmet.

  • I get it. They were trying to tap into the popularity of Evel Knievel. 

  • But the helmet makes him look like the Great Gazoo.

  • Yes, we get some OK shots for the period.

  • But they must have shot their wad on these stunts. Because the grand finale?

  • Reviving an asphyxiated oil baron with a neutron bomb tied to his pacemaker.

  • If he dies, all of Arizona, and most of LA, will die with him. Will it work?

  • It works! But little else in 1979's “Captain America” does. Full review here.
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Posted at 08:01 AM on Mar 29, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 1970s   |   Permalink  
Friday March 28, 2014

TV Movie Review: Captain America (1979)


Was there a worse time to make a “Captain America” movie? This thing first aired January 19, 1979, six months before Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech, when patriotism was for squares and scoundrels and superheroes were wish-fulfillment fantasy for skinny geeks. Or so people thought. “Superman: The Movie,” released a month earlier, already proved both ideas wrong, or at least irrelevant in the marketplace, but “Captain America” tread lightly around both subjects. We don’t see Cap as Cap much. And as for patriotism? Well ...

The original Steve Rogers was a 4F volunteer who knowingly signed up for a dangerous experiment because he wanted to serve his country. This Steve Rogers is a muscle-bound, peace-loving dude with a van. He’s a former Marine who wants to coast up and down the west coast, drawing what he sees.

This is his early philosophy, as he turns down the offer to become a superhero. He says it in the bland, lifeless monotone of a non-actor:

It’s been yes-sir no-sir for as long as I can remember. Three military schools and the Marine Corps. That’s been about it. I think I’ve paid my dues ... Now I just want to get out on the road, look at the faces of Americans. Maybe get some down on canvas. I don’t want to report in or check out. I don’t want to look forward to weekends. I want every day to be the same. I just want to kick back, find out who I am.

Is there a greater late ’70s ethos than that? A van, bad art, and “finding yourself.”

The American ideal
It’s easy to see what they were going for. The great superhero of 1970s television was the Six Million Dollar Man, the great daredevil of 1970s television was Evel Knievel, and Marvel had already launched both “Spider-Man” and “Hulk” TV franchises. Mix them all together and you get this. Captain America 1979 TV movie Reb BrownGet the good Captain to do motorcycle jumps like Evel, have him jump high and crush things like Steve Austin, and make the superpower all about tapping into human potential.

Bill Bixby’s “The Incredible Hulk” did that. In moments of stress, people could lift cars and things? That’s what fascinated David Banner. Here it’s similar. “Science has known for a long time that man, in all of his endeavors—mental, physical—uses, very rarely, more than one-third of his capacity,” says Dr. Simon Mills (Len Birman), this show’s combination Oscar Goldman/Dr. Rudy Wells, as he tries to get Steve to become Cap.

It seems Steve’s father, back in the ’40s, had developed “the ultimate steroid,” synthesized from his own adrenal gland, that unleashed the human potential. He called it FLAG: Full Latent Ability Gain. (I know.) The serum still works ... but it kills its host. Cell rejection. But Steve is his father’s son. Same cells and shit. Maybe it’ll work with him?

Except that’s when he gives the above thanks-but-no-thanks speech and splits. Superstrength is great but ... he needs to paint, bro. Even though he looks like he’s spent his entire life in a gym.

Fate intervenes. He finds one of his father’s friends, Jeff Hayden (Dan Barton), dead. Then Steve himself is run off the road. He’s about to die. So Dr. Mills arranges for him to be injected with FLAG. To save him ... and create the show.

Guess what? Steve isn’t grateful. He’s angry—if you can sense anger behind Reb Brown’s acting. So he splits again. But he’s followed again—this time into a meat locker, where, between the slabs of beef, he takes the bad guys out. And he kinda digs it. And he spends a day at the beach with Mills’ assistant, Dr. Wendy Day (Heather Menzies), then walks along the beach just rapping with Dr. Mills about Steve’s father. How he went after the corrupt ones, “the bosses, the organizers, the ones in really high places,” and how they, snidely, gave him a nickname: Captain America. We get this:

Steve: The American ideal. A little tough to find these days, isn’t it?
Mills: Not if you know where to look.
Steve: Right on.

Yeah. Dynomite.

The bad guy in all of this is another job creator, an oilman named Lou Brackett (Steve Forrest), who is building his own neutron bomb so he can rob the Phoenix gold repository of billions. Captain America, with a motorcycle helmet for a helmet, stops him by swinging onto the truck that contains Brackett and the neutron bomb and twisting an exhaust pipe so Brackett is asphyxiated. When two henchman investigate, he knocks them out by ... wait for it .... pushing the door open really, really fast.

And thus a superhero is born. The art world’s loss is the world’s gain.

The hills are alive with something
It’s not completely, horribly awful. I like the human potential idea. And the cell-rejection answers why there are no other Captain Americas. Plus a few of the stunts aren’t bad.

But it’s shot on a thin dime with a thinner imagination and one of the worst leads I’ve seen. Reb Brown displays a range of emotion from A to A-. He’s supposed to be a nice doofus in the beginning and a superhero by the end, but in the middle he shows his cards by being a bit of an asshole. “C’mon, little man,” he says to one helpless guy after he sneaks into the Andreas Oil Co. His mighty shield is clear plastic and doubles as his motorcycle windshield. His helmet makes him look like the Great Gazoo. I get it: They’re trying to get away from the superhero costume—as most superhero movies have since (“X-Men, “Heroes,”)—but they don’t do it in a smart way. Worse, the whole thing is filmed in that awful, washed-out, late ’70s style.

Did they hire Menzies, another “Sound of Music” alum, because it worked so well with Nicholas Hammond in “Spider-Man”? Because it didn’t. And doesn’t. To be fair, Menzies is given a thankless role. She’s supposed to be the head of some top-secret government research lab but seems mere assistant to Mills. Is she also Steve’s girlfriend? They share a kiss on the beach; then she’s forgotten. So ’70s.

But at least Steve Rogers finds himself. Right on.

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Posted at 05:35 AM on Mar 28, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 1970s   |   Permalink  
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