Saturday, May 30, 2015

In Praise of Shamrock and Lucky

In 1950, at the waning days of the Western b-movie era, two aging former sidekicks of Hopalong Cassidy and a prolific b-movie director shot six C-grade western movies in 30 days.  I think this is a tremendous achievement in the wild and crazy history of b-movies and isn't talked about enough.  It could really be a primer for how movies could be made, but I don't know if this feat will ever be achieved again.

Notable in the production is that the main actors all have the same character names in every movie; James Ellison is Shamrock, Russell Hayden is Lucky, Julie Adams is Ann, and well-known character actors Raymond Hatton and Fuzzy Knight play the Colonel and Deacon, respectively; and this is despite Hatton and Knight playing both good guys and villains, actual Colonels or nicknames, actual Deacons or a person named Deacon.  I suppose if you shoot six movies at once it's hard enough to keep everything straight without having a different name in every movie.

The same supporting cast mixes it up and plays different parts in each movie, bad guys and deputies and barbers and bartenders.  Notable among them is former silent star Tom Tyler, at the end of his career and generally playing the villain's right-hand man.

Apparently they shot all the scenes for each movie at each location--be it a ranch, a saloon, the western town streets, and so on--at one time, and moved on.  Some stock footage--notably of a runaway stagecoach--is repeated also.  Of course, when these movies were made there was no notion that they could or would be watched back to back on DVD, so these elements would never be noticed by moviegoers, and was a pretty clever idea by director Thomas Mann.  They are all also apparently rewrites of other b-movies from decades past.

 And the movies, perhaps in spite of or because of their shortcomings (and short running times), are pretty enjoyable.  My favorite is COLORADO RANGER, where the Shamrock Kid, Lucky, and the Colonel are rogues hired to run off some homesteaders; they take a shine to Ann instead and switch sides.  This one shows an easy camaraderie as the trio cheat at cards, practice trick shooting, and end up having to take care of a baby--who they pacify by letting him play with a gun.

CROOKED RIVER changes it up as Lucky leads a gang of bad guys against Shamrock, but has a change of heart when one of his henchmen (John Cason, who has memorably bad guy turns in several of these ) blinds Lucky to make off with Lucky's kid sister Ann.  Lucky was getting tired of the outlaw life anyway and jumps back over to the right side for a memorable finale.

FAST ON THE DRAW starts with one of those repeated stagecoach scenes, and Shamrock's parents are killed by outlaws, with little Shamrock the only survivor.  He develops a phobia against guns, which is unfortunate when his motor-mouthed sidekick Lucky brags them up to the point that they are made lawmen in a town terrorized by an outlaw called The Cat. Fortunately Shamrock gets over his childhood fears in time to deal with The Cat.

In MARSHAL OF HELDORADO Lucky takes what he thinks is a sweet job as sheriff in a town without realizing the short life expectancies of the former lawmen.  The town is terrorized by the Tulliver Brothers (with good scenes from all the usual supporting cast), and Lucky's only help is Shamrock, who plays a guileless Eastern dude (who rides into town on a mule!).  Naturally Shamrock has a few tricks up his sleeve after all--including inducing two of the outlaws to shoot each other--and the good guys win in the end.

WEST OF THE BRAZOS is a knotty yarn for a b-western as The Cyclone Kid (John Cason, good again, and Tom Tyler gets a bigger villainous part too) pretends to be Shamrock to claim jump on his family ranch.  But Shamrock is on his way home after many years away.  He crosses paths with a wounded marshal, who convinces Shamrock to impersonate him to capture The Cyclone Kid.  Shamrock ends up in jail for impersonating a police officer, and fake Shamrock seems triumphant, but Lucky saves the day with a neat trick.  Lucky has an interesting role in this one; he was deafened during the war and has learned to read lips, and a couple of memorable scenes make it look like he has nerves of steel because he can't hear people shooting at him.

HOSTILE COUNTRY is probably the least of them, as Shamrock goes back home after his mother's death (again) to meet a stepfather he doesn't know (also part of WEST OF THE BRAZOS) and finds his stepfather making enemies of everyone around, including Shamrock and Lucky.  As in most of these, everybody isn't quite who they say they are and some fistfights and gunplay is required to sort it all out.

These have been nicely collected in a two DVD set called The Big Iron Collection, and is worth checking out and thinking about.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Chose A Gun, And Threw Away The Sun

A heapin' passel of publicity stills and behind the scenes photos from "Calamity Jane's Revenge," a western movie I wrote for director Henrique Couto.  I had a great time working on this one, magnified more so by the thought that I was born too late to ever write a western, but got to write one anyway.  After a few trips to Italy in recent years I found a renewed interest in Italian movies, gorging on giallo, peplum, poliziotteschi, but especially spaghetti westerns (including an attempt to watch every movie with Django in the title, which I'll blog about someday).  And I got to play in a real sandbox, with Calmity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, Charlie Utter, Con Stapleton, and other Deadwood legends--many of which lived lives bigger than fiction.  Eager to see how it turns out.

And yes, that's wrestler Al Snow (playing Charlie Utter).  I didn't go to the set that day though, didn't want my intense physical presence to make him feel intimidated or anything.

Thanks to two people more talented than me, Alicia Lozier and Randy Jennings, for letting me use their photos.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Down in the Badlands

Let me make this clear:  it is not common for a screenwriter to be invited to a movie set.  Being a screenwriter is like being a virgin; most directors call and call and call and when you finally give it up they stop calling.  But some directors, like Henrique Couto, aren't like that; in fact Henrique always invites me to the set, and then pretends like I know what I'm talking about.  Here I am on the set of Calamity Jane's Revenge, looking at some badass dailies.  Later I proved I had some modest worth when I built a campfire for a critical scene.  Then we used it to cook hot dogs, and the strange truth is that I have cooked hot dogs for people now on three movie sets:  Among Us, The Da Vinci Curse, and now Calamity Jane's Revenge.  This was taken, for some reason, by a talented photographer named Alicia Lozier.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Live Like A Cop, Die Like A Man

Fourth time to Italy, for those that missed me, and as you can see it can still use a little picking up, a Starbucks and a SuperTarget or two.  I have always called Italy the Land of the Shrug--maybe this, maybe that, maybe now, maybe later--but for some reason this trip I heard a lot of cries of "Silenzio!"  Even more so than I hear in America.  Perhaps it is all the talk about ISIS wanting to pester them but, frankly, I would leave these people TF alone.  Hard to hate on people that have my dream life--drinking wine, eating pizza, taking naps, reading comics, but then turning into badasses when needed (re:  Franco Nero, Anthony Steffen, Gianni Garko, Giuliano Gemma, Maurizio Merli, George Hilton, George Eastman, Terrence Hill, Bud Spencer, Tomas Milan, et al).

Vittorio De Sica 4 Lyfe

Every time I go to Italy, I see something different.  I'm walking along one day and see this plaque in the sidewalk.  It commemorates the site of the shooting of one of the greatest films of Italian cinema and in fact world cinema, and one of my faves as well, The Bicycle Thief.  The start of Italian Neorealism and part of my fertile imagination.

The Girl Who Knew Too Much

I saw several film/TV crews while I was in Italy this time (sweet irony as back in Ohio, a spaghetti western I wrote, Calamity Jane's Revenge, was underway).  One I couldn't tell what they were doing, one seemed to be some sort of period piece, and one was some sort of comedic crowd scene.  Not to call my brothers out but it looked like there was some guerrilla filmmaking stuff going on, which naturally my trained b-movie I was drawn to.  And how it warmed my heart to turn on the TV went I hit the hotel and see a Terrence Hill and Bud Spencer movie on; almost as good as that time I caught For A Few Dollars More late at night, with Clint and Lee Van Cleef speaking Italian.

I Turn the Switch and Check the Number

Speaking of my people, I had my annual pilgrimage to the grave of Guglielmo Marconi, the father of radio. He is in the Basilica di Santa Croce alongside dudes like Galileo, Michelangelo, and Machiavelli, who all have gigantic statues here while my brother had to make due with a lot less. But this is a significant upgrade over when I was here two years ago when his plaque looked like something you'd see in a pet cemetery.

The Return of Ringo

Every time I visit Italy I think of this place, my favorite to visit; it's the large fumetti and giallo market at the Piazza della Repubblica. I always enjoy strolling through here and finding unusual things.

Kill Baby Kill

Nothing much, just an eerie, crypt-lined passage leading to a pay toilet.  Ciao, everyone!  You can see all my past adventures in Italy here.

Monday, May 25, 2015

There's A Red House Over Yonder

A found footage movie I wrote, "Alone in the Ghost House," will be debuting Friday June 5 at 10 p.m. at the Englewood Cinema in Englewood, Ohio.  I wrote it so quickly, and it was produced so quickly, I keep forgetting that I worked on it.  And now here it is.  I didn't write a script per se as I did about a 30-page extended treatment with some dialogue and situations and a lot of plotting and character breakdowns.  Astoundingly, it is pretty much all in there, thanks to some good acting and improv work (and some hella editing).  Plenty of chills, even though I pretty much knew what was going to happen.  I think it's a cool entry in the found footage subgenre, but check it out for yourself.

Friday, May 22, 2015

That Time David Letterman Paid For My Wedding

David Letterman signed off this week, and a lot of people have weighed in on what he meant to people's lives.  But he changed mine in a real way.

David Letterman sponsors a scholarship in his name at mine and his alma mater, Ball State University, and way back in 1987 this scholarship was still in its infancy.

The Telecommunications students of today might not recognize the school I went to.  We played records on a carrier current radio station (my shift was called "Hotel Rock," and I signed off every Saturday night by playing "Living in the Past" by Jethro Tull), we had a black and white TV studio, we shot Super-8 film, we walked uphill in the snow.  One good thing was that there were a lot of  Letterman's old teachers still around, telling stories.

I wanted to win a scholarship, badly, but had seen some other's work and didn't think I could win on production value alone.  I decided to write a script, even though a script had never won a Letterman before.

I was heavily influenced by public radio at the time, listening to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings radio dramas on a big console television that also had a radio and record player.  So I wrote a radio drama called West Coast Campus, a highly fictionalized version of my time as a reporter for the Ball State Daily News, where my alter ego was cooler.

I wrote three thirty-minute episodes in longhand, then starting typing it up on a typewriter.  As the deadline for submissions loomed, I thought it wasn't enough, so I basically stayed up all night the night before it was due and wrote a fourth 30-page script directly into the typewriter.  At the time there was a typing center at the student union, so I went over there and paid a young woman $25 to type my synopsis for nine more episodes, basically a season's worth of shows.

I was running late, so I called the department secretary and begged her to wait until I got there to turn in my project, all 135 pages.  I jumped on my bicycle and pedaled to campus, making the deadline only because she waited for me.  She was a really nice woman who later died of cancer.

That spring I went to the gala announcement.  They showed clips of each entry, all video productions, and Letterman's lawyer and I think his mother was there.  When they got to mine, the program's MC and faculty liaison to Letterman said, "And we have this entry, a writing project," held up my bound pages and let it fall from his fingers to the podium with a hollow slap.  I could have sunk into the floor.

But I won a scholarship, the first writing project to ever win one, and because I was a smartass, when the others got up and thanked all kinds of people that helped them, I got up and thanked the Smith-Corona Typewriter Company and the inventor of White-Out, then sat back down quickly.

Back then, David Letterman wrote you a check.  They don't do that any more, probably because of me.  I took $1,000 dollars of it and bought a 1980 Mercury Monarch.  I took $1,000 of it and paid for my whole wedding.  The rest I spent on school.

You also got tickets to the Letterman show, if you wanted to go (also a Late Night sponge and collapsible cup and hat).  He was on NBC then and the same faculty member who let my project fall to the podium with a hollow thud simply gave me the phone number to Letterman's office.  I called and his assistant scheduled our VIP tickets.

My new wife and my brother and a girl he sort of picked up on the way left for New York during Spring Break 1988.  We stayed in Newark to save money and took the train to the World Trade Center.  We ate at Carnegie Deli and looked for Woody Allen.  We got a free carriage ride in the cold rain because the lady driving the carriage was heading home for the day and felt sorry for us.

Then we got to 30 Rock and saw a really long line.  I walked to the front and asked for the VIP line and the guy said in his most world-weary New York accent, "This IS the VIP line."

But we got in to the small, scruffy studio.  Isiah Thomas was on, and Terrence Trent D'Arby sang "Wishing Well."  Chris Elliot popped out of a hatch in the floor nearby.  Larry Bud Melman came out and talked.  Letterman sat there with a cigar during the commercial breaks.

Somewhere I have the hat but gave the sponge and cup to my brother-in-law.  I have a letter from Letterman somewhere as well, though I can't remember what is says.  But it was a memorable time in my life, and a point of conversation for a long time after.

Supposedly one day Ball State is going to put up a wall of all the Letterman winners.  Some people have seen my picture from that time, and think I have a mullet.  I didn't have a mullet, it was a shadow on the wall behind me.  But it looks like a mullet.

I always say it was my first paid writing gig.  I went a long time before getting paid again, with real life and family in between.  I sold my first screenplay in 1999 and have chewed along ever since.  But 1987 was an awful good year.