Saturday, 25 July 2020

Reflections on ... Flame of the Islands (1956)

Flame of the Islands (1956) shares the same basic premise as many another fun kitschy film: a brassy libidinous good-time girl (usually some variation of “nightclub singer”, which is Old Hollywood shorthand for “scarlet woman”) rocks-up in some torrid exotic locale and her mere presence - and disruptive sexuality - can’t help but wreak havoc. Think of Marlene Dietrich in Seven Sinners (1940), Rita Hayworth in Miss Sadie Thompson (1953) or any number of Jane Russell vehicles like His Kind of Woman (1951), Macao (1952) or The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956).

In fact, it’s easy to picture Russell in the lead role in Flame of the Islands, a lurid 1956 melodrama via poverty row Republic Pictures. (Synopsis: "An ambitious, sultry cabaret singer invests in an upmarket club in the Bahamas and tries to rekindle an old romance"). But I’m glad the part went to that other sublime atomic-era brunette sex goddess Yvonne DeCarlo (the future Lily Munster), who had comparatively fewer opportunities to shine than Russell. Flame certainly makes for a persuasive showcase for DeCarlo’s allure. She’s a tough, sensual and glamorous presence as hard-boiled heroine Rosalind Dee. DeCarlo gets to sing (she has two high-camp calypso musical numbers, one of which is entitled “Bahama Mama”), emote (including a convincing drunk scene), carry the burden of a painful secret in her past (she has multiple identities: Rosalind Dee is really Linda Darcy!), fight-off unwanted romantic overtures from multiple men (seen today, these look alarmingly like sexual harassment) and tenaciously pursue the man she really loves, complete with spectacular wardrobe changes (watch for a fluffy white angora sweater that Ed Wood Jr would covet). 

/ French language poster for Flame of the Islands (1956) /

/ Zachary Scott and Yvonne DeCarlo in Flame of the Islands (1956). Photo via /

And Flame is filmed in Republic Studio’s signature glorious Trucolour process, the poor man's Technicolour. (If you’ve seen Nicholas Ray’s perverse and operatic 1954 Western Johnny Guitar, you’re au fait with the wonders of Trucolour). The better-than-life colours (like the blue of a swimming pool, DeCarlo’s ice-pink dress) really sizzle. In fact, for a relatively low-budget film, Flame is a gorgeous viewing experience. Because the action is set in the Bahamas there are lots of heavenly bamboo Tiki moderne-style interiors (DeCarlo's minimalist bungalow is all rattan furniture, tropical prints, sprays of gladioli and a jungle of cheese plants). And some of the action takes place over Christmas, so you get to see what tropical Tiki mid-century Christmas decor is like. (Watch for the silver aluminum tree). Even though the main characters seemingly spend a hell of a lot of time in front of "green screens" (and when they get in a car, it's rear projection a-go go), Flame was definitely filmed on location in Bahamas, which makes for a sun-kissed  and idyllic backdrop.

/ Photos via /

It must be noted: Flame is a product of its era. For a film set in the Bahamas, it’s entirely apathetic about the actual Bahamian populace, who are confined to the margins in servile roles - usually carrying a tray of cocktails - throughout. I cringed when DeCarlo’s housekeeper (filmed from behind) warns her about the dangers of voodoo. The only time we see black faces in close-up is when a group of adorable little black boys sing “Yes Jesus Loves Me” at a church service on the beach. And of course, when DeCarlo warbles her calypso numbers she adopts faux-Jamaican patois - cultural appropriation alert!

/ Rosalind scandalizes the snobby local blue bloods by bustin' out a raunchy musical performance at the Christmas cocktail party! / 

/ Above: Yvonne DeCarlo and Howard Duff in Flame of the Islands /

Howard Duff is pallid as Doug Duryea, the rich boy from an entitled old money background who broke DeCarlo’s heart years before years - and who she yearns to reunite with. The reliably intense character actress Barbara O'Neil (aka Scarlett O’Hara’s mother in Gone with the Wind) wrings maximum drama from every second she’s onscreen as Duff’s heart attack-prone, needy and neurotic socialite mother Charmaine. Of course, Charmaine is mortified that her son is entangled with a disreputable nightclub chanteuse with a scandalous past. There are delicious incidences where her hoity toity high society matron friends give DeCarlo horrified, disapproving “well I never!” glares. 

/ You might remember scene stealer par excellence Barbara O'Neil from supporting roles (usually as brittle, bitchy mothers) in films like All This and Heaven Too (1940) and Angel Face (1952) / 

Lanky James Arness is ruggedly handsome as Reverend Kelly Rand (those broad shoulders! Those tousled blond curls! That lantern jaw!). The scene where Kelly takes DeCarlo marlin fishing on his boat - with blatantly fake and mismatched use of stock footage - is one of Flame’s kitsch highlights. Best of all, that consummate lounge lizard and mustache role model Zachary Scott plays Wade Evans, DeCarlo’s gay best friend who tags along for the adventure. At least, that’s how Wade comes across in Scott’s campily indolent performance. Watch for Scott’s sartorial zenith in one sequence where he lounges in a red-and-white striped Breton shirt with pink trousers. Fiercely chic! With its jolting lurches in tone and unexpected narrative twists (there's an entire confusing organized crime subplot I haven't even touched on), Flame of the Islands represents the irresistible acme of juicy, pulpy and garish fifties b-movie melodramas. It hypnotized me into a trance of pleasure! 

/ A flaming Zachary Scott lounging in Flame of the Islands (1956). Photo via /

Watch Flame of the Islands here! But remember ...

... it's not suitable for children!

Friday, 24 July 2020

Reflections on ... Lizabeth Scott in Dark City (1950)

Recently watched: Dark City (1950). I will always drop everything to watch a movie starring smoky-eyed, husky-voiced Lizabeth Scott (1922–2015) – one of the most haunting and memorable actresses of the forties and fifties and a perennial favourite of mine.  

But in Dark City (a minor but taut and suspenseful film noir crime drama), Scott’s role as Fran Garland, the long-suffering and neglected love interest of Charlton Heston, is unrewarding. On the plus side, since she’s playing a nightclub chanteuse, Scott gets to wear a series of sensational painted-on sequinned gowns (by Edith Head) and throatily warble some torch songs (although it’s not her own voice - she’s dubbed by a professional singer. Scott frequently played nightclub singers and one of the great mysteries of her career is that Paramount executives never permitted her to do her own singing onscreen – even though she was a stylish and alluring singer in her own right and released an album in 1957). 

But mostly Scott is required to be masochistically devoted to Heston and give him pleading, dewy-eyed looks. After juicy and challenging parts in superior films like Pitfall (1948) and Too Late for Tears (1949), Dark City must have felt anti-climactic for Scott. Eventually you want to grab Fran by the shoulders, shake her hard and say, “He’s just not that into you!”

Monday, 20 July 2020

Reflections on ... Good Morning ... and Goodbye! (1967)

Recently watched: Good Morning … and Goodbye! (1967), a juicy, lurid and raunchy family melodrama concerned with the pain of adultery and the serious, genuine psychological condition of nymphomania, directed by visionary maestro of sexploitation and “the rural Fellini”, Russ Meyer. (Tagline: “For those who measure success only in the hours before the morning light!”).

/ This promotional photo is strange: that's Alaina Capri and Haji - but I'm pretty sure the blonde on the right does not appear in Good Morning ... and Goodbye? She certainly isn't the third female lead, Karen Ciral /

As the very chatty narrator (who comments on the action throughout) opines, “All of the characters are identifiable, perhaps even familiar. And perchance you may view the mirror of your own soul!” Cuckolded impotent Burt (Stuart Lancaster, the wheelchair-bound old man in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) is tormented by the rampant, wanton infidelities of his much-younger cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof trophy wife Angel (Alaina Capri). Meanwhile, his sexpot teenage daughter Lana (Karen Ciral) is itching to lose her virginity and casting around for a likely candidate …

As per usual with Meyer, expect an emphasis on eye-popping heaving décolletage, titillating glimpses of near-nudity, outrageously verbose “hepcat” dialogue, spontaneous bursts of frantic go-go dancing, skinny-dipping, fist fights, muscle cars (Angel speeds-around in the most magnificent low-slung matte gold Cadillac DeVille convertible) and male beefcake (for a resolutely hetero and breast-fixated filmmaker, Meyer’s camera was a surprisingly equal opportunity lech. The “well-developed” frequently shirtless male eye candy here - Patrick Wright and Don Johnson - could have stepped straight out of a 1960s homoerotic Athletic Model Guild physique pictorial). In addition, the fabulous Haji (the volcanic Latina go-go dancer Rosie from Faster, Pussycat!) inexplicably pops-up as a mystical forest-dwelling semi-nude … what would you call her? A sorceress? A sprite? A wood nymph? Anyway, she represents “passion and sex exploding a scent of musk and earth that surrounds her body like a mist. She is a honeycomb with no takers, a witch that can fly only one night a year!”

But Good Morning truly belongs to the sin-sational Alaina Capri as hot-pool-of-woman-need Angel, breathlessly described as "a lush cushion of evil perched on the throne of immorality … a monument to unholy carnality, and a cesspool of marital pollution, a shameless, brazen, bulldozing female prepared to humiliate, provoke, and tantalize, savagely seeking the tranquilizer of unrestrained fulfillment". Snarling her acidic dialogue in the flattest, most sullen tones imaginable from beneath a mane of teased bouffant hair and resembling a debauched Barbara Parkins (Anne Welles from Valley of the Dolls), Capri is a trampy bitch goddess extraordinaire. In an ideal world she would be as celebrated as other Meyer leading ladies like Tura Satana or Erica Gavin. Good Morning … and Goodbye! just may be Meyer’s most underrated work.

In conclusion: Good Morning ... and Goodbye! is apparently so obscure and forgotten by 2020 that when I searched online for representative high-resolution images to illustrate this blog post, I came up with almost nothing decent. There are no good pin-ups of Alaina Capri online either. How disappointing!

Further reading:

My reflections on Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

My reflections on Vixen (1968)

Sunday, 19 July 2020

Reflections on ... Brigid Berlin (6 September 1939 – 17 July 2020)

/ Portrait of Andy Warhol and his entourage of Superstars by Cecil Beaton, 1969. Left to right: Brigid Berlin, Candy Darling, Warhol and Ultra Violet /

Farewell to one of the last surviving Warhol Superstars (and last links to old-school New York bohemia) Brigid Berlin (sometimes known as Brigid Polk, 6 September 1939 – 17 July 2020), who has died aged 80. 

Like fellow Superstar Edie Sedgwick, Berlin was the wayward daughter from an old money high society family (her father was the chairman of the Hearst media empire) who jettisoned the role of debutante ordained for her to gleefully letting her freak flag fly at the Royal House of Warhol in the sixties and seventies instead. As Berlin herself explained, “My mother wanted me to be a slim respectable socialite … instead I became an overweight troublemaker.” 

/ Portrait of Brigid Berlin by Gerard Malanga, 1971 /

An outsized character in every sense (at one point her weight topped 300 pounds), Berlin is a ferocious, abrasive, frequently naked, sometimes scary and often hilariously funny presence in the underground cinema of Andy Warhol. Her performances in films like Chelsea Girls (1966), Imitation of Christ (1967), and Bad (1977) are rivetingly obnoxious. Berlin was also a notorious speed freak, who terrorized the unsuspecting in the VIP backroom of bohemian haunt Max’s Kansas City by jabbing them with her hypodermic needle of amphetamines. (Warhol films Berlin furiously ranting and shooting-up speed in Chelsea Girls). 

/ Dual Polaroid portrait of Berlin with fellow Warhol Superstar Nico, circa early seventies /

Berlin was also an artist in her own right, using the mediums of Polaroid photography and “tit prints” (dipping her own breasts into paint and pressing them onto paper). Until Warhol’s death, Berlin (who’d kicked amphetamines by this point) worked as the receptionist at his Interview magazine – albeit an extremely unconventional one. (She preferred to eat candy, knit and fuss over her pet dogs than answer telephones). It’s undeniably disillusioning and bizarre to learn that as she aged, the rebellious Berlin gradually reverted to type, ultimately becoming every bit as conservative as her patrician socialite mother. Towards the end of her life, Berlin was even a Trump supporter! I did warm to her, though, when I read that in Berlin’s reclusive housebound later years, she “cleaned obsessively, then cleaned some more.” For me, the unapologetically butch and androgynous Berlin exuded a “big dyke energy”, but the otherwise thorough New York Times obituary doesn’t touch on her sexual preferences or romantic life. Director John Waters was an admirer (Berlin made cameo appearances in Waters’ films Serial Mom (1994) and Pecker (1998) and he wrote the introduction to her coffee table book of Polaroid photography). In the NY Times obit he sweetly recalls, “I was scared of her in the best way.” Berlin is the subject of the 2000 documentary Pie in the Sky: The Brigid Berlin Story, which I clearly need to see.

Thursday, 16 July 2020

Reflections on ... Disco Godfather (1979)

Recently watched: Disco Godfather (1979). Tagline: “Touch him and you're dust!” I’m using this period of enforced social isolation to explore the weirder corners of YouTube for long forgotten and obscure movies. (My boyfriend Pal is accompanying me only semi-willingly).   

Blaxploitation action movie. Anti-drug cautionary tale. A joyous celebration of disco hedonism featuring rollerskating. Disco Godfather is all this and more! If that’s not enough, Disco Godfather also keeps threatening to turn into a horror movie when we witness the freaky demonic bad trip “visions” of zombified angel dust casualties. When a reverend and some church ladies gather to perform a bedside exorcism to “save the soul” of a female PCP victim, it overtly recalls the earlier blaxploitation Exorcist rip-off Abby (1974). As if to underscore the comparison, Abby’s leading lady (Carol Speed) even appears here in a supporting role!  

Rudy Ray Moore stars as Tucker Williams, an ex-cop turned fiercely glamorous nightclub impresario and superstar DJ known as “Disco Godfather”. When his much-loved nephew – a promising basketball player – is hospitalized after freaking-out on angel dust, Williams vows revenge on the elusive local drug kingpin – and kicks a lot of bad guy ass along the way! (The ultra-fake fight scenes – complete with sprays of spurting blood – are pure comedy gold. Some martial arts are thrown in too for good measure). 

I’m the first to admit I wasn’t previously au fait with charismatic actor, comedian, singer, film producer and all-round Renaissance man Rudy Ray Moore (1927 - 2008) and haven’t yet seen Dolemite Is My Name (the acclaimed 2019 biopic starring Eddie Murphy), but I’m an instant fan. Apparently, Moore’s homosexuality was a tightly guarded secret during his lifetime (and Dolemite is My Name reportedly skips the issue entirely). For me, seen today there is a genuine camp / queer sensibility to Disco Godfather and Moore himself emerges as a regal, flamingly flamboyant African American man in the grand style of Little Richard or Esquerita. In the close-ups he clearly seems to be wearing false eyelashes, and his outrageous sparkly disco attire is designed for maximum nipple exposure!

The climactic final show-down at the abandoned warehouse goes on forever and the constant fighting becomes numbingly repetitive, but anything-goes oddity Disco Godfather has much to recommend it. For aficionados of seventies style, the disco scenes offer a sublime time capsule of superfly fashion and hairstyles. And watch for the dancing white twink extra with the ultra-seventies “bowl” haircut who manages to hog a lot of screen-time in the nightclub sequences doing his signature “robot move”! 

Watch Disco Godfather here:

Note: the good folks at Vinegar Syndrome have issued a deluxe remastered region free Blu-ray and DVD combo pack of Disco Godfather. 

Saturday, 4 July 2020

Reflections on ... Seeds (1968)

Seeds (1968). Tagline: “Sowed in Incest! Harvested in Hate!” I’m using this period of enforced social isolation to explore the weirder corners of YouTube for long forgotten and obscure movies. (My boyfriend Pal is accompanying me only semi-willingly). 

I’ve recently been delving into the filmography of notorious gutter auteur and cult figure Andy Milligan (1929 - 1991). Milligan is frequently derided as one of the worst directors of all time but judging by Seeds at least, that assessment is unwarranted. A mind-boggling true cinematic atrocity, Seeds offers a frenzied study in depravity and should be catnip for aficionados of John Waters and the Kuchar brothers. 

Tyrannical alcoholic invalid Claris Manning is enraged to discover that her youngest daughter Carol has invited her long-estranged siblings over for Christmas. The ill-fated family reunion that ensues rapidly descends into a journey into hell, with bed-hopping, ugly vitriolic emotional confrontations and suicide. Even worse: a serial killer begins picking off the family members one by one as the weekend proceeds. 

Words like “toxic” and “dysfunctional” barely scratch the surface of this ultra-perverse bad taste psychodrama.  Everything coalesces to administer a rude shock: insanely melodramatic music surges on the soundtrack, the actors screech their dialogue as if their lives depend on it, and Milligan hurls his camera right into the fray, using low angles to maintain maximum claustrophobia. There’s also copious nudity (bare breasts and glimpses of pubic hair of the female variety. Considering Milligan was gay, ideally, we would have seen more male flesh!). 

As Claris the venomous wheelchair-bound matriarch twisted by hate, Maggie Rogers should be embraced as a hagsploitation icon. Seated at the head of the dinner table, she exclaims to her offspring, “There isn’t anyone sitting at this table I’d give two cents for!” followed by  “Well, you’ve ruined my life and I’ve just ruined yours!” When one of her daughters timidly suggests, “I wish you’d have some food, mother …” Claris roars, “You know I hate FOOD!” Watch Seeds and ask yourself: what kind of tormented mind dreamed this up? 

Watch Seeds here:

Note: the digitally remastered director's cut of Seeds is also available on Blu-ray and DVD via the reliably excellent Vinegar Syndrome.

Read more about Andy Milligan here.