Saturday, February 26, 2022

Sex Kittens Go to College (1960)

(This blog post is part of the 4th Annual So Bad It's Good Blogathon hosted by Taking Up Room)

The term psychotronic refers to movies made on low budgets, often in the science fiction, fantasy, or horror genres, that were ridiculed by critics. There is perhaps no movie more "psychotronic" than Sex Kittens Go to College (1960). The comedy anticipated AIP's "Beach Party" movies in combining a college setting with touches of science fiction (and nearly everything else), all made on a shoe-string budget. Quite naturally, critics hated it. Also quite naturally, it has become a cult film.

Sex Kittens Go to College stars Mamie Van Doren as Dr. Mathilda West, a super-genius who holds thirteen different degrees and speaks 18 languages. She also happens to be a buxom blonde who drives the male staff and students at Collins College to distraction (no surprise there given she is played by Mamie Van Doren). In addition to a super-intelligent beauty, Sex Kittens Go to College also involves a robot, gangsters, a chimp, and the usual teen hi-jinks.

Sex Kittens Go to College originated with producer, director, and screenwriter Albert Zugsmith. Albert Zugsmith began his career as a journalist, publicist, newspaper broker, and  attorney. Among other things, he represented Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in their unsuccessful lawsuit against National Periodical Publications for the rights to Superman. He went from being a broker for newspapers, radio stations, and television stations to producing motion pictures. He started out with such low budget movies for RKO as Captive Women (1952) and Sword of Venus (1953) before producing such films as Raw Edge (1956), Star in the Dust (1956), and Touch of Evil (1958) for Universal.

Albert Zugsmith moved from Universal to MGM. His first film for MGM was High School Confidential! (1958), starring Russ Tamblyn and Mamie Van Doren. Mr. Zugsmith had met Miss Van Doren at the Universal commissary. He cast her in the Western Star in the Dust despite objections from Universal executives. Following Star in the Dust and High School Confidential!, Mr. Zugsmith and Miss Van Doren would make five more films together. Initially Albert Zugsmith did not direct the films he produced, but all of that changed with College Confidential (1960). He also directed Sex Kittens Go to College (1960), which was filmed before College Confidential, but was released after it. Both films starred Mamie Van Doren.

Albert Zugsmith would have some problems with MGM regarding the title of Sex Kittens Go to College. It went through such titles as Sexpot Goes to College, Sexpot Versus Teacher, and Teacher Was a Sexpot. MGM objected to the word "sexpot" as being too salacious. Mr. Zugsmith and MGM then settled on the title Sex Kittens Go To College as if the term "sex kitten" was somehow less provocative than "sexpot." When released to television it would undergo another title change, being renamed the much less provocative Beauty and the Robot.

Sex Kittens Go to College was filmed from November to December 1959. Despite this, it was released in October 1960, only two months after College Confidential. To put it lightly, the film was less than well received by critics. Despite the critics' opinions, Sex Kittens Go to College did relatively well at the box office for a low budget film.

Mamie Van Doren was hardly the only big name to star in Sex Kittens Go to College. Martin Milner, who had appeared in such films as Pete Kelly's Blues (1955) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and would start his run as Tod Stiles on the TV show Route 66 not long before the movie was released, played Mamie Van Doren's love interest, George Barton. Jackie Coogan played gangster Wildcat MacPherson, while John Carradine played Professor Watts and Louis Nye played Dr. Zorch. Tuesday Weld played college student Jody; she was appearing as Thalia Menniger on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis even as Sex Kittens Go to College was filming. The movie also featured Conway Twitty, Vampira, and, in minor roles, Charlie Chaplin Jr. and Harold Lloyd Jr.  Conway Twitty also performed the movie's title song, "Sexpot Goes to College." Although today firmly identified with country music, at the time Conway Twitter was counted as a rock 'n' roller.

As to Thinko, the robot who played a major role in the plot, he was not a mere prop. In reality Thinko was Elecktro, a robot built by  Westinghouse Electric Corporation between 1937 and 1938. In 1939 he was exhibited at the New York World's Fair. In the Fifties Elektro toured the United States, promoting Westinghouse. From the late Fifties into the early Sixties, he was displayed at Pacific Ocean Park in Venice, California. He is currently owned by the Mansfield Memorial Museum in Mansfield, Ohio.

Perhaps because of the low budget, it sometimes seems as if they simply made Sex Kittens Go to College up as they went along. The film is certainly over the top. After all, it combines a plot lifted from Ball of Fire (1941) with a robot, a bongo playing chimpanzee, gangsters, college politics, and college hi-jinks. It should be no surprise that in many ways Sex Kittens Go to College is a bad movie. Some might even say that it is a very bad movie. Despite, this somehow it all works. Sex Kittens Go to College is so outrageous, so blatant in its excesses, that it can't help but be entertaining. Indeed, the cast, from Mamie Van Doren to Martin Milner, all seem to be having fun in the movie. There is perhaps a good reason that while critics hated Sex Kittens Go to College, it went onto become a cult film anyway.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Godspeed Sally Kellerman

Sally Kellerman, who played  Major Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan in the movie M*A*S*H (1970) and appeared on such TV shows as The Twilight Zone and Star Trek, died yesterday, February 24 2021 at the age of 84. The cause was heart failure.

Sally Kellerman was born on June 2 1937 in Long Beach, California. Her family moved to San Fernando Valley when she was in fifth grade at school. It was when she was a sophomore in high school that her family moved to Park La Brea, Los Angeles. After graduating from Hollywood High School, Miss Kellerman attended Los Angeles City College where she took Jeff Corey's acting class. While at Los Angeles City College she appeared in Jeff Corey's production of Look Back in Anger. She later joined Actors Studio West. She made her film debut in 1957 in Reform School Girl (1957). She made her television debut in an episode of Playhouse 90 in 1959 and guest starred on an episode of Bachelor Father in 1960.

Sally Kellerman appeared frequently on television in the Sixties. Among her guest appearances was playing Dr. Elizabeth Dehner in the second Star Trek pilot "Where No Man Has Gone Before." She also guest starred on the shows Lock Up; Surfside 6; Cheyenne; The Twilight Zone; I'm Dickens, He's Fenster; The Lloyd Bridges Show, The adventures of Ozzie and Harriet; The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis; My Three Sons; The Outer Limits; The Greatest Show on Earth; Slattery's People; Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre; 12 O' Clock High; The Rouges, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour; Kraft Suspense Theatre; Seaway; Ben Casey; A Man Called Shenandoah; The Legends of Jesse James; Bonanza; I Spy; That Girl; T.H.E. Cat; Tarzan; Insight; Coronet Blue; Dundee and the Culhane; The Invaders; Premiere; IT Takes a Thief; Hawaii Five-O, and Mannix. She played Major Houlihan in the movie M*A*S*H (1970, for which she was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. She also appeared in the movies  Hands of a Stranger (1962), The Third Day (1965), The Lollipop Cover (1965), The Boston Strangler (1968), The April Fools (1969), and Brewster McCloud (1970).

In the Seventies Miss Kellerman appeared in the movies Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972), A Reflection of Fear (1972), Slither (1973), Lost Horizon (1973), Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins (1975), The Big Bus (1976), Welcome to L.A. (1976), A Little Romance (1979), Foxes (1980), It Rained All Night the Day I Left (1980), Serial (1980), Loving Couples (1980), and Head On (1980). She was the voice of The Seal in the animated film The Mouse and His Child (1977). On television she appeared in the mini-series Centennial. She guest starred on Great Performances.

In the Eighties Sally Kellerman guest starred on the TV shows Faerie Tale Theatre, CBS Children's Mystery Theatre, Hotel, Tall Tales & Legends, CBS Summer Playhouse, and Evening Shade. She appeared in the movies Moving Violations (1985), KGB: The Secret War (1985), Back to School (1986), That's Life! (1986), Meatballs III: Summer Job (1986), Three for the Road (1987), Someone to Love (1987), You Can't Hurry Love (1988), All's Fair (1989), Limit Up (1989), and The Secret of the Ice Cave (1989).

In the Nineties Sally Kellerman was a regular on the short-lived TV series 2000 Malibu Road. She guest starred on the shows Dinosaurs; Murder, She Wrote; Dream On; Burke's Law; High Society; The Naked Truth; Touched by an Angel; Ink; Gun; Diagnosis Murder; Columbo; and The Norm Show. Sally Kellerman appeared as herself in the movie The Player (1992) and also appeared in the movies Doppleganger (1993), Younger and Younger (1993), Mirror Mirror 2: Raven Dance (1994), Ready to Wear (1994), It's My Party (1996), The Maze (1997), The Lay of the Land (1997), and American Virgin (1999).

In the Naughts Miss Kellerman guest starred on the TV shows In-Laws, Providence, and Masters of Science Fiction. She appeared in the movies Women of the Night (2001), Open House (2004), The Boynton Beach Bereavement Club (2005), and I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007). In the Teens Sally Kellerman was a regular on the TV shows Chemistry, Unsupervised, The Young and the Restless, Maron, and Decker. She guest starred on the shows Law & Order: Los Angeles, 90210, Workaholics, The High Fructose Adventures of Annoying Orange, High School USA!, Comedy Bang! Bang!, and Difficult People.

Sally Kellerman was an incredible actress. Her performance was Major Houlihan in M*A*S*H was truly worthy of an Oscar nomination. In Brewster McCloud she played the mysterious woman Louise, giving another great performance. Her performances on television were no less impressive. She was fantastic as Dr. Elizabeth Dehner, the psychiatrist who develops psionic abilities in Star Trek's second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before."In the humorous Bonanza episode "A Dollar's Worth of Trouble" she excelled as a blonde who causes trouble for Hoss. In the Centennial she did well as Lise Bockweiss, a Bavarian immigrant. Sally Kellerman was a versatile actress who could perform both comedy and drama equally well.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

In Support of Ukraine

I had another blog post planned for today, but given the events of the past 24 hours I would like to state my support for Ukraine.

As most classic film fans know, Jack Palance was the child of Ukrainian immigrants. His birth name was Volodymyr Palahniuk. Jack Palance was very proud of his Ukrainian heritage. Along with character actor Mike Mazuarki (who was also Ukrainian American), and others, he attended the dedication of the Taras Shevchenko Monument in Washington, D.C. on July 3 1964. It was there that he read an English translation of Taras Shevchenko's poem "I Care Not If It's In Ukraine." Below is Jack Palance's reading of the poem, which never more felt more relevant in my lifetime than now.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

All Lies End in Murder (1997)

Vanessa Marquez in All Lies End in Murder
Vanessa Marquez in All Lies
End in Murder

This past January 19 it was 25 years since the premiere of the television movie All Lies End in Murder. It first aired on The ABC Sunday Night Movie on January 19 1997. All Lies End in Murder involved some notable talent both behind and in front of the camera. For myself it is notable as the only TV movie in which  my dear friend Vanessa Marquez appeared during her run as Nurse Wendy Goldman on the TV show ER.

In All Lies End in Murder, following the murder of a police officer (Markie Valesquez, played by Rene L. Moreno), a police officer's wife Meredith Scialo (Kim Delaney) comes to suspect that her husband (Danny Scialo, played by Jamey Sheridan) is a corrupt cop. The movie follows her as she seeks evidence to confirm her suspicions.

The teleplay for All Lies End in Murder was written by someone with a notable surname. Lynn Mamet is the sister of David Mamet, the playwright and screenwriter behind such works as the play Glengarry Glen Ross and the movie House of the Games (1987). Lynn Mamet had begun her career writing under her married name, Lynn Weisberg, but changed to her birth  name after a studio learned she was David Mamet's sister. It was directed by Andy Wolk, who had worked in the New York City theatre before moving into television and directing TV movies and episodes of such shows as Tales from the Crypt and N.Y.P.D. Blue. Lynn Mamet would later go onto work on the TV show Law & Order, while Andy Wolk would go onto work on such shows as The Practice and Criminal Minds.

Here it must be stressed that All Lies End in Murder was not based on a true story. While the phrase "based on a true story" would become synonymous with TV movies, TV movies based on true stories really did not begin to take off until the mid to late Eighties. TV movies based on true stories peaked in popularity around 1992. By the mid-Nineties they had declined sharply in popularity, forcing the networks to seek out TV movies with more original storylines. All Lies End in Murder is one of those movies.

At the time that All Lies End in Murder aired, Kim Delaney was still appearing as Detective Diane Russell on N.Y.P.D. Blue. Jamey Sheridan had played Dr. John Sutton on the TV show Chicago Hope. He would later play Captain James Deakins on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Kevin Kilner played Rich Bernardi in All Lies End in Murder. He had previously appeared in the feature film Twenty Bucks (1993) and starred on the short-lived sitcom Almost Perfect. Meredith Scialo's fellow police wives were played by Any Pietz, who was on Caroline in the City at the time, and Robin Bartlett, who was appearing on Mad About You.

Vanessa Marquez in All Lies End in Murder
While her name appears in the opening credits, Vanessa Marquez actually plays a very small role in All Lies End in Murder. She plays murdered police officer Markie Valesquez's widow Yvonne Valesquez. Vanessa is little more than window dressing in the film, appearing only in a few scenes and getting only a few lines. That having been said, what time she is on screen she does make an impression. She does a very good job of playing the grieving, young widow of a police officer.

Over all, All Lies End in Murder is superior to most TV movies of the time. It unfolds much more realistically than many of the TV movies allegedly "based on true stories." The plot is also filled with suspense, making All Lies End in Murder a fine thriller. Unlike many TV movies of the Nineties, the performances are naturalistic and not overwrought. Ultimately, All Lies End in Murder has only one major flaw. Late in the movie's plot an incident occurs that nearly breaks suspension of disbelief in the film. The incident itself is realistic enough, but consequences from that incident that one would expect in real life never occur. I can only figure that perhaps Lynn Mamet did not have the adequate time to deal with the incident (TV movies in the Nineties only ran a little over 90 minutes after commercials).

Sadly, All Lies End in Murder is not widely available. It has never had an official release on DVD, nor is it on any streaming services. It can be found on the grey market. On YouTube there is a version dubbed into French under the French title La vérité à double tranchant (literally, "Double Edged Truth").

I very seriously doubt very many people remember All Lies End in Murder, which is a shame. It is a superior TV movie that stood out from its contemporaries in that it featured a fairly realistic plot and performances that were not overwrought. It definitely deserves the DVD release that many lesser TV movies have gotten.

Monday, February 21, 2022

Canada Lee: Musician, Athlete, and Actor

When people think of classic Black actors, such names as Paul Robeson, Dorothy  Dandridge, and Sidney Poitier may come to mind. There are only a very few who might think of Canada Lee. This is a shame, as he was an extremely talented and versatile actor.

Canada Lee was born Leonard Lionel Cornelius Canegata on Mach 3 1907 in New York City. He grew up in Harlem. He was very young when he proved to have an aptitude for music. He started studying violin and piano with J. Rosamond Johnson at the Music School Settlement for Colored People when he was only seven years old. He was only eleven when he made his concert debut. He left home when he was 14 in 1921, going to Saratoga Springs, New York. It was there that he became a jockey.

He returned to Harlem in 1923 (according to Mr. Lee it was because he gained too much weight to be a jockey). He considered taking up music again, but a friend suggested that he try boxing. It was through boxing that he received his stage name. He was billed as Canatega Lee at an amateur boxing match, but announcer Joe Humphries announced him as "Canada Lee." Canada Lee liked the name and decided to keep it. He proved to be a formidable amateur boxer, winning 90 out of 100 bouts. He also won the amateur  lightweight title. He went professional in 1926. Records for boxing were not very well kept in the Twenties and Thirties, but Mr. Lee's obituary in The New York Times reported he won 200 bouts and lost 25. He ended his boxing career after a blow from Andy Divodi at Madison Square Garden on December 12 1929 detached the retina of his right eye. While Canada Lee won the 10-round match, he lost his sight in his right eye. He then chose to stop boxing.

Canada Lee was still boxing when he formed a dance band. Initially playing at smaller clubs, Canada Lee's fortunes would change because of his old friend Ed Sullivan. Ed Sullivan had been a sports writer, but had launched an entertainment column in 1932. Mr. Sullivan plugged Canada Lee's band in his new column and the band began playing bigger venues. Eventually Canada Lee opened his own club, The Jitterbug. Sadly, it remained open only for six months in 1934.

Canada Lee's career more or less came about by accident. In need of a job, he went to visit an old friend who was a counsellor for the employment bureau at the Harlem YMCA. He wandered about the YMCA for a while before entering a small auditorium where auditions were taking place.  He took a seat and watched the auditions. It was after a while that the director, Frank Wilson, beckoned Canada Lee to the stage, thinking he was there to audition. It was actor and playwright Augustus Smith who recognized him as the boxer Canada Lee. Frank Wilson then persuaded Mr. Lee to read for a part. Canada Lee got the part,that of Nathan in Brother Mose. His acting career had officially begun.

Canada Lee would prove to have a successful career on stage. In 1934 he replaced Rex Ingram in a revival of Stevedore that played on Broadway and later went on tour to such cities as Chicago and Detroit. He played Banquo in Orson Welles's production of Macbeth. Mr. Lee would go onto appear in such productions as Haiti, Mamba's Daughters, Native Son, The Tempest, and Anna Lucasta.

While Canada Lee was enormously successful on stage, he would make only a few movies. He made his film debut in 1939 in Keep Punching, playing the trainer for boxer Henry Jackson (Henry Armstrong). It was in 1944 that he appeared in one of his most significant film roles, playing Joe Spencer in Lifeboat. Canada Lee played boxing trainer Ben Chaplin in the film noir Body and Soul (1947), Naval officer Lt. Thompson in Lost Boundaries (1949), and  Black minister Stephen Kumalo (Canada Lee) in Cry, the Beloved Country (1951).

Sadly, Cry, the Beloved Country would be Canada Lee's final role.  He died on May 9 1952 at the age of 45. At the time it was reported that the cause was a heart attack, but his widow later revealed that he had uraemia and he had actually died of kidney disease.

In addition to being a talented actor, Canada Lee was also a remarkable man. In 1940 he met a young Jewish runaway named H. Jack Geiger backstage at Native Son. With the consent of young Geiger's parents, Mr. Lee too him in and young H. Jack Geiger stayed with him for a year. It was with a loan from Canada Lee that he was able to enroll at the University of Wisconsin in 1941. H. Jack Geiger not only became a well-known, respected physician, but an activist for civil rights. Among other things, he would become one of the founders of Physicians for Social Responsibility and Physicians for Human Rights.

When Canada Lee was touring the New York City boroughs with Native Son in 1941, he bought tickets to the show for fifty underprivileged boys from the Harlem YMCA. During World War II he promoted the buying of war bonds, and also spoke out against segregation in the United States military. He would late speak out against apartheid in South Africa.

Sadly, Canada Lee would fall victim to the Hollywood blacklist, which is why he did not appear in more movies. According to Canada Lee's widow, Frances Lee, like other Black celebrities Mr. Lee was approached to denounce fellow actor and activist Paul Robeson as a Communist. According to Mrs. Lee, Canada Lee refused to do so. While some accounts claim that Canada Lee did denounce Paul Robeson, this seems highly unlikely. If he had, it would seem that he would no longer have been blacklisted. For that matter, Paul Robeson and Canada Lee remained friends until Mr. Lee's death. It would seem then that, despite the fact that he would not longer be blacklisted, Canada Lee refused to betray one of his friends.

In some ways Canada Lee seems like a superhero. He was a musician. He was a jockey. He was a boxer. He was an actor. And while his careers as a musician, jockey, and boxer may have been cut short, he proved to be very successful as an actor. While he would only have a few movies to his credit, he is impressive in all of them. Once one has seen Canada Lee in a film, one can never forget him. It makes it all the sadder that he was blacklisted and died so young.