Tell me your favorite films and I’ll tell you more about yourself than your mother.
The path to cinematic appreciation is paved with the memories of our youth. As a child of the 1960’s, I lean towards “Star Trek” over “Star Wars.” The Beatles over Elvis. Briefs over boxers. Certain movies watched on late night television would form the basis for my future appreciation of cinema, not to mention my understanding of life.
Some films immediately transformed my worldview, films such as “The Time Travelers” (1964) and 1969’s “The Monitors.”
Another film wowed my undeveloped mind and yet when watching “The Three Lives of Thomasina” (1963) years later as an adult the seditious subtext became apparent.
Then there’s the film “Something Wild,” a 1961 psychosexual drama from director Jack Garfein, which I saw for the first time at the 2012 Telluride Film Festival. This is a film that David Lynch wishes he’d made.
Garfein’s cosmology was molded under harsh conditions. As a boy growing up in Czechoslovakia he was the sole surviving member of his family to survive Nazi concentration camps. Garfein was one of the first Holocaust survivors to arrive in America, still a teenager and taken in by relatives.
In the 1950’s he was one of the founders of The Actor’s Studio and was responsible for training some of the best known actors who would go on to grace the silver screen. Garfein would only direct two narrative films.
“Something Wild” faced censorship and criticism for its then groundbreaking treatment of rape. The film stars Ralph Meeker a brilliant actor who credits include “Kiss Me Deadly” and “Paths of Glory” and Carroll Baker who was at the time married to Garfein.
Consider some of Garfein’s other collaborators: composer Aaron Copeland provided the score; Saul Bass designed the opening credit sequence; and the cinematographer was Eugen Schüfftan whose credits include silent classics like “Metropolis” and “Napoleon.”
Baker plays a young woman brutally assaulted in a park near her home in the Bronx. Traumatized she returns home and tears up her dress and bathes away any evidence of her ordeal. In fast order she drops out of college, moves out of her home, rents a squalid apartment in New York’s Lower East Side and gets a job at a department store.
Still haunted by her experience Baker tries to commit suicide by jumping off the Manhattan Bridge only to be saved at the last moment by a working class mechanic (Meeker). He takes her back to his apartment offering to nurse her back to health. He keeps her locked up in the vain hope she’ll fall in love with him.
It gets weirder, including a drunken Meeker trying to force himself on Baker at which point she blinds him in one eye in self defense. Despite the whirlwind of events Garfein still has mileage left in the story, which ends defying audience expectations while summarily playing into the myth of survivor’s guilt.
While many films from this era are aged by no-longer-fresh themes or anachronistic devices “Something Wild” could be a movie that you saw in an art theater last week.
The Three Lives of Thomasina
“The Three Lives of Thomasina” is hands down the weirdest film released by Walt Disney while he was alive.
To a child the movie’s about an orange tabby that gets dressed up in a bonnet while its owners parade the feline around in a baby carriage. But to an adult the film is a dark tale of reversing religious beliefs with the inclusion of pagan imagery not normally found in a film from this era much less a Disney film.
The trailer makes the film look like a cute cat vehicle and let’s face it – Disney owns this genre: “That Darn Cat,” “The Incredible Journey,” “The Cat From Outer Space,” not to mention “The Aristocats” or the big cats of “The Lion King.”
The film starts off with a distaff Scottish accent, the voice-over narrator that is Thomasina. She claims the story begins after her murder.
While there’s plenty of cutesy banner between the kids and Thomasina the tale rapidly shifts in tone to the angst of the father, the village veterinarian, a widower whose tough demeanor makes him hard to figure out. The setting is in Scotland in 1912.
Patrick McGoohan plays Dr. McDhui (pronounced mac-doo-ey). An early scene at his office shows him being compassionate albeit in a stern manner. He’ll put your pet out of misery for free pragmatically wanting to avoid milking his customer for more medical expense. There are shots in the movie of wounded animals: a badger whose paw got caught in a trap, or a dog hit by a car that will make some wince. While Disney has always played the dead animal card – think Bambi’s dead mother – the imagery on screen rings more realistic than most.
McDhui’s daughter (Mary played by Karen Dotrice) and a village boy Georgie (Matthew Garber) would appear the following year as the Banks’ siblings in Disney’s family friendly “Mary Poppins.” McGoohan himself had starred in the Disney adventure “Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow” but ruled the television airwaves of the ‘60s as secret agent John Drake in “Danger Man” as well as the existential Number Six in “The Prisoner.”
Wilfrid Brambell who would play Paul’s grandfather in “A Hard Day’s Night” the following year plays the character of Willie, who works for Dr. McDhui.
When the children take a wounded frog to McDhui’s office he turns them away. They then approach a mysterious woman who lives in the forest seeking help for the wounded amphibian. Yet they are afraid to come out of the foliage. It’s a classic portrayal of Christian guilt confronting Wiccan values.
“Eye of newt and hair of dog, give me the power to cure the frog, where’s my broom?” says Susan Hampshire as Lori MacGregor, aware she’s being spied upon by the village boys. Establishing shots of her rural cabin show deer, a calf, a couple of goats and a few dogs lounging in the front yard. She’s a goddess of nature who lives in the forest as one with her environment.
Bottom line – “Thomasina” celebrates alternative religion while depicting Christianity as the kind of remedy of which the side effects produce one too many nights of the dark soul.
As McDhui watched his daughter pray at night McGoohan is filmed hunched over, framed in darkness. When his housekeeper says grace he smirks. McDhui has lost his religion due to the loss of his wife. The good doctor refuses to let Thomasina sleep inside overnight.
Since she’s been tossed out Thomasina enjoys a surreal night on the town ending at dawn at the farmer’s market. When dogs chase Thomasina through an alleyway filled with crates she’s knocked unconscious when some wooden boxes fall on her. The children finding her later that day take her to McDhui’s office only he refuses to save her, telling Willie to put her to sleep.
At this point, Thomasina, not knowing if she’s alive or dead, has a dream that shows her going back in time to when Egyptians worshipped cats as gods. Several slow-motion shots of cats being hurled through the air resemble the Philippe Halsman/Salvador Dali photo “Dali Atomicus.” Subsequently Thomasina is seen running up a celestial staircase that connects the living with the hereafter not unlike the stairs in “A Matter of Life and Death.”
One of artisans who created this fantasy sequence was Ub Iwerks, who was the first employee that Disney ever hired in the 1920’s.
Thomasina, still firmly in the grips of the dream sequence arrives at the top of the stairs and meets Bastet, the God of Cats. Perhaps not oddly, all of the other cats, and there are plenty, in the scene are Siamese. Perhaps a sly nod to Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp,” but also an allusion to a legend that when cats transmigrate from their ninth life they become Siamese.
Then, just to make sure we’re on the same metaphysical page, Thomasina comes back in her second life after being buried by the kids who have taken her body from the animal morgue. Thomasina is eventually found and healed by MacGregor at her holistic sanctuary in the woods. “What were they doing to you? Your heart’s still beating,” she intones in a shocked manner.
Neither McDhui nor his daughter are ever at peace until MacGregor brings them together in an emotional climactic finale in which she uses her feminine awareness to undermine their skepticism.
Thomasina and her reincarnation (she was never really dead) bring to mind a comparison of Gnosticism to modern Christianity. Thomasina had suffered a kind of kitty amnesia and her third life represents her reunion with McDhui and MacGregor, who’ve have now married. The duo bonded over a previous incident where they had a circus that was abusing animals ejected from town.
The Time Travelers
Time travel in movies was a recent concept even in the 1960’s. Few films had explored these themes at that point in cinema. “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” (1949) and “The Time Machine” (1960) spring to mind. Then there were movies that dealt with space ships that had traveled so fast they accelerated in time and advanced into the future like the 1956 “World Without End.”
Today time travel is a common trope most recently used with relish in “Avengers: Endgame.”
At the beginning of “The Time Travelers” university scientists have opened a portal to the future in the form of a giant screen depicting the space-time continuum. This concept obviously influenced the “Star Trek” episode “City on the Edge of Forever.”
“We’ve not only created a window to the future but a doorway,” says Dr. Erik Steiner (played by veteran actor Preston Foster).
“A warp of the space time continuum through which matter can pass,” adds fellow actor Philip Abbot playing fellow physicist Steve Connor.
Other actors include Merry Anders as their technological equal, and Steve Franken as their lab assistant, who’s the first to go through the portal. Franken was previously a regular on the popular early-1960’s television show “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” playing the rich kid.
The academics pass through their portal only to find themselves in a post-apocalyptic future of 2071 where what’s left of humanity lives underground to protect themselves from the surface mutant population.
Some scenes use practical effects that put modern CGI to shame. One sequence shows an android in one continuous shot having its head removed and another put in its place, all while the robotic creature is moving. Obviously they had a short actor in a suit below the makeshift head, yet it’s a wonderful effect. Likewise another scene has a technician, really a magician, using sleigh of hand to render a round object into a square object. There are five more bits where sleight-of-hand magic tricks are used in one-take real time sequences to confound the viewer.
The most provocative scene has the femmes of the group in a suntan lab with Anders’ breasts and pelvis hidden by horizontal heating units while her companion lounges in a tanning bed discreetly dressed with towels.
The renegade mutants constantly threaten to attack the underground fortress and destroy a rocket ship that the scientists hope to use to escape to Alpha Centauri.
Maybe the real reason “The Time Travelers” has entered the pantheon of cult films has to do with its incredible ending. When our heroes finally return to their own time they find themselves confronted by their own selves. Yet the scientists are moving at such a rapid metabolic speed that they are invisible and their other selves seem to be moving in ultra slow motion.
The surprising conclusion has the time traveling scientists reentering the time portal again. At this point director Ib Melchior shows the audience the entire film fast-forwarded in one-minute, and then repeating the entire film in increasing edits so fast that that the entire movie feels like a subliminal flashback.
Are our heroes caught in an eternal cinematic return or have they vanished to a futuristic Garden of Eden? The ending of “The Time Travelers” has one of the most existential endings in a B-movie ever.
Vilmos Zsigmond was the cinematographer on this and our next film “The Monitors.” Over successive decades Zsigmond would become an award-winning photographer and work with directors like Spielberg, De Palma, Robert Altman and Woody Allen.
Melchior also wrote or directed such grade-B sci-fiers as “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” and “Angry Red Planet.”
“The Monitors” represents the zeitgeist of the turbulent 1960’s. The story revolves around aliens who have taken over Earth with the express purpose of imposing peace.
The main action is set in Chicago. All of the aliens wear bowler hats. This look was imitated in the more recent but unrelated “The Assassination Bureau.”
This time the aliens are the good guys, yet humans won’t stand for being forced to live in harmony. This comic situation is not only played for laughs but broad satire, complete with supporting roles from members of the Chicago comedy troupe Second City including Avery Schreiber, Alan Arkin and Peter Boyle.
Susan Oliver headlines as a famous actress who also works for the Monitors and Guy Stockwell as a pilot who refuses to be monitored.
Oliver has been assigned to keep tabs on Stockwell who himself has been contacted by the anti-Monitor underground group SCRAG (Secret Counter Retaliatory Group). Other main players Sherry Jackson and Larry Storch provide an injection of sexuality and comic relief. Note that both Jackson and Oliver were femme fatale guest stars on “Star Trek.”
When “The Monitors” came out in October of 1969 “Rowan and Martins’s Laugh In” was the number one television show and the advertising for “The Monitors” emphasized its combination of real life and actor cameos, not unlike the weekly participants of “Laugh-In.” Such pop-up appearances include Senator Everett Dirksen and musician Xavier Cugat. Dirksen, noted for his gravely voice, was the Senate Minority Leader and while a Vietnam hawk was in full support of civil rights. Cugat, a Cuban-Spanish bandleader, was a leading champion of Latin music during this era.
Director Jack Shea gives the film a rich editing profile highlighted by multiple montage sequences. Sometimes the exposition moves rapidly in the manner of silent film that shows a progression of several images per second.
Shea was primarily a television director yet during his tenure as President of the DGA (1997 – 2002) he was an advocate for diversity in the guild.
All throughout “The Monitors” we cut to television commercials that promote the new rulers of Earth with cutesy short songs extolling their virtues. In a sense this is the same sardonic sense that permeated John Carpenter’s “They Live” although that film delivers a darker message.
When Stockwell finally penetrates the Monitors stronghold with a SCRAG bomb you think the film has reached the apex.
“I admit Mr. Jordan we have been able to look into your hears, but I don’t think we have ever or could ever fathom your hearts,” the head alien Jeterax (played by veteran actor Shepperd Strudwick) tells Stockwell.
The aliens calmly accept their defeat and await the explosion. The bomb turns out to be a dud.
“We’re willing to die, but we will not kill,” Jeterax says. “Yes I don’t laugh, weep or get drunk, Mr. Jordan I only serve. Now that’s no longer possible.”
And with that the Monitors leave Earth, which returns to its barbaric day-to-day lifestyle.