My best friend and I had our second viewing tonight of Alex Cox’s best film since Revengers Tragedy (2002). Despite having now seen both the color and the black & white versions, we still haven’t had our fill of it.
As part of the William Castle Blogathon hosted by The Last Drive In and Goregirl’s Dungeon, it is my great pleasure to comment here on two films I have recently come to care a great deal for: Mr. Castle’s directorial swan song Shanks (1974) and possibly the most socially significant in his filmography, It’s a Small World (1950). On the latter title (featured in Part II), I am joined by actor Dale Paullin, who was gracious enough to grant me a telephone interview.
A few years ago, an acquaintance told me that he avoided watching horror movies as much as possible because he didn’t want to risk leaving this world with too many ugly memories. He said this shortly before a friend showed me Pascal Laugier’s admirably crafted Martyrs (2008), which contains such extreme cruelty and physical suffering that it prompted me to avoid the genre altogether for the next year and a half. I’ve watched quite a few in 2013—the most impressive having been Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981)—and I do try to keep abreast of the culture. But I’ve also maintained a moderate dosage of such emotionally demanding films.
I grew up fond of the horror genre, for both its thrills and creative possibilities. One of my biggest, artistically influential heroes is Arch Oboler, whose psychological horror radio plays of the 1930s and ’40s I would listen to on cassette tapes while lying in bed with the lights turned off—I still own and occasionally listen to those. (You’ll find many of his plays, as well as his scripted Lights Out episodes, at MyOldRadio.com.) As for my own memories, the longest recurring one which has appeared less and less in dreams of recent years is of the “old peddler woman” gazing through the dwarfs’ kitchen window in Walt Disney’s 1937 adaptation of the German fairy tale “Snow White”. Actually, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs administered my first dose of horror and induced my obsession with the point of view shot. It doesn’t surprise me that there wasn’t a more prominent and true horror film haunting my imagination throughout my life, because the ones I tend to be most attracted to and revisit time and time again contain more amusement, drama and fantasy than unpleasantness. Films like Paul Morrissey’s Blood for Dracula (1974), Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972), Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Wicked City (1987), Curtis Harrington’s What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971), and William Castle’s production of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
When we were in our early teens, my cousin and I used to ponder over future interactive possibilities within a movie theater; and I could only imagine how it would have fueled my imagination had I known about some of William Castle’s gimmicks, such as the inflatable skeleton used in select screenings of House on Haunted Hill (1959). Although it wouldn’t be until my twenties when I finally saw Rosemary’s Baby and learned about its producer’s showmanship, Castle’s name had caught my attention on a number of occasions years earlier.
Every time I would go to my nearest video rental store and hope to find something different in the horror section, I’d start by looking in alphabetical order; so I could hardly forget the simple VHS box art for 13 Ghosts (1960). However, it wasn’t until the eventual availability of The Tingler (1959) on videotape, which also featured Castle’s name on the cover, when I finally rented myself one of William Castle’s horror pictures. As amusing as I remember finding the film, which I truthfully rented for the its star (Vincent Price), The Tingler didn’t leave a lasting impression on me as did my first exposure to Castle’s filmography—which wasn’t a horror movie, but a Western.
In the late ’80s, I was gaining a great deal of exposure to pre-1970s films thru the American Movie Classics channel, which at the time ran a similar appearance to Turner Classic Movies, its then competitor, before it became AMC. I’ll never forget watching Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) for the first time on there. But even more so, I will always remember the day I caught a 1950s B-Western midway thru the film and becoming angry when told to turn it off a short while later in order to attend a family function. I had been spellbound by the performance of one of the actors whose character was legendary gunfighter Doc Holliday. Determined to find out what the title was so as to see it at a later date, I learned thru the cable programming schedule that I had been watching Masterson of Kansas (1954). I hadn’t yet grown to appreciate what a film director did then, so if I read the name William Castle nearby I don’t recollect it. For over twenty years, I would often think about one particular scene with that actor and one line of dialogue: “Let’s not drink to anything. Let’s just drink.” It wasn’t until late 2012, following its release on DVD, when I finally got to see the film in its entirety. And it was definitely worth the wait.
As Toby Roan of 50 Westerns From The ’50s and others have pointed out, Masterson of Kansas stands out among many of its contemporaries because of James Griffith—the actor whose onscreen presence and performance would not allow me to forget this film. And certainly screenwriter Douglas Heyes deserves a bit of credit for having given Griffith plenty to work with; more so than anyone else, as a matter of fact. Heyes and Griffith’s Holliday is a dying physician and a killer with a sense of gallows humor, yet still capable of gallantry and humanity. The leading role and title character (frontier lawman Bat Masterson) is played by George Montgomery. With the story demanding a dominant amount of screen time over Griffith, Montgomery carries it well. His distinct and articulate voice and ability to portray the character’s self-assurance compliments the uncomplicated, stereotypical hero. (For a better display of Montgomery’s acting skills, however, see 1957’s Black Patch).
In Masterson of Kansas, Dodge City Sheriff Masterson is tasked by his friend U.S. Marshall Wyatt Earp (played by Bruce Cowling) to bring in Indian peacekeeper Amos Merrick, who has been falsely accused of murdering a troublemaking army colonel. The frame-up is to benefit the local big cattlemen by disrupting relations with the native tribes to thwart an agreed upon Indian reserve on nearby pastureland. When Merrick (John Maxwell) is found guilty and sentenced to be hanged in Hays City the following day, Masterson does what he must to prevent bloodshed. Calling a truce with Chief Yellow Hawk (Jay Silverheels of The Lone Ranger TV series) and giving his word to protect the Indians’ friend, he sets out to clear the man’s name with the help of Merrick’s daughter (Nancy Gates) and his mortal enemy, Doc Holliday.
One year after 3D movies rose in popularity following Arch Oboler’s Bwana Devil (1952), William Castle directed what is credited as the first 3D Western, Fort Ti (1953), which also starred George Montgomery. Fort Ti was one of the first two projects he directed for producer Sam Katzman, who went on to produce Masterson of Kansas, along with several other Castle-directed genre pictures. Like Castle, Katzman was a showman. And both men knew how to profitably churn them out quickly and inexpensively. They were able to cut so many corners, for example, that for Masterson of Kansas they incorporated footage from other Westerns into its opening montage, as well as for pick-up shots such as the one used when Masterson leaves Dodge City to reason with Yellow Hawk, which comes from Fritz Lang’s Western Union (click here for a comparison).
Although Masterson of Kansas has held up nicely over repeated viewings, it wasn’t what caused me to follow up with Castle’s other work. As much as I enjoy Heyes’ story involving unscrupulous businessmen, as well as Montgomery and the overall fun, I return to this film for James Griffith. He certainly gave Castle one of the best performances to be found in the director’s filmography, along with Joan Marshall’s in Homicidal (1961).
While a DVD review of another Castle film aroused my curiosity in 2010, it wasn’t until May 16th of this year, thanks to an online conversation with fellow blogger and artist Jo Gabriel, that I had myself a look-see at what was available on home video. Three pre-order titles from Olive Films immediately appeared, but the one starring Marcel Marceau cancelled out everything else. Upon immediate further research, a few more stimulating keywords—found below in bold and underlined text—stopped me from wanting to know anything more and got me itching to see this film. So I found and saw a download the following night, as I simply had no interest in watching anything else and could not resist waiting for its availability on May 28th.
Marcel Marceau was a middle-aged, wiry mime I saw on television as a small boy in the early 1980s, as well as a household name after decades of performances throughout the world. Towards the end of the Reagan era, I remember renting Mel Brooks’ The Silent Movie (1976), after several viewings of Brooks’ other comedies, and being especially interested in Marceau’s brief appearance in the film—I’d naively assumed he was a mute, prior to learning about his one word of dialogue. I didn’t recognize him as a younger man and without his makeup when I saw him shortly thereafter in Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968), but his name and face would continue to surface throughout my young adult life: while taking a drama class in high school; in a murky VHS copy of Klaus Kinski’s Paganini (1989), which I saw for the first time in my twenties; then finally in February of 2007—months before his death—in a documentary on Alejandro Jodorowsky titled The Jodorowsky Constellation (1994). Upon learning about these two extraordinary artists’ association, and of Jodorowsky’s having authored one of Marceau’s most well known performance pieces (“The Cage”), this long familiar figure became much dearer to me.
Since the mid-1950s, with his first theatrical engagements in the United States, Marcel Marceau thought to follow in the footsteps of his childhood hero, Charlie Chaplin, and expand his craft through motion pictures. But Hollywood’s producers didn’t know what to do with him. Unable to consider Marceau as something other than a silent, white-painted face, no major roles came his way. It didn’t hinder his rise to fame, however, as he went on to become the most popular mime artist of the 20th century while continuing to tour and appear on television. Finally, in the spring of 1972, a young producer by means of an old director had something to offer him. And it was “exactly what [Marceau] had been looking for”.
Shanks was adapted from a short story titled “The Death of Beethoven”. Its author, Scottish playwright and stage director Ranald Graham, sent the original narrative to his friend Steven North, who’d also directed for the theatre. According to North, the story was about 10-year-old Malcolm Shanks, a chubby and short-sighted apprentice to a very old man whom Malcolm turns into a mechanical puppet, following his death. Son of film composer Alex North (A Streetcar Named Desire, Spartacus), Steven had become a producer “by accident”. With Paramount Pictures wanting to finish their contract with William Castle, while Castle was hoping to find a worthwhile project, North contacted him with Graham’s story and Castle loved it.
North claims that it was his idea to cast Marcel Marceau for the role of the old man, as it struck him that a mime artist was the ideal actor for their animated corpse. So Castle later met with Marceau backstage at the Shubert Theater in Los Angeles, where Marceau was performing, to propose it to him. Castle had been amazed by pieces like “Youth, Maturity, Old Age and Death”, as well as by finding a receptive, predominantly young audience there. A great admirer of the ‘fantastique’, Marceau not only accepted but immediately came up with the idea of playing both leading characters. And thus Graham had to rewrite it for him.
The film’s opening title card quietly but clearly establishes the type of story being presented: “A Grim Fairy Tale“. For the benefit of younger readers, please note that a fairy tale (“Snow White”, for example) should not be confused with a fable or moral tale (e.g. “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”). As was instantly recognized by Marceau as ‘cinéma fantastique’, this is a stylized fantasy with elements of horror and science fiction.
Shanks’ universe resembles the early 1970s, the era in which it was filmed, in a town somewhere in the mountainous wooded west of North America (the exterior locations were photographed in Vancouver during the summer of ’73). Deaf and mute puppeteer Malcolm Shanks performs hour-long shows in front of a grocery store, assisted by his teenage friend Celia. He lives with his cruel and miserable stepsister (his deceased brother’s ex-wife) and her drunkard, second husband Mr. Barton. Two of Malcolm’s marionettes are modeled after the Bartons while a third is made to resemble an eccentric and very old inventor named Mr. Walker. Impressed with Malcolm’s talent, Mr. Walker relays through Mrs. Barton over the telephone that he wishes to hire him for five hundred dollars a week. Beginning work the next day, Malcolm arrives at the elderly gentleman’s mansion and discovers his laboratory. “Old Walker” has been experimentally animating dead animals using electricity and requires Malcolm’s assistance and gifted hands. Working together, they soon there afterwards begin controlling the creatures through wireless electrode pins and a compact, three-knob remote control.
One day, he discovers Old Walker quietly sitting in his chair in the laboratory and soon realizes that his friend has died. Running home to mourn in his room, he is scolded by the Bartons and told to go back to work. Mr. Barton then commences to stomp on Malcolm’s Walker puppet, ruining it. Left alone to weep over both of his losses, Malcolm soon returns to the mansion. And there, referencing an anatomical chart showing where the electrodes would be inserted into a human, Malcolm decides to reanimate Old Walker. Proving to be his most challenging marionette yet, Malcolm soon readjusts his craft and eventually takes Walker outside beyond the mansion grounds.
After nearly two weeks with no money from Mr. Walker coming in, Mrs. Barton sends her husband over to demand payment. Pushing Malcolm out of his way to yell at Walker, Malcolm retaliates by attacking Barton with a remote-controlled rooster. Running out of the lab in a panic and climbing up a flight of steps, Barton loses his footing and fatally injures himself during his fall. After having absorbed what he has caused, the next day Malcolm begins practicing with his new, younger and more flexible puppet. Continuing to use Barton up until later that night, he then lures his sister-in-law out into the middle of the road where she is hit and killed by a passing motorist.
Stretching his capabilities while risking getting caught, Malcolm takes the Bartons shopping the following morning at the grocery store with the use of two remote units. Successfully maintaining the facade, he runs into Celia upon exiting; and inspired by her misconception, as well as by a nearby policeman conversing with her mother, Malcolm invites her to a picnic. Finding a secluded clearing, Celia is led to believe that the Bartons are granting her a performance in which they behave similarly to how Malcolm entertains with their puppet doubles: Barton mimes drinking, his wife removes it from him and then proceeds to feign drinking herself. But upon closer examination, Celia realizes that they are both in fact dead and runs screaming to Malcolm. Using his hands, Malcolm tells her about the car accident and then shows her how he makes them move. Putting her at ease to a sensible degree, the four of them return to Walker’s mansion where he continues to entertain Celia with an early birthday party and a dance performance.
A short while later, a nearby motorcycle accident brings in a gang of bikers, interrupting Celia’s party and making her very uncomfortable. One particularly big brute called Goliath continually stares at her, as he proceeds to get drunk. While the only female gang member sits nearby, mourning the loss of their comrade, the other bikers decide to take amphetamines and then quietly listen to a minuet played on a Victrola. Suddenly, Goliath can’t put off his desire for Celia any further and decides to take advantage of her. Malcolm tries to defend her but he’s outnumbered. Eventually cutting himself free after being left bound and gagged in the laboratory, he attempts using the Bartons to fight back. But his efforts are thwarted once he’s discovered and one of the members, referred to as Einstein, takes his controllers; and the gang decides to have some fun outside while learning how to operate the dead. When Malcolm regains consciousness from his assault and learns what’s been done to Celia, he retrieves Old Walker’s buried corpse with his separate remote unit and retaliates. With only Goliath does he choose to fight with his bare hands.
A 20th century fairy tale about a puppeteer who learns how to reanimate the dead and uses them to take on a gang of bikers?! Besides knowing that Marcel Marceau was the star of the film, this was enough to cause my imagination to burst with excitement. I hadn’t psyched myself up to be expecting anything beyond a decent movie, I simply just loved the combination of genres and I had to see how the film was handled. I’d also read beforehand that one of the bikers was played by Larry Bishop who seemed ideal for the role since he had previously worked in several outlaw biker films, including two of my favorites: The Savage Seven (1968) and Angel Unchained (1970). But when I saw Shanks the following night, I discovered that Bishop and his fellow costars (including Don Calfa of Dan O’Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead) were used in a manner I wasn’t expecting; especially not with William Castle directing. What Castle and his collaborators created may appear uncharacteristic and foreign to fans of his gimmick-laced horror fare, but it’s a cinephile’s delight. Especially for someone like myself who appreciates silent film acting, surreal imagery and humor, a memorable film score, and characters speaking with European accents. I had to replay one particular scene with the Bartons four times, as I could not stop laughing at both Mrs. Barton’s lack of reaction to her husband smashing a bottle and her use of the phrase “goddamnit” (pictured above).
Marceau himself had brought in French actors/mime artists Tsilla Chelton and Philippe Clay for the parts of Mrs. and Mr. Barton. Chelton had studied mime with Marceau and was an accomplished stage performer who had appeared in a number of French films, including one I had seen for its cast: Claude Chabrol’s Ten Days Wonder (1971) with Orson Welles, Anthony Perkins, and Michel Piccoli. A drama teacher, she would later be celebrated for her leading role in the 1990 French black comedy Tatie Danielle. In Shanks, however, her professional and disciplined acting style and mime performance is a thing to behold. As both the living and dead Mrs. Barton, her timing and delivery, especially of some of Graham’s best dialogue, is comically brilliant. While there’s no getting around Marceau as Shanks’ shining leading performer—especially as dead Old Walker—Chelton’s Mrs. Barton and her big red wig is a character I won’t soon forget.
Philippe Clay’s talent as a singer was the first fact I educated myself on after my initial viewing of Shanks. A popular French entertainer at music halls and Parisian clubs, as well as on television, his acts would include mime, comedy and interpretations of songs by, among other fellow countrymen, Charles Aznavour and Serge Gainsbourg (his televised performance of “L’accordéon” with Gainsbourg is priceless). Clay was a truly versatile artist whose film credits include The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1956) with Anthony Quinn, and Tuvalu (1999) with Denis Lavant. Despite Mr. Barton’s limited amount of lines, Clay’s talents are most visible when he’s dead and being used as a marionette. Although I love his grumbling, growling and sighs when he’s alive. And when he tries smiling for Malcolm, upon learning that he’s going to be bringing in a sizable income for them, he makes me smile too.
While Cindy Eilbacher may be the youngest of the four principal leads as Celia, she was no amateur. Just turning 15 during the shooting of Shanks before returning to work on The Waltons TV series, Eilbacher had been acting on television since 1965; she costarred with sister Lisa Eilbacher in 1974’s Bad Ronald. Unlike anyone else in the film, with the possible exception of Helena Kallianiotes (Five Easy Pieces, Eureka) as biker mama Mata Hari, Eilbacher brings in a strong sense of realism with her performance. Her innocence and youthful adoration of Malcolm seems genuine, as does her dramatic work in moments where Celia is frightened and nervous. When Celia gets assaulted by Goliath, her cries ring so true it continues to unsettle me upon repeated viewings. Her body language is remarkable, as she never lets up—except for that one moment at the dinner table when she tilts her head following Malcolm’s playfulness, as the fairy tale hints at her strings.
According to William Castle, when he asked Marcel Marceau who he wanted to have direct him in his first leading role Marceau answered Roman Polanski, having been impressed with Rosemary’s Baby. But with Polanski busy preparing Chinatown he preferred Castle directing himself rather than work under someone unfamiliar to him, as was intended. While William Castle’s level of craftsmanship cannot compare to Polanski’s, he had proven himself a capable filmmaker years before settling into the horror genre in the late 1950’s (with Macabre). And he sometimes had the good fortune of working not only with a great cast, as he did on Shanks, but a strong crew. The two most notable on Castle’s final directorial effort were cinematographer Joseph Biroc and Steven North’s father.
One of director Robert Aldrich’s most frequent collaborators (The Killing of Sister George, Ulzana’s Raid), Biroc’s career could make for several entertaining film and television retrospectives (he was awarded an Emmy for 1971’s Brian’s Song and another for an episode from the 1983 Casablanca prequel starring David Soul as Rick Blaine). He was behind the camera for directors such as Samuel Fuller, George Roy Hill, Norman Jewison, Bert I. Gordon, Wim Wenders, Mel Brooks, and Frank Capra (on It’s a Wonderful Life). From celebrated musicals (Bye Bye Birdie, Viva Las Vegas) to cult classics (Confessions Of An Opium Eater), Biroc also lensed two of Arch Oboler’s films, including Bwana Devil. Shanks was Biroc and Castle’s third outing together, following 13 Ghosts and I Saw What You Did (1965), as well as their first full color film. Because of the material, his Old Hollywood hard lighting approach, which I’d become familiar with seeing in some of Aldrich’s films (along with childhood favorite comedies Airplane! and Airplane II: The Sequel), Biroc’s photography compliments Shanks’ 1970s fairy tale world in a very special way for me. When considering the clothes, hairstyles and cars, there’s no mistaking the era. And Biroc further encases it with a clear and simple, artificial look no longer in practice, which makes me feel very fortunate to have experienced and absorbed similarly lit images while in my youth. From his use of sepia to the childlike harmony he offers to the film’s steady pacing and Alex North’s music, this is a movie I would have loved to have seen on television as a boy. Shanks would have stood out among my most cherished 70s and 80s movie and TV memories (I’ve watched it now over half a dozen times).
As with another unique and valued find made in recent years (1971’s The Hired Hand), Shanks was not the result of an auteur but of an extraordinary assembly of artists and craftsmen. And like Bruce Langhorne’s work on The Hired Hand, Alex North’s score is one of Shanks’ most outstanding players. It carries so much of the film, providing over an hour’s worth of memorable music, and likewise employs a mix of genres. North’s appreciation and application of jazz and modernism made his first big Hollywood assignment, 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire, a landmark in film music history. “Fuck jazz!” said legendary musician and Streetcar score enthusiast Miles Davis. “Alex North is the man.” A sampling of North’s distinguished body of work (Spartacus, Cleopatra, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) reveals the versatility of a maestro with a sound distinctly different from his European-influenced predecessors employed by the studios. Ellington, Prokofiev, Ravel, and Debussy were among North’s heroes. Embraced and performed by fellow composers, such as John Williams and John Zorn, to this day, perhaps Alex North’s most popular composition, recognizable to the average radio listener, was originally a theme for the 1955 prison movie Unchained (with lyrics by Hy Zaret).
A few years before Steven North was granted his wish to hire his father, Alex North had spent two weeks composing 40 minutes of music ultimately rejected by director Stanley Kubrick. Due to Kubrick’s preference for the preexisting music he had used to edit 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), North would restructure and incorporate three pieces for his son’s project. Kubrick had felt that North’s score was “completely inadequate” for his film. But for Shanks, these newly inspired tracks feel perfectly suited. Shanks was actually nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Score.
Compare (from 2001 to Shanks):
When I listen to it isolated from the film, Alex North’s music sticks out like a narrator to a bedtime story. But on-screen, the fairy tale is being told by someone else.
Malcolm’s puppet show, whose performing artist seems childlike and good-natured, could very well be artistically expressing his simple desires and fears incorporating those closest to him, like Celia. Are those marionettes really modeled after the Bartons and Old Walker? Malcolm is quite distracted by Walker’s presence at his puppet show while manipulating the mechanical character made in his image. But does he even exist?
I spend weeks, sometimes months, hoping to find films as artistically inspiring and unique as Shanks. The first night I watched it and recognized old William Castle as the grocer I smiled at the thought of wanting to hug him, as if he were my grandfather. He had surprised me with the material he had finally managed to direct, especially with the tone of the film; switching from enchanting and colorful to a Gothic, black comedy. But the star of the film, as I came to find out through Castle’s memoirs, had put in more than his two cents. From the kerchief around his neck, to the makeup, wigs, costumes, staging, and other creative decisions, Marceau was certainly a challenge for Castle to work with. The director described their relationship on the set as an “invisible tug-of-war”. Castle was accustomed to a quick shoot and had a schedule to abide by, as well as a lean budget, but Marceau “didn’t understand or really care”. Marceau was a perfectionist, and when Castle would let him try out his ideas he would admit that Marceau’s way was “superior” and “far more imaginative”. Whatever amount of input Marceau had on Shanks, in the end they made it together.
“We have made a great picture,” Marceau told Castle. “A classic. It’ll play forever.”
“I don’t know, Marcel,” said Castle. “You were great, but I think I might have failed you. Your world of mime and my world of horror may not mix. Only the audience will tell us.”