Tom O’Horgan brings his Total Theater blend of contortionism, tongue poking and vocal gargling in his film of Rochelle Owens’ “Futz”, a play which he previously directed off-Broadway and here attempts to lift the immersive environmental elements of the theatrical experience and transfer them as verbatim as possible into a medium which by its very nature only distances the material further from the viewer; a situation not helped by the inability of O’Horgan to recognize that shots and camera moves are selected for purposes other than visual grandstanding. There is a constant shift between the cast presenting the hillbilly Passion Play on a squared wooden stage surrounded by a bored and confused rural audience (also a part of the cast) and the same scenes then enacted in a realistic setting but performed in the same ritualistic, rigidly cadenced delivery of dialogue in voices ranging from primal shrieking to caterwauling, generally accompanied by flecks of foam on the lips and bugged out eyes. Featuring members of the La Mama Repertory Troupe with whom O’Horgan regularly worked and who performed in the theatrical incarnation, the film is an unceasing parade of extreme Felliniesque grotesquery in which every actor, no matter their normal appearance, squash their faces into displays of Basil Wolverton-like masks of ludicrously distended physiognomy while blurting out pretentious gibberish meant to express Great Themes from the minds of cretins indistinguishable from whom James Dickey succinctly referred to as “the nine-fingered people”.
Cyrus Futz (John Bakos) is a farmer who, typical of pseudo-intellectual dramatic representation, doesn’t seem to actually cultivate any crops but mud (Urban academics to whom the rural life is foreign in nature often seem to blithely mistake “people of the earth” for “people rolling in the dirt”.), but who counters his dissatisfaction with the womenfolk of the community by engaging in intimate relations with his prize sow Amanda, to whom he will later wed to the general consternation of his fellow hayseeds who are preoccupied with more morally respectable enterprises as murdering young women over a leather jacket or passing around the town harlot like a bag of potato chips. (Viewers can be grateful for an uncharacteristic show of discretion from O’Horgan in not explicitly visualizing Futz’ carnal exploits- though there is a not-quite subliminal insert shot of what appears to be a graphic act of sodomy visible in the film’s orgy of blood climax which may prove such commendation unwarranted.) The accumulated townsfolk gather in an unmotivated wave of frenzy- convenient only to the intended direction of the play’s narrative but strictly illogical by any standards -to revenge themselves against the porcine paramour who they irrationally blame for the murder of Ann Fox (Mari-Claire Charba) by the clearly insane Oscar Loop (Seth Allen) who is supposedly inspired to irresistible impulses of homicide by espying Futz in flagrante delicto with his bestial bride, though this dubious finger-pointing does little to explain his lunatic monologues to Sheriff Tom Sluck (Peter Craig) nor the effects of his latent incestuous relationship with his mother, which in playwright Rachelle Owens’ low view of her farmer folk almost appears as business as usual. Futz is the titular center of Owens’ mixture of hillbilly histrionics and unlikely referencing to cultural mysticism and religious idolatry through the Ages: all in the service of confusingly championing bestiality as a beleaguered condition persecuted by the enemies of freedom, individuality and nonconformity.
This nonsense (adapted for the screen by “Psycho” scenarist Joseph Stefano!) is made doubly revolting by the sheer incompetence demonstrated by O’Horgan’s inability to tell any aspect of his story without indulging in an aesthetic which could only be accurately referred to as perceptive spasticity: an unchecked flailing of his camera in concert with the equally encouraged meaningless body movements of his players which obscure both the intended action of characters and their ability to intelligently articulate their dialogue. The film begins in a concert hall in which the audience is so appalled by the unintelligible and anarchic atonal cacophony emerging from the stage that they descend into riotous violence, whereas the film ends with the rural audience exiting in a stunned, dulled cloud of confusion. In these few moments, the director manages to realize his only genuine point of truth: that even in a fictional context, his film cannot help but to both irritate and disappoint the viewer.
_____________________________________________________________ “New Faces” (1954)
Essentially a filmed record of the successful Broadway review originally titled “The New Faces of 1952”, the film version retains most of the original stage version’s talent including such notable talents as Paul Lynde, Ronny Graham, Alice Ghostley, Eartha Kitt, Carol Lawrence, Robert Clary and a sketch writer by the name of Melvin Brooks. The film adds a trivial storyline to give the revue structure a semblance of being part of a wider conception though its random insertion between sketches or musical numbers actually intrudes on the almost documentary flavor of the movie, with the tepid connective plot involving the acquisition of funds to keep the show going while locking the creditor in a dressing room (with Graham and Clary all of a sudden playing fictional versions of themselves, which contradicts and undercuts the intention of the film being a program deliberately intended to headline real personalities and not fictional manifestations); material which is dismal in both conception and execution and while also belies the often startlingly impressive talent on display in the film’s musical numbers (especially in the dance in which there are several breathtaking moments which might put Gene Kelly to shame) and certainly lacking the more disciplined and practiced comic timing of the sketch material. That is not to say that every segment is a gem, but the treasures to be found tend to outweigh the more mundane moments; and certainly, as the revue structure might suggest, if the material is lacking there is always the promise of something new only minutes away.
The film, by its faithful reenactment of the theatrical experience, doesn’t lend itself to the dynamics of cinema: it’s a very static affair, with the camera often nailed to the floor during most of the numbers, granting the illusion of the viewer being seated in the front row of the live theater, though since there is an annoying tendency for director Harry Horner to ignore the possibilities of useful camera movement, it is perplexing that he fails to position his players so that they won’t find themselves awkwardly squeezed-or partially out of frame -in the widescreen picture. (This is not the case with the sketches directed by John Beal which may be equally stagnant visually, but at least are framed properly. If the cinematic technique involved in the stage show’s cinematic translation borders on the banal, not so the true subjects of the film’s intentions which are the roster of fresh talents who are allowed to unleash their formidable talents. Many of the performers who would move on to prominence are given a unique opportunity to reveal abilities that would be later sadly untapped, most especially the gifted Alice Ghostley who would later enjoy a successful career as a rather typecast comedic figure usually relegated to dowdy and gossipy nervous Nellies which did not begin to plumb the depths of her talents; especially a clean powerful singing voice which impressively ranges from ballads to operetta, most enjoyably demonstrated in her rendition of The Boston Beguine and Take Off Your Mask. However, a particularly irksome presence emerges in the diminutive form of Robert Clary, who makes up in energetic enthusiasm what he lacks in physical stature, though even a small taste of this raging human tornado- he makes the ebullient Tommy Steele seem positively moribund by comparison -is more than enough for ten lifetimes; his tendency to feel the need to translate the song lyrics through wildly gesticulating pantomime is thoroughly exhausting to witness and obnoxious in the same way a publicly cavorting child invites a relieving croquet mallet to the head. If his lyric interpretation seems frenzied in the songs Lucky Pierre or Love is a Simple Thing. one indefensibly startling instance of hyperactivity may be experienced in the musical number Raining Memories which may be the world’s first filmed musical performance better viewed with the use of a double dose of dramamine.
On the opposite end of the performance spectrum are the numerous musical numbers featuring the impossibly sensual Eartha Kitt in a treasure trove of early performances from a woman whose seductive allure with a lyric could be considered a defiant obliteration of every convoluted repressive intention of the Production Code. For once the static camera is suited to highlight a performer whose every fluttered eyelid, arched eyebrow or curl of a smile is a serpentine seduction; an erotic enticement of womanly temptations- at once coy, playful and exotic -a true musical succubus. In these performances, the missed opportunities of Hollywood’s disgraceful neglect of such explosive talent is all the more tragic for what might have been: one cannot help but speculate that if Ms. Kitt had been granted the lead in Otto Preminger’s “Carmen Jones” (sans the ridiculous dubbing which ruined that feature) that she might have literally melted the screen with a cinematic sexual energy heretofore unexperienced in American cinema. The songs featured by Kitt, including C’est ci bon, Uska Dara, Santa Baby (included after the emergence of her hit 1953 recording of the song) and Monotonous are beneficiaries of the straightforward recording technique afforded in this format, unlike many of the other songs, which are not only lesser in quality but are staged with often ruinous theatrical banality: a semi-transparent scrim used during the staging of Penny Candy only makes the weak song seems more ludicrous, and the thematically redundant Time for Tea, though well performed by Alice Ghostley and June Carroll, is lost in a mire of overproduced distraction. However, the delightful number Take Off the Mask, a giddy parody of Viennese operetta is presented with uproarious comic brio by Ronny Graham and, again, Alice Ghostley as is the rollicking, homicidal hoedown Lizzie Borden.
As with all similarly fragmented enterprises, there is a distinct wavering in the quality of material especially in the newly comprised connective material (which is “locked door” humor tired) and some of the earlier portions of the film, though the stand alone comedy sketches are fairly consistently amusing (Clary’s comic songs are less so as he is the one performer in the film who shows the fatigue involved in every minute reminding the audience as to how funny he’s supposed to be), especially fortified with the participation of Graham and the irrepressible Paul Lynde (whose Trip of the Month monologue resembles a Harvey Kurtzman Mad Magazine parody sprung to life), who together with, yet again, Alice Ghostley combine in the film’s comic tour de force, a Mel Brooks parody of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”, with its uproarious premise that one of the great tragedies of the American theater could be stood on its head with the slightest alteration of career choices.