30 April 2012

HOW TO STUFF A ROBOT BIKINI

I've been in a Vincent Price mood lately, and Turner Classic Movies just so happened to come along to scratch that particular itch for me last week, and that is why today and tomorrow are given over to a pair of "Why the hell not?" reviews - something I frankly don't do enough of, and will not have a terrifically good chance to do again for some time.

Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine is the movie you think it is. With a title like that, anything else would have been a severe disappointment, though with a title like that, the foggy line separating "good because it is campy" and "good because it is bad because it is campy" becomes very, very foggy indeed, and so disappointment or the lack thereof becomes a particularly nasty, tricky thing to quantify. At any rate, the film boasts one of Vincent Price's most archetypal performances - which may or may not mean the same thing as one of his best - which is all the more that it needs to stay alive these many decades later after the films it was largely spoofing and ripping off has faded into an obscurity even darker than the one covering up Vincent Price B-sides.

And since one can hardly even discuss the film's plot without explaining its context, permit me to do so: in the early to mid-1960s, American International Pictures, that legendary home of the best tacky B-movies no money could buy, fell ass-backwards onto an exciting new series, the Beach Party movies starring teen idols Frankie Avalon and Annette "The Busty Mouseketeer" Funicello, consisting of five movies released between 1963 and 1965, along with assorted spin-offs. Also in the early to mid-1960s, United Artists and Eon Productions started releasing the James Bond movies, which were about as far removed from the Beach Party pictures as you can get, prestige-wise, but occupied approximately the same position among the majors studios as Frankie and Annette did on the drive-in circuit: slightly garish wish-fulfillment fantasy with a genre wrapped around it (farcical teen musicals vs. spy thrillers), that made a tremendous amount of money relative to their cost.

The beach movies are really goddamn weird; I don't know if that was always the case, or if what seemed like routine teenybopper tosh back in the day simply proved unable to survive outside of the protective bubble of the '60s. At any rate, they're hybrids of all sorts of characters and situations that don't seem like they should fit properly into bubblegum pop musicals, filled with cameos and in-jokes referring to AIP's various other properties, most of which were some manner of horror film; let us say merely that Vincent Price showed up in these movies in some odd places, pimping out his contemporaneous Poe movies. And that starts to bring us around to where we need to be.

In relatively short order, the franchise began devouring its own tail, and that's where Dr. Goldfoot comes in: it's one of those spin-offs I mentioned, but while something like Ski Party is a fairly obvious variation on the formula ("it's a beach party, but in the winter!"), Dr. Goldfoot is more of a theoretical, even conceptual spin-off, owing in part to the film's own awareness that the beach films were on their last legs, and in part to the intention that it should be a sort of parody of the James Bond films that had turned into such a cultural watershed just ahead of AIP's own far more modest franchise. The closest I can come to describing it - and it is not very close - is that the film is a Bond parody set in the thematic universe of the beach movies, but it is not itself a beach movie. And despite being a strange amalgam of all sorts of things, AIP honchos Samuel Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson had enough faith in the project to give it the highest budget - over $1,000,000 - of any AIP project to that point.

All of which I admit, makes the film sound more interesting - or at least more difficult - or at really least, more problematic - than it actually is. I would dearly love to be able to slide an "under-appreciated classic" or some such phrase into this review, but it wouldn't belong there. Dr. Goldfoot is, bless its heart, pretty darn stupid, which is not at all an impediment to it being a terrific lot of fun, until it stops being much fun at all. And that's sort of the problem, but we'll get there soon enough. Meanwhile, the film: after a fun opening credits sequence animated by Ar Clokely, the creator of Gumby, with a title song provided by the Supremes, of all strange possibilities, we land in San Francisco, "the day after tomorrow". Here, a daft young man named Craig Gamble (Avalon) meets an obnoxiously gorgeous woman who calls herself Diane (Susan Hart), though by the time Craig and Diane first bump into each other in a dumpy little restaurant, we already know that something is hugely off about her: she was filled up with bullet holes by the cops without so much as losing her stride. The reason, we quickly find out, is that she is a robot controlled by a devious supervillain Dr. Goldfoot (Price). She, or it, identified as No. 11, is his finest creation in an army of gorgeous female robots designed to seduce the wealthiest men in the world, marry them, kill them, an bring their fortunes back to Goldfoot's lair beneath a cemetery. Craig was misidentified by Goldfoot's incompetent assistant, Igor (Jack Mullaney), himself revived from the dead by the mad doctor, as being Todd Armstrong (Dwayne Hickman), an extravagantly rich son of San Francisco privilege; and this turns out to be bad luck on two counts, first because Craig fell in love with No. 11 pretty much on the spot and is now dedicated to finding her; then, because Craig works for his fussy uncle Donald J. Pevney (Fred Clark) in the San Francisco office of the Special Intelligence Command. This means that the phrase "I'm/you're a SIC man!" is used many times - fewer than it feels like, I am sure, but more than I was comfortable with.

Price may be the draw, and the top-credited name, but Avalon is the lead, and that makes a lot of difference: he's good enough at being goofy in a relaxed, "aw shucks, me, a sex symbol?" way that the film never actively suffers for his presence; he was AIP's top male lead of teen movies for a good reason, which is that he actually had a sense of humor and a game willingness to make light of himself. But his was still a B-studio contract player stuck in dippy comedies in the 1960s, and that puts a relatively firm ceiling on how good at anything he could actually be, and crucially, how much of his charm remains applicable almost five decades later. It means that a lot of the actual plot of Dr. Goldfoot is taken up by a comic lead about whom the nicest thing we can say is that he's awfully pleasant and unserious, but never really laugh-out-loud funny; and everything about his interplay with sideckick Hickman relies on our appreciation of their work together in previous AIP movies, and this is something that most of us are not so very likely to have.

But Price, now Price is a bit of pure magic. He complained in later years that the film was compromised from its original concept of being a full-on camp musical, some of this footage surfacing in a TV special called The Wild Weird World of Dr. Goldfoot; but on set, at least, he does not appear to have had any reservations about the project at all, throwing himself all the way into playing a terrifically overripe bad guy with an exaggerated everything: evil laugh, imperious treatment of his flunky, sexlessly lascivious attitude towards his robot girls. If there is one thing I have always loved about Price, it is that he never tries to be above the junky material he appears in (this is one of the main reasons I've always preferred him to fellow B-movie legend Christopher Lee), but instead breathes life into the movie by treating it as an equal, and apparently believing with his whole heart that camp can be played just as sincerely and richly and thoughtfully as anything else. In this respect, Dr. Goldfoot is one of his masterpieces: unlike the Corman Poe movies, or even some of his wackier horror vehicles, it's impossible to argue that Goldfoot is a particularly dignified role, but Price respects the character even at his most trivial, and so the various parodic Bond villain tropes he has to embody feel altogether real and honest, and therefore funnier. By no means is Dr. Goldfoot one of the great Bond parodies - though it was a major influence on Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, which was - but I think there's a real chance that Dr. Goldfoot, the character and performance, is the all-time best parody of a Bondian supervillain. No other actor could get so much mileage from such little material; even his constant berating of Igor remains fresh.

And that is, alone, enough to keep the movie full of energy for quite a long time; whether it would work in the face of a truly bad hero, I cannot say, but as I said, Avalon manages to be harmlessly charming, and when he and Price finally meet face to face, they turn out to have really excellent chemistry, so the film never does end up drifting into "one good performance and a whole lot of shit" territory. Where it does end up drifting, alas, is into "the minute it starts having a plot, it begins to fall apart" territory: so much of the appeal of the movie lies simply in watching '60s thriller tropes set up and then subverted or more often straight-up ignored, that the film's relative inactivity becomes a merit. At a certain point, though, the fact that Goldfoot is a villain and that Craig is a romantic hero becomes important, and so the movie ends with a chase across rear-projections of San Francisco, intercut with second unit photography of people who don't look very much like any of the actors off in the distance. Better yet, it's a comic chase, which means lots of incongruous vehicles are used. And oh, my goodness, does it die a horrible death. At 88 minutes, there's no chance of the film overstaying its welcome, but the last 20 of those minutes feel like at least 75% of the total running time. It is an agony.

It's because activity is not the point of this movie: joking and fooling around are. Director Norman Taurog - I have to wonder how he ended up directing pictures of this sort after becoming the youngest winner of the Best Director Oscar in history, and I imagine he wondered the same thing - is fairly good at that; at letting the camera hang out and watch, keeping the pace up through judicious use of editing around the bouncy performances. But he cannot deal with the movie running around and up and down, for this has not prior to that been part of its vocabulary, and the shift is too drastic to work.

Does it really matter, though? It's not like the film was some kind of masterpiece until that point. It's a fluffy, dumb lark, and absolutely nothing more. A dodgy ending is enough to suck some energy out of the film, but not enough to make it "bad" - it was that already. It's just so fun and silly that there's no real point in noticing that it is bad, and the worst that the ending does is provide an opportunity to stop paying quite so much attention to a film that is already something you kind of pay attention to more than it is something you attentively and fixedly watch. And since it was made chiefly to provide an excuse for teenagers to make out periodically, it's hard to conclude that it's not succeeding on whatever aesthetic level it actually pretends to.

1 comment:

James R said...

I'll bet Mario Bava also wondered how he wound up directing the sequel.