March 10, 1963: The Making of a Film Buff

10 Mar

On Sunday, March 10, 1963 (50 years ago today, which is also a Sunday), around 12 Noon, I left Tremont Methodist Church in my Bronx neighborhood to go to the movies at the Tremont Theater on Webster Avenue two-and-a-half blocks away. My plan was to see Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe-inspired horror comedy, THE RAVEN, starring three horror greats of the time: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and my favorite of the three, Boris Karloff. It would be playing with two co-features. The Tremont, which I’d been attending regularly with my siblings since May of the previous year, ran triple features of older movies, including some from as far back as the 1930s, although the oldest movies I saw at the Tremont were all from 1952. When I got to the theater that Sunday, I pondered the choice I had. There was a new double feature playing at the Deluxe some seven blocks away up Tremont Avenue: SAMSON AND THE SEVEN MIRACLES OF THE WORLD, an Italian muscleman movie starring Gordon Scott, and WARRIORS FIVE, an Italian war movie starring Jack Palance. I had just started paying more attention to movie ads and reviews in the New York Post, especially, and wanted to follow new movies coming out instead of just relying on the Tremont’s eclectic schedule (which I’d been enjoying tremendously). So, at the last minute, I opted not to pay the 35 cents admission for the Tremont and instead went up to the Deluxe to pay my full allowance allotment of 50 cents at the Deluxe. I was by myself and all of nine years old. (It was the first time I went to the movies without a sibling.)

Yoko Tani (center) in SAMSON AND THE SEVEN MIRACLES OF THE WORLD

Later on—much later on—I would learn that THE RAVEN was, in fact, quite a bit newer than either of the films I was going to see, both of which had been released in Italy much earlier and were only now reaching the U.S. in their English-dubbed versions, courtesy of American International Pictures. (SAMSON had been released in Italy in 1961, while WARRIORS FIVE had been shot in 1960 and has no Italian release date listed on IMDB.) I also probably would have liked THE RAVEN a lot more than I did either of the two Italian films, but I wouldn’t find that out until I finally saw THE RAVEN eight years later (more on that below).

SAMSON was one of dozens of Italian “sword ‘n’ sandal” movies playing in English-dubbed versions in the U.S. at the time, all spun off from the success of HERCULES and HERCULES UNCHAINED, both starring American bodybuilder Steve Reeves, in 1959 and 1960, respectively. Most of these films originally featured a fictional Italian strongman of ancient times named Maciste, but since Maciste was unknown in the U.S., the distributors renamed the central character Goliath or Samson whenever it wasn’t an actual Hercules movie. SAMSON’s original title, in fact, was MACISTE ALLA CORTE DEL GRAN KHAN, according to IMDB, which may be translated as “Maciste at the Court of the Great Khan,” a reference to either Genghis Khan or Kublai Khan, depending on exactly when the film is set, although the English dub doesn’t mention either one of them. I’d already seen several similar films in this genre, including GOLIATH AND THE BARBARIANS, with Steve Reeves, which had been released in the U.S. in between HERCULES and HERCULES UNCHAINED. At the Tremont alone, I’d already seen THE TROJAN HORSE, with Reeves; THE MINOTAUR, with American Olympic champ Bob Mathias; THE LAST OF THE VIKINGS, with Cameron Mitchell; and THE MONGOLS, with Jack Palance and Anita Ekberg. So I was definitely psyched for more strongman hijinks.

Steve Reeves as Aeneas in THE TROJAN HORSE

SAMSON delivered, up to a point, but it didn’t have quite as strong a story nor was it quite as thrilling as the other films in this genre I’d seen, particularly LAST OF THE VIKINGS and THE MONGOLS, which had bursts of sharp, bloody action that left quite a mark on the impressionable children who went to see them. (“You see when he threw the ax into that guy?! That was baaad!,” with ‘bad’ of course signifying “cool” or “awesome.”) I wrote about SAMSON AND THE SEVEN MIRACLES OF THE WORLD here on July 22, 2012, in a piece I did on Yoko Tani (Yoko Tani: From Samson to Venus), the Japanese actress who plays the Chinese princess in SAMSON. I’d watched it again in preparation for that piece, on a poor-quality gray-market DVD, and it didn’t quite hold up.

Still, it offered an Asian setting (ostensibly China, although the extras were mostly Italian), including a Buddhist monastery and a traditional Chinese tavern, as well a few actual Asian performers in a genre that didn’t often go that far east, except when Marco Polo was involved. (And, indeed, the sets for this film were left over from a much bigger-budgeted Italian film about Marco Polo.) As such, it looked forward to the kung fu films I’d be seeing in exactly ten years, including at this very theater, the Deluxe, when Shaolin monks would be major characters in film after film.

 WARRIORS FIVE was a much different film than I was used to. It was a black-and-white drama, set in Italy in World War II, with the focus mostly on Italian characters and only one American, a soldier played by Jack Palance, whom I already knew as a Mongol warrior from THE MONGOLS, seen the previous summer at the Tremont. One scene I remembered from the initial viewing was one in which the Italian characters, five men at loose ends after escaping a train attacked by the Nazis, decide to follow the American, attracted by his trail of garbage, hoping to find some food and cigarettes. The setting is Italy in the uneasy period right after the country surrendered to the Allies and the Germans, now occupiers, are facing down their former allies as newly-minted enemies. The focus is on the five Italians—four soldiers and a sailor, hence the five warriors of the title—who have just left a military prison and are trying to find their way to the relative safety of the American lines, accompanied by a beautiful prostitute (Giovanna Ralli, billed as “Jo-Anna Ralli” in the credits and Anna Ralli on the poster, seen above). We see Italian towns and the countryside, including a stop in a sprawling vineyard where the men have their first encounter with German soldiers.  I may have seen films like this on television, but not in the movies. (I remember watching Roberto Rossellini’s STROMBOLI with Ingrid Bergman on WOR-TV’s Million Dollar Movie a year or so earlier.) I’d seen war movies before, mostly on TV, but this one was told chiefly from the perspective of noncombatant Italians. This was the closest thing to a real European drama I’d yet seen in theaters. The director, Leopoldo Savona, had directed four dramas in Italy before directing this film and then co-directing THE MONGOLS (with Andre de Toth).

Jack Palance (center) in WARRIORS FIVE

Jack Palance in THE MONGOLS

I did eventually see WARRIORS FIVE again after getting hold of a VHS copy of it ten years ago, forty years after first seeing it. I even reviewed it on IMDB. It’s a short one, so I’ll paste it here:

 “WARRIORS FIVE (LA GUERRA CONTINUA) is a low-key Italian-made war-themed drama that tackles the dilemma Italians found themselves in after they overthrew Mussolini in September 1943. The country remained under Nazi occupation while awaiting the arrival of Allied troops. This film focuses on a group of five Italian men released from a military prison, a girl they pick up on their way, and an American soldier who seeks their help for a mission to blow up a bridge. This motley crew of characters meanders around the countryside, doing their best to avoid Germans, until they wind up taking a stand at a town where the Germans have taken all able-bodied men hostage and begin to kill them until the town turns over any Americans they’re hiding.

It’s not the most exciting or tightly plotted of war films but it does offer an engaging cast and a number of memorable scenes. One particularly suspenseful sequence has two of the Italian men crawling bravely but carefully through a minefield to retrieve supplies and weapons from parachuted drops and dead American paratroopers (killed by the mines).

Interestingly, the film was released in the U.S., dubbed in English, by American International Pictures, a company whose Italo imports at the time invariably consisted of sword ‘n’ sandal films of the Hercules, Goliath and gladiator sorts. The only exploitable elements in the film, aside from the World War II setting, were name actor Jack Palance, as the American G.I., and sexy Italian actress Giovanna Ralli as the good-time girl who joins the group, falls for one of the five, and even strips down to a black slip for a scene in which they all stop at a stream to cool off. Palance and Ralli would reteam for an Italian western, THE MERCENARY, a few years later. Also in the cast are stout Eurocult regular Folco Lulli and budding star Serge Reggiani, who would go on to become a fixture of French dramas in a few years.”

I should add that I saw THE MERCENARY seven years later, when it came to the Bronx on a double feature with HALLS OF ANGER, seen at a theater further west on Tremont Avenue about half-a-mile away from the Deluxe. I should also add that both SAMSON and WARRIORS FIVE were dubbed into English by the same crew, part of a company called Titra Sound Corp., based at 1600 Broadway in Times Square. Palance appears to be the only actor in either film who dubbed his own voice. The voices should be recognizable to anyone who’s seen a lot of English-dubbed Italian films from the 1960s and to anyone who’s seen the English-dubbed version of the original “Astro Boy.” The story told about Titra and affiliated firms at 1600 Broadway (home of the National Screen Service, whose offices I once visited) was that a print of a foreign film could enter the building on a Monday and come out on Friday completely redone for the American market, with an English dub, a new score, and new credits, ready to show in the city’s neighborhood theaters.

After seeing this double bill, I attended three more double features at the Deluxe that spring, as well as taking a side trip to the Fairmount, a bigger theater just two blocks away. At the Deluxe I saw double bills of the Disney comedy, SON OF FLUBBER, and the Rex Allen-narrated nature short, THE LEGEND OF LOBO; the color sci-fi thriller, DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, and a low-budget black-and-white British crime thriller called PAYROLL; and the Disney wartime historical drama, MIRACLE OF THE WHITE STALLIONS, and FLIGHT OF THE LOST BALLOON, a low-budget period adventure set in Africa. It was during this last double feature that I saw the trailer for KING KONG VS. GODZILLA. At the Fairmount, I went to see WEST SIDE STORY for the first of two dozen times I’d see it in theaters in the Bronx and, later, Manhattan. During this time, I began paying more attention to movie ads and noting which actors were in which films and who actually made them. I also read reviews, particularly those by Archer Winsten in the New York Post, and columns, most notably “Sidney Skolsky’s Hollywood,” also in the Post, which always ended with the line, “But don’t get me wrong, I love Hollywood.”

That June, I got grounded, along with all my siblings, for the entire summer. Something about having to clean up our room before I could go to any more movies. (I did go to summer camp, though, and saw two old movies screened on 16mm there, THE SWORDSMAN, starring Larry Parks, and AT WAR WITH THE ARMY, starring Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin.) Late in the summer, when I learned that JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS was coming to the Bronx on Wed. September 4 and playing at the Loew’s Paradise, I plunged into the task of cleaning up the bedroom myself and did a good enough job that my mother gave me permission to finally go to the movies again. More on that later this year, on September 4th.

I managed to see THE RAVEN finally, when I rented it for a community program film series that I managed to get the opportunity to curate at St. Joseph’s Church, eight years later, during my final year of high school. We rented seven films on 16mm prints from a nontheatrical distributor (Don Bosco, I believe). The others we showed were THE BLOB, THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, and ALL THE YOUNG MEN. Here’s a photo taken of me back then by my friend Sammy Ali as I set up a 16mm film projector:

(Notice the makeshift screen and Sister Ruth in the background. St. Joseph’s was right across the street from my church, Tremont Methodist, and hosted a community program that employed me in my last year of high school.)

In any event, I liked THE RAVEN quite a bit, chiefly because it gave its trio of legendary horror stars license to be funny and lampoon the genre a bit, and I ended up wishing I’d actually gone to see it back on March 10, 1963. But then that might have changed history and delayed an inevitable step in my journey, although probably only by a couple of weeks. It was not long afterwards, in fact, in the early spring of 1963, that the Tremont stopped showing Hollywood films and went back to its previous staple of Italian films—in Italian! (I don’t know if they had subtitles or not.) I do remember walking by there one day and seeing the poster for Luchino Visconti’s ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS, which I would see in film school approximately ten years later, and which had some names in the cast that were already familiar to me, e.g. Alain Delon, presumably from other movie ads.

Getting back to Samson, I would see more Italian “sword ‘n’ sandal” movies in the neighborhood for another three years, including GOLIATH AND THE SINS OF BABYLON at this same theater, the Deluxe, two years later on a double bill with THE SATAN BUG, and, a year after that, on my last trip to the Tremont after it had briefly resumed showing Hollywood films, GLADIATORS SEVEN, with Richard Harrison, on a triple bill with WEST SIDE STORY and a package of Three Stooges shorts. Italian westerns would soon be all the rage at neighborhood theaters and all those Hercules movies would be consigned to local TV showings on Saturday afternoons.

American star Richard Harrison in GLADIATORS SEVEN

And what became of the Deluxe? It began showing “nudie” movies in early 1968 and, I presume, porno at some point, before returning to “regular” movies in 1972 and continuing that policy until the theater closed sometime in the late 1970s. (The last films I saw there were COOLEY HIGH and CORNBREAD, EARL AND ME in 1976.) And what became of the Tremont, the Cinematheque of my childhood? Not long after that last triple feature in 1966, it closed for good and became a warehouse for garbage trucks with a sign out front that read, “American Rubbish Removal.” The last time I visited that part of my old neighborhood, I noted that it’s now some kind of catering hall for events. So I’m pleased to see that people are once again having a good time there.

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12 Responses to “March 10, 1963: The Making of a Film Buff”

  1. Robert Cashill March 10, 2013 at 11:05 PM #

    That was wonderful, Brian. I’d love for my city kids to walk to the movies, though they wouldn’t get far on fifty cents.

    • briandanacamp March 11, 2013 at 9:42 AM #

      There were at least 15 movie theaters within walking distance of the apartment I grew up in. And a few others just out of reach, requiring a subway or bus ride. Whenever I looked through movie ads in old newspapers, I’d be astounded by the even greater number of theaters that existed even before my time. Sept. 3rd will be the 50th anniversary of a walking trip I made to locate more theaters than the three I mentioned in this entry and I’ll write about that trip here on that date. Thanks.

  2. Owen March 11, 2013 at 6:00 AM #

    I rented the Raven once (on Perry ave) but it didn’t seem to be the same movie that I saw @ St Joseph’s

  3. Robert Regan March 11, 2013 at 10:43 AM #

    Brian, Your historical context may be more valuable than esthetics. It’s certainly more fun!

  4. mozenator March 12, 2013 at 5:50 PM #

    Great stories, cool to see a young you, too!

    • briandanacamp March 13, 2013 at 10:34 AM #

      That’s how I see myself in my mind’s eye, but then I look in the mirror and it’s a completely different story.

  5. Owen March 12, 2013 at 11:18 PM #

    Brian you listed 7 of the films you showed at St Joes. Didn’t you show 8 films?

    • briandanacamp March 13, 2013 at 10:37 AM #

      Yeah, I think PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE, with Karl Malden, was part of that series, but it came three weeks later. (I’m guessing the series, which ran from February to April that year, was interrupted by Palm Sunday and Easter.)

  6. Bob Lindstrom March 14, 2013 at 2:17 PM #

    As always, a terrific article, Brian. Since we’re about the same age, I find myself wondering if young film fans these days have an entirely different experience. Film is so very available now, whereas in the past you had to hunt down movies you wanted to see, hang out at some fairly seedy places (which have become seriously romanticized in our memories, of course), and patrol the drive-ins for those giallo triple features. It may have been more of an adventure in those days.

    On the other hand, I’m not complaining that you can now instantly stream Jean Rollin films on Netflix, or catch Freaks on TCM.

  7. Al Cacioppo March 22, 2013 at 6:54 PM #

    Subject: nice Brian memory,
    Brian telling me about his seeing the filming of SHAFT.
    I know how much u love the original movie. I was just watching it…. Great locations, photography and oh my god, the music … So great…. Of course the main title theme… But the rest of the soundtrack is fantastic !!!
    Other great soundtracks of the period:
    Curtis Mayfield SUPERFLU
    and Marvin Gaye TROUBLE MAN.
    and anything Yaphet Kotto is in.
    SUPERBLY SUPERFLY weekend.
    Thanks for sharing your memories
    al

  8. Albert Ortiz March 27, 2013 at 1:32 AM #

    It was great reading this Brian. I remember some of those theaters and I also remember the Loew’s Paradise on the concourse. Good times and good memories.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. ON WINGS OF LOVE (1957): American Songs in Japanese Musicals—and Vice Versa | Brian Camp's Film and Anime Blog - March 8, 2015

    […] good idea also. The second date holds special significance for me, as recorded in my blog entry of March 10, 2013. I was at the movies that day enjoying a movie with Japanese star Yoko Tani. We did not have a […]

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