Back in 1998 to 2003, my revived interest in “Old School” kung fu films from Hong Kong and Taiwan happened to coincide with a phenomenal outpouring of these films in low-cost VHS editions, usually bootleg or “gray market,” with many available in mainstream video stores (e.g. Suncoast, Virgin, Tower and FYE), but more often found at discount dealers like Record Explosion and Entertainment Outlet. A company called Xenon (with various subsidiaries) released quite a number of these films as part of the “Wu Tang Collection,” often given new titles designed to appeal to hiphop fans and fans of the rap group, the Wu-Tang Clan, which took its name and a significant amount of its content from kung fu films its members had seen on 42nd Street back in the day. One of its members, Ghostface Killah, even took his name from the villain of a 42nd Street hit called THE MYSTERY OF CHESS BOXING (aka NINJA CHECKMATE). Ol’ Dirty Bastard was the name applied to another member of the Clan.
My first exposure to English-dubbed Italian genre films was when I saw TV commercials for “sword ‘n’ sandal” movies when I was a child, including HERCULES, HERCULES UNCHAINED, THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII and THE COLOSSUS OF RHODES. I didn’t get to see any of these in theaters at the time but would eventually see all of them on TV. The first film of this type I would see on the big screen was GOLIATH AND THE BARBARIANS, starring “Hercules” himself, Steve Reeves, and it played on a double bill with JET OVER THE ATLANTIC, a low-budget black-and-white American thriller set on an airplane, in January 1960, when I was six years old. Two years later, I saw several more Italian mini-spectacles when I began patronizing the Tremont Theater, which offered triple features of movies that had already played every other theater. Among the films I saw there were THE TROJAN HORSE, also starring Reeves; THE MONGOLS, starring Jack Palance and Anita Ekberg; LAST OF THE VIKINGS, starring Cameron Mitchell; and THE MINOTAUR, starring American Olympic athlete Bob Mathias. On March 10, 1963, I saw my first all-Italian double feature, SAMSON AND THE SEVEN MIRACLES OF THE WORLD and WARRIORS FIVE, chronicled here on March 10, 2013 in my blog entry entitled, “March 10, 1963: The Making of a Film Buff.”
(Steve Reeves as Aeneas in THE TROJAN HORSE)
The Criterion Collection edition of Kenji Mizoguchi’s THE LIFE OF OHARU (1952) includes as a special feature a 31-minute documentary entitled “The Travels of Kinuyo Tanaka” (aka “Kinuyo Returns,” according to the subtitle for the Japanese title, and “Kinuyo Tanaka’s New Departure,” as it’s called on IMDB). Tanaka plays the title character in THE LIFE OF OHARU and starred in quite a number of films for Mizoguchi (including WOMEN OF THE NIGHT and UGETSU), as well as films by such other great Japanese directors as Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa. She’s pictured here in THE LIFE OF OHARU, in which she plays a merchant’s daughter who experiences an extraordinary series of ups and (mostly) downs as she’s buffeted by fate and the wills of men more powerful than her in 18th century Japan:
“The Travels of Kinuyo Tanaka” was made in 2009 and compiles film footage taken during Ms. Tanaka’s goodwill tour of the U.S. in 1949. Some of the footage was 35mm black-and-white and some was 16mm color Kodachrome. A few scenes have sound, but most are silent with narration in Japanese recorded 50 years after the fact. Still photos are used a lot as well. Ms. Tanaka’s voice is heard very briefly during an interview (shot in color) on her return to Hawaii just before heading back to Japan and seen late in the film. Most of the film, in fact, covers the Hawaii leg of her trip, during which she visited Japanese-American communities; performed on stage; paid calls on local politicians, including the territorial governor and the (female) territorial senator; and soaked up some local Hawaiian color, including Hawaiian-style fashions and trips to the beach.
Today, August 30, 2013, is the 42nd anniversary of my first trip to a 42nd Street movie theater (on August 30, 1971). I’ve amassed quite a bit of material related to that trip, so it seemed like a good opportunity to commemorate it. I’ve managed to re-watch both films seen on that trip and I’ve been in touch with both friends who accompanied me that day. The film that drew us was SHAFT, directed by Gordon Parks and starring Richard Roundtree as a black private eye with an office in Times Square, an apartment in Greenwich Village, and a client in Harlem, locations that marked three of the major centers of street life in New York in the early 1970s. The second feature chosen to play with it was, oddly enough, a low-budget black-and-white science fiction film made in 1956 called IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, a title that had already played on television regularly by this point. The film was directed by Roger Corman and the stars were Peter Graves, Beverly Garland and Lee Van Cleef. I suspect it was Van Cleef’s presence in the cast that gave it some cachet, since Van Cleef had become popular among 42nd Street audiences thanks to the steady stream of Italian westerns he’d made after reviving his career with appearances in two of the movies making up Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy: FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY. Van Cleef’s name was prominently displayed on the theater marquee as this shot from the time shows:
The theater was the Lyric, situated in the middle of a row of six theaters on the north side of 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues, the famous “Deuce” of New York legend. SHAFT had opened in New York on July 2 at the DeMille Theater on Broadway and 47th Street, but I don’t know at what point in its run it started playing at the Lyric. The marquee in that picture says “Held Over 4th Big Week,” but I couldn’t say whether that was in July, August or September.
I was in Times Square last night and I went into Forever 21, the store that is situated where Virgin Megastore used to be. What was notable about Virgin was that it extended several stories down. There were three stories of the record/video store, with the ground floor being the store’s top floor. Then there was a multiplex movie theater with four screens that went at least two or three stories further down, like a bomb shelter. It opened as the Sony State in 1996, but was later called the Loew’s State when it changed corporate hands. When Virgin closed in 2009 and was eventually taken over by another retailer, I wondered what would happen to the theaters. Well, last night, I found out. The space was gutted and turned into a lower level of the new store. So those theaters are gone.
I bought the DVD set, “Bad Girls of Film Noir, Volume 1,” because it contained THE GLASS WALL and I wanted to share screen grabs of some of the movie’s scenes shot on 42nd Street. In watching the film again, I was disappointed at how few shots of the street it contained and had second thoughts about doing an entry on it. But then I looked more closely at some of the other Times Square shots in the film and noticed a couple of things that merited further research. And I then noticed a scene shot inside one of the Deuce’s landmarks. So I chose to go forward. The Times Square scenes were shot in the spring of 1952 and all the film titles on the marquees were released that season.
SHAKEDOWN (1988), directed by James Glickenhaus, is a buddy cop thriller distinguished chiefly, for me at least, by a couple of scenes shot on 42nd Street during the waning heyday of the Deuce. The plot has to do with a legal aid lawyer (played by Robocop himself, Peter Weller) teaming up with a maverick plainclothes cop (Sam Elliott), originally from Texas, who seems to operate without any supervision. (The harried police captain, usually a staple of these films, is the one cliché missing here.) The lawyer’s client is a black drug dealer who shot a white undercover cop to death and claimed self-defense, thinking the cop was a robber seeking to kill him for his drugs. Elliott’s character helps the lawyer with his investigation, penetrating a porn-sex-and-drug ring with ties to a whole network of corrupt cops. From there, in true R-rated ’80s fashion, it’s a steady stream of chases, shootouts, fistfights, preposterous plot twists, and ample nudity in various sex clubs, including one situated several floors above the New Amsterdam Theater.
Peter Weller and Sam Elliott leaving the Lyric Theater in SHAKEDOWN