BY DAN BUSKIRK Step Right Up! The summer is here and what better time to savor this duo of films, both taking us deep inside the American traveling carnival tradition. With their lurid theatricality, carnivals are such perfect cinematic settings it is surprising the “Carny Film” isn’t more of a full-blown genre (though let’s give a shout-out to such carny classics as the unmentionable Freaks, Nightmare Alley – Tyrone Power, forced to bite the head off chickens! – and Jack Clayton’s 1983 adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.) Both of the films showing at this month’s Andrew’s Video Vault weave a crime plot into their caravan of wonders, but it is the chance to leer at the lurid anthropological details of these sordid little outcast societies that give these films their tawdry kick.
Directed by former documentarian Robert Kaylor, Carny portrays a twisted American soul rarely seen on screen. Starring Robbie Robertson of The Band — who also wrote and produced it — Carny carries his brand of humor and deep humanism. Shot by Harry Stradling Jr. (who’d previously cut his teeth on westerns like Little Big Man,) he gives the film an weathered, earthy look similar to the photo on the cover of The Basement Tapes. Robertson is Patch, the smooth fixer of the carnival and his best buddy and trailer mate is Gary Busey’s Bozo, the motor-mouthed dunking machine clown who whips up a crowd’s anger with insults and his maniacal laugh (Busey is truly mesmerizing here). Bozo seduces an 18 year-old Jodie Foster away from her furious boyfriend (the always creepy Craig Wasson) as the next town beckons and the naive (and terribly sexy) young Foster learns the ins and outs of the carnival biz.
Critical consensus at the time was that the film’s rambling first hour was its best, with the film stumbling in its final third, trying to shoehorn in a plot about angry suckers getting even. The critics are probably right, but at least the violent, perverse climax doesn’t go soft and sentimental. Ultimately it is the details of this spooky, neon-lit mood piece that will linger, the fat man washing himself in the rain, old Elisha Cook Jr’s dead-eyed taunts and the pitch-perfect soundtrack, an atmospheric collaboration between composer Alex North (Wise Blood) and Robertson. Carny wails and honks with like a haunted cinematic expression of the themes that Robertson weaved through The Band’s music. Any Band fan should consider it a must-see.
Also on the bill, a terribly obscure 1953 b-movie with many of the same ideas, Girl On the Run. Girl On the Run, if remembered at all, is best known as the first time Steve McQueen was seen on the big screen. There ‘s McQueen right at the opening, bringing the hammer down on the test of strength but as the film unwinds I was mildly-shocked by how inventively shot, scene-after-scene. this shoestring production was. Turns out the film was photographed by Victor Lukens, an apparent multi-medium genius, known for architecture, furniture design and photography. Lukens was also Steve McQueen’s bohemian mom’s boyfriend, a man who helped send McQueen to acting school. So here he is.
The film’s bare plot follows a sweet young couple (Richard Coogan, TVs “Captain Video” and the achingly lovely Rosemarie Pettit) are forced to hide out in the carnival when accused of the murder they’ve witnessed. Girl On the Run keeps moving its story situation forward – the girl will have to shimmy on stage in lingerie and the man will have to box the carnival champion – but the film is always happy to stop and ogle the burlesque dancers, who have a lot of beauty and character for one of these cheapies. Best remembered among the dancers in Renee DeMilo, who stands 6’3” and whose press claimed she work legit theaters in Vienna (I’m super-gullible.) All the carnival mischief, old men sneaking in the girlie show, the faces of the blood-thirsty crowds, are gorgeously shot by Lukens.
“Little person” Charles Bolender is quite a presence as the head of the carny, a small man who never loses his head, even as the catfights and shoot-outs go down. Bolender was later a regular on the Jackie Gleason Show and performed on Broadway as well. In fact the cast and crew is full with people who have years of experience on the edge of the film industry, including director Arthur J. Beckhard, who eighteen years before wrote Shirley Temple’s classic vehicle, Curly Top. The script itself isn’t much to brag about, but otherwise this forgotten crime tale is bursting with a tent-load of talent and indefensible pleasures at every turn.
Both films screen tonight as part of ANDREW’S VIDEO VAULT @ The Rotunda 4014 Walnut Street, Philadelphia PA 8PM Free! Phawker film critic Dan Buskirk will be guest-hosting tonight’s screening. Andrew’s Video Vault happens the second Thursday of the month at The Rotunda (4014 Walnut Street, Philadelphia PA)