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31 May 1998

Five Shitty Classics on Video

by Matt Maranian

Almost anyone who lives in a modern capitalistic society knows what it's like to walk past hundreds of titles in a video store, unable to make a selection. Eventually all those names running vertically down the spine of a video box begin to blur, and hasty selections are then often made. Ninety minutes of your life is too precious to waste on a bad choice. Here, bOING bOING offers some no-fail suggestions for your next trip to the video store. ­ Matt Maranian

The Sonny and Cher Nitty Gritty Hour (1971)

I don't want to go on the record as condoning the use of narcotics -- but if you're so inclined, The Sonny and Cher Nitty Gritty Hour presents more than just cause for killing off a few million brain cells. At the very least, fiddle with the "bright," "color," "tint" and "picture" knobs on your TV set to get the maximum effect of this abrasive, down-the-rabbit-hole glimpse at the early television career of Mr. and Mrs. Bono.

This shitty television special was the precursor to The Sonny and Cher Show -- predating Cher's rib-tickling character "Laverne" or that stupid, recurring pizza parlor sketch. Loosely incorporating the extremely dated theme "battle of the sexes," The Sonny and Cher Nitty Gritty Hour pushes the musical-variety envelope with an improvisational comedy segment (quite possibly the first and last time anyone tried improvisation on television -- this must have been a brainchild of Sonny's), in addition to Sonny's flat, nasal vocals -- sounding much like a sick goose -- on "We've Only Just Begun" and "The Beat Goes On."

Also included is a perfunctory "I Got You, Babe," after a lengthy recount of their first meeting and the beginning of their relationship over a black & white photo montage of "candid" shots at home with a toddler-aged, latent-lesbian Chastity. Without question, Nitty Gritty's high point is a number in which the pre-tattooed, pre-collagened, pre-orthadontic, pre-peeled, pre-cradle robbing, pre-Harley-Davidson, pre-infomercial Cher performs an overwrought "What's it All About, Alfie?" as Sonny narrates: "Cher represents the American girl, 1971, torn between two ways of life: the puritan ethic, and today's morality..." A near-anorexic Cher then proceeds with an ungainly, modern, free-form drug-dance to a medley of "All you Need Is Love"/"Funky Broadway" wearing only skimpy, baby-blue panties (with protruding hip and pubic bones), knee-high black vinyl boots and a gypsy-peasant halter top. The Sonny and Cher Nitty Gritty Hour makes me tearfully nostalgic for the old, fun Cher; jagged teeth, six layers of false eyelashes, Bob Mackie gowns and rouge stripes.

One viewing of The Nitty Gritty Hour pays out more grit that Sonny and Cher may have originally planned, leaving one with the feeling of having just been tied by the ankles to the back bumper of a fast truck and dragged across several miles of rough asphalt. Important to consider: Sonny was elected a congressman. You may want to lie down and rest after the end credits.


Promises! Promises! (1963)

As a rule of thumb, any movie starring the brilliant Jayne Mansfield is sure to be worth the rental price, and Promises! Promises! showcases Jayne at her seasoned best. Famous for being the "first" movie to feature a big name celebrity topless; Promises! Promises! delivers in less than four minutes after the opening title sequence. This low budget, "adult" comedy gets a cross-country road-trip's worth of mileage out of subjects like infertility, adultery, homosexuality and gigoloism, and also stars Jayne's real-life husband Mickey Hargitay, plus a transgendered creature called T.C. Jones.

The story concerns two couples vacationing on a cruise ship; Jayne's character "Sandra" wants desperately to get knocked up but her husband (the tremendously annoying Tommy Noonan) shoots blanks. After a series of kooky mix-ups, both women become "with child" and it's unclear which husband fathered which embryo. The glamorous, show-stopping Jayne holds the whole movie together and, fortunately, she's featured in nearly every scene. Her dresses are so tight that she has back-cleavage and her hairstyles will have you frantically hitting the rewind button on your remote. There's an interesting moment when Jayne's character "Sandra" does an impersonation of "Jayne Mansfield" at a baby shower -alongside a female impersonator hairdresser (T.C. Jones), and the dream sequences are worthy of a Dalinian canvas. Look for big hunks of the camera appearing at the bottom of the frame in some shots.

Jayne sings two great songs, "Lu Lu Lu, I'm in Love," performed naked while writhing around in a sudsy bathtub, and "Promise Her Anything," executed in her best Las Vegas-nightclub style. The perfect time to watch this movie is about two or three o'clock in the morning on a weeknight, alone, drunk, in the dark -- with the glow of the television screen as your only source of illumination. You'll soon find yourself hopelessly lost in the strange, stale, wiggy world of Promises! Promises!


Wicked Stepmother (1988)

Albeit a far cry from Now, Voyager, Dark Victory, or All About Eve, Wicked Stepmother could, in its own strange little way, be Bette Davis's finest film. Though her portrayal of the aforementioned stepmother doesn't rival any of her Oscar-winning roles, it's every bit as much a punch-packed performance.

This was Bette's last movie, and in 1988 as you may recall, Bette was not a pretty picture. Her twisted, post-stroke mouth painted a glossy ruby red is offset only by the deep, dark, crenelated lines running up and down her sunken cheeks -- like the bark of an aged redwood smoothed over with a heavy spackling of pancake makeup. The bright auburn pageboy wig is a horrific compliment to the cadaverous pallor of her skin, and the overall effect is actually quite dazzling -- or truly painful to witness, depending on your constitution. Each of her lines is arduously delivered as though she's taking her last gasps of life -- because in fact she was -- and watching Bette maneuver her tiny, frail, boney frame from one end of a scene to another -- grabbing on to nearby furniture for support, will certainly keep you on the edge of your seat.

She plays "Miranda," a gold-digging witch who marries old men and drains them of their funds -- it's not important to know the rest of the story, and you only need to watch the first thirty minutes or so.

The video box promises "a campy, fun-filled witch's brew of entertainment," and though the movie tries awfully hard, it just misses. It's a shame too, because they had Bette Davis in their favor, and she was obviously a good sport. She has all the best scenes; chain-smoking and throwing herself at a man young enough to be her great grandson. Unfortunately, she only appears in the first half of the movie, and unless you're a big fan of Tom Bosley, Richard Moll or ex-Bond girl Barbara Carrera, you should just fast forward through to the end for Bette's final on-camera credit. This last incarnation of Bette Davis will knock the wind outtaya!


Goin' Coconuts (1978)

Donny and Marie Osmond star in this theater-release feature film shot entirely on location in Hawaii, with the ubiquitous Diamond Head prominently featured in virtually every outdoor scene. There are Utah jokes, teeth and toothpaste jokes, Marie wears her fashion trademark high boot/low boot, and Donny delivers the line "cute, Marie, real cute." They both rely on their musical variety show acting style, which goes THUD without a laugh track, and their duets are laden with the same snappy repartee that television audiences became familiar with on The Donny and Marie Show.

Upon boarding their plane to the Islands for a "big concert," a stranger gives the sassy, wise-crackin' Marie an ugly pukka shell and driftwood necklace that, unbeknownst to her, is the missing piece to a treasure map leading to a sunken U.S. submarine filled with gold bars!! A gang of thugs go to all sorts of crazy lengths to get the necklace from the unassuming Marie; there are some close calls too, like when she finds her hotel suite ransacked, with a burglar three times her size riffling through her possessions -- the quick-thinking Marie throws oranges at him and beats him with a pillow until he runs away.

Donny and Marie's codependent sibling rivalry gets a little creepy, with Marie behaving more like a jealous lover than a sister. She makes the virgin Donny (calling him "D") feel guilty whenever he expresses interest in spending time with any female other than herself, and when he finally does get a moment in their hotel lobby with another girl, she barks "I'll give you FIVE MINUTES -- then I'm going to come and get you!"

For their "big concert" (that lasts all of four songs), Donny does a Polynesian slap dance -- wearing angel flights and a vest -- with a bunch of half-naked luau dancers from "Kalo's South Seas Revue," and Marie swings poi balls, does a hula, and slaughters a couple of Hawaiian tunes. Catching a glimpse of the dangerous criminals lurking backstage, Donny and Marie take several laugh-riot encores to prevent coming face to face with them. After a series of chase scenes on foot (with Donny being mobbed by tourists), on motorcycle (with a brazen Marie poppin' wheelies), and in motor boats (with Diamond Head in the background) the thieves are accidentally blown up by a Kawasaki jet ski loaded with explosives. Donny and Marie recover the gold bars, and soon after head back to Hollywood. As their plane soars over the Pacific and into an amber sky, the end credits roll to the thumping disco beat of their hot single "On the Shelf."


Liberace in Las Vegas (1980)

Liberace in Las Vegas is shock treatment for those who have never seen "Mr. Showmanship" in action; this is his Las Vegas extravaganza taped in its entirety.

The show opens -- on the video as it did live -- with a short film. We see Liberace waking up in bed at his excessively decorated Las Vegas home, stretching his arms and rising for his piano-shaped day. As he throws back the gold lame sheets with piano key trim, his "butler" meets him bedside and helps him into a hideous white and gold satin quilted kimono. We follow Lee frolicking through various parts of his piano-themed house -- the pool, the garden, the dining room, his bathtub (yikes!), and his walk-in closets. Finally, he gets all gussied-up in his rhinestoned stage costume, kisses his six frou-frou dogs goodbye and is escorted by the butler and a french maid carrying a candelabra to his awaiting Phantom 5 Rolls Royce limousine, customized with mirrored tiles. They see him off as the camera pulls away from a close shot of the car's vanity plate, "88 KEYS." The car heads down the street, and eventually into the parking lot of the Las Vegas Hilton. The film ends, fading to black, just as the orchestra swells to a dramatic fanfare and the showroom's spotlights come up on the same limousine driving out to center stage and parking. The chauffeur (the infamous Scott Thorson) comes around and opens the car door. Out leaps Liberace -- waving his bejeweled stubby fingers and bearing a smile that looks almost like an epileptic seizure; his cheeks pulled up and back so tightly that his mouth is permanently fixed with a leering grimace, his upper lip peeled to his gumline, forcing his front teeth to chipmonkishly protrude. Equally, his eyes have been lifted back so taut -- and are so laden with eyeliner -- that he almost looks Asian.

As if making such an entrance -- and wearing a fox-fur and rhinestone cape with a train fourteen feet long -- isn't enough, he has to comment on it for the next ten minutes. "How did you like the entrance -- was that OK?" he asks, and the audience cheers. "What to you think about the car -- ya like it?" And again they applaud -- they applaud an automobile! "I'm so glad you like the car" he continues, beating a dead horse, "it really stops traffic when I shop at Safeway." He then goes into a lengthy monologue about his fur coat. More or less this is his act; talking about his clothing. He built a career -- a long and prosperous career -- on this. He then needs special orchestration to remove his coat, and receives a big round of applause for doing so.

The show is jam-packed with "surprises," including a Mexican dance troupe, smoke machines, a rotating piano, an "exciting new talent" named Marco Valenti for whom words can do no justice, and the "internationally famous dancing waters." (The audience obediently applauds the water upon Liberace's insistence.) He changes pianos as often as he changes jeweled collar clips, often excusing himself to "slip out and get into something more spectacular," emerging moments later in yet another garish, swingy cape that cost the lives of several thousand mink or foxes -- always making sure to comment on how expensive each costume is. Lee croons some old standards and does a soft shoe, plays an extremely dramatic "Send in the Clowns" plus his old standby "Chopsticks." You can easily fast-forward through all the boring piano numbers without missing any of the show. That he plays the piano is completely incidental.

After Lee sings "I'll Be Seeing You" and takes one of his last of the show's several hundred gratuitous curtain calls, he dashes backstage for a moment and returns harnessed to a fine cable. Quickly hoisted up over the stage, he laboriously flaps the heavy folds of his ostrich feather and rhinestone cape, swooping from one end of the stage to another, hanging in the air like a pudgy, nellie Dracula. "Mary Poppins eat your heart out" he drools, before touching ground.

Liberace in Las Vegas will either inspire you to begin your own exciting career as a Las Vegas performer, or have you fervently promulgating the virtues of socialism.

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