The Film Inspection Bench--Bathing Beauties & Psychedelic Zugsmith
Maybe this will be a regular thing--a way to document the flotsam and jetsam that threads through my Eiki projector. I'll occasionally take a look at feature films, but mostly shorts in the 16mm format.
I often find it difficult to engage in conversations with friends about specific films and it has taken many years to figure out why: it’s a combination of being fixated on the actual sprocket-and-photo-chemical workings of film and a cat-like perception that moviegoing is nothing more than an ephemeral light show. Sad to say, but I rarely lose myself at the movies. The time spent in front of the screen is indeed pleasurable but upon reflection afterwards it is like I have seen an entirely different film than others. Most of the time the sway of star power and plot mechanics do nothing for me—unless I am really concentrating (or really enamored) most actors seem interchangeable. My recollections of plots usually go something like, “It was about a guy being chased by this other guy. There was a girl there, too.” I tend to look at films the way a projectionist (or perhaps a cinematographer) would, observing the entirety of the image within the proscenium arch. The lighting, editing, camera angles, rear projection effects, and even the scratches in the emulsion keep me spellbound.
Most people heavily involved with old films end up with a completely singular approach to conquer the immense mountain of history. I once had a brief exchange with a collector of 8mm film. After describing the extraordinary lengths, including transcontinental travel, he went to accumulate his massive collection he mentioned that he did not currently have a functioning 8mm projector. No matter, he was satisfied looking at the films with a magnifying glass on a lightbox. At the time, this seemed patently absurd (and completely charming) but after some recollection I think I get it. Much like stamps, postcards, and jewelry, these tightly wound ribbons of celluloid can be objets d’ art themselves, something to collect, catalogue, preserve, and admire. The passion that the philatelist feels toward stamps may not be make sense to an outsider but most people with the collecting bug can relate to the calming effect of getting lost in a hobby.
This is all a long-winded way of saying that I enjoy collecting films. Sixteen-millimeter films, to be precise. Unlike the 8mm guy I mentioned, I find it essential to run my films—lights out, sound on, take-up reel (hopefully) turning. I don’t know if I’m really watching the films. It feels as if putting them on the projector is the concluding act—after repairing any bad splices or torn sprockets—of inspecting the films. The films I collect might be best left in the dustbin of time and my approach to them might seem dispassionate, but it brings me pleasure. Last night I inspected two reels of film I picked up on eBay recently, both good examples of the of the obscure objects I desire.
Beauty and the Beach (1941)
War may have been raging in Europe but on a tranquil Thursday in the Summer of ’41, the U.S. was at peace as evidenced by this musical one-reeler. There wasn’t much fanfare to announce the making of this film; The New York Times briefly mentioned that Paramount would be filming on Jones Beach on August 21st and Motion Picture Herald elaborated that it was the first film ever to be made at the Long Island State Park that Robert Moses opened in 1929. (In 1949, it would be further preserved in film history with Warner Bros. feature film The Girl from Jones Beach.) The short was also Paramount’s premiere one-reel musical of the season—a specialty of theirs since the early days of talkies—which they called “Headliners.” Leslie M. Roush, a short film specialist, directed the sunny confection with cinematography by William Steiner. Some of the scenic shots have a stunning naturalistic quality that disclose the fact that Steiner was a talented veteran of feature films as well as the memorable Duke Ellington short Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life to his credit. He would later photograph the striking noir features, The Window and The Tattooed Stranger. Music is provided by the Johnny Long Orchestra with vocals by Helen Young and Bob Houston (a stage name replacing the distinctly un-American sounding Ivan Minott). Young sings the most toe-tapping tune, plugging the Paramount picture of the same name still in theaters at the time, “Kiss the Boys Goodbye” by Frank Loesser and Victor Schertzinger. Crosscut with the performances is footage of smiling good-lookers swimming, shooting arrows, playing shuffleboard, and shuffling on the dancefloor. The film was well-received, with Showmen’s Trade Review writing, “Leslie Roush has provided a brand new idea in band shorts and started it off with a bang.” The Exhibitor gave it a “GOOD” rating and called it “a radical departure from the musical reel.” This gorgeous television print is from National Telefilm Associates (NTA).
On Her Bed of Roses (aka Psychedelic Sexualis, 1966)
The vague description for the auction of this film indicated that it was only a segment of a feature film and “Bed of Roses” was written on the reel itself. Lured by the low-budget mid-century exploitation look to the screenshots, I bought the film despite not being able to identify it. I looked at it as a challenge. The mystery was solved in record time when I pulled out the first few feet of the film and looked at it on my lightbox. On Her Bed of Roses was on the leader--a film written and directed by the legendary Albert Zugsmith based on Psychopathia Sexualis by Krafft-Ebing (!). Although it seems like a title Something Weird Video would have gotten a hold of in the 90s, this one languished in obscurity until a DVD was released in 2015. Where is the lavish 500-page Zugsmith biography the world clamors for? The titles write themselves: Sex Kittens & Opium Eaters: The Films of Albert Zugsmith, Zugsmith Confidential! From Sirk & Welles to Mamie Van Doren, etc.
The reel in question features a scene where a mother tries to seduce her daughter’s boyfriend, a scene where the daughter shrieks at her therapist, followed by a flashback where she meets Steffan, a shy Norman Bates-type with an obsession with roses. Under the florid noodling of a Joe Greene jazz soundtrack there is off-kilter dialogue like:
-Do you like peanut butter?
-Gosh, how did you know? I like it best on apples.
-I like grape jelly on mine.
Of course, I will be watching the entire film to see how it begins, where it goes, and to find out how Steffan really feels about peanut butter. I believe this reel is from an actual theatrical print which I like to think played countless nights in some Rust Belt fleapit.