Tuesday, June 10, 2008

cinema obscura: MGM Feeling Groovy, Circa 1970

"Oh, Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore!"

That immortal line, of course, was spoken by Dorothy Gale in "The Wizard of Oz," but I've a hunch that the same sentiment was uttered by some confused MGM executive as the most staid of the major studios found itself confronted by the counterculture of the late 1960s.

Metro self-consciously inaugerated the new year and the new decade with its February, 1970 release of Michelangelo Antonioni's "Zabriskie Point." It was a very big deal - and an even bigger flop. But that didn't stop Metro.

In May of the same year, the studio screened, with much fanfare, its hot-potato campus-unrest flick, "The Strawberry Statement" at the Cannes Film Festival, concurrrently releasing its X-rated sex comedy about love children, "The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart," in New York city.

"Zabriskie Point" is still remembered - and the critical reaction to it has been adjusted upward in some quarters. But "The Strawberry Statement" and "The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart" have long been forgotten.

It's impossible to see either one.

"The Strawberry Statement," directed by Stuart Hagmann from a script by Israel Horowitz (adapted from a novel by James Kunan), is an overwrought, exploitative drama about a clueless kid (Bruce Davison, hot off Frank Perry's "Last Summer") who joins a student revolution as a way to meet girls and eventually gets caught up in campus violence.

Talented Kim Darby, who was a protegé of the great Kim Stanley at the time, had the female lead and her role here was supposed to rescue her from the memory of the very square "True Grit" (1969), her breakthrough movie. But it was not to be. She eventually found a good role in Robert Aldrich's lost film, "The Grissom Gang" (1971), but actually had better luck in an earlier movie, Harvey Hart's "Bus Riley's Back in Town" (1965).

Leonard Horn's "The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart," based by Robert T. Westbrook on his autobiographical novel, is actually a buoyant, racy little comedy with an appealing young cast - Dianne Hull, Victoria Racimo, Holly Near, Michael Greer, the extraordianry Linda Gillen, who could have been a major film comedienne, and in the title role, a game and very randy Don Johnson. The film is little more than a series of vignettes about aimless, uncertain kids seeking their identities, which includes a lot of sexual experimentation and, for Stanley Sweetheart, masturbation (hence, the film's original X rating).

Horn keeps everything well paced and clearly empathizes with his youthful cast. And as a bonus, he includes hilariously arty little films-within-the-film, knowing, misguided spoofs (of shorts) made by college dropout/wannabe filmmaker Stanley.

This film is worth rescuing.

Cinema Obscura is a recurring feature of The Passionate Moviegoer, devoted to those films that have been largely forgotten. Suggestions welcome.

(Artwork: Post art from "The Magic Garden of Stanely Sweetheart" and "The Strawberry Statement," two counterculture attempts from Metro)


Ben said...

I remember both of these movies. I was a college student at the time - so I related. Say what you will, they were both vital. I loved the counterculture movies of that era - "Getting Straight," "Hi, Mom" and the like. Thanks for the memories!

jbryant said...

Not sure if you were being literal when you said "The Grissom Gang" is a "lost film," but it's been released on DVD twice in the last few years, most recently in 2004. Been meaning to see it again - liked it a lot the first time.

joe baltake said...


I was. I know the film has been available - and for some time now - but it still seems so invisible and overlooked. Love the film, but I prefer its original title (and the title of the book it's based on), "No Orchids for Miss Blandish." I'm also a sucker for Aldrich's "The Legend of Lylah Clare."

wwolfe said...

If I remember correctly, "The Strawberry Statement" in its original book form was the author's non-fictional account of the student sit-in at Columbia University in 1968 or '69. I read it in about 1971, and as a 12-year-old I enjoyed its mix of relatively understated humor and skepticism. The movie deep-sixed all of those qualities, leaving a failry sappy depicition of "hippies."

My favorite example of late 1960s movies of this type was the made-for-TV "Ballad of Andy Crocker." It has a truly mind-blowing cast: future "Six Million Dollar Man" Lee majors as the titular returning Vietnam vet, Motown great Marvin Gaye as his Army buddy, Joey Heatherton as his former flame, sausage king/country singer Jimmy Dean as a shady businessman, and ex-Righteous Brother Bobby Hatfield as another pal of Lee's. (It's a bad sign that all three male singers give better performances than Lee Majors.)

There's a great early scene where Peter Haskell, as a drug dealer wearing a paisley Nehru jacket, tries to get Lee involved in heavy drugs. Peter is an excellent actor, and has become a friend of mine over the past few years, but the way his role is written is a perfect example of what my best friend said when we watched the movie a few years ago: "That's what a 60-year-old movie executive thought a hippie was in 1969." Sort of like the classic "Dragnet" drug episode of the same era.

There's a mini-film festival to be made centered on this little group of movies. The perfect theme song would be America's "Horse With No Name," based on Randy Newman's very witty explanation of the lyrics: "It's about this kid who thinks he took acid." The same describes all these movies.

Griff said...

THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT isn't impossible to see -- it was once released on videocassette -- but it is now difficult to find. STRAWBERRY was not only screened at Cannes, the film was seen as quite timely by many at the festival (in part because the fest took place just days after the Kent State shootings), and it won the Jury Prize.

THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT, of course, is based on Columbia student James Simon Kunen's memoir "The Strawberry Statement: Notes of a College Revolutionary." There isn't much of Kunen's book in the movie, but they did name the picture's protagonist Simon. The film is too slickly directed by half (Hagmann had directed a lot of commercials, and it shows), and Horovitz' script, despite the playwright's oft-quoted comment about his desire to write a movie that would radicalize a 15 year old, is undeveloped and uninvolving. Davison is okay in the lead, though, and the studio spared no expense on the police siege at the finale -- it's pretty impressively staged and scary.

Undeterred by the film's failure -- when all returns were in, the costly STRAWBERRY was actually a bigger flop than ZABRISKIE POINT -- MGM, producers Chartoff & Winkler, writer Horowitz and director Hagmann teamed again the following year on a movie about another hot-button issue: drug abuse. Originally titled SPEED IS OF THE ESSENCE, the picture starred Michael Sarrazin and Jacqueline Bisset in a downbeat tale... which became significantly less dark when a dissatisfied MGM, sensing commercial disaster, ordered substantial cuts and new scenes (mostly directed by an uncredited John G. Avildsen). It is said that the studio wanted the movie to be more like LOVE STORY. At any rate, the reworked film, retitled BELIEVE IN ME, was lightly released in late 1971.

The much harder to see THE MAGIC GARDEN OF STANLEY SWEETHEART wasn't actually rated X. MGM reportedly had a lengthy, complicated discussion/appeal with the MPAA over the picture, and won an R without cuts. The studio did put an special note on posters and print ads: "MGM advises STRICT parental guidance."

STANLEY is no masterpiece, but it is quite interesting; it captures some of the quirky quality of Westbrook's novel. The little 16mm films interpolated into the picture are the highlights here, and Holly Near is very good in the movie.

MGM's strange and occasionally remarkable 1970 slate of releases has never ceased to fascinate me. I'd like to see them all again.

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Griff, for all the invaluable information. Re the rating of "Stanley Sweetheart," I reviewed the film in its first run when I was the movie critic for The Philadelphia Daily News and it very definitely opened with an X rating, emblazoned both on the film and in the display ads. Yes, MGM eventually won its appeal and the film's ads were subsequently revised to carry an R rating. But for a period, albeit how short, it did officially carry the X rating.