THE CABINET OF DR. RAMIREZ (1991) – Modern-day silent movie

The following is my entry in The Silent Movie Day Blogathon, co-hosted by Crystal at her blog In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Lea at her blog Silent-ology, on Sept. 29, 2021. Click here or on the above banner, and read bloggers’ variety of tributes to National Silent Movie Day!


I’ll bet you didn’t know that some major actors performed in a silent movie in 1991. I wouldn’t have known it myself if PBS hadn’t broadcast the movie on “Great Performances” two years after the movie was released.

The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez is written and directed by Peter Sellars (no relation to the actor Peter Sellers), a theater director who is famous for his unconventional takes on operas and plays. One example was his 1980 staging of Don Giovanni as a “blaxploitation” movie, with the title character shooting up heroin at one point. Opera News called the production “an act of artistic vandalism.”

Dr. Ramirez is likely to inspire similar complaints from anyone who is expecting a mainstream film. Basically, the movie grafts the Expressionist themes and look of the 1919 German classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari onto the setting of late-1980’s Wall Street.

Peter Gallagher and Joan Cusack play two young stockbroker/lovers whose personal and business lives are not going so well. That makes them easy bait for mysterious and fiendish Dr. Ramirez (Ron Vawter) and his even stranger partner-in-crime Cesar (Mikhail Baryshnikov).

In an introduction to the movie, director Sellars makes lofty claims about the movie laying waste to Wall Street’s barren greediness. I don’t know about all that. To me, the amazing thing is that this story is told with no dialogue, not even subtitles — a word-free conceit that hadn’t been attempted since F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) — and Sellars makes it work. The movie really makes you work for its pleasures, but the actors are so good, and the staging is so well thought-out, you can really make the connections.

The movie is far from perfect. Its score by John Adams is bombastic at some points, a few close-ups are held way too long after they’ve made their point, and the film’s climax flies all over the place. Yet I could never take my eyes off the movie.

In a movie world where it seems every bit of exposition must be clearly laid out for the dimmest yahoo in the audience, The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez flies its freak flag proudly…and lucidly. For that alone, it deserves a place in cinema history.

Below is Part 1 of the movie. The movie is available for free on YouTube in five parts.


A Very Special Blog Entry! (No, not really)

Back in the days when there were only three TV networks (okay, maybe four), television series — usually sitcoms, but occasionally light-hearted dramas as well — would be try to pull viewers in by advertising that next week, they’d be seeing a “Very Special Episode” of their favorite show.

What this usually meant is that a show which was usually going for the big yuks would hit the brakes for a week and try to tackle some big issue as it was experienced by the lead characters. Two examples that I can recall right offhand are “Family Ties'” hotshot Alex Keaton (Michael J. Fox) having a minor breakdown when a friend of his in the crash of a car ride in which Alex had bowed out at the last minute; and, most egregiously, the three kids from the “Diff’rent Strokes” family barely escaping sexual abuse at the hands of a seemingly innocent local bicycle repairman (poor Gordon Jump, usually so hilarious on “WKRP in Cincinnati”).

Whenever the “VSE” label flashed across my screen, I immediately knew two things: (1) the show’s producers were going to make their audience pay for all the laughs they’d previously had by watching the show; and more significantly, (2) the shows that were pulling this stunt usually weren’t of terribly high quality to start with — thus the producers seemed to be aiming for legitimacy by tackling an “edgy” subject.

First off, I don’t know about you, but if you’re going to deal with a subject such as child sexual abuse, your show had better have shown its chops at intelligently handling such material (e.g., “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”), not wasting it in a show where the frequent catchphrase and punchline is, “What’chu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?”

Secondly, it seems never to have occurred to said producers that other TV shows were already tackling gritty subject matter without calling huge attention to it. In the 1970’s, for sure, “All in the Family” and “M*A*S*H” were grappling with, respectively, urban unrest and the trauma of war without having to put big exclamation points around it every week.

Another unfortunate offspring of this sub-genre was the “dramedy” that was so beloved in the late 1980’s until people readily got tired of it. There were “United States” (endless monologues about rough suburban life written by Larry Gelbart, co-creator of “M*A*S*H” — there, I said it!) and Blair Brown in “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd.” We knew these shows were different because — gasp! — there was no laugh track to tell us when to laugh. (Apparently, very few people laughed at them or even watched them, as they died hasty deaths.)

Aside from the very recent past 50 years (!) of television, TV producers might do well to take a good look at the art of cinema. Way back in 1921, writer-director-star Charlie Chaplin was told by film executives that he couldn’t possibly combine comedy and risible drama in the same movie. Then Chaplin came out with The Kid. There’s a Very Special Episode for you.

Florida Man Seeks Divorce From Absolutely No One

JACKSONVILLE (UP) – In an unprecedented legal maneuver, a Florida man is filing for divorce.

The kicker: He’s a widower who has no spouse.

Edward G. Edward, 60, says he is making the move as a “pre-emptive strike” against future women who might shun him in the manner that he has been shunned for most of this past year.

Edward says that, nearly a year after his wife of 30 years died, he examined the possibility of rejoining the dating scene. He tried everything from asking women he knew personally to applying to on-line dating sites. But no matter how tactfully he tried to pursue his potential suitors, he was always turned down flat.

The most telling turn-down, Edward says, was a woman who recently told him that she “didn’t think of him that way.”

“They never think of me ‘that way,'” says Edward. “Women say things like, “Gosh, I wish I could find a man who wasn’t in it just for a hook-up, who respected me and treated me like a human being. I’d love to date anyone like that.'” Edward gestured to himself and said, “And then they point at me and say, ‘Anyone but him.'”

Edward said that, after a number of similar rejections, he came up with the one-sided divorce decree “to salve my bruised ego. I’ll carry a copy of it with me at all times. Then if, by some miracle, a woman starts to show any sort of interest in me, I can hand her the paper and confidently state, ‘Sorry, honey, we just couldn’t make it work. I’ve already divorced us.'”

Local legal firms have applauded the concept and have stated they expect it to take off nationwide. Andy Farer of law firm Farer and Porer says he is positioning his staff to offer the decrees at all local speed-dating sites.

Edward says he didn’t expect to start a trend but welcomes anyone who wants to follow in his path. “It’s time,” he says, “to give the outcasts of the world their opportunity to stand up and say, ‘You know, you’re just not my type.”

THE ADVENTURES OF BIFFLE & SHOOSTER (2015) – Classic comedy that you never knew existed

It’s time to answer one of cinema’s burning questions: Who the heck are Biffle & Shooster?

The raucous duo are apparently the brainchild of Hollywood producer Michael Schlesinger, who at some point must have decided he wanted to represent a comedy team from Hollywood’s Golden Age, even though Schlesinger himself wasn’t born until 1950. Thus were borne Benny Biffle (Nick Santa Maria) and Sam Shooster (Will Ryan), two crazies who owe more than a bit of their existence to Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, and probably any other double-act you can name from the post-vaudeville era.

The Adventures of Biffle & Shooster is a collection of comedy short subjects that the team supposedly filmed in the 1930’s. Schlesinger and his troupe have gone miles beyond the call of duty to give these shorts the look and feel of 1930’s programmers, complete with black-and-white cinematography (except for one short filmed in Cinecolor, the poor man’s version of 1930’s Technicolor), and old-fashioned wipes and fade-outs, as well as authentic-looking “bumpers” including B&S making a plea for the Will Rogers Institute. Also, ’30s movie buffs will be delighted by the countless inside jokes provided in the shorts.

The plotlines certainly feel 1930’s-ish enough. They don’t miss a single comedy trope of the times: comic murder mystery (“The Biffle Murder Case”); haunted mansion with crazy scientist (“Bride of Finklestein”); musical revue extravaganza (“Schmo Boat”); and finally, husband unexpectedly brings boss home for dinner, wife leaves husband in the lurch, and his partner dresses in drag to save the day (a triple-header in “Imitation of Wife”).

All of this is put over most effectively by a very eager-to-please cast that is in on the jokes, not the least of which are the two leads. Will Ryan is a most effective straight man (and charming musician, in several gratuitous musical numbers). And Nick Santa Maria, as the situation calls for, mugs gleefully in a style not seen since the salad days of Jerry Lewis.

Anyone who has ever wished that comedy would return to the old days when comedians actually worked to get a laugh will bask in this nostalgic piece of hilarity. And I can’t help but think that kids will be laughing themselves silly at these shorts, which could provide their film-buff parents with a pipeline to introduce their kiddies to the style of old-fashioned comedy.

(Oh, and be sure to look for the surprise appearances from acclaimed actor Robert Forster, and a very funny two-line bit from “cult” character actor Dick Miller.)

The Adventures of Biff & Shooster is available for rental on YouTube, Amazon Prime, and Apple TV. Spring for the rental, bub — you’ll thank me later.

Larry Lujack and The Tooth Fairy

Do you remember when radio had personality? And personalities?

One of my favorite bloggers, Ken Levine, does. Besides being an Emmy-winning writer (he used to write for the likes of “M*A*S*H” and “Cheers”), he was also a disk jockey in Los Angeles in the late 1960’s and early ’70s. He is forever waxing nostalgic about the old-fashioned DJs who used to provide comedy and contests between the songs.

I share Mr. Levine’s nostalgia. I grew up in a tiny Illinois town named Lexington, which is about two hours south of Chicago. Every morning I would hop on the school bus, whose radio would be tuned to WLS, the Chicago station that boasted of “50,000 watts of power” and whose signal still reaches 38 states at nighttime. In the mornings, WLS would treat us to the deep-voiced tones and risque humor of “Super Jock” Larry Lujack.

Mr. Lujack.

Mr. Lujack was such a radio legend that when he died in 2013, he rated an obituary in The New York Times. His show was replete with recurring segments that were eyebrow-raising at the time but would hardly evince a shrug today, such as “Animal Stories” and “The Cheap, Trashy Showbiz Report.”

But my all-time favorite segment of his was a daily serial titled “The Adventures of The Tooth Fairy.” The premise was that a dentist named Newton Snickers (voiced by Chicago voice-over artist Dick Orkin) became so obsessed with his job that he declared himself the genuine Tooth Fairy and decided to do the job for all of America’s good little boys and girls. Needless to say, this did not sit well with the adults who saw Newton in his fairy get-up and didn’t realize his earnest intentions.

I’ve embedded one of the “Tooth Fairy” audio segments below. I don’t know how it will play to the uninitiated, but humor-wise, it’s definitely in the “Rocky & Bullwinkle” mode. A couple more segments of the show are available on YouTube. For a brief history of the show, click here.

So did you have a favorite radio “jock” when you were growing up? If so, please share your story with us.

FAMILY BAND: THE COWSILLS STORY (2011) – The pain, The Cowsills, and other things

In the late 1960’s arose a musical genre known as “bubblegum pop” — rock music stripped of any thoughtful content, meant only as escapism. And it didn’t come any more bubblegummy than The Cowsills.

Originally consisting of brothers Bill, Bob, Barry, Paul, and John — there was another brother, which we’ll get to shortly — the group’s self-proclaimed manager, the boys’ father Bud, insisted on adding mom Barbara and sister Susan, both of whom were reluctant to join the act. Nevertheless, the premise of a “together” family singing hip songs in the late ’60s was the perfect exclamation point for the hippie era, and The Cowsills sold millions of records and were a hit in concerts and
TV appearances.

Sadly, the seemingly cheery family had tension constantly brewing offstage. Bud was a Navy veteran, and much like the character portrayed in The Great Santini, the only method he saw fit for running the family was the military way. He ruled with an iron hand, which he frequently applied to family members who showed the slightest form of rebellion.

There were two glaring examples of Bud’s bullying. One was Richard, the one non-performing Cowsill, against whom Bud had an inexplicable grudge. When Bill — whom the rest of the family regarded as the group’s de facto leader — tried to convince Bud that Richard would make a great drummer for the group, Richard instead nonchalantly sent Richard off to fight in Vietnam. A while later, Bill and Bud got into a physical confrontation in which Bill surprised himself by emerging victorious. The next day, Bud sent Bill a letter stating that his services were no longer needed for the group or the family.

All of this family turmoil, plus the group’s loss of popularity due to changing musical styles, is well-documented here. The movie is narrated by Bob, and he makes it quite clear that he is trying to make some sense of the chaos that befell the family. If the film has any fault, it’s that — already a pretty brisk 90 minutes — it seems a little padded by Bob’s aw-shucks narration, as well as moments where untitled music is expected to carry the movie along for a few more minutes. (Also, strangely, there are clips of The Cowsills appearing on Mike Douglas’ and Johnny Carson’s talk shows without identifying the hosts.)

But overall, this is a very insightful, not to mention bittersweet portrait of a family who might have made more of their success if not for their dysfunctionality. I always thought their song “The Rain, The Park, and Other Things” was a bit treacly, but this movie definitely makes you see their music in a different light.

Nowhere Man

As I’ve recently mentioned on this blog, I officially retired eight weeks ago. When I turned 60 three months ago, I became eligible for 71.5% (who determined that figure?) of my late wife’s Social Security benefits, and while that wasn’t a fortune, I found that it was a comfortable enough figure to live on. So I took the closest ramp off the rat race, and here I am.

Until she discovered that I’d make it okay on my own, my grown daughter was dead set against the idea. She was convinced that I should hold out until age 62 so that I could get more money for retirement. But for me, it wasn’t completely about the money.

After having been laid off from the best job I’d ever had, I’d been forced to take a job at a convenience store. After a year of working there, I thought it would get easier. But frankly, it only made me more disgusted with life. Everything I’d ever hated about jobs — condescending bosses, annoying co-workers, concern about things that didn’t matter — came to bear on this job. Even emptying the trash made me shudder, and not just for the obvious reasons. I would find things such as half-eaten pizzas or half-used cartons of beer (with six unopened bottles, just thrown away) and think, How can people waste this stuff so nonchalantly?

Sadly, I’ve never been much of a people person to start with, but this job only emphasized that fact, to my despair. As with many Americans, there were many days when it was all I could do to pull myself out of bed just to go to the job. So, as I say, when a window of opportunity presented itself, I jumped right through it.

The funny thing is, I used to think it was just me who felt this way. Plenty of people dislike their jobs, but not to the point of wanting to avoid mankind altogether. Or so I thought. But lately, I’ve found some evidence on the Internet that lots of folks are tired of having to deal with their fellow man (or woman).

Mark Evanier, a very entertaining blogger and one of my favorites, recently wrote this column about how he has enough means and material goods that he is quite happy not having to negotiate the outside world. And on Twitter, there’s an account named Fact (@Fact) that daily espouses either some fact or some random philosophy about life. On July 2, they posted this gem: “Most people aren’t actually anti-social. They choose to be alone because they hate spending time with stupid people.”

Sadly, it’s not an absurd philosophy these days. I get all of my news from my computer nowadays. When you go to the news and read about insurrections against our Capitol, or how politicians who were supposedly elected to serve their constituents do nothing but fill their own coffers, staying squirreled away in your little room suddenly doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Let me know what your feelings are on this subject. In the meantime, I’m off to my patio to smoke a cigar.

Review of the Jane Russell biography MEAN…MOODY…MAGNIFICENT!

Like millions of unenlightened American males, my first reaction to seeing movie actress Jane Russell was sheer lust. When I was 15 years old, there was a coffee-table movie book that showed a publicity photo of Russell from her musical The French Line. The photo showed Jane in a notoriously skimpy bathing suit, and that was it for me. It was long after that before I saw any of her movies, and I gradually realized that Russell’s fame was based on genuine talent as much as on her anatomy.

The first book to detail Russell’s life has now completed my view of Russell as far more complex than I’d ever imagined. Christina Rice’s book is named Mean…Moody…Magnificent!: Jane Russell and the Marketing of a Hollywood Legend, and it’s worthy of its attention-getting title.

(For those not in the know, Rice took the 3M title from a famed publicity poster for Russell’s debut film, The Outlaw [1943].)

From what I’ve previously read of Russell, she was a mass of contradictions. In her own autobiography, Russell apologizes to any actresses who saw the exploitation of their bodies as Russell’s route to quick fame. Yet Russell’s book is filled with photos that show her as seemingly happy to show off her body in any instance. Russell later became a gay icon, yet at various times, she both approved of or brushed off any connection with what would later become known as the LGBT community.

One of the interesting points about MMM is that Rice embraces Russell’s dichotomies and shows that Russell herself was at a loss to explain her yin-yang philosophies of life. Rice has written a spirited book that takes as its template Russell’s public persona of “Take it or leave it.”

Rice details Russell’s good and bad sides in equal detail. Russell was a staunch, lifelong Christian who never forced her beliefs on anyone but made very public use of them whenever they were needed. Nevertheless, in addition to Russell’s many provocative movie roles, she did many things that conservatives would label as most un-Christian. In the ’40s, she submitted to a botched abortion that nearly killed her. Her long but troubled marriage to football star Robert Waterfield included physical fights and infidelities on both of their parts.

Russell’s many good works are discussed in the book as well. Foremost among them is Russell’s formation of WAIF, the association that paved the way for international adoptions of suffering or abandoned children. Rice lovingly describes how Russell bulldozed through government bureaucracy to start her groundbreaking project. Also described in the book are her generosity and friendship towards her many friends, co-stars, and fans.

Of course, the book would be incomplete without the story of millionaire Howard Hughes’ discovery and subsequent exploitation of Russell. Rice examines how the young, naive Russell eventually overcome her fear and distaste of Hollywood’s manipulation of her (forgive me) public figure and stood out as an early feminist (though Russell claimed she disliked the term and was certain she wasn’t a feminist at all).

Rice provides a meticulously researched, yet breezy read about an actress who embraced her contradictions and put them to good use, yet stood up for herself whenever necessary. Mean…Moody…Magnificent! provides the multi-faced study of Russell that her movies never did .

A public service announcement

Most of you can probably borrow movies on disc from your local library. But a chain of libraries across the country have enabled viewers to stream movies for free from an online system.

The system is named, and it’s essentially a mini-Netflix for library users. If you have an up-to-date library card, go to The site can take you to the address for the library you regularly use, or if you don’t go to one particular library in your area, Kanopy can find one for you.

Kanopy will then ask for your library card’s ID and password, plus the usual name-and-address information. Once you’re approved as a member, Kanopy will take you to their selection of movies and TV series. After that, you are allowed to stream up to six movies per month for free to your computer or electronic device. Kanopy’s selection isn’t as huge as Netflix’s, but it has a quality line-up, including contemporary movies, family and adult TV shows, and film classics such as The Odd Couple and Chinatown.

So now you have yet another alternative for watching your favorite movies at home for free. Don’t you just love the Internet?