Vintage Cable Box: The Toy, 1982

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“If you want a friend, you don’t buy a friend, Eric, you earn a friend through love and trust and respect.”

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The Toy, 1982 (Richard Pryor), Columbia Pictures

Jack Brown (Richard Pryor) is a frustrated writer who can’t seem to find work.  What?  Is this 2016?  He insists to anybody who will listen, “writing a book is a job!”  He happens to be right, but as we know, the writer’s “market” is nothing more than a speculative proposition with no guarantee of gainful employment or steady paychecks, and also everybody with a personal computer these days thinks they’re a damned writer, so they sap the market with badly written, terribly edited folderol.  To save you a trip to the Googles, folderol means “trivial or nonsensical fuss” – you’re welcome.  He’s about to lose his house, and his idealistic crusading girlfriend urges him to find any kind of employment to keep the house.

He applies for a job at U.S. Bates Industries, and while Ned Beatty (as the chief hiring executive) is amiable enough, he bristles at Pryor’s qualifications (the fact that he is overqualified).  After Pryor warns Beatty about his litigious lady, Beatty finds him a position as a “cleaning lady”, in which he has to ridiculously wear a maid’s uniform in a very awkward dinner party scene.  Jackie Gleason is U.S. Bates (acquaintances inadvertently call him, “you ass”), a man used to getting everything he wants.  His son is of the same stock of what we would call “white privilege” today.  Pryor is transferred to one of Bates’ department stores in another cleaning position capacity.  His unusual child-like nature, curiosity, and propensity for causing chaos appeals to Bates’ son, Eric (brat Scott Schwartz, last seen in A Christmas Story with his tongue frozen to a pole).  He tells his father’s underlings he wants to “purchase” Pryor.  They throw cash at him, and in his position, he really has no choice, right?  If somebody is paying you to be a character in a child’s fantasy, you take the money!

They seriously put Pryor in a crate and ship him to the boy’s house.  Pryor, for a good portion of the running time in this movie, seems to be nothing more than a human chess piece to be moved around the board of life at the rich white man’s pleasure.  What?  Is this 2016?  I know, I already did that joke, but really how many of us can relate to Pryor’s predicament?  He even calls out the requisite analogy to slavery, and this does seem like slavery.  Gleason offers a comparable salary to one of his newspaper writing staff, but what Pryor wants is a job on the newspaper.  Gleason tells him there are no jobs, so Pryor demands more money.  Gleason relents.  As expected, the child is a terrible little bastard who tortures Pryor to no end.  His bedroom looks like F.A.O. Schwartz (maybe it was named after him … hmm).  He’s ill-mannered, yes, but this being an 80s movie aimed at children, he just needs a little guidance and love from his father.

Wearing Spiderman pajamas, Pryor beweeps his outcast state to an assemblage of stuffed animals and other toys.  He talks about how he is the wave of the future, a “wind-up asshole”, and how every kid will want a personal Jack Brown of their own.  After enduring more humiliation at the hands of Eric and Bates’ trophy wife, Fancy, he decides to leave.  Bates then offers him $10,000 to return when Eric cries that he has “nobody to play with anymore.”  He accepts.  I wonder what the real lesson of this movie is – not that children need fathers who love them and talk to them (not having a father when I grew up, even I knew that), but that people can be bought for the right price.  What?  Is this 2016?  Third time’s the charm!

 So Pryor and the little bastard bond.  Sorry for all the epithets but this child is beyond therapy.  He’s a destructive little thing, a mirror image of his father (a bitter man with a different set of toys), who gets everything he wants, even though what he really needs is a friend.  They start up a small little newspaper called The Toy, (a kind of Street News, remember that?), when Eric tells Jack of his father’s various financial antics.  He buys politicians.  He supports members of the Klan.  He drives poor Ned Beatty to drink when he orders him to fire a loyal employee for trivial reasons.  He seems kind of evil, doesn’t he?  Eric decides to discredit and destroy his father in the Media.  Not exactly mainstream, but still.

Despite the mixed morality of the story, I still love this movie, mainly for Pryor.  Gleason is not the thunderous comedic talent he once was (as in The Honeymooners, for example), but he has good chemistry with Pryor and graciously takes a back-seat to Pryor’s timing and negotiation of a given scene.  He’s also surprisingly menacing.  Pryor’s work with the boy keeps those scenes energized as well.  As a kid, I enjoyed Eric’s world of toys.  As an adult, I appreciate Pryor’s straight talk with the kid, as well as the racial humor.  A lot of this stuff would be considered quite controversial today, but it was interesting that back in those days, we could mine the controversy while still being entertaining, and not terribly preachy.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

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Vintage Cable Box: “Superman III, 1983”

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“I ask you to kill Superman, and you’re telling me you couldn’t even do that one, simple thing.”

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Superman III, 1983 (Christopher Reeve), Warner Bros.

Richard Pryor was at the top (the very top!) of his game in 1983. His stand-up comedy movies were the stuff of legend. He had made Bustin’ Loose in 1981, a pair of highly-successful comedies with Gene Wilder in Silver Streak and Stir Crazy, and exploded on cable television before Eddie Murphy inherited the mantle. Where Murphy moved away from the violence and ambivalence of racial humor and steered his career toward family fare, Pryor embraced it. He checked in on his own past with Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling in 1986. He had a remarkable understanding when commenting upon (and making great fun of) race relations. He was an exceptionally gifted artist. He meant the world to me.

Enter Warner Brothers, the Salkinds (owners of the Superman franchise at the time), and director Richard Lester.  Superman II made half the money of the first Superman movie, but it was still a roaring success.  Without Gene Hackman’s pragmatic Lex Luthor as a supervillian and locked up in prison (to be released by his nephew in the fourth film), and Zod, Ursa, and Non out of the picture, screenwriters David and Leslie Newman needed a new bad guy.  They went with Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn), an analogue of Lex Luthor (lacking the arrogance), who has reaped his fortune in computer technology.  A money-mad corporate tycoon, he discovers that one of his new employees, Gus Gorman (Pryor), has learned enough about computer programming to start embezzling pennies-on-the-dollar from other paychecks to give himself a substantial windfall.  Instead of sending Gorman to prison, he puts him to work sabotaging weather satellites causing damage to crops and manipulating stock market prices.

We open with what is obviously a parody of the Jayne Mansfield movie, The Girl Can’t Help It.  Bubbly, voluptuous comedienne Pamela Stephenson (from the 1981 Mel Brooks classic, History Of The World Part One), causes havoc just walking down a street in Metropolis.  This sets into motion a series of Rube Goldberg-esque contrivances.  Clark Kent (Christopher Reeve) is on his way to work, but unfortunately with all the calamity Miss Stephenson causes, he has to duck into a photo booth and presto-change-o becomes Superman to save the day.  Job completed, he goes back to work.  By itself, this is an extraordinary set-up.  Margot Kidder as Lois Lane (completely marginalized after siding with Donner with the Superman II fiasco) is heading to a tropical locale for a vacation.  Why even cast her, if you’re just going to make her say goodbye at the beginning of the movie (she appears at the end of the movie to provide the punchline to an unfunny joke)?  This was the girl for whom Superman was willing to give up his powers (just to be with her) in the previous movie, right?

Back to the story.  Pryor’s programming genius is making Webster even more wealthy, but Superman intervenes at critical junctures.  Webster concocts a scheme to kill Superman with kryptonite.  Unfortunately Gorman can’t find the pure element, so he fashions a facsimile with key ingredients missing, which doesn’t kill Superman.  Instead, it turns him into Super-Douche!  Meanwhile, Clark is headed back to Smallville to cover his high school reunion.  He hooks up with old crush, prom queen Lana Lang (a scrumptious Annette O’ Toole), runs afoul of prom king bully Brad (Death Wish III’s Gavan O’Herlihy), and bonds with Lang’s inept and awkwardly adorable kid, Ricky.  Super-Douche wreaks havoc, straightening the leaning tower of Pisa, blowing out the Olympic Torch, causing an oil spill (in order for Webster to corner the market), getting drunk and generally being unpleasant.

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It’s interesting to me that the key scene in this movie, the fight between Kent and his alter-ago (eloquently executed) has nothing to do with Pryor, or Vaughn, or their antics.  Superman suffers what I can only describe as a nervous breakdown.  He splits into two separate entities: Clark Kent and Superman.  They duke it out, yet they can’t kill one another.  In a final burst of anger, Clark Kent strangles Superman, and retains his identity.  He sets about quickly patching up his mistakes, and in the final act, does battle with an insane super-computer created by Gorman (who gets off scot-free and even given a job opportunity when everybody else goes to jail).

Upon returning to his real home in Metropolis, he presents Lana with an enormous diamond ring (to the ire of Lois), and nothing ever comes of it!  There is no Mrs. Kent or Mrs. Superman in the next sequel.  Which brings me to my final complaint.  Several times the movie comes to a dead-stop, because we have to go back to Perry White’s office to catch up with the staff’s activities.  There’s some “funny business” involving a lottery machine for a contest.  The movie’s muddled slams against computers come full circle when the Daily Planet purchases a computerized lottery machine that goes haywire.  Richard Lester’s direction turns the Superman franchise into a situation comedy, deliberately playing scenes for laughs against the grain of the comic book’s established ethos.  Superman III would go on to make only half of the previous movie’s box-office.  1987’s Superman IV: The Quest For Peace would ultimately kill this iteration of the franchise.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

“More Different, Less Different”

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In the run-up to our July 17th premiere podcast, “Extreme Cinema: Action and Exploitation Movies with Andrew La Ganke & David Lawler”, we present this oldie-but-goodie; analysis of Jon Schnepp’s intriguing documentary, “The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?”.  “Extreme Cinema” will explore the work of lesser known celluloid heroes like David A. Prior, Larry Cohen, Albert Pyun, William Lustig, Jim Wynorski, and many more!

NEW PODCAST: “More Different, Less Different”

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This is BlissVille, Misadventures in BlissVille, and tonight we’re going to be discussing Jon Schnepp’s 2015 documentary, “The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?”.

Narrator: Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Man 1: Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird.
Woman: It’s a plane
Man 2: It’s Superman!
Narrator: Yes, it’s Superman, strange visitor from another planet who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands. And who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never ending battle for truth, justice and the American way. And now another exciting episode in the adventures of Superman.

I love Superman. He is a true super-hero, because he has super powers. He’s from another planet. He’s incredibly strong. He can fly. As much as I love Batman, he’s not a true super-hero. He bought his powers. He’s a billionaire. Batman is the capitalist super-hero, whereas Superman is more of a socialist. There’s a great line in “Kill Bill 2”; David Carradine’s monologue toward the end, he tells Uma Thurman that the visage of Clark Kent is the disguise, and that Superman, or Kal-El is the reality.

I watched a couple of the old Superman tv show episodes with George Reeves last weekend, to prime alongside the documentary. They’re pretty silly by today’s standards, but they were enough to entertain people back then, and still nowhere near as silly as Burton’s conception of the character. The show ran from 1952 to 1958, 104 episodes, killed George Reeves’ career, and then 20 years later, we have Christopher Reeve, whom is still the standard for the character.