Saturday, December 31, 2011

Movie Review: The Violent Years (1956)

This Christmas I received Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volumes XXI and XXII. My mother and I have made it a tradition to watch at least one MST3K episode whenever my parents visit. On their first night in town we watched the awful Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and on their last night we watched the juvenile delinquent film The Violent Years (1956) written by Ed Wood.

The plot of The Violent Years is somewhat similar to I Accuse My Parents (1944), which was also an MST3K subject. In both films, a teenager ends up in a life of crime due to his or her parents' "neglect". Both films include lengthy (and I mean lengthy) lectures from a judge, with the majority of the action occurring as flashbacks.

I write "neglect" with quotation marks because neither set of parents is particularly bad, nor could you really say that they're at fault for what their offspring did. Young Jimmy Wilson's parents in I Accuse My Parents are often drunk and irresponsible, but they're never abusive. And Jimmy is actually a pretty good kid. His criminal activity mostly involves delivering and receiving packages for the owner of a nightclub where a girl he's trying to impress is the lead singer. Jimmy is never directly informed that their contents are illegal or ill-gotten. Jimmy doesn't even realize what is going on until near the end of the movie.

This situation is even more ludicrous in the case of The Violent Years' Paula Parkins. Paula's father is a newspaper chief and her mother is often busy with her charity work. For heaven's sake, dad is working like just about any other '50s father and mom is raising money for charity! How is this neglect? Paula is able to visit her father at the office and is given a warm welcome while mom usually seems to be around the house. Her parents obviously love her and are extremely generous. In fact, at one point Paula is given a blank check just in case the boy with whom Paula is about to go on date can't cover the evening's costs. Apparently her parents' worst offenses against her are that dad always gives her a new watch for her birthday that is often delivered by one of his reporters and mom always gets her a new car. Mike and the 'bots often remark on the truly "hellish life" Paula leads.

Unlike Jimmy, it turns out that Paula is a rotten apple from the start and is actually the leader of a gang of female hoodlums. Immediately after receiving the check and seeing mom out the door, Paula picks up the phone and arranges their next heist; the armed robbery of a gas station. Following the robbery, miscellaneous crimes ensue, including an attack on a man and his girlfriend. The girlfriend is left tied up with strips of her own dress (the girls need to learn better knot tying techniques since the girlfriend is able to escape within minutes) while the man is dragged into the forest and is further "attacked". Although this is an exploitation film, it was still released in 1956 and still had to get past the Hays Office. Thus, the nature of the attack is obvious but is never explicitly spelled out. However, it's not ruled out that Paula's "delicate condition" (I love '50s euphemisms) at the end of the film may be the result.

Although the gang is supposed to be the cause of a reign of terror, most of the film's running time is taken up with padding: the cops' inability to trace the robbers, Paula's use of her father's inside sources to discover where the police will be setting up traps for the gang, a pajama party, etc. All this time the film tries, and completely fails, to convince us that Paula became a criminal because of her parents. Her motivations seem to have less to do with uninvolved parents and more with thrill-seeking.

The climax of the film occurs when the woman to whom the girls sell their stolen goods gives them a job from a "foreign interest". Apparently this foreign interest is willing to pay a significant amount of money for the gang to vandalize a few schoolrooms. They are even told that they shouldn't go easy on any US flags they may find. This being the mid-fifties, it's pretty obvious that the unseen party is meant to be some sort of communist group. I'm not exactly fond of communism, but even I find it hilarious that the fact that the girls are willing to take a job from the Reds is meant to show that they have become truly irredeemable. It's also nonsensical. Why would communist infiltrators actually pay to have schoolrooms vandalized? The girls' contact is a small time fence that buys any jewelry they steal; why would she even have communist contacts? It goes without saying that the mystery commies are never heard from again.

The extremely tame trashing of the schoolroom includes knocking over chairs, throwing a globe out a window, throwing books on the floor, and *gasp* erasing the chalkboard (fiends!). I assume that the film's budget could only afford two panes of candy glass for the girls to break. Just as one of them goes to lay her hands on Old Glory, the cops arrive. The gang starts a shootout with the cops (over vandalism?), which results in the deaths of a cop and two of the girls. (Raise your hand if you knew that the girl who was about to destroy the flag was the first to get shot.) [Correction: on a second viewing of the movie, I realized that the one who was going to damage the flag was the second one to be shot. The first was the one that hated school.] The Violent Years taught me that you can take a fatal blast to the gut from a shotgun without getting any blood on your white shirt.

Paula and the other surviving gang member make a break for their contact's house. The contact is horrified that the girls killed a cop and threatens to call the police... with very predictable results. Eventually Paula and the other girl end up in another car chase, they crash into a storefront window, and the other girl is killed. Paula is treated for her wounds, after which she is tried for her crimes and is sentenced to life in prison. A short while later, Paula's parents visit her in the prison hospital where she cries that she doesn't want her child to be born in a place like that. Once she comes due, she gives birth to a healthy baby girl. Since this is a 1950s exploitation movie, the audience has to see that Paula gets her just desserts; she dies during childbirth for no apparent reason.

It is at this point that, with no small measure of despair, the viewer notices that there are still about 10 minutes or so left in the movie/MST3K episode. Now The Violent Years is not a long movie. According to IMDB, the film originally ran for about 65 minutes. The MST3K episode had to include the short A Young Man's Fancy (1952) just to meet the usual episode running time. That means that the film is about to end with a glut of padding that represents nearly 15 to 20% of the film's total length. This is pretty common in b-movies where the filmmakers were forced to insert last minute material into their movies to get them up to the 60+ minute running time that was typical for feature length films of the period.

In a monologue that could only have been written by Ed Wood, the judge denies the right of Paula's parents to take custody of her orphaned daughter, relegating her to a state home instead. The judge lectures the parents in a long and rambling discourse on parental responsibility, the importance of religion, and the need to discipline one's children (which includes the use of the "old fashioned woodshed"!). During this scene, the viewer is subjected to a montage of stock footage as well as highlights from all the gang's crimes (the aforementioned attack on the man and his girlfriend is given extra attention here). I hadn't noticed how much padding was spread throughout the film until the movie itself showed that all its exciting scenes could be compressed into a five minute time span. Only Mike and the 'bots make the movie bearable.

Monday, December 26, 2011

An MST3K Christmas

A few years ago I started a tradition of watching a Christmas-themed episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on Christmas night. This is the perfect way for self-loathing b-movie fans to punish themselves when they feel that Santa Claus has shown them too much leniency.

At first I would watch Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), which was included in the MST3K Essentials Collection released in 2004 (it's now out of print and selling for about $68 used on In 2009 they released MST3K Volume XVI, which included the Mexican-produced Santa Claus (1959). I tend to alternate between the two. It's one thing to be a regular viewer of bad movies, but when you ritualistically subject yourself to the same ones, it's possibly a sign of mental illness. Of the two films, I think Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is probably worse. When I watched Santa Claus this year, Mrs. Atomic Spud was only able to get through the first 15 minutes (and very nearly went insane in the process). I've been too kind to expose her to Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

A movie where Santa doesn't
have the silliest costume
In Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, the Martians realize that their children have become absolutely joyless. They only seem to respond to television signals from Earth that depict the upcoming journey of Santa Claus. With the help of their robot (their awful, awful robot), the Martians kidnap Santa Claus and take him to Mars. It is during this scene where the film attempts to depict Santa as simultaneously innocent and wise while actually making him look befuddled and/or merely stupid. Santa seems relatively unconcerned that a "robot" *snicker* has burst into his shop, that the Martian rayguns appear to have paralyzed Mrs. Claus and the elves, or that he's being kidnapped by aliens. I'm sure that the filmmakers intended to show that Santa was unflappable and was confident that everything would work out for the best, but he just comes across as too stupid to really mind the occasional extraterrestrial abduction. Also along for the ride are two human children that inadvertently gave away the location of Santa's workshop.

The Martians' dreaded cardboard
and vacuum-hose robot
It's during this time that we meet the film's comic relief, Dropo. This character is the source of 90% of the pain delivered by the movie. Forcing myself to watch Dropo's antics annually/biennially is my penance for every time I ever teased my younger sister. In my brief review of Catalina Caper, I noted that MST3K avoided comedies because bad comedies, by definition, are not funny. Dropo is not funny. His capering is not funny, his pratfalls are not funny, and his "comic" misunderstandings and stupidity are not funny.

Anyway, Santa and the two children end up making toys for the Martian children, which makes them and Kimar (King of the Martians) very happy. However, Voldar, who tried to kill Santa Claus shortly after they kidnapped him, believes that this will make Martian children soft and weak and sabotages the toys. Voldar is eventually defeated after he abducts Dropo (who now dresses like his new hero, Santa Claus) believing that the imbecile is Santa himself. The plot is foiled and Voldar is subdued when he is pelted with toys (apparently the hailstorm of toys thrown by children was simply so overwhelming that he couldn't bring to bear his unholstered raygun). Dropo takes over for Santa on Mars (meaning that the Red Planet can have its own idiot in a red suit), Santa is allowed to return home, and the most important part of Christmas (i.e., getting presents from Santa) is saved.

Poor Leonard Hicks
The funniest thing about Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is how differently the actors portray their roles. Santa Claus (John Call) spends most of the time chuckling and treating his Martian captivity as just another amusing event (and never seems to notice that the villain is trying to kill him), Voldar (Vincent Beck) plays his villainous character as over-the-top as possible, and Dropo (Bill McCutcheon) nearly screams "LOOK HOW FUNNY I AM!" while being agonizingly unfunny. The poor Kimar (Leonard Hicks), on the other hand, plays his part entirely straight. He plays his role as the ruler of an alien civilization that has found itself in a crisis in an entirely serious manner. In other words, his presence in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is incongruous with the rest of the film. He really should be playing the sympathetic alien in a '50s sci-fi invasion flick somewhat along the lines of Exeter in This Island Earth (1955). Either every other actor except Hicks realized how absurd the movie was and decided to ham it up, or Hicks was a consummate professional who would play any role, no matter how lame, to the best of his ability. I prefer to think it was the latter.

The bad Christmas
movie for 2011
Santa Claus teaches us that Claus' shop is actually in a palace atop a cloud somewhere well above the Earth's North Pole, that his reindeer are windup toys, that he employs children from around the world rather than elves, and that his greatest nemesis is the Devil. Santa uses a variety of machines that not only look in on children's behavior, but can actually spy on their dreams. (Raise your hand if you'd feel comfortable having your behavior judged by the content of your dreams.)

The first 10 to 15 minutes of the film present us with Santa playing tunes from a variety of nations on his pipe organ while his child laborers sing along in their native language. This excruciating sequence will make you wish you were listening to "It's A Small World" instead. And to make it worse, it's completely irrelevant to the plot. We will also get acquainted with the film's omniscient narrator, who simply won't shut up.

Finally, Santa prepares to leave on his annual journey, which gives us such gems as his windup mechanical reindeer. The reindeer are utterly bizarre and are more nightmarish than whimsical. We also find out that if Santa doesn't return to his palace by sunrise, the reindeer will turn to dust and Santa Claus will starve to death. In the meantime, one of the Devil's chief demons, Pitch, prepares to ruin Claus' mission. Although he says that he'll do this by tempting all the world's children into being bad, the least effective devil in Lucifer's army manages to convince a grand total of three brothers to throw rocks at a window and to hatch a plot to capture Santa. The devil's Plan B is apparently to delay Santa until sunrise (I believe this is a common technique for defeating vampires, too).

Apparently Santa's natural adversary is the Devil

We're later told that Santa visited all the other nations, although it seems that he spends his whole time in Mexico. While there he teaches the three naughty brothers a lesson (their plot to capture him fails without ever being entertaining), gives a little rich boy what he really wants for Christmas (he wants his parents to spend time with him rather than going to parties all the time), and finally gives little Lupita the doll she's always wanted. Pitch's attempt to stall Santa fails with some help from Merlin... wait a minute; Merlin? What does Merlin have to do with Santa Claus?

Despite the horrendous opening and utter weirdness throughout, Santa Claus isn't quite as bad as Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Pitch is a ridiculous slapstick character, but he's not as bad as Dropo. Santa Claus doesn't always seem too bright, but unlike his Martian-conquering counterpart, he shows some wisdom every once in a while (particularly when he fulfills the rich boy's wish). And some of the scenes with Lupita are good enough that they deserve to be in a better movie. I also have to admit some bias; I have a soft spot for Mexican movies given the two years I spent in Veracruz as an LDS missionary. Oddly enough, despite the movie's 1959 release date, the interior of Lupita's house resembles nearly 75% of all the homes I visited in southern Mexico.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy Holidays Merry Christmas!

It started as my Dad's pet peeve, and has since become mine. I do not celebrate "Holiday". Nobody celebrates "Holiday". Nobody's favorite holiday is "Holiday". Santa Claus does not bring "Holiday presents" in celebration of "Holiday". A "Holiday Tree" is an absurdity; no Western society that I'm aware of uses a tree to celebrate any holiday other than Christmas. For those who use the phrase to recognize other holidays, why not do so explicitly? "Happy Holidays" merely waters down the reason why most Westerners celebrate during the end of December while doing other beliefs the disservice of lumping them together into one non-specific (but Christmas-dominated) "Holiday". By the way, you have from now until December 28th to wish your Jewish friends a Happy Hanukkah.

I apologize to all my well-meaning friends who tend to use "Happy Holidays". Please don't construe this as an attack on you as I know you're simply employing the phraseology that has become the norm in America. However, a lot of us don't see the proliferation of "Happy Holidays" as an inclusive practice, but as one that has been deliberately and successfully pushed by certain culturally and politically influential entities to be exclusive of Christianity or any of its outward trappings. It represents one of the earliest and most subtle attempts of the militantly secular (and often explicitly anti-Christian) to strip Christmas of its meaning and origin. Note that no other widely celebrated holiday is considered so unacceptable by the purveyors of political correctness that it is being stripped of its name in a manner that would make Orwell's Ministry of Truth proud.

All other holidays that are widely celebrated in America are either secular (e.g., Independence Day) or have had most of their religious significance removed (e.g., Easter). Easter, which officially celebrates the resurrection of Christ, is the perfect example of extreme secularization of a nominally religious holiday. Even among many Christians the holiday has become identified more with anthropomorphized rabbits and chocolate eggs than it has with the empty tomb. (You know the forces of secularization have done their jobs well when even the believers can be distracted from the true meaning of their holiday.) However, with Christmas it's almost impossible to remove all traces of Christianity from it. Everybody, believer and nonbeliever, knows what the holiday that has "Christ" in its name is about.

Having gotten their foot in the door by making Christmas the "Holiday that Shall Not Be Named" and by convincing even the believers to use the new politically correct holiday greeting because it's "inclusive", these same entities are becoming even more overt in places like Santa Monica, California:
Across the fruitcaked plain in California, the city of Santa Monica allocated permits for "holiday" displays at Palisades Park by means of lottery. Eighteen of the 21 slots went to atheists — for example, the slogan "37 million Americans know a myth when they see one" over portraits of Jesus, Santa, and Satan.
The real-life Grinches not being content to simply remove all hints of Christianity from Non-Specific December Holiday, they have been working to eliminate even highly secularized symbols of Christmas. Although Santa Claus' origin in the Christian saint, St. Nicholas, has been effectively buried, there have been various attempts throughout the United States to actually ban the mere presence of Santa [a couple examples here and here]. Raise your hand if this brings to mind the Rankin-Bass Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town TV special. There have even been cases in which Christmas trees have been removed. It's becoming more and more difficult for people to claim that there isn't a War on Christmas in the United States.

Often I find myself missing the Christmas spirit I felt while I was an LDS missionary in Veracruz, Mexico. In Veracruz the meaning of the holiday was openly celebrated and over-the-top commercialism hadn't tried to ruin it.

Anyway, now that I've finished my annual War on Christmas diatribe, the Atomic Spud would like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. And because the Atomic Spud is genuinely inclusive, I'd also like to wish a Happy Hanukkah to any Jewish readers (especially to my high school buddy Joe in San Diego).

On a related note, kudos to the Britain-based Games Workshop Web Team for explicitly wishing all us Warhammer and/or Warhammer 40,000 fanatics a Merry Christmas. From what I've heard, you are more likely to be wished a Merry (or Happy) Christmas in the much more secular Britain than you are in the more religious United States.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

More Blog Neglect

I had the feeling that posting on The Atomic Spud would be light when I moved all Warhammer 40,000 material to a dedicated 40K blog. I expect to be putting up some reviews soon (I just finished The Zombie Survival Guide). In the meantime, check out The Atomic Spud's Warhammer 40K Blog.

Friday, December 2, 2011


Earlier this year my boss praised me for accomplishing something that I consider to be one of my most basic tasks. Although it was an important and time-sensitive job, it had required less than 10 minutes to do. I looked at him oddly and asked why I deserved such a compliment. That actually flustered him slightly and he responded that not everyone would agree that completing such tasks correctly, on-time, and on a regular basis is easy.

That got me thinking about how often I've been overjoyed when others met my expectations. This definitely isn't limited to the workplace. For example, all I want at a restaurant is a waiter or waitress who keeps my water glass full, stops by a couple times to see if I need anything, and is reasonably civil; i.e., that they do their job. I've talked to many others who will recommend a business or the services of an individual, not because they go above and beyond, but because they simply do what is expected.

I've since coined a phrase that is becoming popular at work:
Mere competence is the new excellence.
How often have you praised a person or an organization for doing exactly what they said they would? Are you increasingly impressed by any book that has a minimum of spelling and grammatical errors? How much of a modern schoolchild's grade is based on the fact that they did an assignment rather than that they did it well? How many college credits have been "earned" effectively because students showed up and breathed the air?

Although this trend depresses me, I guess there is a bright side; it makes the accomplishments of those who strive to do a little better than average look a lot more impressive.


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