Monday, March 05, 2012


(originally published in the November, 2011 issue of Cinematic Completist)

Any person with even a modest interest in cinema can, at the slightest provocation, cite the names of a dozen or more celluloid artistes who, without question, have staked indelible claims on the projection booths of the mass imagination – names like Welles (Citizen Kane), Hitchcock (Rear Window), Spielberg (1941), and Raffill (Mannequin 2: On the Move).  All possessed undeniable talent, perhaps even genius, but there is more to their immortality than that.  Lasting success in such a cutthroat medium must also be attributed to their tenacity, indomitability, and occasional willingness to fellate their superiors when necessary (hence the term “studio head”).  But what of the others, that pale and tragic remnant untouched by fickle Kismet’s hand and unable to suppress the gag reflex so stalwartly?  Surely their contribution, however paltry, to the annals of film history deserves some recognition?  Frankly, no, it doesn’t.  They’re total and abject failures and deserve only to be treated as such.  But a freelance assignment is a freelance assignment.

S.W. Poltroon (1872-1926), director
Between Edison and Griffith came the man who may well have been cinema’s very first auteur.   A former photographer and painter of still lifes, Poltroon seized upon the newborn medium with great fervor while taking a somewhat narrow view of its potential.  His known features – Man Standing Still (1903), Rigor Mortis (1904), The Unadorned Wall (1904), and his magnum opus, Two Men Standing Still (1906), were met with decidedly less enthusiasm than expected, though his famed “baby carriage sitting in one place” shot from his 1905 short subject The Idle Pram came to be much imitated, though not by other filmmakers.

Arvid de Marqeux (1885-??), director/choreographer
A one-time pratfall consultant for Hal Roach Studios, de Marqeux spent all his spare hours and most of his savings pursuing his lifelong obsession – to transfer the thrills and entertainment of the stage shows he’d seen on the Moulin Rouge, Broadway, and Fondulac, Wisconsin (where once somebody danced on a mail crate in the middle of town whistling to himself) to the young medium of film.  After years of cajoling, Roach acquiesced to de Marqeux’s wishes, and, with all present and future salaries put up as collateral, de Marqeux wrote, produced, directed and choreographed Millie’s Terrible Illness! (1915), the world’s first musical.  Sadly, the limitations of the production (mainly that it was produced before the advent of sound in film and de Marqeux failed to secure the rights to any recordings of the show’s music) doomed it to failure after a disastrous opening night at the Pant-au-Lune Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, during which the in-house organist was stoned to death.  Following the success (and technological advances) of The Jazz Singer in 1927, de Marqeux developed a remake, which scarcely got past the script  stage in spite of promises of unprecedented budgets by his main investor, Charles Ponzi.  De Marqeux disappeared shortly thereafter.

Cedric Bauer, Jr. (1926-1961), director/animator
Known by aficionados as “The Father-in-Law, or Great Uncle, or Some Distant Blood Relation of Digital Cinema,” Bauer, Jr. was surely instrumental to the introduction of computer-generated imagery into the marriage-aged medium of film.  Disheartened by his experiences working as an animator for Zyzniak Pictures, who mounted a marginally-successful challenge to Disney with their features Beppo, the Finger-Sniffing Ape (1951) and Princess with a Limp (1952), and visibly excited by then-current innovations like 3-D. CinemaScope, and turning the lights out in the theater before the movie starts, Bauer, Jr. awoke one night with what he described in his journals as “a fully-formed vision – movies made without actors or artists, but by the new breed of supercomputer, programmed by men with malleable foreheads.”  After some professional consultation, he modified his approach slightly, and, with the enthusiastic cooperation of IBM and the siphoning of several hundred thousand dollars from the government’s nascent space program, Bauer, Jr. embarked on this unprecedentedly ambitious project.  Though only 26 seconds in length, requiring several warehouses’ worth of punch cards, and consisting solely of what one critic described as “a cloud or a floating blob or something,” Computer Movie (1954) was an immediate sensation, breaking box-office records nationwide and touching off a national craze that was slotted in at the last minute between goldfish-swallowing and McCarthyism.  Sadly, Bauer, Jr. was unable to capitalize on his sudden success, due to legal troubles stemming from his contract with distributor Bob’s Films which stated that all profits be paid to him in Capri pants.  His projected sequel, Computer Movie Part II: A Larger, Redder Blob, exists only in treatment form.

Barry Trilbo (1935-1978), producer
After several failed entrepreneurial enterprises (like the short-lived Lease-a-Pizza chain), Trilbo drifted into film production in the early 1960s with a single, inspired idea to cut down on development costs – attain the rights to television programs, existing properties with high name recognition that few imagined would have much staying power outside of the small screen, and adapt them for the slightly-balding but still distinguished-looking medium of film.  The first project for Trilbo’s production company, the Trilbo Production Company, was to take one of the most beloved programs of the early days of TV and enlarge it accordingly.  Unfortunately, due to poor communication among Trilbo’s acquisition team and a sense of business acumen that might best be described as “meager” (though “tragic,” “farcical,” and “resembling that of a gnat with severe cortical damage” wouldn’t be totally inaccurate), he wound up paying $3.6 million for Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s Life is Worth Living.  The program, though indeed beloved, consisted solely of gentle theological insights using only a blackboard to illustrate them.  Undaunted by the rather static nature of the source material and the fact that Sheen refused to participate (to cover up the fact, the "Bishop" would be seen only in long shot with a Mexican wrestler’s mask stuck to his head), Trilbo refused to cut his losses and forged ahead with production.  Alas, in spite of his yeoman efforts to “jazz it up” for the big screen (state-of-the-art [for 1962] pyrotechnics, a climactic hydrofoil chase, colored chalk), Life is Worth Living… or Else!! proved an unqualified disaster and was pulled from distribution three minutes into the second reel.  Trilbo’s finances and reputation, such as they were, never recovered, though he was reportedly in negotiations to produce an epic miniseries based on “this really great antacid commercial I saw” before he was eaten by pigs at age 52.

Bix Caracas (1932-1984), writer/director/actor
Presaging the work of brilliant comic conceptualists like Andy Kaufman, Albert Brooks, and Carrot Top, Caracas, after selling out nightclubs and integrity nationwide with a radical stand-up act focused around him remaining seated, followed the lead of fellow carbon-based humorists Mel Brooks and Woody Allen and wrote, directed and starred in a series of groundbreaking comedies unlike anything previously seen in the nearly-retirement-aged and slightly forgetful medium of film.  Starting with The Great Bank Deposit (1972), starring Caracas as a hapless schlub who forgets to sign the back of his paycheck, and running all the way through his final, mature masterpiece, Helen Barkewicz (1972), the bittersweet story of a doomed romance from first date to end-of-first-date, Caracas’ comedies were unprecedented in that, as New York Times-reading critic Stanley Prolix explained, “they weren’t funny.  I mean, I don’t think they were even intended to be funny, that’s how unfunny they were.”  In the years following, Caracas’ films, which have yet to be released on DVD, videocassette or celluloid, have nonetheless garnered a cult following, based mainly in a hastily-built armed compound in Ogden, Utah.  “Caracas’ brilliant pictures are a testament to the filmic transcendence attainable by those rare comic minds brave and brilliant enough to steer audiences gently but firmly away from laughter, mirth, or levity of any kind.  He remains an inspiration to all of us,” said Caracas scholar Percy “the Anointed” Banlonne, shortly before being felled in a hail of Federal bullets.

Part Two, to be published shortly before my gas service is interrupted, will cover other neglected cinematic pioneers, such as Horace Darjeeling, self-styled “King of the Nudie Costume Drama”;  Velma Goat-Tungsten, for many years one of the most amusing names in docudrama; and Bertram L. Kestler, whose valiant effort to “bring back the filmstrip” ended in tragicomedy.

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