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July 30, 2005

American International Pictures

Fast and Furious: The Story of American International Pictures
Mark Thomas McGee - 1984
McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishing

The Fast and the Furious
Edward Sampson and John Ireland - 1954
Goodtimes Region 1 DVD

Hot Rod Girl
Leslie H. Martinson - 1956
Alpha Video DVD

When I was a film critic for a student newspaper at New York University, I grabbed the opportunity to interview Roger Corman. Not only was this my first chance to interview a film director, but one who made films that I found that I enjoyed in spite of myself. The interview was in conjunction with a Roger Corman retrospective sponsored by American International. Growing up, I knew Corman's films weren't "good" films on the level of To Kill A Mockingbird or A Man for All Seasons. But I also knew that I had to see X - The Man with the X-Ray Eyes in a double feature with The Comedy of Errors. I was also able to see older A.I.P. films on television, like Teenage Caveman. I was a Teenage Werewolf was seen several times very late at night with sound tweaked to a minimum level, enough to catch most of the dialogue, but not loud enough to awaken my parents. I was a junkie for the trashy thrills of American International Pictures.

I stumbled upon Mark McGee's book while doing a library search for something else. This slim volume is composed of press releases copied verbatim, anecdotes from various actors and production staff, and unsubstantiated conversations between people. Because of the casual writing style, I wasn't clear on who McGee was writing for. The serious scholar would be frustrated by this book due to inconsistencies in the information and the apparent absence of a proof reader. Executive Producer and co-founder James Hartford Nicholson is listed as James Harvey Nicholson on one page, while in the biography section, Pam Grier's birth year is listed as 1925. The filmography section lists films in alphabetical order rather than production year, and fails to distinguish between A.I.P.'s productions and independent or foreign acquisitions. Most peculiar about the filmography is that McGee lists the music composers first, before the producer(s), director or actors. While Sisters was Brian De Palma's first film to get wide distribution, McGee's assertion that De Palma got his start at A.I.P. is blatantly false with six features previously released.

The stories relayed by Corman collaborators Charles Griffith, Beach Dickerson and Paul Blaisdell are fun and illuminating. Corman comes off as rather churlish in his efforts to get the most out of cast and crew for the least amount of money. Blaisdell had arguably the biggest challenge, creating rubber monsters that needed to somewhat resemble the movie's posters, on a budget of a few hundred dollars. What should be noted here is that a title and advertisting campaign were approved before the film was actually made. Griffith, author of Little Shop of Horrors, is interviewed to better effect in the web magazine Senses of Cinema about his fractious relationship with Corman.

While some A.I.P. films from the Sixties appear occassionally on the cable channel Flix, I was able to see a couple of older films on DVD. The Fast and the Furious is not particularly fast or furious. It is the second film produced by Roger Corman, and the first film released by American Releasing Corporation, the company that became A.I.P. The story of prison escapee John Ireland and rich girl Dorothy Malone moves along fitfully. What was probaby fast and furious was the shooting schedule as the screenplay defies logic. Given the status of American Releasing Corporation films in its first couple of years, the ambitions of this film were clearly to be no more than the cheap bottom half of a double feature.

By 1956, American Releasing Corporation had changed its name to American International Pictures. While McGee doesn't attribute the decision to anyone, it was probably James Nicholson who determined that films would be released in "combinations" of pre-packaged double features. This change kept A.I.P. solvent while RKO and Republic Pictures went bankrupt. Hot Rod Girl is representatvie of the niche market, teenagers, that A.I.P. targetted successfully. Pre-Rifleman Chuck Connors is the police detective who runs a race track to keep the hot rodders off the street. Bad guy Mark Andrews tries to goad the kids into street races. You know he's bad because he wears a black leather jacket. Frank Gorshin, in his second film, commits petty theft by stealing the movie from the rest of the cast with his animated expressions and body in constant motion. The score was the first composed by Alexander Courage, most famous for the Star Trek theme. Among the musicians for the somewhat jazzy score were Maynard Ferguson, Bud Shank, Barney Kessell and Georgie Auld, the man who taught Robert De Niro how to "play" the sax for New York, New York.

For myself, my favorite A.I.P. films are Corman's Edgar Allan Poe films, especially Masque of the Red Death and Tomb of Ligeia. Maybe there was something about working in England that brought out a more accomplished craftsman. I saw The Trip on television a couple of years ago and still admire the film for the circular tracking shots. At a time when every other new American film is a lame remake, my dream is of a remake of X - The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. The story of drugs, obsession, and seeking the truth of the universe is perfect for Darren Aronofsky. Here is a film begging to be remade with the kind of special effects that could barely be imagined, much less rendered, in 1963. The scientific pursuits and eventual descent into a hell of self-distruction make Corman's Dr. Xavier a kindred spirit to Aronofsky's mathematician in Pi and the junkies of Requiem for a Dream.

Maybe I'm just being a nostaligic boomer here. I admit a lot of what A.I.P. made and released was junk. But it's junk that I'll have a certain affection for.

Posted by peter at July 30, 2005 06:14 PM