by Tony Dayoub
As the holiday season approaches, demands on this writer are growing. The holiday season arrives soon with its requisite family vacations, end-of-year awards screeners and best-of lists, not to mention major new home releases timed to take advantage of gift-giving celebrations. So I'll clear the deck today with some thoughts on a few recent releases I caught up with at home this past week.
Growing up in Miami, I always caught The Skipper Chuck Show as I got ready for school. Hosted by Chuck Zink, it was basically a local kids show folded around the campy Batman TV series of the Sixties. Back when I was five and six... well, who knew Adam West had tongue firmly planted in cheek while playing the Caped Crusader? As I've grown older and kept up with periodic reruns of the show (now playing on the Hub), I've learned to love the spoof for its frequent comedic use of such notable movie personalities such as Tallulah Bankhead, Anne Baxter, Otto Preminger, Cliff Robertson, George Sanders, Eli Wallach, et al. The humor still plays quite well. I wish I could say the same about Legends of the Super Heroes, the strange, recent addition to the Warner Archive Collection. Anyone wondering how far the superhero genre has come on television and film need only take a look at this. I watched this curiosity with my 4-year-old son, who actually asked me, "Dad, is this supposed to be funny?"
I'm unfamiliar with its origins, but based on Hanna-Barbera's involvement, if I had to guess, I'd say the idea was to cash in on their success with the Super Friends cartoon, creating a couple of live-action specials as backdoor pilots for a possible series. At least the first hour, "The Challenge"—shot on video in and around Los Angeles with DC's Justice League battling various villains—makes sense in this respect. But how does one even begin to explain the second hour, "The Roast"? Hosted by the late Ed McMahon (I can now die peacefully knowing I've heard Johnny Carson's sidekick pronounce Thanagar), it is an unfunny parody of the famous Dean Martin celebrity roasts. The jokes are groaners of the Catskills kind, with lame deliveries by the likes of Charlie Callas and Jeff Altman, two guys I wouldn't have felt safe calling comedians even back then. Adam West, Burt Ward, and Frank Gorshin reprise their Batman roles (of Batman, Robin, and the Riddler respectively) with a great deal more success, no doubt due to the attendant nostalgia. But this oddity's value is strictly as an artifact for folks like me, who can enjoy its personal significance in that it captures a moment from youth once thought lost forever—tailor made for an MOD program like Warner Archive, if you ask me.
For nostalgia of a different sort, let's remember the days when a fresh-faced Mel Gibson (back when he was just a reckless 21-year-old and not the broken hatemongerer the public sees now), then known only in Australia, made his first appearance as Main Force Patrolman Max Rockatansky in the apocalyptic Mad Max. In all honesty, the film became a retroactive success in the U.S., after audiences who had overlooked it upon its initial release became acquainted with the character in its far more successful sequel, The Road Warrior (domestically retitled from Mad Max 2 because of the first film's failure here). Now out on Blu-ray, this release of Mad Max is basically the same as the special edition DVD released back in 2002. But it's the first time I've had to catch up with the film in its original form, that is with its original Australian-accented English audio track versus the inferior version available here for years, campily dubbed by Americans; a dumb move which no doubt turned off much of its original, highly intelligent intended audience of sci-fi geeks. The violent and brutal film still packs an emotional wallop lo these many years later, more so in this crisp Blu-ray version just out.
True emotional devastation, though, can only be found in reality, such as in a documentary like the grim Hotel Terminus by Marcel Ophuls (The Sorrow and the Pity). This 4 1/2 hour look at Klaus Barbie, a former member of the Nazi Gestapo known as the "Butcher of Lyon," is an exercise in sustained suppression of outrage for the viewer. Responsible for the torture and murder of countless French resistance fighters (including one of their leaders, Jean Moulin), the deportation of close to 50 Jewish children hiding in an orphanage to their deaths in Auschwitz, and other crimes against humanity, Barbie escapes justice by becoming an agent for the U.S. Counter-Intelligence Corps after the war. The information unearthed by Ophuls is exhaustive and gathered from people on both sides of the debate concerning whether Barbie truly was the villain he was found to be in a French court in 1987. The relentless look at this dark soul is nearly fatigue-inducing, but engrossing nonetheless. Winning the Oscar for Best Documentary feature, it finally made its debut on DVD last week.