‘The 50s were a great time to be a kid, because the whole culture was so juvenile.’
‘Go get ’em, midnight!’ says the scarred man, sending his trained horse down by itself to attack the two riders in the valley below. ‘Lousy cops, always crowding a guy,’ snarls a teen hoodlum anti-hero swerving his car to avoid a back projection. Later he’ll be beaten up in a clumsy cafe brawl that he starts with the line ‘you’re outta your class, throttle jockey!’ Alfred Hitchcock pops up, presenting something. Then there’s Naked City spliced with a stag reel. The Lone Ranger patronises Tonto, Nabisco cereals are giving away ‘Defenders of America’ cards with their shredded wheat, baseball cards depicting US submarines, planes and missiles to warm the heart of your little cold warriors. The sponsors of Robin Hood, Wildroot Cream Oil, proudly announce that it ‘contains lanolin and cholesterol’, and on it goes: George Reeves’s Superman, Abbot and Costello, Rin Tin Tin, Bufferin and Lifebuoy soap, Alpha Bites cereal and Lustre Creme….
This is Joe Dante’s Movie Orgy, a hand-spliced avalanche of mostly monochrome pop culture, adverts, TV shows, B-movies, and whatever else Dante could find, made in 1968 and then toured round college campuses for the next two years. Screenings were supported by Schlitz beer, and the full thing lasted for seven hours (Dante: ‘after the third hour it got funny’). I’m watching a 90-minute edit courtesy of Cine-Excess, the cult film conference, and then sticking around as the charming Mr Dante is interviewed by Kim Newman afterwards. There was only ever one print of The Movie Orgy, and it played 200 dates, constantly falling apart, being added to, cut and re-spliced. No permission was sought for the use of the Orgy footage, and it carries a sly 68 anti-Establishment charge; Vietnam hangs heavily in the background (a trailer for John Wayne’s The Green Berets is one of the few contemporary clips to turn up), and the sexual and racial attitudes of the 50s are repeatedly brought into question. You can almost smell the dope smoke as you watch it today.
The teen hoodlum flick is called Speed Crazy, the cheapo Western remains unnamed, a random pattern that continues throughout; we know that Teenagers from Outer Space and The Giant Gila Monster are in there, and devotees will recognise Bert I Gordon’s The Beginning of the End and Jack Arnold’s Tarantula, but for much of the rest we’re on our own in a world devoid of explanation, the only context being provided by juxtaposition. Whole features are hacked down to their essentials, mined for weirdness and hilarity, the stuff that Dante and friends found funny at NYU at the time, and the stuff that they thought was cool when they were nine years old. At times it resembles a teenage mix tape made with love, at others a scabrous unveiling of the American subconscious, and mostly it’s a goofy mess. With its hand-lettered titles, varying sound levels, clicks, pops and hisses, it’s a distinctly low-fidelity experience, but that adds to its crude power. It’s like Andy Warhol via Mad Magazine, and though it’s largely shapeless there’s a definite method in the madness somewhere. Dante recalls that the original epic ended with a solid 20 minutes or so of the closing moments of dozens of different old shows, and the whole ‘happy trails, buckaroos’ montage would reduce most of the hardy souls who had sat through the whole thing to tears. In a world without video, DVD or the internet, all this material, this 50s juvenilia, had disappeared from people’s lives, and The Movie Orgy dredged it up, sliced it into pieces and fed it back to the viewers, in what must have been a strange and heady experience. Dante had the idea for The Movie Orgy after noting the popularity of a college screening of a complete 1940s Batman serial over five hours. Without the week-long wait between episodes that characterised the original run the audience were made forcefully aware of the repetitions of footage, the outrageous cheat cliff-hanger endings, and all the absurdities and narrative contortions of the type of entertainment that they had doubtless accepted at face value when they were children.
Susan Sontag’s influential essay on camp had recently been published, and The Movie Orgy followed its lead: to be included, footage had to be played totally straight, otherwise it wasn’t funny, and it should ideally push the buttons of the baby boomers in the audience. Rules are made to be broken, and some knowing satirical clips appear amid the Howdy Doody and Puralin, but for the most part it’s an unpolished, disarming trawl through the cathode ray hinterland I only knew through Drew Friedman’s genius comic strips. Here they are, the aging music hall comedians, hard-sell commercials and nightmarish kids’ shows, a festival of hokey staging and stiff delivery. It’s baffling and alarming and hilarious by turns; one moment you could be watching an ad for the Little Hostess Buffet set ‘by Marx’, a toy full dinner service for the career-free little girl, the next you’re pitched into the sheer proto-Lynchian hell of Andy’s Gang, where a live cat and mouse (Midnight and Squeaky) have been strapped into torture devices so that they can be filmed playing Salvation Army drums from a variety of angles while a distressed-looking fat man warbles ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so’ over the footage. It’s a good thing that the kids in the Andy’s Gang audience are provided by stock footage, otherwise they would be screaming in abject terror, as I would have been had I not been laughing so damned hard.
I would love The Movie Orgy for this sequence alone, and there’s plenty more where that came from. It’s a social document from the heady days of revolution, it’s a post-war treasure trove, and for Joe Dante fans it’s a touchstone. This is where the strait-laced dialogue from Mant, Matinee‘s film-within-a-film came from; here’s the first evidence of the anti-corporate, anti-military creator of Gremlins, Small Soldiers and The Homecoming; hell, here’s even the puerile knucklehead who had a hand in Amazon Women on the Moon. It’s a gas. Now, let’s get the full seven-hour cut over, somebody score some Schlitz beer and home-grown, pull up a beanbag, let’s watch this bastard properly.