Morons I’ve Got Morons On My Team (Strother Martin)

Strother Martin was a noted character actor in, mainly, the Western movies. A former National Junior Springboard Diving champion he moved to La-La Land to work as a swimming extra in films’ water scenes…apparently that’s a real job ! It was not all rooting & tooting but most of the work Strother obtained in films & television did involve wearing a gunbelt & a hat. A distinctive sneer, an air of general malevolence, meant that the hat was usually a black one. He became one of a small group of actors who added value with any performance, recognisable to both audiences & casting directors. In 1967 he delivered, according to the American Film Institute, the 11th most memorable line of the cinematic century & it was not “Nobody puts Baby in the corner”.

In “Cool Hand Luke” (1967) Strother plays Captain, the sadistic warden of a Florida prison where war veteran Luke Jackson (Paul Newman) is sentenced to 2 years on a chain gang for the imaginative crime of cutting the heads off parking meters. Luke’s travails have parallels to McMurphy in “…Cuckoo’s Nest” It is an anti-authoritarian, modern, masculine movie which, together with “Hombre”, marked Newman’s move from fine actor to film star. There is an amount of religious imagery in the film… whatever…it’s a cracking film with memorable set pieces (egg eating, car washing, communication breakdowns ), Strother Martin keeping a cold, cruel eye on a bunch of cons which includes the talents of Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton. Pa Walton & Oscar winner George “Dragline” Kennedy.

After a “failure to communicate” Strother Martin’s star was rising. In 1969 he appeared in all 3 of the year’s major Westerns. The top-grossing “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid” was another Paul Newman joint, they made 5 films together. He was becoming a regular in John Wayne’s movies too. “True Grit” was the 4th time Martin had worked with Duke. He was also a member of Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” (above ) & was retained for the director’s next western romp “The Ballad of Cable Hogue”.

Strother was perfectly cast as part of the  “egg-sucking, chicken-stealing gutter trash” pictured. It was as a member of a gang that he had first shown out in the big films. In John Ford’s marvellous “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962) our man Martin, along with Lee van Cleef, were the sycophantic sidekicks of my man Lee Marvin (Liberty), hired gun, all-round rotter & the scourge of Shinbone. In “Hannie Caulder” (1971), a Western vehicle for the pneumatic but limited Raquel Welch, the Clemens Brothers, a trio of inept, despicable, probably malodorous outlaws, are played with such relish by Strother, Ernest Borgnine & Jack Elam that they steal the movie more effectively than they rob banks.

It wasn’t all lollygaggin’ around various saloons though.

“Slap Shot” (1977) is some kind of movie. Paul Newman & director George Roy Hill had collaborated on 2 super successful box-office smashes. Their story of the Charlestown Chiefs a losing ice hockey team in a threatened industrial town crams a lot into its 2 hours. Player-coach Reggie Dunlop (Newman) is similarly facing an uncertain future in approaching retirement. The introduction of new tactics, “old time hockey”,  a bit of the old ultra-violence, revives the teams fortunes. “Slap Shot” adroitly combines broad, coarse comedy with a dark realism (better than “Dodgeball” then). Strother plays the tightwad, conniving General Manager, Joe McGuire, with his customary perfectly pitched exuberance. Most of the cast help the film along.

“Slap Shot” was not a big success on it’s release. The biggest movie star around was effin’ & jeffin’ a little too much for the mass market. There is a list of good 1970s sports comedies & this, with “North Dallas Forty” is at the head of it (“Bad News Bears”…anyone ?). They are all better than anything starring Adam Sandler. Strother more than does his bit to make the film a success…Oh yeah…then there’s the Hanson Brothers !

Hey…if marijuana doesn’t damage your brain then how come so many people find Cheech & Chong funny ? These fabulous furry freaky guys were a very big deal in the 1970s. Their records were in the Top 10 & “Up In Smoke” (1978), the original, possibly the best stoner movie was a great success too. It is the cinematic link between Abbott & Costello &  “Wayne’s  World” (don’t mention Harold or Kumar). Like the other contender for the title, “The Big Lebowski” the movie is a bunch of quotable scenes, all equally hilarious when randomly shared with your relaxed friends. Strother Martin is Tommy Chong’s irascible father, an absolute humdinger. A shout out to a great friend, Bernie, who chose to celebrate the night before his marriage in the company of his buddies, his collection of Cheech & Chong videos & his bong. What a guy !

It’s no surprise that “Up In Smoke” makes it as the 3rd clip. C’mon it’s a classic ! There are other candidates for inclusion because Strother Martin was busy throughout the 1970s. His spark & ebullience brought something memorable to all of his scenes. In “Pocket Money” (1972) a dream team of Newman & Lee Marvin work for Strother’s sleazy rodeo agent. “Hard Times” (1975) is a macho treat in which he plays an opium addicted doctor, third wheel to Charles Bronson & James Coburn. The co-stars were not always such big names, the scripts not that great but Strother Martin was always noteworthy. You know him…the “failure to communicate” guy…mmm…the “goddamn Finkelstein shit kid” cat…oh yeah…he’s great.

By 1980 Strother had cardiac problems & unfortunately suffered a fatal heart attack in the August of that year. One of his final jobs was to host US TV’s biggest comedy show “Saturday Night Live”. You don’t get that gig unless people know who you are. In a sketch he played  the strict owner of a French Language camp for children. The problem was…a failure to communicate…bi-lingually ! Strother Martin…a dude.

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Original Artyfacts From Post Punk Derry ( The Bam Bam and the Calling Archive)

It’s been too long since I have had either the cause or the opportunity to write about my old & good friends Bam Bam & the Calling. Someone has been getting busy tidying up their attic & has stumbled upon a dusty box labelled “BB&tC: Odds & Sods”. Back in the day this consanguine cassette collection would have entertained the finder & a small circle of friends. In our Age of E-Wonders, a whiff of techknowledge, a pinch of electrickery & these freshly  relocated artefacts are available on the WWW as a free download in the form of one of those neat Soundcloud graph things. Here’s one now. Just click on the arrow because “Kitchen Dogs” really is a cracker & not to be missed.

Bam Bam & the Calling are part of a triumvirate of bands from Derry in Northern Ireland who not only shared personnel but also a belief that energy & loud guitars were requisites for good rock music. The Undertones made records that we all know (& hopefully love). If you do not know the work of That Petrol Emotion then do yourself a proper favour. You could start with an entertaining, honest interview ( music included) with Raymond Gorman, guitarist with The Everlasting Yeah & a former member of TPE. Raymond served his musical apprenticeship in Bam Bam & the Calling . He had this to say about those good times…”Bam Bam are still active, they play in Derry periodically and are still great too. I was in the second incarnation which was like Adam And The Ants meets The Clash/Bunnymen, I think we actually didn’t realise or weren’t fully aware of how great we were at the time. I felt more like a rock star playing in Bam Bam than I ever did in the Petrols. It’s a crying shame and the biggest regret of my life is that we never recorded with that line-up. We made it onto N.I. TV for 30 seconds once but no-one seems to have the video anymore. Great days. Very fond memories”.

Wow ! Adam & the Ants, the Clash & the Bunnymen all at the same time, that’s a busy & crowded stage. “Kitchen Dogs” is from 1986, just before the Bam Bams left Derry intending to show London what’s what. The band needed little encouragement to accelerate the song’s original tempo. Those teenage licks have got to make you catch your breath.  Paul, Joe, John & Tom were still on the Bunnymen, still are, always will be. It’s too late to stop now.

Photo: 1987, LondonHere’s another one from 1986. Dave Fanning is a stalwart of Irish music radio, enough respect to be compared with John Peel. For every young Irish band it was a big deal to record a session for Dave. The whole country listened, even I did for a while because British radio, apart from Peelie, was pretty hateful stuff. Apart from 24/7 exposure to Television’s “Marquee Moon”, there was a big appreciation of R.E.M’s “Chronic Town” & those first 2 LPs. “Only Sing” has a lovely Byrdsian clatter . There’s a unity & an enjoyment in the sound…another winner.

I met Bam Bam & the Calling at this time. The music was not making them enough money to cover an outrageous hair product habit. Gravity defying coiffures do not come cheap so a bit of hard construction collar was required. These 2 tracks rejuvenate very good memories of rock & roll adventures & of some great musical nights. It was always a genuine thrill to see my 4 individual friends get on a stage to do that thing they do together so well.

Bam Bam recorded just 2 excellent singles. By the time the “Absurd Song” demo was recorded in 1994 their London expedition was over & the band were back home. For songwriter Paul Pj McCartney there was time for musical experimentation but it’s still rock & roll to me, still a Bam Bam joint & that is a good thing.

Photo: 2012, Derry..that was then, this is now!A man in the know tells me that there are plenty of these tracks to come spanning the 30 year history of the group. I’m looking forward to hearing  & collecting them. All I know is that the music will be the sort that we like…the stuff with a heart full of soul. These nuggets are available at that part of Soundcloud ruled by optimumhold or you can get over to  the Facebook page, press  “like” & your social media will be sounding better already. The price is right…these beauties are being given away…proper music by proper people…you know it makes sense…you’re welcome.

It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad War (War Movies 1970)

By 1970 the United States government were looking for a way out of a snakebit, calamitous intervention in South East Asia. Troop numbers in Vietnam had been reduced from the high of two years earlier but evening news bulletins still relayed death & atrocity into American homes. The Vietnam War was not only unpopular it was becoming to be perceived as unwinnable. Since 1945 Hollywood’s war movies had confirmed that History is written by the winners. Many Brits, including my father, were not impressed by Errol Flynn’s key role in the 1944 invasion of Burma. (“Objective Burma !”- liberating cinema from the truth). In 1970 war films got to change, got to reform. They were all going to be about Vietnam now. The audiences throwing ice cream at screenings of John Wayne’s propaganda “The Green Berets” (1968) were ahead of their time

Hey, the film of the book… OK. Literature has been a constant & fructuous provider of raw material for Hollywood. A great book becomes a greater film ? That is not going to happen. You think so ? You’re wrong. “Catch 22” is rightfully included in the pantheon of American literature of the late 20th century. Joseph Heller’s World War II novel, where the most sensible reaction to an insane world is don’t get even, go mad, is placed in the company of all the greats, Shakespeare, Kafka, Bilko, Tom & Jerry. It’s a rambunctious, intrepid work, non-linear & multi-charactered. Readers in the millions had their own ideas about how this book should look. The odds on pleasing all of them ? That’s one of the big numbers to 1.

Mike Nichols, a relatively new kid in Tinseltown, already an Oscar winning director with “The Graduate”, took the job. He hired Buck Henry, a fellow dry, erudite humourist (not comedian…OK) to write the screenplay & pitched the film somewhere between those other ensemble pieces of the decade, “The Longest Day”(1962) & “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963). Two hours of film could never match 450 pages of print. The patient enveloped in bandages has 2 bottles attached to him by IV.When one is full & the other empty they are simply swapped around. This simple silliness still makes me laugh now. Onscreen you blink & you miss it but I would have been peeved if it had been left out. “Catch-22” is a spirited, assured venture & by no means a failure. It’s just that  man, that’s a good book.

The film, more than many, benefits from repeated viewings. Alan Arkin is Yossarian, paranoid & rightly so, his life is in the hands of a crazy gang who, if not unbalanced, are dangerously incompetent. The casting & performances of this bizarre band of brothers bring you back to this movie. It’s a long, illustrious list & here’s some highlights. Let’s see…Jon Voight, perhaps a little young to play capitalism incarnate Milo Minderbinder, lugubrious Bob Newhart as Major Major. The classy Charles Grodin is Capt. Aardvark & of course General Dreedle is only Orson flipping Welles. There’s a bunch of them…everywhere…someone & something different every time. Yup, “that’s some catch, that Catch-22,”. Oh Paula Prentiss is there too, not nearly enough.

The hit anti-war drama/comedy of 1970 was “M.A.S.H”, the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. Robert Altman’s film, the counter-culture comes to Korea, cost $3.5 million & grossed over $80 mill, 3 times the take of “Catch-22”.There are many similarities between the 2 films. War is stupid, people are stupid…we’re all singing from the same song sheet here. There is plenty of gore but “M.A.S.H” is a buddy movie with the “pros from Dover”, Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland, a new star about to steal “Kelly’s Heroes”, another war movie, off of Clint & Kojak) & Trapper (Elliot Gould) work hard & play hard while those around them are dying from enemy fire & bureaucratic incompetence. They are a fine team, 1970’s Butch & Sundance.

“M.A.S.H” is an ensemble movie too. Altman’s was not only free of any literary limitations, his skill in directing large casts was part of a new American cinema. Nichols made a trio of modern movies, “The Graduate”, “Catch-22” & “Carnal Knowledge” while Altman was pushing it along & innovating. The film was successful because of an anarchic energy & humour not because of its message. Robert Duvall as Major Frank Burns is great support, Radar O’Reilly became a national treasure when a spin-off TV series became very successful. Oh yeah, Major Margaret  “Hotlips” Houlihan is played by Sally Kellerman. That is all

.

Now “Patton” was the product of an entirely different infinite number of monkeys. General George S Patton’s tour of Europe & North Africa in World War II established his reputation as a crackerjack live act & as a winner. His notable speech to the Third Army just before D-Day 1944 opens the film. It portrays a straight-talking charismatic leader. I don’t know if the backdrop was an outsized Stars & Stripes though I am sure that the chestful of medals on display is not historically accurate. If all you know of Patton is from this movie then it is not the full story.

“Patton” is a good film. It won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director & Best Actor. I, unlike many British men of the 20th century, have never been asked to fight in a war. I have been afforded the luxury of being a pacifist & of expressing my opposition to such aggression. I can appreciate the qualities of this film, admire the powerful central performance by George C Scott, but “Patton”, still, seems to me to be an exercise in myth-making & the creation of an American hero.

This validation of rugged individualism…how the war was won…The American military was in a crisis of leadership, a small communist country was kicking their butt & in late 1969 the news broke about Charlie Company’s actions in My Lai where up to 500 unarmed civilians were murdered. Little wonder then that the United States needed, in Gil Scott-Heron’s words, to go ” back to those inglorious days when heroes weren’t zeros. Before fair was square. When the cavalry came straight away”. Look, I was so much older then…you get me. I am able to see more than two sides to most stories now but “Patton” was Richard Nixon’s favourite movie & that will not stand. The idea that we can only defeat the evil sons of bitches with those of our own…well, fuck that noise. This film was not made for people like me.

George C Scott had declined an Oscar nomination for “The Hustler” in 1962. He did the same for “Patton” but won the award anyway. Scott refused to accept & was quoted as saying , “The whole thing is a goddamn meat parade. I don’t want any part of it.” A different world indeed.