The Good Bad Movie

As film critic for educational station WGBH, NORMAN N. HOLLAND keeps a sharp eye on trends in the movies. He is assistant professor of English at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The film critic goes to “name” movies for one simple reason: the public expects him to peer behind the pretensions of advertising.

Yet these, the much-advertised, the big, the imported, the stereophonic, the radiantly colored, are the impostors, the films that pretend to be so much more than they are. When they are good, they are moderately good. When they are bad, they are the bad bad movies. Every once in a while, though, there swims into the critic’s ken some honest trash with no pretensions at all: a good bad movie — that is, a picture that is so bad it’s funny. Then, ah, then, being a critic seems worth while.

Take, for example, the typical science-fiction picture with a title like The Thing from Betelgeuse or The Sirius Danger or Destination: AlfaRomeo. There is an exploring party headed by a scientist who wears a beard and is absent-minded (these being the two symptoms of intelligence known to Hollywood). Second in command is a sturdy Air Force captain, followed by his faithful buddy. Then there is a starlet who is either a stowaway fiancée of the Air Force type or else the expedition’s biologist (why always the biologist?). She has seven Ph.D.’s but quickly falls in love with the muscular captain, much as though Dame Edith Sitwell were suddenly to get a crush on Gorgeous George.

Through some mishap - a simple space-time warp will do — they fetch up at the wrong destination, a new planet or, in particularly low-budget pictures, the standard set (complete with dinosaurs) for the Mexican Alps. After a brief sightseeing tour, during which someone remarks, “It seems too quiet,” a couple of crew members (never, alas, the principals) get eaten up by a Thing, which nobody can describe. The Air Force type promptly announces, “I’m going to blast it off the face of-” (fill in the name of the appropriate planet).

“Wait a minute,” says the beard, “maybe it’s trying to communicate with us.” The starlet, with the last vestiges of her intellectuality, sides with the beard, thus giving us complications emotional and organizational during which several more crew members can be chewed up and “serious damage” inflicted on “the ship.” Finally the Thing appears — it usually looks like an overgrown boll weevil wearing an aqualung - and Dr. Hassenpfeffer, who is probably a Communist anyway, makes a final effort to befriend it. The Thing promptly does Hassenpfeffer in, thereby proving that the captain was right all along. Somewhat belatedly, the captain observes, “Our weapons are powerless against it.”

At this point, two endings are possible: either the group tries to escape or the starlet discovers that the Thing can be destroyed simply by plugging it into a 110-volt outlet. In either case, faithful buddy will say, “But, captain, we need a positronic cosmos generator. Ours has been destroyed.”

“Here,” says the imperturbable captain, “can you do anything with this?” He holds out a portable radio. “Some twentieth-century tourist must have left it here.”

“Say,” says faithful buddy, “once I took a course in these things.” He examines the radio, looking puzzled.

“Hurry,” says our captain, “we can’t hold out much longer.”

“Hm. Let me see,” says faithful buddy, and, unfortunately, we do.

It was pleasant when all Things were only Frankenstein monsters, werewolves, or vampires gamboling about the Carpathian mountains. Now, though, the “undead” have immigrated.

Consider the family of good bad movies with titles like I Was a Teenage Narcissist. Some scientist has gotten a grant from a foundation to read the long-lost books of Dr. Frankenstein or Bela Lugosi or somebody. He is probing, we are told by his cautious friend, “the secrets of life itself.” Now, however, he needs a final experiment to round out the paper he is planning to read at the next meeting of the Parabiological Association in Dubuque. “This will revolutionize science,” he says.

At this point, some happy-golucky teen-ager rocks and rolls his way onto the scene, and in a trice the doctor has him turned into a monster. The kid, who is going through the difficult period of adolescence, just wants to go on with his ordinary activities, dancing, dating, mugging, slashing tires. All those nasty adults, though, don’t understand; they scream when he turns into a werewolf. “I just want to belong,” he says plaintively. “I just want to be like other people.”

He keeps saying things like this until it percolates into his lycanthropoid mind that the mad doctor has pretty well ruled that possibility out. Annoyed, he takes out after the doctor, and with a certain amount of hurly-burly, the two monsters (get that!) perish together in the burning house.

The local police chief arrives just in time to watch, having finally been convinced of the nature of the difficulty by an old Carpathian janitor. The chief, his face lit by the fire, solemnly pronounces the moral: “He went too far. He tried to become God. There are some things that man must leave alone.” Somebody should tell Hollywood.

But surely the best and the worst of the good bad movies are the Tarzans. There are three reasons why they hold a special place in the sclerotic heart of a film critic. For one thing, 1958 was their anniversary. Forty times birds fly away, forty times birds return since first Tarzan picture. In other words, in 1918, mighty Elmo Lincoln first flexed Tarzan’s muscles in celluloid. The Tarzan pictures have another special charm, their durability. In a world of shifting, changing values, they remain forever at the same low level. Of course, there are a few concessions to the outside world: during World War II, a German spy would occasionally turn up, and now Boy has been legally adopted by Tarzan and Jane — a gesture, I suppose, in the direction of the new respectability of the fifties. For all practical purposes, though, the Tarzan formula has never changed.

The latest one, for example, deals with the adventures out in Tarzan country of one Dr. Sturdy. (Wouldn’t it be comforting if your doctor were called Dr. Sturdy?) Anyway, Dr. Sturdy, or Doka-teri Sturdy, as he is called by the natives, is rooting around in darkest Africa, looking for all the world like Albert Schweitzer. He is experimenting on a serum against what is known in the picture simply as “fee ver” (and pronounced that way). His presence, however, is resented by the medicine men’s local, headed by a method actor named Futa. “No Ngassi man,” says Futa with Stanislavskian difficulty, “no Ngassi man go Doka-teri Sturdy hospital, give blood, make white-man magic. Save blood for Mongo [evidently some deity]. Curse of Mongo on Ngassi man go give blood to Dokateri Sturdy.”

Doka-teri Sturdy no can work now. Then young chief get fee ver. Futa try cure, but Futa lack courage of convictions. Futa steal white-man magic, will feed to young chief with Mongo mumbo-jumbo, win either way. But Futa get wrong bottle, deadly poison. Now who come in nick of time? Tarzan. He make Futa sample medicine before feed to young chief. Futa die. Cheers. Nobody like Futa anyway. He method actor. What he do in Tarzan picture?

You see, it could have been written any time, lo, these forty years. But there is another reason, more profound than mere durability, why Tarzan pictures are the critic’s special delight among all good bad movies. They show a sort of earthly paradise, a Garden of Eden, for in Tarzan’s world nothing is evil but snakes and man. The little round house in the tree, the unnationalistic natives, the carefree chimpanzees (not to be confused with the Tarzan family itself) — this Garden of Eden takes the tired critic back to an earlier time, the time of his lost innocence when he went to the movies just for fun.