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DVD Review: Captain Calamity (1936)

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Imagine you’re in the mid-1930’s. You want to make a movie. There are oodles of untapped talents and potentials just waiting to rise — much in the same way bile does — within you. Through a source that shall remain undisclosed, you happen to know a guy that knows a guy that is acquainted with somebody in the motion picture business. Not a big A-list Hollywood producer variety, mind you — but someone more along the “wholesaler” type: a fellow that can rent you some moviemaking equipment and sell you a couple cans of 35mm color filmstock dirt cheap.

You’re working completely on the fly. How do you make your movie stand out from the Poverty Row pictures, let alone all of that hyped-up A-list Hollywood jazz? The answer: skin. You must show some skin. But the Hayes Code has effectively put an end to that genre — you daren’t end up in the Supreme Court, arguing that your film was meant to be perceived as “art,” especially when you know damn well that it wasn’t.

And then, it hits you: native skin. Sure, you can get away with showing a topless native woman. It’s worked for those “roadshow features,” didn’t it? Why, sure it‘ll work — it’s a cinch! So, you set about making a movie. A modern-day adventure film set on the seas. You even con some poor sod into letting you use his yacht, and pay him off with the cheapest bottle of whiskey you could lay your mitts on which you in-turn traded for from the local pub owner in exchange for a bit part in the film. Neither the ship owner or the barkeep will be anything to worry about: they’re both passed out at a booth in the bar.

You’ve got a yacht. Now you need a cast. Well, the world is full of lousy community theater actors and actresses. No problems there. Now you need a crew. A walk down the alley introduces you to a very shaky and unkempt man named Lionel, who becomes your cameraman. As it turns out, filming in natural light proves to be difficult: the sun just doesn’t seem to want to shine on your actors. Fortunately, Lionel happens to own an epileptic spider monkey, whom he trains to hold a reflector you constructed by wrapping aluminum foil around a cutting board.

Ready to shoot? Of course, you are. Quick, huddle everybody onboard the boat and prepare to weigh the anchor! And then it hits you: you’re really not the type to go gallivanting about on the water, and neither are the actors (not to mention Lionel or the spider monkey). Thus, you change your story to place your main character — whom you’ve dubbed “Captain Bill” — in a financial situation. He has no money, meaning he can’t sail. He’s stuck in the bay of a coastal village swarming with all types of unlikable folk. Ta-da. Problem solved.

OK, the actors are all set. As is Lionel and his pet spider monkey. You retrieve three cocktail napkins you jotted a few nights before containing barely decipherable scribbling, which you refer to as “the script.”

Oh, who are you kidding? There’s no script for this piece of shit and you know it. Your aim is to show some native skin, dammit — so start-a-filming it!

Shooting goes as well as can be expected. You get your native skin shots. And they’re beautiful. Too bad the rest of the film isn’t as beautiful. It would have at least been a bit better had you have had better actors — or at least actors who knew the premise of choreography in a fight scene. Aw, well, the editor can sort that out.

Wait. Editor? Oh, snap — that’s right, you’ll have to pay someone to do it.

Nah, you’ll just do it yourself. That’s what razors and electrical tape are for.

Time passes. Eventually, you sell your completed film to a Poverty Row distributor. Unsatisfied with your title, Captain Bill Meets The Brown-Skinned Bosomy Beauties Of Borneo, they rename your film Captain Calamity for no other reason than it sounds like they could sell it to mainstream theaters far easier than your title would have fared as a roadshow attraction. They predict that Captain Calamity could bring as many as a dozen people in on opening night alone (thus turning in quite a tidy profit for them). They make no mention of the tantalizing native skin you worked so hard to work in.

You attend the premiere (which they charged you for) held in a small, dingy, and remarkably dank theater just on the outskirts of town. As your movie, filmed in “Full Natural Color,” plays out onscreen, you are shocked to see all of the skin has been excised from the print. Those damn distributors cut out the only interesting part of the entire flick. Captain Calamity is now just a boring and dumb movie: a film that can’t make up its mind whether it’s a comedy, a drama, a musical, or an action film.

At least, that’s how it stands for now.

And so shall it stand for the rest of time to all.

And that, my dear readers, is my fairly plausible theory as to the origins of Captain Calamity: a movie that has absolutely nothing going for it. Made on a shoestring budget and featuring one of the worst soundtracks ever, Captain Calamity also boasts some incredibly bad attempt at comedy and some exceptionally hammy acting courtesy of stars George Huston, Marian Nixon, Poverty Row regular Vince Barnett, Motiva (also in Mutiny On The Bounty), and Crane Wilbur. It should be noted that Wilbur also penned the story for this atrocity, but later — after some writing classes, no doubt — wrote such classics as Mysterious Island as well as two Vincent Price vehicles: the 3-D fave House Of Wax and The Bat.

A regular Public Domain release on DVD, Captain Calamity recently received another issue from Alpha Video. The print used for this presentation had lost some of its color over the years, and the full frame 1.33:1 transfer of the film is rather murky — but then again, the movie probably never looked that good to begin with. Alpha presents the movie with a slightly muddled mono stereo soundtrack (again, the original element probably wasn’t fantastic judging by the low budget). Special features on this release are limited to a few peeks at other Alpha Video releases.

It definitely isn’t the kind of film an average viewer would add to their collection. But, if you fancy yourself a B-Movie film historian or have declared your love for vintage Z-Grade flicks, Captain Calamity warrants at least a glance. After all, look how much fun I had trashing it!

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.