This is the fourth in a series of stories from the 2008 Starz Denver Film Festival. Both reviewed documentaries were shown November 14-15, 2008, at the Starz Film Center.
For anyone old enough to remember when, and anyone else adventurous enough to travel back in time, the weekend screenings of Count Basie: Then As Now, Count’s The King and Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story filled the double-feature bill for doc lovers.
Count Basie: Then As Now, Count’s The King: 71 minutes; directed by Gary Keys; interview subjects included Ira Gitler, Frank Foster, George Lewis, Benny Powell, Frank “Magic” Wess, Joe Wilder.
Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story: 86 minutes; produced and directed by Jeffrey Schwarz; interview subjects included John Badham, Diane Baker, Terry Castle, Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Darryl Hickman, John Landis, Leonard Maltin, Marcel Marceau, John Waters.
Both films offer glimpses of two dynamic forces and master showmen from the 20th century by combining archival footage, classic photos, and interviews with those who knew them, loved them or were influenced by them. They’re fast-placed, quick-hitting blasts into the past lasting less than 90 minutes each, leaving you wanting more to explore on this nostalgia trip.
That’s where most of the similarities end.
Playing In The Band
Basie, the piano-playing jazz legend who went on to become the swing king of the Big Band Era, is remembered by five cool scat-cat musicians (Foster, Lewis, Powell, Wess, and Wilder), who once played for the orchestra leader, and a jazz historian (Gitler) during a roundtable discussion at Elaine’s in New York.
Music is the centerpiece here, with numerous numbers sharing the spotlight, from “Jumpin’ At The Woodside” in 1937 to “One O’Clock Jump” in 1951 to “April In Paris,” in 1974. The latter is part of a hilarious bit in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, where the band appears in the middle of Western nowhere and the Count “gives some skin” to the new sheriff in town, played by Cleavon Little.
How Basie blended into the popular culture of the day is underscored throughout Keys’ film. He’s seen onstage with legendary singers Billie Holiday (“God Bless the Child”) and Billy Eckstine (“Stormy Monday”) and his music is featured in Jerry Lewis vehicles of the early '60s such as Cinderfella (“Cute”) and The Errand Boy (“Blues in Hoss’ Flat”), with the slapstick comedian conducting pantomimes to the Count’s tunes.
Living A Scream Dream
Castle, a B-movie director and producer during the '50s and '60s, gets the tribute treatment, in separate interviews, from family members, former associates and present-day directors who explain why his shlock stock continues to rise.
Described as a “poor-man’s Alfred Hitchcock,” Castle learned showbiz from the ground up, taking his first movie job as Bela Lugosi's assistant on the set of Dracula. As he moved up the ladder, Castle learned how to manipulate the press, then the public, in promoting his movies. “He enjoyed promoting them as much as he enjoyed making them,” said his daughter Terry. Several of his delightful film promos are included, and he’s heard in voiceover narration discussing episodes of his career.
Castle worked with Orson Welles (The Lady from Shanghai) in 1947, whose advice to his friend was “to make sure your name is all over” any future projects.
Those projects turned out to be “B” horror flicks that came with gimmicks providing cheap thrills and chills: House on Haunted Hill in 1959 had “Emergo,” where ghosts and skeletons emerged from the screen to hover over audiences, guided by a flimsy wire; also made in ’59, The Tingler, starring Vincent Price and called by John Waters “the best movie ever made” (surely, he jests), used “Percepto,” basically a buzzer that was planted in theater seats to shock the living daylights out of frightened filmgoers; then there was 13 Ghosts in 1960, which utilized “Illusiono,” effects from 3D-type cardboard glasses called “Ghost Viewers” that allowed anyone to see the spooky spirits on screen or make them disappear.
He eventually graduated to “A” productions, buying the rights to Rosemary’s Baby. “I wanted to prove to the industry, my fellow peers, that I could so something really brilliant,” he said.
Mile High Five or Dive?
The doc-shlock value of Spine Tingler resonates more for this child of the '60s than the Count’s smooth jazz sounds. Maybe it’s because those memories of watching The Tingler on TV and listening to the Beatles and Beach Boys on the stereo remain crystal clear. But Schwarz’s film did give a more intimate look at the devoted family man who became king of his Castle, delving deeper into his past (he was an orphan by the age of 11) on his way to becoming the P.T. Barnum of the horror movie industry. “William Castle successfully branded himself,” said heralded B-keeper Roger Corman, “like Betty Crocker and Walt Disney.”
And while it took some work for Keys, left, and company (including Columbia University) to track down the historical footage and make it look presentable, the interviews didn’t shed much new light on William James Basie’s life, either before be became the “Count” or after the music stopped. Enjoyable as they were, some of the former band members seemed more inclined to talk about themselves. It also was somewhat sad to see Keys, after a quick Q&A, standing at the foot of the stage and hawking DVD copies of his film for $20 each.