Though I remain an avid admirer of Mystery Science Theater 3000, I've pretty much stayed away from the RiffTrax website starring three of the show's alumni. The concept is clever enough: veteran movie riffers Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett (a.k.a. Mike, Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot from MST3K) serve up MP3 commentaries of past and present movies that you can download and play alongside your DVDs of the same flicks. A pretty sharp idea, provided you don't have a computer with the memory capacity of Dory the regal tang.
Though the website has been off and running for three years, those of us with antique computers have had to wait until now to embrace the riffy goodness. This June, ten RiffTrax DVDs are being released by Legend Films. Unlike the website — where the boys spend as much time vivisecting recent blockbusters as they do low-budget oldies — most of the films offered here are the kinds of public domain standards you can usually buy for a buck at your local Dollar Tree. Six of the ten selections will be familiar to s-f/horror fans (Plan 9 from Outer Space's the most notorious); apart from two collections of educational shorts, perhaps the least well-known entry is the 1946 Monogram musical Swing Parade.
I recently watched RiffTrax's take on this Poverty Row musical showcase. To get in the proper MSTie frame of mind, I sat down and viewed it on a Saturday morning, much as I used to when the series aired on Comedy Central and Sci-Fi Channel. Unlike the original show, the RiffTrax commentaries are presented sans story context — just three smart-ass disembodied voices (plus the occasional guest) cracking wise at the expense of a riff-worthy flick — so there are no silhouettes, puppetry, or interstitial sequences on the DVD. Fans of the original MST3K are divided on the merits of these aspects of the original show: for some, the sequences featuring Mike and robots on the Satellite of Love were often the weakest parts of the show. Me, I rather enjoyed 'em, though once Nelson, Murphy and Corbett started verbally bouncing off Swing Parade's opening credits on the DVD, I quickly stopped obsessing about the lack of a back-story. These are still very funny guys.
The movie itself proves ripe for commentary. An indifferently plotted showbiz musical, Swing Parade is billed as a Three Stooges feature on the DVD cover, though the boys strictly play a secondary role to a tepid backstage romance between singer Gale Storm and the good-look-for-radio lead Phil Regan. ("How does this guy not have a mono-brow?" the RiffTraxers ask.) Parade was one of the last films made by Curly Howard and was filmed after the Stooge had suffered a series of small strokes. As a result, there isn't a lot of physical comedy in their sequences, though the movie's riffers regularly play on the possibility of somebody getting their nostrils assaulted with a crowbar — which in some ways proves even funnier.
In addition to the Stooges sequences, we're also treated to musical numbers by Louis Jordan and Connee Boswell (formerly of the Boswell Sisters). The Jordan numbers are a treat by themselves, but the commentary over "Don't Worry 'Bout That Mule" (a Number One hit for Jordan in '45) is priceless, as all three riffers imagine fates-worse-than-death for the title creature. ("My mule's gonna go blind, I just know it!") Ingenue Storm also performs two numbers, though neither proves as fertile as Jordan's durable jump band nonsense. There's also a markedly unfunny sequence featuring the Michael Winslow of his day, Windy Cook, auditioning his sound fx shtick before durable character actor Edward Brophy. The performance, Mike notes, is as "if Mickey Rooney had gone off his anti-psychotic meds." The guys also manage to use Cook for a crack at the expense of Comedy Central, the net that once stupidly cancelled MST3K — and good for them!
Legend's DVD also features an enjoyable ditty on the disc's menu: a smooth love song about the Stooge in the Middle with a chorus that sez, "I don't know about you, but I think Larry's fine." It's the kind of clever musical bit that they used to regularly fit into MST3K's host features (particularly during Mike's tenure), and I'm glad they found a way to slip it onto this DVD package. Makes me wonder what else these jokesters have stuck as extras on the other Legend DVDs.