Godfathers and Grindhousers

You can’t keep a good man or a Godfather down. New Beverly’s weeklong Crooksmas coda featuring The Godfather and films inspired by it was a well-attended program that drew in lots of fresh faces to our theatre. And when you ask your friends in the neighborhood about us, they’ll tell you we know how to return a favor. So we’re following up with a full week’s run for the game-changing sequel of that great classic, in a manner which you’ve likely not seen it, as well as showcasing some of our favorite smaller-scale action films that attempted to hitch their vehicles onto its train of success. In the glory days of big city all-night second-and-third run movie theatres, where the term “Grindhouse” got its name, it would be completely normal to see high-profile studio fare sharing the bill with the bevy of genre pictures we’ve picked to showcase alongside Coppola’s epic. Now some of you may not feel up to a second film after consuming such a long and large visual banquet, but we think there’s always room for a little midnight movie dessert!

Sunday, February 3rd to Saturday, February 9th, we screen Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Part II, in an original 1974 IB Technicolor print. The film had the distinction of being the last new release of the time to have prints for America struck in the unique dye-transfer process. When Robert Harris supervised a digital restoration for Coppola’s trilogy in 2008, the goal was to achieve the rich colors and deep blacks that came natural to IB Tech prints, and original copies such as this one were used as reference material. So if you’ve never seen the film before, or if you’ve seen it dozens of times at home, here’s an opportunity to watch it as thousands of audiences saw it when it was first released!

 

 

While Coppola had come a long way from the community of low-budget filmmaking he had paid his dues in by the time he made this sequel, he did not forget the great talent that had inhabited that world with him – in fact, he brought many of them along! During the Congressional inquiry scenes, you’ll see his former producer Roger Corman, fantasy writer Richard Matheson (who wrote many Corman films), “Twilight Zone” series producer Buck Houghton (who later produced for Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios The Escape Artist, which played the Bev last month), and longtime George Lucas collaborator Gary Kurtz. Also, former heartthrob Troy Donahue, playing Connie Corleone’s would-be boyfriend, and Harry Dean Stanton, playing an FBI agent, would also both appear that year in Cockfighter, directed by fellow Corman alumnus Monte Hellman. And Marianna Hill, playing Fredo’s wife Deanna, had previously acted for Coppola friends Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz in their 1973 horror film Messiah of Evil.

Our first selection for our post-Godfather late night slots on Sunday, February 3rd & Monday, February 4th, is the 1974 writing/directorial debut of Taiwan martial arts performer Tien Peng, The Tongfather. The film was not intended to have any ties to its ersatz cousin – its original English export title was The Notorious Bandit – but as Coppola’s old boss Roger Corman would suggest, never let that get in the way of a catchy title. Tien plays a Chinese government agent sent to infiltrate a Yakuza-run opium ring, and with the hardened will of antiheroes like Dirty Harry or Terry Tsuguri, efficiently punches, swords, and kills his way to the man running the whole dirty operation. During his near-20-year career, Tien appeared in genre favorites Dragon Inn, A Touch of Zen, and 18 Bronze Men, and never played a villain. And long before Dwayne Johnson (or even Don Muraco) was on the scene, he was frequently called “Roc Tien,” and his fighting style certainly demonstrates that in his day, he was laying the smack down for years.

 

 

Tuesday, February 5th brings back a New Beverly favorite we ran this past December, Sergio Sollima’s 1970 hitman thriller Violent City, which received a belated U.S. release in 1973 when it was retitled The Family and given an ad campaign and title logo based on the font created for The Godfather. Veteran hitman Jeff Heston (Charles Bronson), is betrayed and left for dead by a fellow gunman… and watches his girlfriend Vanessa (Jill Ireland) run off with him. Heston survives, and sets about tracking down the turncoats. The quest for retribution puts him in the orbit of New Orleans boss Al Weber (Telly Savalas), who wants free agent Heston in his organization. Once Heston discovers that Weber’s new wife is Vanessa, what had been a personal vendetta now turns into a one-man crusade to undermine and dismantle Weber and his associates. With a screenplay featuring contributions from Oscar-nominee Lina Wertmuller, and music by Ennio Morricone that later made its way into Django Unchained, it’s like watching the story of the rare man who can refuse an offer that can’t be refused.

 

 

Wednesday, February 6th & Thursday, February 7th sees the arrival of The Black Godfather from 1974. J.J. (Rod Perry) started out as a petty crook, but under the grooming of regal boss Nate Williams (Jimmy Witherspoon), has risen to a level of influence, as well as taking Nate’s daughter Yvonne (Diane Sommerfield) for a girlfriend. And with the reluctant help of militant liberationist Diablo (Damu King), J.J. plans to eliminate white heroin dealers and cartel facilitator Tony Burton (Don Chastain) from his territory. But Burton, who’s received tacit sales approval from Nate for years, and has crooked Lt. Joe Sterling (Duncan McLeod) on retainer, won’t go without a fight, and Yvonne becomes a pawn in this battle over not just drug sales, but of who gets to profit from black people’s dollars in this neighborhood.

 

 

Writer/director John Evans was a Jamaica native and Columbia University graduate who, after finding little opportunities in Hollywood, moved to Chicago and made documentaries. After returning to Jamaica to run a TV news department, he gave Los Angeles another go, and filmed an interview with Black Panther Huey Newton that was the base of his 1968 documentary Prelude to Revolution. His first feature film in 1971, Speeding Up Time, played the Cannes Film Festival, but as he told a reporter in 1991, he could not afford a ticket to go and be present for the premiere. Power to Share was the original title of this project. In that previous interview, Evans claimed that after he sold the finished film to Jerry Gross at Cinemation, as he was looking for reviews of it, he saw news about something called The Black Godfather, and called up Gross to ask about this competing release, only to have Gross inform him that this was the new title he’d put on Evans’ film! The wily distributor’s instincts were somewhat validated when the Fox Theatre in Detroit, a trusted venue for genre movies, reported an opening week gross of over $55,000. Evans made one more feature, Blackjack in 1978, before moving to Delaware, where he opened a multi-purpose production facility. Film writer Drew Hunt of the Chicago Reader once said of Evans, “He had the eye of a real classicist; his penchant for wide shots, high and low angles, and narrative economy evoke Jules Dassin at his best.”

Star Rod Perry found his largest fame starring on the Aaron Spelling crime drama S.W.A.T., and joining his series star Steve Forest to cameo in the 2003 Clark Johnson feature film remake with Samuel L. Jackson and LL Cool J. Jimmy Witherspoon, as the elder Nate, had already established himself as a jump blues  performer, his biggest hit being his 1947 recording of “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” before taking acting roles; he also appeared in Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger and Ulu Grossbard’s Georgia with Jennifer Jason Leigh. Don Chastain frequently alternated between TV appearances, including a semi-regular stint on “Rhoda,” and Broadway shows, including the 1980 revival of 42nd Street; he also wrote the screenplay for the Karen Arthur thriller The Mafu Cage with Lee Grant and Carol Kane. Duncan McLeod is most recognizable as the scheming Porter Hall in Russ Meyer’s immortal Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Co-stars Tony Burton (not to be confused with Chastain’s character Tony Burton), Damu King, and Diane Sommerfield would all work with Evans again on his third feature Blackjack, which starred perennial ‘70s tough guy William Smith.

Finally, on Saturday, February 9th, after we’ve already been rocking with a godfather denier, a martial arts godfather, and a marginalized citizens godfather, who better to end our week and face the music with than the Disco Godfather! Starring legendary comedian and raconteur Rudy Ray Moore, soon to be portrayed by Eddie Murphy in Craig Brewer’s upcoming biopic Dolemite is My Name, written by award-winning screenwriters (and friends of the New Beverly) Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski. Tucker Williams (Moore) is an ex-cop whose beat is now the funky sounds coming out of the Blueberry Hill disco, where he’s the top turntable master, urging all the party people to put their weight on it. But when his nephew Bucky (Julius Carry) has a horrifying trip on angel dust that lands him in the mental hospital, Tucker is going put his weight on getting PCP off the streets with his “Angels Against Dust” coalition. And that makes him an enemy to “legitimate businessman” Stinger Ray (Hawthorne James), who orders a contract on the nightclub capo.  But nobody’s going to make the Disco Godfather dance to somebody’s else’s wack tune!

 

 

Co-writer and director J. Robert Wagoner had previously been a cinematographer for documentarian Lionel Rogosin on his films Black Roots and Black Fantasy, and was also a producer for National Education Television, working on several instructional programs shown in schools via PBS stations. His naturalistic background clashed often with Moore’s over-the-top aesthetic, and so previous Moore collaborator Cliff Roquemore contributed many elements that tied the movie closer to the antics audiences loved from Dolemite and The Human Tornado. When Disco Godfather was first released in theatres, with its somewhat heavy anti-drug message, its comparably restrained tone, and the music genre’s popularity on the wane, it did not draw as well as previous Moore films, and the comedian felt the project severely hurt his career. In the latter years of his life, the film found a newer, more enthusiastic following who discovered it on home video.

Carol Speed of Abby, The Mack, and The Big Bird Cage, carries second billing, though her role is more of an extended cameo. Julius Carry, as the unfortunate Bucky, later portrayed supervillain Sho Nuff, The Shogun of Harlem in Michael Schultz’s The Last Dragon. Faces familiar from previous Moore films are peppered in the supporting cast. From Dolemite, there’s Lady Reed, Jimmy Lynch, Jerry Jones, and Howard Jackson, and from Petey Wheatstraw, Leroy Daniels of the stand-up comedy team Skillet & Leroy. Statuesque 6’ model Pucci Jhones plays The Angel of Death in the PCP hallucination scenes; she is now a cabaret jazz singer in New York.

Spend the first week of February with us revisiting a beloved cinematic pezzonovante and its scugnizzi. Okay, that last term was Neapolitan and not Sicilian, but hey, we’re all cumpari at the New Beverly.  Figurati!

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