The Lords of Flatbush - (1974)
The first time movie audiences got a taste of Sylvester Stallone’s voice as artist (writer/actor) wasn’t 1976’s Rocky but 1974’s The Lords of Flatbush. A low budget New York independent film directed by Martin Davidson, who would go on to have a nice little filmography that would include the like minded Eddie & The Cruisers, Hero At Large (my favorite) , Almost Summer (which enjoys a very very small cult following amongst devotees who saw it when it came out) , and the William Petersen & Sissy Spacek nineties romantic comedy Hard Promises (which apparently, only I alone like), and his co-director Stephen Verona, who would go on to direct the ill-fated Gladys Knight starring feature film vehicle Pipe Dreams, which co-starred her predator ex-husband (any interview Ms.Knight gives, goes over her trials and tribulations with her Pipe Dreams co-star named Barry Wilksomethingorother.).
“The Lords” of the title are a (very small) group of four Brooklyn street toughs, Stallone’s Stanley (hands down the biggest and the meanest), Perry King’s Chico (the motorcycle riding Casanova of the crew), Henry Winkler’s Butchie (the smart aleck of the group , and the one Jew amongst three Italians), & Paul Mace’s Wimpy (the little guy and the most authentically New Yorker of the group. You can spot Mace hanging around with the other junkies in Jerry Schatzberg’s Panic in Needle Park).
The film follows their lives and loves (really only Chico & Stanley ) in Doo Wop era fifties New York. The film was made for nothing but then (miraculously) picked up for distribution by Columbia Pictures, where it was paired with the fifties time capsule wonder Let The Good Times Roll (one helluva concert film, and apparently 70mm prints of it exist). The reason Columbia picked up this obviously shoestring New York production and slapped their grand lady with the torch logo on the front of it was, it was a pretty good film.
The success of American Graffiti precipitated a large wave of unfounded romanticized fifties nostalgia that at one point threatened to engulf the entire decade, and that I, as a little boy who didn’t know any better, was especially susceptible to (back then I loved anything fifties and prided myself on my fifties trivia knowledge). During this tsunami-like wave of nostalgia came “Oldies” based radio stations, the “Oldies But Goodies” series of albums, other fifties hit collection records sold on tv (most people my age first learned who Chubby Checker was from these commercials), James Dean was reintroduced to the pop culture zeitgeist , i.e. you could buy his posters in head shops again, right next to Tim Curry’s Frank N’ Furter (after a fall from grace during the hippy sixties), The Wild One replaced both On the Waterfront & A Streetcar Named Desire as the seminal Brando film (again, those were the pictures and posters they sold in head shops). And on tv, the American Graffiti inspired situation comedy “Happy Days” (lest we forget Ron Howard starred in both), and then later it’s feminine opposite number “Laverne & Shirley.” And last but certainly not least, the ascendancy of Henry Winkler’s Fonzie to the schoolyard pop culture stratosphere (to this day his black leather jacket hangs in the Smithsonian). Well some sly shrewd fox over at Columbia noticed that not only was The Lords of Flatbush fifties based like American Graffiti, but it also had Fonzie in the cast, before the industry knew that was a big deal, but us school kids knew that was a very big deal. So even though Henry Winkler didn’t really have a tremendous amount of screen time, Columbia Pictures cut together a terrific tv spot that featured Henry Winkler’s footage (Fonzie’s drawing power among young school kids was no joke), and THE BEST and MOST CATCHY commercial jingle ever written for a movie tv spot (while the original song score by disgraced songwriter – movie director Joseph Brooks is fantastic, the tv spot theme is no where to be found in the movie), that I can sing perfectly to this day. All this made the movie both a hit and a very fondly remembered artifact of its era (both the era it depicted the fifties, and when the movie came out and later played on The ABC MONDAY NIGHT MOVIE, the seventies). And like American Graffiti before it, and Dazed & Confused after it, it had a cast of young actors of its era who would go on to distinguish themselves in the future. Obviously, both Stallone & Winkler, but also the lovely and talented Susan Blakely (who was almost unbelievably beautiful back then) who starred with Nick Nolte & Peter Strauss in the first of the official novels for television “Rich Man, Poor Man”, and in my opinion the better Francis Farmer movie. And Perry King, who for awhile had a string of feature film leads in interesting movies like Mandingo & The Possession of Joel Delaney & The Choirboys & A Different Story, till by the eighties he was wearing Hawaiian shirts and drinking out of coconuts on tv’s “RipTide.”
Actually, the story goes King was a replacement for the role of Chico. Originally Chico was played by a young Richard Gere, three years before his breakout role in Looking for Mr. Goodbar. And, apparently, Stallone & Gere hated each other so much that Stallone kicked his ass, and then Gere either quit or was fired. Not only that, the grudge between the two carries on to this day, to the point some speculate it may have been Stallone behind the famous Gerbil Rumor that painted Richard Gere a laughing stock for over a decade. Another humorous element of Stallone’s “Lord’s Legacy,” after super producers Chartoff & Winkler (no relation to Henry) read the Rocky script and fell in love and wanted to do it, they were told they had to do it with the author as the lead. Which they said; “Well, what has he done before?” Stallone’s agent said, he’s the lead in The Lords of Flatbush. So naturally they screen The Lords of Flatbush and are completely besides themselves with excitement about the actor and his potential to play a great Rocky……. because they think Perry King is Sylvester Stallone!
Now watching The Lords of Flatbush when it came out was an interesting (in retrospect) experience. Not least of which because it was the first time I was introduced to the New York independent low budget film esthetic. Before I saw Mean Streets, I saw The Lords… (and gritty as it was, Mean Streets had a bit of Warner Brothers gloss, even if it was just they could pay for Rolling Stones songs). Before I saw Claudia Weil’s Girlfriends, I saw The Lords…, before I saw Jim Jarmuch movies, I saw The Lords, before I saw Smithereens, I saw The Lords. And I liked it, and my friends liked it. Though we all felt a little gypped that Fonzie didn’t have more to do.
But the film’s cast was excellent, along with who I’ve already mentioned, there was DISCO’s court jester Paul (Thank God it’s Friday) Jabara, the beautifully annoying Renee Paris as Chico’s disposable sex partner (even that’s too romantic a description for what she is), and best of all the GREAT MARIA SMITH as Stanley’s long time, long suffering, but ultimately triumphant girlfriend, Franny. And in many ways to this day, Smith remains Stallone’s best screen partner. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find out he originally wrote the role of Adrian in Rocky for Smith. As good as everybody is (and like I said, Joe Brooks faux fifties song score is dynamite), it’s Stallone & Smith who dominate the movie. Stallone not only dominates the screen as Stanley, he wrote or rewrote many of the scenes he’s in, earning him that long ago banished from The Writers Guild credit Additional Dialogue. And frankly anyone familiar with Stallone’s witty street smart dialogue can tell. Especially the films two best scenes. One, a very Brandoesque scene by a rooftop pigeon coop between Stanley & Chico. And the other, a scene that is not only the best scene in the film, but a classic scene in early seventies cinema. Stanley’s (Stallone) fiancée Franny (Smith) lures him into a jewelry store to purchase an engagement ring for her that the poor slob clearly can’t afford. What follows is a scene so real & so hilarious, and so obviously has Stallone’s writing finger prints all over it, it could charm the pants even off of an eighties left wing Rambo-hater.
Doe doddie doe doe
The Lords of Flatbush is a mooovie
doe doddie doe doe
about how life was in the fiffififties
a drive in movie, a rumble or two
doe doddie doe doe
a black leather jacket and a greasy hair dew
stealin’ a car
a black padded braaaaaa
Doe doddie doe doe
The Lords of Flatbush is something to see
doe doddie doe doe
it brings back memories for you and for me
i don’t mean to boast, but you’ll dig it the most!
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