Saturday, April 23, 2011

Saturday Afternoon Kiddie Matinee: MAD MONSTER PARTY(?)

I was never a big fan of Rankin/Bass. Sure, I watched Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer every Christmastime because that’s what you did back in those days, and they’re alright I guess, but even as a kid they were a little too cutesy-poo for my taste. With one exception: I loved the Abominable Snowman, so genuinely cute in his big, hairy, googly-eyed monstrousness. No doubt I sat there, grimly watching the saccharine antics of Rudolph and Frosty and wondering why they didn’t just make the Abominable Snowman the star of the show.

Anyway, I guess that’s the only excuse I have for having made it through my whole childhood without ever having seen Mad Monster Party. Originally released in 1967, this rare Rankin/Bass foray into feature films was a staple of local LA TV programming when I was a tot (as an online commenter reminded me, Channel 5 ran it every Thanksgiving), but somehow I never got around to watching it. I guess I must have really hated Rankin/Bass, because I was a ravenous TV consumer, and given the limited number of choices in those blessedly bygone days (seven, not counting all those weird stations you’d find in the static wasteland beyond Channel 13), you’d think at some point I would’ve come across MMP and just sighed and said, “Well, there’s nothing else on.” I mean for chrissakes, I’d sit through Davey and Goliath and “That’s Cat” on Saturday mornings because cartoons didn’t start till seven and I couldn’t think of anything else to do with my time.

My loss, as it turns out.

After reading an appreciative blog write up of MMP last week (wish I’d made a note of where I read it, it’s a swell blog but I read a hundred of these damn things every week), I decided to finally give it a shot, my lifelong antipathy for Mss. Rankin and Bass notwithstanding, and as fortune would have it, Netflix had just made the film available for instant viewing. And I realized I’d made a terrible mistake in snubbing MMP all these years almost at once, when the opening credits listed MAD creator and revered comics genius Harvey Kurtzman as one of the screenwriters. How was I not aware of this? The man responsible for the best years of the most important comic/magazine of the 20th century (that is, the first four years) wrote a movie and I never bothered to see it?

Unpossible! But there you have it.

And it’s no doubt in large part to Kurtzman’s contributions that MMP is such a blast. Though the herky-jerky Animagic is pure Rankin/Bass, the characters, dialogue, and attitude are unmistakably Kurtzmanian (no disrespect meant to co-writers Len Korobkan and Arthur Rankin, Jr., but c’mon, who do you think came up with the funniest stuff?). MMP is resolutely un-cutesy-poo, and way more irreverent and funny than anything coming out of the R/B factory has a right to be, with some surprisingly risqué word play and sight gags, and an explosive conclusion that would be unthinkable in a “kid’s movie” today.

Since I feel like I’m the last person to have seen this groovy/weird classic, I won’t go into a long-winded plot synopsis, but here are a few of the things that made me chuckle, titter, chortle and/or guffaw:

Felix Flankin, long-lost nephew of Baron Frankenstein, talks like a foppish Yalie and takes his golf clubs with him to the Isle of Evil. Frankenstein staffs his castle with dour, Val Lewton-esque zombies who maintain identically slack, dead eyed expressions whether they’re washing the dishes or serving dinner or falling over each other like Keystone Kops. The Invisible Man wearing a smoking jacket and a fez. The literal catfight between “The Monster’s Mate” and Frankenstein’s scheming, buxom laboratory assistant Francesca, in which they immediately rip off their dresses and roll around on the floor in their slips clawing at each other and making yowling, spitting feline noises. The “Boink” sound effect when Yetch, Frankenstein’s short, Peter Lorre-like lackey, runs headfirst into Francesca’s rack (and bounces off it).

And I have to admit, this dialogue exchange had me laughing my fool head off:

Felix: Oh, Francesca, does your head feel lighter than air?

Francesca: (in a throaty whisper) Yes.

Felix: Does your throat feel parched, and do you sort of tingle all over?

Francesca: Oh yes. Yes, Felix.

Felix: Then you must have…allergies, too. Here, try some of my pills.

It’s too bad I didn’t discover MMP till so late in life, but my inner child rejoices.

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