November 28, 2012

The Lowest Deep of Zarpa Mesa

Mesa of Lost Women (1953)
Directed by Herbert Tevos & Ron Ormond
Jackie Coogan as Doctor Aranya
Harmon Stevens as Dr. Leland Masterson
Paula (Mary) Hill as Doreen Culbertson
Nico Lek as Jan Van Croft
Robert Knapp as Pilot Grant Phillips
Tandra Quinn as Tarantella

"And in the lowest deep a lower deep,
Still threat'ning to devour me, opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven."

- John Milton, Paradise Lost

1953's Mesa of Lost Women is brimming over with cinematic shortcomings. Even in a genre known for budget filmmaking (1950s sci-fi), Mesa sputters and stalls with a kind grim, gray resolve. The movie possesses an inner will to be void of life or spark. Yet, it is this very quality that affords the film redemption of a sort. There is a bitter contempt that infuses the film - a disregard for the very energy of film making - that works itself through the celluloid weave like black mold.

Grant and Doreen survive Zarpa Mesa (Robert Knapp and Paula Hill)

This is anti-filmmaking agreed upon by all concerned as if by secret contract. Were a skillful actor to suddenly dare give a fine reading of a well-written line, one imagines his fellow actors might spit on him - perhaps even stone him for his betrayal of their unspoken pact.

How can such a film feel redemptive? Well, Imagine yourself going to the funeral of a co-worker you didn't like very much. In fact, throughout the workplace the deceased was either unnoticed or disliked. The turnout, to no one's surprise, is thin. The family of the deceased, for whom you haven't yet given your completely unfelt and perfunctory condolences, has decided upon the budget service. The casket appears made of spray-painted plastic. The departed lies within, resting stiffly atop sparse padding; a rouged molding tucked into a suit. You are sitting near the late departed, a discrete row or two back amid the largely empty rows of folding chairs. From somewhere in the florescent fixtures of the ceiling a ballast makes a low, guttural buzzing.

One of your co-workers steps up to the casket, peers in for a moment, then looks over at you. He shrugs and shuffles away. You remember the deceased owed the co-worker fifty dollars over a football bet. You notice the wallpaper of the room is stained in spots. The carpet has been cleaned and trampled into dark paths and colors that can never be named.

A fellow with a wet, thin comb-over and dark suit steps to a podium and folks seat themselves. The gentleman adjusts his tie and opens a book in front of him. You assume the book to be the Bible, yet it seems a bit brightly colored and thin. Without preamble, he begins speaking about the "dear departed." Is he with the funeral home? Is he a member of the family? You don't know - don't really care, either, when it comes down to it.

Clearly, the somber eulogist didn't know the departed well. Or at all. He seems unsure of himself when pronouncing the family name - his eyes darting to the front row as the unfamiliar syllables tumble out of his mouth like marbles. He speaks in generic, one-size-fits-all terms: We pass through this life quickly. Ours is not to reason why. God in Heaven has a plan for all of us. You realize suddenly that the spoken words not only apply to every man that ever lived, but also every dog. You feel an odd moment of relief - an inexplicable, buoyant moment. The man concludes his eulogy, nods to the family, and sits at the end of a row. No one from the family speaks to him, and he sits as if waiting patiently for the next bus downtown.

A bit later the family meets mourners in a dark room with large, dark furniture. You notice a cigarette butt mashed into the carpet near a corner. It has stained the white molding brown in a small half-circle. The room smells of something harsh . . . ah, bug's spray. The family members are led by a large, freckled woman with unusually fatty arms and thick glasses. She does all the talking, and she is the one everyone approaches. You are pretty sure the deceased was never been married, and the woman is too young to be the mother. So she must by default, a sister. Who gives a shit?

You wonder momentarily if the arm fat might be a condition of some kind, some sort of lymph disorder. It seems an unnatural effort for the woman to lift her arms, the fat hanging down as though not a part of her. You step up in turn, take her hand, and damn if you can't feel her arm swaying right through your gripped hand, traveling up your forearm. I am so sorry for your loss, you say, but she has already looked passed you, acknowledging someone she presumably recognizes or cares about.

You move off, feeling a bit shaken for some reason, like a seaman finding his shore legs. You sit in an overstuffed loveseat that emits the odor of patchouli oil and dust as you settle into the lumpy cushioning. You notice the sofa's arm has left a irremovable smear of cat hair on the sleeve of your sport coat. You experience a flicker of nausea, imagining a house cat free to roam a funeral parlor.

The co-worker you saw early comes over and sits next to you in a cruel looking Queen Anne chair. By his expression, you sense ordeal. He begins to speak, thinks better of it, and simply shakes his head in a gesture of remote frustration. You know he wants to complain about the deceased owning him fifty bucks, but thus far he has managed to bite his tongue.

Suddenly, and very loudly, someone farts, paralyzing the room like a time machine. The co-worker looks at you, his face twisted in contempt. He hangs his head, burdened by one trial too many in this sad pageant; and you can hear a sense of amazement in his voice. He mutters lowly, "Jee-sus Christ," with something like dread and awe. He looks up at you, shaking his head.

Suddenly you and this co-worker, whose last name you can't remember, are both laughing quietly as you share this crystal-clear moment that expands to hold the mortal universe. Yes, life is dismal and cheap, only full of the meaning we give it, but here we are in the thick of it - happy and fully aware of our own pathetic wriggling in the worthless mess. To realize the utter and complete lack of importance of our lives is to be set free in a glorious moment of release.

This moment can spare us the "lower deep" of Milton's fallen angel. In Paradise Lost, the sense of eternal falling Satan experienced from one yawning hell to the next, lower deep came only because of an insistence upon significance. Moments like a boisterous fart at a funeral can stop the gloomy tumbling and release a watershed of deliverance, a complete cleansing of hope and drama. Once unshackled from a sense of self-importance, one stands firmly at the lowest deep; able finally to see the oft-bitter lights of the stars. Sans an over-weaned sense of self, the cold starlight may allow the beauty of brief life to shimmer a bit.

Dr. Aranya prepares an injection (Jackie Coogan)

This is the satisfaction I get from watching Mesa of Lost Women, and why I love the movie despite its utter failure as a piece of film-making. Through the movie's complete lack of drama, significance, or joy - through its gauntlet of self-loathing - a film lover may finally strike the lowest deep. Like our attendance at the imagined funeral, we can emerge from the experience with our heads up, loving life - loving film. Mesa simply removes the baggage of "cinema." It is a movie I will always treasure and have come back to over and over just to clean out the pipes.

How bad is Mesa? Real, real bad. Atomic Age film expert, Bill Warren, describes it as "stupefyingly inept."(1) A bit brutal, perhaps, but no one (including myself) could possibly argue the point. There are many films from the Atomic Age that are watched for laughs - the dreaded "so bad they're good" phenomenon so perfectly exemplified by the glorious work of Edward D. Wood, Jr.. But as indicated by the edge in Mr. Warren's blunt summation, Mesa is not one of these "enjoyable" films. There is something so unhappy about Mesa, so merciless in its unrelenting tedium (Wood was never boring), as to illicit a straight-mouthed hostility from the most patient film lover. If not the worst film of all time, Mesa is at least the most unwatchable. Even staunch fans of the genre, hardened by years of low-budget, drive-in fare; talk of Mesa as though it were a thing endured. The film seems genetically bred to irritate.

The film has at its messy center an imitative but interesting idea: A mad scientist, Dr. Aranya (Jackie Coogan), has retreated to Zarpa Mesa in the isolated deserts of Mexico to continue has work creating a race of super beings by genetically coupling spiders with women - an Island of Dr. Moreau with arachnids. A fellow visiting scientist, Dr. Leland Masterson refuses to assist him in is research, so Dr. Aranya drives him insane and releases him into the desert (Dr. Masterson is played by Harmon Stevens who, as co-star Tandra Quinn noted in a 2009 interview with Tom Weaver(2), bears more than a passing resemblance to Elmer Fudd). Masterson ends up a gibbering idiot in an insane asylum but soon manages to escape. He immediately hijacks a chartered plane carrying pilot Grant Phillips (Robert Knapp) and engaged socialites Jan Van Croft (Nico Lek) and Doreen Culbertson (Paula Hill). Also along for the ride is the couple's manservant in white coat, Wu (Samuel Wu), who, inexplicably, is also working for Dr. Aranya. The plane crashes in the desert near Zarpa Mesa, and the remaining bulk of the film charts the agonizingly gradual process of our little band of bland characters across the desert. Along their painfully slow way, the troupe is menaced by Aranya's prize creation, the mute spider woman, Tarantella (Tandra Quinn) and assorted other spider/human mutations, including a giant tarantula Dr. Aranya has created by injecting a normal spider with "human growth hormone."

Aranya is forever injecting specimens, either human or arachnid, with one another's hormones. My favorite concept in the movie is that when the mad doctor injects his essence of spider into a man, the subject is immediately transformed into a dwarf. "I'm afraid in the insect world the male is a puny, unimportant thing," explains Dr. Aranya to Dr. Masterson soon after his arrival. "You saw a few of the examples." "The Dwarfs" says Masterson in horror, recalling the little people he saw running around the base of the Zarpa Mesa.

Eventually, Aranya's minions capture and haul the amazingly hapless bunch before Dr. Aranya. For reasons that can only be imagine, Dr. Aranya returns Dr. Masterson to complete sanity with an ejection, whereupon Masterson breaks free of his bonds and quickly mixes an explosive out of elements lying around Aranya's lab. Grant (the pilot) and Doreen (the socialite) are the sole survivors of the blast and live to tell the tale. Thus ends an exceptionally trying, often bewildering, 70 minutes of film making.

At the cantina (Paula Hill, Nico Lek, Samuel Wu, Harmon Stevens)

The film is full of woes. For starters, the movie is structured as a double flashback, opening with a shot of Grant and Doreen wobbling through the desert after the explosion on Zarpa Mesa. After a rescue, we begin to recount events through the memories of "Pepe" (Chris-Pin Martin) a local pion and member of the rescue party, who knows the couple's wild story is true because he has seen the spider people of Zarpa Mesa. At some point things shift and we are experiencing Grant's memories of the ordeal, so the viewer has a sense of shifting sands throughout the movie.

The film required two directors to screw the pooch, er, complete the film - which couldn't have helped with overall cohesion. According to Tandra Quinn(3) (Tarantella) the original film, intended as a simple horror cheapie about a giant, radioactive spider; was shot by Herbert Tevos. The brazen Mr. Tevos somehow managed to convince Ms. Quinn - as well as the Mesa producers - that he was a well-known director in Germany and had not only directed Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angle but had been instrumental in forming her career. All pure, uncut bullshit. Mr. Tevos may have been German, but he had never directed a single picture anywhere (or ever would again). In point of fact, he was at the time semi-employed and living in a guest house in Hollywood as a kind of errand/pool boy - at the beck and call of the owners. The resulting "giant spider movie" mishmash shot by this conman was, quite naturally, un-releasable. Ron Ormond was called in for a last ditch salvage job.

Ormond had produced and written shorts for western star, "King of the Bullwhip," Lash LaRue and proved a quantum leap forward from his directorial predecessor, who had never warmed a director's chair in his life. Ormond quickly recruited some of his car-playing buddies into the hopeless project; oft-time Edward Wood actor, Lyle Talbott (who would supply some startlingly bitter narration) and forgotten child mega-star Jackie Coogan who, to put it gently, was at a low ebb both personally and professionally and needed work(4). A part was written for Coogan, the mad scientist, and additional scenes where shot. Despite Mr. Ormond's Sisyphean efforts, the final film remains very cheap looking and terribly choppy - completely nonsensical at times (in one scene, the movie's femme fatale, Tarantella, is seen dancing in the Mexican cantina wherein the passengers of the doomed charter plane have a final drink before morning takeoff. How or why Tarantella is dancing in a cantina presumably hundreds of miles from her laboratory home on Zarpa Mesa is not explored). Being cheap and choppy looking is hardly unknown criticism for many of the low-budget sci-fi B-films of the era, if not most of them (God bless them). Yet, what sets Mesa apart in a class by itself is that, unlike its Atomic Age B-movie brethren, Mesa does not charm.

Whereas the films of Bert I. Gordon (Amazing Colossal Man - 1957, Attack of the Puppet People - 1958) entertain with a bristling, commercial vitality; and the work of Edward L. Cahn (Zombies of Mora Tau - 1957, The She Creature - 1956) demonstrate an underfed, artistic yearning - Mesa simply plods along as if pissed about something, determined to make the viewer suffer. There is a purposeful determination - a dull resolve - to the movie's complete lack of watch-ability. Mesa is a stone mortar and pestle, grinding time into gray air.

Director's Tevos and Ormond offer a film completely lacking in coherent plot, developed characters, believable dialogue, or visual fluency(5). The "special effects" consist primarily of cumbersome, stationary contraption resembling a man-sized tarantula (with obvious jerks and starts, the forelegs of this stolid prop are able to be raised up and down). Actresses with dyed black mop heads worn as wigs(6) constitute the cast of "spider women." The dwarf spider men have no makeup or costume paraphernalia to enhance their spidery-ness other than their small size. They simply glare hatefully for no apparent reason and scamper through the forest-sets on bandy legs. The acting, including the walk-through managed by Jackie Coogan, is not only bad - it appears all concerned simply didn't give a shit enough to try. Add to these qualities a film score by Hoyt Curtin that is nothing but an endless, and tuneless, guitar strumming over the formless plinking of a piano. The effect produced is a nervous, jangling unease. When it stops, one feels a sort of religious tranquility.

Perhaps the film's unforgivable sin, however, is its total lack of tension (other than the low-grade headache produced by the dithering, directionless score). It seems impossible, but Mesa somehow manages to create a kind of black hole, a center of such dead weight not the slightest glimmer of interest can escape. It is useful to contrast Mesa with Edward D. Wood's, Plan 9 from Outer Space, often bottoming the charts on critic's list as the "worst film of all time."(7) Where Plan 9 captures the mind with surreal dialogue and casting (who can forget Dudley Manlove's magnificent ├╝ber-acting as the alien invader, Eros, decrying earthmen's "stupid minds?"), the characters and words of Mesa are void of twist or turn, simply sliding away without a moment of spark. When the film strives for a moment of depth, the lines don't even have the weight of elevator music: "I want a girl who's sincere, real" says Grant the pilot, staring at the distance as he explains what he wants out of life. "Someone who would stick by me when the chips are down. One who wants me only for what I am" Ouch. Where every frame of Wood's opus is saturated with enthusiasm; Mesa squats on its haunches and dares you to feel something. Anything.

Tarantella weaving her web (Tandra Quinn)

OK. So, what can be enjoyed about Mesa - where are the bright, little flashes of mica that appear in every picture regardless of everything. Well, in Mesa there are none. I mean, really - none. In contemplating this, I was planning to say that actress Paula Hill manages a fair degree of sexuality in her role as Doreen the social-climbing vamp; and that Harmon Stevens does a nice, grinning psychopath as the insane Dr. Masterson, but I can't quite make the stretch: Hill's sexiness comes from the inherent quality of a beautiful actress reading a poor line poorly; and Stevens' arresting resemblance to Elmer Fudd is something I simply haven't got the discipline of mind to see past. The film-makers even top the man of with a small derby hat, for Christ's sake. So, finally, what makes an impression about Mesa is not the film but those souls struggling within its confines. So, with that thought, let's discuss the good stuff.

The Good Stuff, Part I: Hall of Fame Inductee

Tandra Quinn plays Tarantella, the star creation of the mad Dr. Aranya. She never speaks a line, spending most of her screen time staring balefully from beneath a thick row of blackened eyebrows. In one of the movie's key scenes, if one can think of any scene in Mesa as "key," Tarantella dances in a Mexican cantina - seducing men like flies in a spidery web of seduction. Without stressing the point, her acting is non-existent and her dancing is rather big-shouldered and heavy-thighed. Yet regardless of these limitations, Tandra Quinn is a member my Atomic Age B-movie Hall of Fame; along with Sally Todd, Yvette Vickers, Allison Hayes; and so many other brave, cool women who threw themselves into low-budget fare in the 1950's. In a 2008 interview with Tom Weaver(8), Ms. Quinn talks about Mesa with humor and affection, calling it "B - for bad!"

Regarding the crucial dance scene, Quinn received absolutely no direction. Mesa's budget didn't come close to including a choreographer, so the actress simply had to wing it.

"You don't call that dancing, do you?" said Quinn laughing when asked about it the scene. "I'd taken dancing lessons when I was younger, but I was never that great. So I just made it up as I went along."(9)

In the interview with Mr. Weaver, originally done for Starlog Magazine, Ms. Quinn talks happily about German fraud and director, Tevos', fascination with her, which eventually caused her to flee a restaurant after a proposal of marriage. She describes going to the pool parties thrown by Tevos in which the lumbering Svengali would serve her glasses of champagne. Realizing the older director was simply attempting to get her drunk, she would dump glass after glass into the lawn around the pool. Later she learned the alcohol had killed the grass in patches, which had in turn gotten Tevos in trouble with his employer's - the actually owners of the house.

Mr. Weaver, learning in his interview that Quinn was only a teenager when Mesa was made, expressed surprise.

"Yep," answered Quinn. "I look older 'cause I was rode hard and put away wet."

Bravo. As I said, a Hall of Fame woman and then some. At the time of the Weaver interview, Ms. Quinn was interested in treasure hunting and gold mining throughout the Arizona desert. Here's hoping she struck it rich and can afford to pour champagne into the grass every day of her life.

The Good Stuff, Part II: The rise, fall, and resurrection of Jackie Coogan

If the fall comes in Hollywood, no star drops faster or hits the concrete harder than do child stars. Perhaps the lows of these unfortunates are so brutal because the heights seem so angelic, so strangely incongruous to mortal reality. The stories seem doubly tragic because with children, we cannot imagine they are acting. Surely these beautiful kids must be smart, happy, and well-adjusted; just like the parts they play. How could children ever be anything but what they seem? To hear of Dana Plato (different strokes) holding up a convenience store for $168 with a pellet gun due to lack of employment is to feel a touch of mankind's original fall from grace. The plight of the child star is so often sad, it causes one to wonder: perhaps children should not have independent power and money, ingredients a fair share of adults don't handle well. Perhaps this influx of unrestrained experience causes something fragile inside to spin too freely, shuddering finally into pieces like a broken flywheel.

Yet In the typical arc of descent regarding the child star, none fell from quite the dizzying height of Jackie Coogan. While children had been in the films of D.W. Griffith and others, Coogan was the first star to become famous as a child. Introduced in 1919 by Charlie Chaplin in A Day's Pleasure when 5 years old, he would find mega stardom when cast by Chaplin again in 1921's The Kid, the story of an orphan adopted by a tramp (Chaplin). Coogan's scruffy, natural performance made him a sensation. His name and face become marketing gold, used to sell everything from peanut butter to stationary. By 1924, his studio accurately referred to Coogan as "the most famous boy in the world." That same year he was the biggest box office draw in the world, trouncing both Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino at the ticket booth. At the age of 10 he became, and remains, the youngest person in history to earn a million dollars. (10).

All told, Coogan earned around 4 million dollars in his adolescence (about 65 million in 2012 dollars).

As was to become the template for aging child stars, America had little interest in seeing the charming child grow out of his signature "little Dutch boy" haircut. As he entered his teen years, work began to dry up. Personal tragedies ensued, among them the death in 1935 of his father and best friend, Junior Durkin, the fellow child actor who starred as Huck Finn in two 1930 films. Both were killed in a car crash in which Coogan was the sole survivor. His mother, Lillian, remarried quickly and Coogan's brand new stepfather, Arthur Bernstein; took charge of the finances. Mom and Stepdad went through little Jackie's earnings faster than sand falls through a sieve. The pair drove the most expensive cars in the world, took extravagant trips, and dressed themselves in furs and gold stickpins. Jackie, all grown up now and ready to enjoy the fruits of his labor, was shocked to find his mother and stepfather were less than forthcoming. Jackie only thought he was playing when he made those movies, explained mother Lillian helpfully in the ensuing lawsuit in 1938. He had no idea he was actually working. To him it was just fun and games.

"No promises were ever made to give Jackie anything," said Lillian simply.

The stepfather clarified the issue candidly: "Every dollar a kid earns before he is 21 belongs to his parents," declared Mr. Bernstein. "Jackie will never see a cent of his earnings."(11) The litigious points were moot at any rate. Of the $4,000,000 Coogan earned, only $250,000 remained. Of these leavings Coogan, now 24 years old, managed to wrench free about $126,000. Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Dad. See you at Christmas.

Once the details of the suit became public, the outcry was such that the California Child Actor's Bill was enacted in which it is required a portion (now %15) of a child actor's earnings be put into a trust fund. The bill became instantly known as the "Coogan Act" and remains so called today.

After leaving the silver screen, the mature Coogan took up a charity work before World War Two, raising a million dollars (13 million in 2012 dollars) in clothing and food for those ravaged by WWI. In the Second World War, Coogan became a flight officer in the Army, volunteering for hazardous duty with the 1st Air Commando Group.

Jackie Coogan and Charlie Chaplin (The Kid 1921)

After the war, times were thin and rocky. By the time he did his walk-through on Mesa, he was drinking heavily and working on a fourth marriage. The new Mrs. Coogan was former showgirl, Dorothy "Dody" Lamphere, now forced to work as a stripper in Los Angeles to keep the wolf from the Coogan door. Robert Coogan, his brother, had just been arrested for drug trafficking (marijuana).(12) In truth, Coogan was fortunate to be working in pictures at all, even in a below B production like Mesa: MGM overlord, Louis B. Mayer had blackballed him for suing his mother in 1938. Mayer believed that "no red-blooded American boy sues his mother."

"You little son of a bitch!" Mayer howled at Coogan over the phone one afternoon in the midst of the suit. "You'll never work in this town again!"(13) Mayer was true to his word. A Mayer curse stuck like shit on the heel whichever studio door you tried to enter.

Mesa was the absolute bottom for Coogan, and it certainly shows in his performance. What set Coogan apart from so many of the child actors who followed him was his acting. He never mugged cute or made baby eyes at anyone, never played off being small. His work in The Kid remains one of the least dated performances in all of silent film. There is a self-assuredness at work, a complete ease and sureness in his acting, that remains enthralling. He and Chaplin play at being equals in their scenes, like two geniuses sharing a joke.

None of this is evident in Mesa. What one sees in Mesa is an extremely tired, aging man gone to flesh; reading lines as if wanting only to escape further embarrassment. It is useful to compare Coogan in Mesa to another forgotten-legend turn; Bela Lugosi in Edward Wood's Glen or Glenda. Whereas Lugosi seems energized to the task as though possessed suddenly with the spirits of old; Coogan seems muted and lifeless.

Sadly, I couldn't help but think that Coogan appeared in Mesa, shambling and monotone, like any man might act whose own mother had stolen their childhood.

Happily, the Jackie Coogan saga did not end there. In the mid-1960s he was cast as the block-robed, chrome-headed Uncle Fester in television's, The Adams Family. For good or ill, it is the role he is best remembered for today. The series also proved a saving grace for the actor, providing years of financial stability for Coogan and enough character recognition to ensure employment for the remainder of his years (he died in 1984 of heart and kidney failure).

In a 1972 interview, Coogan recalled a time years earlier when, at age twenty-one, he had visited Charlie Chaplin at his studio. He mentioned in passing to Chaplin that he had never actually seen The Kid. He had been 7 years old at the original screening and had fallen asleep the moment the house lights dimmed. Chaplin immediately shut down the set where he had been shooting and personally led Coogan to one of the lot's projection rooms. There, Chaplin had The Kid screened for an audience of one, with Chaplin himself playing the organ accompaniment.

Today, I think of Coogan not as the child star with the ragged clothes, nor the creepy uncle. I think of Coogan as the young man, still straight and thin, sitting in the flickering light of the screening room, watching his boy self in The Kid for the first time, as Charles Chaplin played the organ.

I imagine Chaplin looking over his shoulder as he plays, giving Coogan that famous electric grin, just wanting the young man to be happy.

* * *

1. Bill Warren, Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties, The 21st Century Edition (McFarland & Company, 2010), 571
2. Tom Weaver, I Talked With a Zombie, Interviews with 23 Veterans of Horror and Sci-Fi Films and Television (McFarland & Company, 2009).
3. Ibid.
4. David D. Duncan and Jim Ridley, The Ormonds - Into the strange Unknown: The Untamed Story of Nashville's First Family of Film,
5. Oscar winning cinematographer, Karl Struss - Sunrise 1927 - is listed as one of the cameraman on Mesa, but one is hard-pressed to find a shot worthy of him. The great pioneer's work was gloriously profuse and spotty by the Atomic Age at any rate. In his heyday, Struss had worked with Pickford, Griffith, Chaplin, DeMille, and Murnau. The brilliant flame of his talent was not gone by the 1950's, still flashing occasionally in films like Kronos (Neumann, 1957) and The Alligator People (Del Ruth, 1959). Struss passed away in 1981.
6. Tom Weaver, I Talked With a Zombie, Interviews with 23 Veterans of Horror and Sci-Fi Films and Television (McFarland & Company, 2009).
7. I have always felt Plan 9's "worst film" tag terribly unfair at any rate. I see films, both big and small, squirt out of Hollywood every year that don't have nearly the zesty life of Wood's touchstone.
8. Every B-Movie fan, particularly fans of 1950s sci-fi, owe Mr. Weaver a ton. He has written several books collecting his interviews with the actors who appeared in these films and the directors who made them.
9. Tom Weaver, I Talked With a Zombie, Interviews with 23 Veterans of Horror and Sci-Fi Films and Television (McFarland & Company, 2009).
11. "The Strange Case of Jackie Coogan's $4,000,000" Life, April 25, 1938, 50.
12. Diana Serra Cary, Jackie Coogan, The World's Boy King (Filmmakers Series, No. 100; The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2003), 214.
13. Scott Eyman, Lion of Hollywood, The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer (Simon and Schuster, 2005) 335.

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  1. Mykal, how did you take a film so dire and joyless and hand it back to me in a way that I could get something out of it? Okay, so I haven’t even seen Mesa of Lost Women yet, but I trust your insightful analysis that it is insipid pabulum that would strike terror into the dullest of viewers. I’m watching it tonight if I can get my hands on it.
    I needed to think about this idea of a no mark film a being redemptive but your brilliant tacky funeral scenario gave me a big leg up on the idea. (By the way, I think your line “someone farts, paralyzing the room like a time machine” is a poetically beautiful image in a horrifying kind of way.) I thought of how when a zero is added to any number – it has no effect at all. So how could that be helpful in any way? It is nothing, But I think it does make you look around to see, well what the hell does matter then? What has any value at all? Even if it’s just “Wow, I really love beer a lot. I never really understood how much till now.” Or maybe, hopefully. something far more prolific. I think I can see how there is a kind of relief in taking everything down to that level. Even if beer is the best I can do, well it’s still more exciting than Mesa. I think I’m full of shit actually. Probably I’ve missed the point entirely.
    I think some people might see Mesa of Lost Women purely based on your description of Tandra Quinn, “She never speaks a line, spending most of her screen time staring balefully from beneath a thick row of blackened brows.” Damn. I’m not even sure what baleful actually means but it sure sounds seductive. I’m going to start practicing staring balefully.
    I love your section on the fragility of children, which you express so beautifully. It is true we can’t always see the inner workings of these child actors. Well, your description of it is so fine.
    I knew generally the Jackie Coogan story, but had no idea the extent of the disgraceful, really criminal behavior of his parents, not to mention the disgusting behavior of Louis B. Mayer. Thank you then for leaving me with the sterling and uplifting image of Cooper and Chaplin. A lovely chink of light amidst the tragedies in Coogan’s life. A fine post, Mykal. I truly enjoyed it.

  2. Samantha: You haven’t missed the point, quite the contrary. I thank you for your very kind words. I do recommend highly practicing a baleful stare! I really hope you get the chance to see Mesa. I think everyone should see it, especially those of us the love film the most.

    You are so right – his parents behavior was incredibly appalling. Even then, in an era which was not so conscious of the rights of children in the workplace as now, the average person was in an uproar. Their behavior was just so elementally horrible. And, yes, Mayer could be a full-fledged monster.

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. "This is anti-filmmaking agreed upon by all concerned as if by secret contract. Were a skillful actor to suddenly dare give a fine reading of a well-written line, one imagines his fellow actors might spit on him - perhaps even stone him for his betrayal of their unspoken pact."

    Brilliant. And to go from there to show that, of course, there is beauty to be found here...

    One of your very best, and the coda on Coogan almost made a blubbing sap of me.

  4. Matthew: Coming from so fine a writer, a fine compliment. Thank you. Yeah, the Coogan story is a heart breaker. I love that part about his mom saying he was just playing all the while. Jeez - no one can screw you over like family.

  5. Fabulous stuff as always, Mykal! We've all felt one of those horrible Z-grade 1950s films just daring us to feel anything beyond boredom, but few of us can describe it the way you have. Such an excellent write up.

    Coogan seemed like a nice guy, and television was thankfully kind to him. He's somewhat more lively in High School Confidential! than he appears to be here, though I haven't seen Mesa. Once he was able to get some solid roles in TV, his work in films, though usually small roles, improved. Marlowe was particularly good, though he's in such a small role it might as well have been a cameo. Such a sad story, and you're right, absolutely 100% right, that his real life informs the meaning of the performances he gave in this era.

    Zarpa Mesa? I'll never be over Zarpa Mesa.

  6. Stacia: Great to hear from you and Merry Christmas! I’d forgotten about Coogan in Marlowe, but you are right, he was very good in that. Thanks so much for the kind words. I think Zarpa Mesa is a way of life. I was happy to discover your new Joint It’s better than ever!

    1. Thanks! I'm actually working on the appearance of the blog again, but I hope after the chaos of the last few months to "reboot" basically after the New Year and get it going again.

  7. Dandy review of a less than dandy movie. I discovered this wreck buried in one of those fifty movie collections. The title seemed tempting, but I recollected something about it not being very good. By the time I finished it, I knew what that was a bout. It's turgid. But it does linger with you. That bar scene with Tarantella is the most vivid. Thanks for giving me something to think about when I eventually did this out and give it another go.

    Rip Off

  8. Thanks for the kind words, Rip. Yeah, I just keep remembering Bill Warren calling it "stupefyingly inept," which captures it so well. It's almost like you would have to be a great film maker to figure out how to make a film this bad. Thanks for the drop by!

  9. Gotta agree with you about PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE... whenever someone parrots Michael Medved's "worst movie ever" assertion about that old classic I say something like:

    "Really?? Have you ever sat through GIGLI or CATWOMAN [2004] or FUNNY ABOUT LOVE or INCHON or BIODOME or THE ROOM or BATMAN RETURNS or SOUL PLANE or... "

    Well, you get the picture. I'd take PLAN 9 or ROBOT MONSTER or SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS over any of them... and that's just an extremely truncated list, no lie.

    Give me anything form the age when a film-maker could be himself-- warts and all-- and put it right on the big screen! If you ask me-- which, of course, no one does-- todays BEST films have trouble competing!

    PEACE, my friend.

  10. Thanks, Albie - I get you about Robot Monster over Batman Returns - So true!! Peace this holiday season, amigo.

  11. the Coogan info we only knew some of ... thank you good Sir for this informative post....