Wednesday 14 September 2016

Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965)

Director: Norman Taurog
Writer: Elwood Ullman and Robert Kaufman, from a story by James Hartford
Stars: Vincent Price, Frankie Avalon, Dwayne Hickman, Susan Hart, Jack Mullaney and Fred Clark
In high school, he joined a science fiction fan club alongside Forrest J. Ackerman, with whom he produced a fanzine centred on the fantasy genre. After graduation, he managed two movie theatres in Omaha, NE until being made redundant when the chain which owned them went out of business, but he moved on to run revival houses in Los Angeles. He joined Realart Pictures and was tasked with inventing advertising campaigns for re-releases of old movies. A threatened lawsuit from Alex Gordon about similar titles led to a meeting with the latter’s lawyer, Samuel Z. Arkoff. They became friends and, later, business partners in a distribution venture initially called American Releasing Corporation but soon renamed to American International Pictures. Arkoff handled the business end, while he handled the creative angles. Often he would conjure up entire ad campaigns, with titles and poster art in place, even before scripts were written. He was James H. Nicholson and he would have been a hundred years old today.

A.I.P. generally released low budget indie movies, often capitalising on new youth trends, packaged in double bills for the drive-in market. Their first film was The Fast and the Furious in 1955, starring and co-directed by John Ireland and produced and co-written by Roger Corman. It made $250,000 in box office receipts against a $50,000 budget and the new company was off and running. The average fan of exploitation cinema will have seen a whole bunch of A.I.P. movies in a whole bunch of genres: not merely the usual sci-fi and horror pictures but also juvenile delinquent movies, rock ‘n’ roll movies, biker movies, beach movies and hippie movies. I selected Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine to celebrate Nicholson’s centennial partly because I hadn’t seen it before but partly for the reason that it seemed to be the quintessential A.I.P. picture. At heart, it’s what’s called a spy-fi movie, mixing up the spy genre with sci-fi, but it’s populated by a slew of regulars from the beach pictures and stars Vincent Price from Corman’s Poe films.
As such, it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste. It’s dumb, it’s ridiculous and it’s unrealistic to the extreme. It’s culturally attuned to its time, so that it appears today less like a film and more like a cinematic time capsule. It’s so politically incorrect that modern audiences will be shocked at its viewpoints. And it’s not a good movie whatever criteria you choose to judge it by, except that the presence of Vincent Price is automatically a plus because he would be magnetic even if he was reading the back of a cereal box. It was the most expensive A.I.P. picture at the time, the first to cost over a million dollars to make, but it plays just like the others so the extra money wasn’t well spent. It has been argued, by some of those involved, that it would have been better had the original plan been adhered to, namely to make it a camp musical. ‘It could have been fun,’ said Price, ‘but they cut all the music out.’ Susan Hart said that removing Price singing about the bikini machine ‘took the explanation and the meat out of that picture.’

Of course, Jim Nicholson, who co-wrote the film under the pseudonym of James Hartford, was far more interested in showcasing Hart. Her first major role in a feature had come the year before, when she appeared opposite Tab Hunter in Ride the Wild Surf, and when Nicholson saw rushes from that picture, he promptly snapped her up for an A.I.P. contract. Shortly thereafter, he snapped her up for a marriage license and James Jr., now a composer in New York, was born in 1965. I have to say that Hart, who appears early and often, looks amazing for someone who had given birth that year, and it’s her movie until Vincent Price arrives. Never mind that we’ve seen as much of Frankie Avalon, one of the two A.I.P. beach movie stars (the other, Annette Funicello, has a neat cameo locked in a pair of stocks), it’s Susan Hart that we’re watching. Of course, she has the advantage of being a bulletproof and car-proof beauty wearing a gold bikini (under a raincoat) who flirts outrageously in a southern accent. Frankie who?
Avalon is Craig Gamble, apparently a spy for Secret Intelligence Command, but a completely inept one. D. J. Pevney, Gamble’s boss and Uncle Donald, calls him 00½ to begin with, but downgrades that during the movie to 00¼ because the boy is accident prone and he ends up on the worse side of those accidents. He won’t even let the poor spy carry a gun! The obvious comparison is to Maxwell Smart, but given that Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine was shot in the summer of 1965 and Get Smart launched on 18th September, I presume that they combined James Bond and Inspector Clouseau independently rather than influence each other. Avalon isn’t a bad bad spy but he seems to be playing someone else; in the beach movies, he owned the role and anyone else trying the formula elsewhere seemed to be playing him. He’s in the film because Diane, the bulletproof beauty in the gold bikini, seems eager to chat him up and get him home, something he’s hardly going to argue with, given that his date walked out on him for being cheap.

Unfortunately for him, it’s all a case of mistaken identity. Diane is really a robot working for the mad genius, Dr. Goldfoot, who has just tuned in to discover that he isn’t watching #11 roll around the floor with Todd Armstrong, the world’s most eligible bachelor. ‘Fye on you!’ Vincent Price tells his assistant, inevitably named Igor, ‘You’re an idiot!’ Beyond being a magic line I should program my alarm clock to use, it marks Price truly taking ownership of the film. Sure, Susan Holt is delightful as Diane, changing accent at the drop of a hat. Sure, there are also similarly clad beauties #1 to #9 to feast our eyes upon. Sure, the sets are gloriously familiar, all decked out with old dark house gimmicks and spy-fi gadgetry, including what does look like the pit and the pendulum from The Pit and the Pendulum. But all this is subservient to Mr. Price, who stalks his underground lair in gold slippers and smoking jacket, wringing his hands, hurling out cheap gags and telling Igor to shut up. He’s what keeps us watching.
That’s not to say that those robot girls in gold bikinis aren’t spectacular. They’re a suitably diverse lot, which in 1965 means a bevy of white beauties with different coloured hair, plus a token black girl (Issa Arnal) and a token Asian (China Lee). Most of them were regulars in the beach movies and didn’t go on to long careers outside the genre, the notable exception being Deanna Lund, soon to become famous as Valerie on Land of the Giants. Three of them were Playboy Playmates of the Month: Marianna Gaba in September 1959, two years after winning Miss Illinois; China Lee in August 1964, becoming the first Asian-American Playmate in the process; and Sue Williams, who was the first Playmate under five feet and the first to get breast implants, though apparently not the first to commit suicide, as has been frequently reported. It has to be said that Gaba was fluent in three languages and Salli Sachse earned a masters degree in psychology, but this is 1965 so they were hired to look cute in gold bikinis. That’s it.

Oh, and three of them are related to Jim Nicholson. Beyond Susan Hart, his new wife and mother of his son, at the time only a few months old, there are also Laura Nicholson and Luree Holmes, his grown-up daughters by his first wife, Sylvia. Luree was less than a year younger than her new mother-in-law, whose first A.I.P. role was in the very same picture, 1964’s Pajama Party, that Luree’s daughter appeared in as a topless baby model. That makes Joi Holmes, Nicholson’s granddaughter, older than James Nicholson Jr., his eldest son. Boy, those family get togethers must have been a blast! I wonder how long they continued after Nicholson died of a brain tumour in 1972. Certainly, A.I.P. continued on for a few years before his partner, Sam Arkoff, got bored with the movies and sold his stake to Filmways for $4.3m. I’ve documented the shenanigans that went on with the rights to their films in my review of Naked Paradise aka Thunder Over Hawaii, a Corman picture that Hart now owns and apparently refuses to release.
But back to Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, a title that might seem unwieldy until you hear the incredibly catchy theme song by no less a recording sensation than the Supremes, still with Diana Ross in 1965, as it will stick in your head and prompt you to start singing it out loud at random moments. The story starts out relatively focused, but it gradually veers out of control, into what can only be described as slapstick comedy territory. By the time we end up in a substantial chase scene through San Francisco in what seems like every mode of transport known to mankind, usually accompanied by horrendous rear-projection, I was half expecting the Keystone Kops to join in. It’s hard to pin down what goes wrong because there’s so much going on and so much of it makes us laugh and roll our eyes at the same time. The chase would have impressed me a lot more if I hadn’t been reeling from the motion sickness induced by the script screaming back and forth like a cat that’s overdosed on catnip.

Price is the traditional lead, as mad scientist Dr. Goldfoot, who’s attempting to get rich by using robots to seduce the wealthy into marriage and the subsequent signing over of all their assets. These are golddiggers in gold bikinis and rather blatant ones at that! Diane lands Todd easily enough but won’t even sleep with him on their wedding night until he signs over the stocks she stole out of his safe. Today’s word is ‘pre-nup’, friends. While Dwayne Hickman is highly billed as Todd, Avalon is the real support, playing the inept spy, Craig Gamble, in a mostly unfunny secondary plot that undoes much of Price’s deliciously camp evil. Fred Clark has far more talent than is shown here as nothing but the victim of Frankie Avalon’s unwitting idiocy. You might think that this would be easy enough to follow, but the scriptwriters focus so much on misogynism and in-jokes that they almost become a plot of their own. Did anyone notice or care that Avalon and Hickman played the same roles in Ski Party a year earlier, merely reversed?
Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine seemed to be a timely release, justifying a new high for A.I.P. budgets, riffing on 1964’s Goldfinger and many of the company’s successful series: the Poe movies and the beach movies, many of which featured very similar cast and crew. However, for some reason it didn’t find the audience it sought in its home territory, though it did find a surprising audience in Italy, where it was a huge hit. That prompted the sequel, Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs, to be shot in Italy, with Italian stars and an Italian director to back up the returning Vincent Price. That director was Mario Bava, whose work was redone for the English language release; given that his next film was the glorious spy-fi romp, Danger: Diabolik, A.I.P. clearly lost out. The stars are Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia, a pair of comedians who had already spoofed Goldfinger themselves, in 1965’s Goldginger. Even as a big fan of Mario Bava, I’m not feeling the need to follow this up with that. I’ll just sing the theme tune to myself again instead.

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