The films of legendary studio American-International Pictures were made for summer nights at the drive-in. The long work week is over and it’s finally Saturday night. So fill up the family station wagon and head just outside of town off of Route 6 to the Elm Road Drive-In. Grab some snacks, hook the speaker on the window and watch this Double Feature. Better buckle up!!
The Fast and the Furious (1954)
Starring John Ireland and Dorothy Malone
Looker Connie Adair (Malone) stops at the Saddle Peak Lodge in Coyote Nowhere. The annoying waitress is prattling on about the escaped convict who is on the loose. Well, if he isn’t sitting there at the counter with them. The patrons get suspicious so Frank Webster (Ireland) lams it out of the place commandeering Connie’s Jaguar while she rides shotgun. With cops crawling all over the highways, Frank tries to navigate his way to Mexico with Connie in tow. The two initially do not get along and Connie shows that she is not one to take any guff. Connie strikes Frank and he responds by kissing her.
The dragnet is out in full force – though somehow Frank and Connie are able to get through a roadblock. Frank gets the idea to join the big road race, the course of which will cross the border into Mexico. Accomplished racer Connie gives Frank some pointers and the two bond as the desire to win the race begins to take precedence over escaping the law. Competent, sweet Connie gradually breaks tough guy Frank down. He explains the circumstances surrounding his incarceration and Connie realizes she was right; Frank is basically innocent and not all bad.
After more disagreements between the two and much hiding from the cops, they finally flat-out fall in love. Frank is still determined to get to Mexico though Connie wants him to turn himself in and face the music. Finally, Frank locks Connie in a shed and hops in her Jaguar to rejoin the race and make it south of the border. Something less than a shrinking violet, Connie burns the shed down to get out. She calls the cops to tell them where they can pick Frank up. Before he can be apprehended, Frank abandons his plans for escape in order to help a fellow racer who has crashed. Connie shows up, proud that her man chose to do the right thing.
Sam Arkoff and Jim Nicholson of American-International were just starting out and looking for their first property. Enter Roger Corman who sent Sam and Jim the rushes of his new action film. The two liked what they saw and, with the somewhat recognizable names of Ireland and Malone attached, decided to put their money into it. Ireland and Corman had gotten together on the project with Ireland stipulating that he get to direct some of the scenes. And both Roger and John did much of their own driving – which lead to a rare instance of Roger Corman wasting time and money actually reshooting a scene. In the pivotal battle on the race track, Ireland’s character was supposed to win but Corman was so competitive that at the last moment he had put the hammer down and left Ireland in the dust.
The Fast and the Furious was AIP’s first release. They worked out a four-picture deal with Roger Corman (referenced in the first episode of Double Features) assuming correctly that Corman would provide them with much product in the years to come. Arkoff and Nicholson also worked out a savvy financial strategy that would place the film in theatres nationwide. Furious cost $50,000 to make and grossed $250k.
Both leads were Hollywood veterans. Canadian Ireland had appeared in Behind Green Lights (1946), westerns My Darling Clementine and Red River and Best Picture-winner All the King’s Men, for which Ireland was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. After our film, Ireland would continue on with a prolific career racking up over 200 credits. I always connect him with his role in the Elvis Presley drama Wild in the Country (1961) in which he played Gary Lockwood’s father. Similarly, Dorothy Malone had appeared in B movies since 1943, some worth noting; The Falcon and the Co-Eds, and two early Frank Sinatra titles, Higher and Higher and Step Lively, all of these from 1943-4. She is renowned in film noir circles for her sexy turn as the “Acme Book Shop Proprietress” who provides Humphrey Bogart with shelter from the storm in The Big Sleep (1946). After another film with Frank – 1954’s Young at Heart – she hooked up with Corman for our film and Roger’s next, Five Guns West, his first as director. Malone would eventually go Ireland one better when she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her scorching work in the 1955 melodrama Written on the Wind. Sadly, Dottie couldn’t parlay this into a strong film career and she transitioned to television where she was highly visible as Constance MacKenzie in the soap Peyton Place. I grew up with her in Beach Party (1963) as Bob Cummings’ assistant. Malone’s final film appearance was in the excellent neo-noir Basic Instinct (1992); she acted in this with Michael Douglas and had previously appeared in his series The Streets of San Francisco.
The Fast and the Furious is great fun with two compelling leads and some pretty good racing footage. Many years later, producers of the mega-franchise of racing films The Fast and the Furious (2001 to infinity) were struggling to find a title for their film when one of them saw a documentary on American-International Pictures and thought “The Fast and the Furious” would be perfect. They licensed the title from Corman and Roger – still the wheeler-dealer – asked for some stock footage in return. No doubt Corman would find use for it.
I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)
Starring Michael Landon, Yvonne Lime, Whit Bissell, Barney Phillips, Guy Williams and Vladimir Sokoloff
Tony Rivers (Landon) is a hot-head. After throwing the dukes with another guy in the school yard, he explains to the local cop, Det. Donovan (Phillips) that “people bug me” and he doesn’t like to be touched. Donovan suggests that Tony’s hair-trigger temper is concerning and maybe he should see a “head-shrinker”, Dr. Brandon (Bissell). Tony is concerned himself and explains to his girl, Arlene (Lime), that he doesn’t know what comes over him sometimes.
The gang gathers for a rave-up at a supposedly haunted house. During the shindig, one of the kids pulls a prank that startles Tony and he blows a gasket. The kids look at him in horror and Tony decides to go see Dr. Brandon. The doc starts a program of scopolamine injections and hypnosis. He has found his guinea pig. Through hypnosis, the doctor plans to regress Tony back to the savage beast that lurks deep within him. Dr. Brandon thinks mankind is in a bad way and the only way to save the world is to start all over again, training people up from scratch. After several sessions, Tony is feeling even more unsettled. Then one night, one of the gang is savagely murdered while walking home through the woods. The police are baffled. Not so the old janitor at the police station (Sokoloff) who declares the murder the work of a werewolf.
At the school, Tony spies a comely gymnast and snaps. The feral beast Dr. Brandon has unleashed emerges. He kills the girl and flees but the students recognize Tony’s jacket on the beast. Now, Tony is on the run. The villagers grab their torches and head out in search of the beast but Tony eludes them until morning when he finds himself asleep in the bushes and returned to normal. He sneaks back to Dr. Brandon begging for help. But the doctor makes Tony regress again and pays the price; poor Tony soon joins him in a peaceful, eternal sleep.
James Nicholson had another one. He had come up with a title and he shared it at the morning meeting one day in 1957; “I Was a Teenage Werewolf”. It may not sound like much today but at the time the idea of a monster who hadn’t yet reached his twentieth birthday was provocative. Arkoff and Nicholson tested the title on some theatre owners and they all thought it was outrageous and, more importantly, they thought that the chance to see one of their own up on the screen terrorizing the populace would bring the teenagers in. Jim and Sam began with the promotional material and 29-year-old Herman Cohen was given the chance to produce the picture.
The film’s title entered the public lexicon almost immediately. Late-night comics joked about it, Time magazine wrote about it and the studio got loads of free publicity. Unknown, twenty-year-old Michael Landon was given his first starring role, receiving $1000 for a salary. Landon was broke at the time and the producers took him and his young wife out to the grocery store as the Landon family cupboards were bare. Shot in just six days by Oscar-winning cameraman Joseph La Shelle, the film was a turning point for American-International bringing them to national prominence and recouping its production costs in just two weeks. For years after his success on television, Landon down-played the fact that he had ever starred in Werewolf. It was only much later that he embraced his legacy. He devoted a Halloween 1987 episode of his later series, Highway to Heaven, to a teenage werewolf, even asking AIP for the use of footage from the film.
Yvonne Lime had a small role in Presley’s Loving You (1957). She also appeared in an episode of The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet with fellow actress Sara Buckner O’Meara. The girls became friends and toured to entertain US troops in Japan during the Korean War. The homeless children the two girls encountered there prompted them to found Childhelp, a charitable organization that still thrives today helping young victims of child abuse. As a result of their work, Lime – now Yvonne Fedderson – and O’Meara have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times. Whit Bissell was a prolific character actor who had previously appeared in many films noir and afterwards portrayed Dr. Frankenstein in AIP’s I Was a Teenage Frankenstein. He would later appear in many notable films including The Defiant Ones, Never So Few, The Magnificent Seven, Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, 5 Card Stud with Dino, and Soylent Green.
Handsome Armando Joseph Catalano adopted the stage name Guy Williams and appeared in small roles in films before being tapped by Walt Disney in 1959 to portray the title character in the series Zorro. Later, Williams enjoyed more small screen success in Lost in Space, a show that ran until 1968. Williams was a savvy investor and soon after retired to Argentina where he became a beloved adopted citizen. Williams often kept to himself and in the early spring of 1989, concerned locals contacted authorities as Williams hadn’t been seen in some time. On May 6, 1989, police searched his apartment and found Williams who had been dead for some days of a brain aneurysm. As a youth, I saw Vladimir Sokoloff in an episode of The Twilight Zone and I will always remember being greatly affected by his gentle performance. The prolific Russian actor has over 100 film and TV credits to his name stretching from the Silent Era in Europe to 1962 when he passed away at age 72. Watch for him as the old man who will not leave the town in The Magnificent Seven (also with Bissell).
As a badge of honour of sorts for American-International, the film was attacked upon release by the powers-that-were. A senator from Illinois sent Arkoff a letter stating the film was “scandalous and immoral”. And at a Theater Owners Association of America luncheon in Miami, AIP was attacked from the rostrum by producer Jerry Wald, who said that the studio “makes irresponsible movies”. Sam Arkoff responded when he took to the lectern by asking those in attendance to consider Wald’s scandalous films like Peyton Place. American-International soon followed this film up with I Was a Teenage Frankenstein but more than this the “Police Gazette-style title” gave rise to scores of films and television episodes using the same technique ranging from “I Was a Teenage Head Writer”, a second-season episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show to the 1995 film Clueless that had as an early alternate title I Was a Teenage Teenager.