Thursday, October 3, 2013


MGM's Lionpower (1967) is the type of promotional reel the big studios don't make any more (to my knowledge, at least), and it's a crying shame.  The twenty-seven minute short was originally intended to dazzle film distributors and exhibitors with the studio's upcoming releases for 1967 and '68, many of which, alas, turned out to be commercial and critical duds.  The reel promised not four but five seasons of excellence, a laughable overestimation of things to come, particularly in light of the fact that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was in dire financial straits and would actually be sold--twice--in 1969.  These problems led to the studio's traumatic downsizing, which involved the sale of everything from Dorothy's ruby slippers from Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz (1939) to a significant portion of its back-lot property; meanwhile, the MGM record label was unloaded on Polygram.  Lionpower has resurfaced as an intriguing artifact, one given new life (and, considering the studio's recent financial woes, new relevance) by its frequent appearances through the years as between-films filler on Turner Classic Movies.

The reel recycles David Raskin's marvelous theme from John Sturges's The Magnificent Yankee (1950), and features plenty of bombastic narration by the likes of Karl Weber, Fred Foy, and Bob Marcato.  Fall 1967 is the Season of Suspense, featuring clips from John Boorman's brilliant Point Blank, Roman Polanski's flawed gem The Fearless Vampire Killers, Or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck (a retitling and--to the director's disgust, reediting--of his Dance of the Vampires), and Jack Clayton's creepy Our Mother's House.  There's also entertaining fluff in the form of Don Taylor's Jack of Diamonds, and not-so-entertaining fluff in the form of Francesco Rosi's More Than a Miracle.

Winter '67-'68 is primarily one of discontent, beginning with Peter Glenville's fatally flawed adaptation of Graham Greene's great novel The Comedians, Brian G. Hutton's Sol Madrid (in which Man From U.N.C.L.E. co-star David McCallum did not make the successful leap to big-screen stardom), and Kenn Annakin's imbecilic caper comedy The Biggest Bundle of Them All (redeemed only by female lead Raquel Welch's loveliness and Riz Ortolani's score).  There's also John Frankenheimer's barely-released megabomb The Extraordinary Seaman, Richard Rush's you've-got-to-be-kidding-me ersatz 007 halllucination A Man Called Dagger (featuring Jan Murray, of all people, as the film's supervillain, making this required viewing for psychotronic cinephiles), and Jack Cardiff's terrific Congo Crisis actioner Dark of the Sun.

Next is MGM's "spring into Spring" with George Pal and Byron Haskin's much-underrated The Power, and the inevitable Herman's Hermits misfire Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter.  Then the studio "roars into Summer in high gear" with Norman Taurog's Elvis Presley vehicle Speedway, Brian G. Hutton's superb Where Eagles Dare (unfortunately, we see artwork in lieu of actual film footage), Hy Averback's New York blackout comedy Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?, Robert Aldrich's fascinatingly trashy The Legend of Lylah Clare, and John Sturges's Ice Station Zebra, which is best remembered today for being the favorite film of the reclusive Howard Hughes, who allegedly watched it one hundred and fifty times, which is one hundred and forty-eight more times than I have sat through it.

MGM's magical Fifth Season is represented by clips from such "roadshow attractions" as John Schlesinger's Far From the Madding Crowd and Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick's monumental 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Although we see only a portion of the psychedelic Star-Gate that astronaut Keir Dullea enters while racing towards his rendezous with the mysterious Monolith, those astonishing Cineramic slit-scan images of multicolored chemicals in a cloud tank are potent enough to communicate that Something Big is soon to unfold on the silver screen.  (Incidentally, 2001 is the first theatrical release that I can recall seeing.  What an extraordinary introduction to the world of cinema that was!)

We are next presented with artwork for movies which were then in development at the studio as MGM, in the process of "surging into the future on film," promotes upcoming projects.  Three of these were never realized (The Tower of Babel, The Chinese Visitor, and an adaptation of Cornelius Ryan's World War Two history The Last Battle), while others wouldn't materialize until many years later (James Fargo's 1978 film of James Michener's novel Caravans--actually released by Universal Pictures--and Daryl Duke's 1986 version of James Clavell's Tai-Pan, which was distributed by De Laurentiis Entertainment Group).  The hushedly reverent description of Michael Anderson's Cold War melodrama The Shoes of the Fisherman ("In Rome, against the splendor and spectacle of the Ecumenical Council," etc.) is a real hoot.

MGM experienced more economic difficulties, to the tune of five billion dollars, over the last several years, but finally emerged from bankruptcy in late 2010.  I savor the relentless corporate propaganda of Lionpower, I'm nostalgic for the films and the time period they span, and I'm reassured to know that studio mascot Leo is still roaring--even if, these days, it's only for a mere four seasons a year.