Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Less Than Triumphant Return To the Third Row or White Folks Say the Darnedest Things

Well, it comes to the weekend, and once again, from a bizarre blend of masochism, car crash, or maybe just pity, you've all made it back to the Third Row.

I suppose I should account for the fact that I seem to have vanished for several months (the popular bullshit line being that I'm getting this all out of my system early on. ...I'm willing to believe it if you are, guys.)

Really, just been a lot going on with life in general...lucky for you, that's not why you come here, so I won't bore you with that.

Rest assured that, while it's now September, I do plan to continue the rest of the run lined up for Blaxploitation History month (especially since, after this one, we've got a couple of gems lined up, including one from Fred Williamson.)

So please, bear with as we try to get this burning wreck back on the tracks to continue entertaining, informing, or just mildly antagonizing you all.

Now then...
This week, the guy you normally find sitting here has learned very, very valuable lesson...

...never promise you guys a review on a film until I've actually seen it before hand and can actively confirm you have it in good order.

I've learned that the hard way this time...curiously only partially due to the movie itself, and in larger part due to a combination of problematic copy of the movie giving me far more grief than it had any right to and the fact I was feeling just the right blend of creativity and sloth to hold this up.

With that, as you can guess, we come to this week's review. After the delightful antebellum adventures last time in Mandingo, I decided to be a completionist, and, in the interests of the theme of the (sadly now over) month, promise a look at this film's lesser known, 1976 sequel, Drum.

I figured, after the well-intentioned, if somewhat misfired efforts of Fleischer's earlier film, this wouldn't be too bad. Wouldn't be great, but it certainly couldn't be any stranger than my first trip to Falconhurst and the insanity that occurs with the Maxwell clan therein.

...and, to my surprise, I think I could say I was rewarded for my efforts. Whether this reward is a grand payoff, or one of those crappy prizes at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box that makes you remember when they used to have good toys...well...we'll get to that.

Now, on watching the opening sequence for this movie, I find myself of two
schools of thought:
1) Well, between the opening song and the wood-cuttings and general slavery-era art used in the opening sequence, one gets the impression they're going to be addressing the matter of slavery here a bit more seriously than its predecessor did. Could it be the packaging lied to me? (actually, the packaging wasn't technically deceptive...but with a tagline like "The White Men Wanted A Stud To Breed Slaves. The White Women Wanted Much More." I can't be blamed for being a LITTLE leery here.)

2) I'm noticing quite a few cast members from the first film came back for this movie... ... different roles (especially since, of the returning cast, at least one had their character die before.) I'm kind of reminded of the old racist concept that people believed all blacks looked alike. Either the casting director seemed to feel this while recasting black actors and actresses from the first film, or these people signed on for contracts and directors didn't want them to go to waste.

Anyways, from here, we have a prologue explaining the origins of our film's title character, Drum (Ken Norton returning to, once again, take one for the cinematic team.)

Seems, 20 years before this film took place, in one of the slave ports of Cuba, a slaveowner's mistress, Mariana, had an affair with one of her slaves, a former king in his own land named Tambura. He got executed for his offense, and she chose to leave with her mulatto offspring (guess who?) Drum becomes the adopted child of Rachel, Mariana's personal servant, and the two come to the pre-Civil War south, a land of peace, tolerance and...

Now, I'm gonna say off the bat, this prologue feels like, in its original source, it may have amounted to more. As far as the film's concerned, however, it's largely pretty forgotten after this scene (barring its referencing in a later quasi-incestuous moment we'll get back to.)

After this prologue, we move forward 20 years. Mariana has now settled into a promising new life in America. Yessir, nothing says 'land of opportunity' like running your own bordello! ...what? You were expecting to hear she went on to aid the underground railroad? After the last movie, we all know they weren't gonna go that route here.

Remember a time when prostitution was a respectable business and
whorehouses rivaled respectable hotels for decor?
Honestly, I think this one may even elude Pepperidge Farm.

It's also as they set the scene we're reintroduced to a familiar face from the first film...

that's right kids, Hammond's back! Granted this isn't really grounds to cheer in the first part cause last we saw the guy wasn't really anything to be happy with...and one part because, while they got several actors from the original back to play new roles in this, it seems they couldn't get one of the one actors whose character survived to return. What Perry King was doing at this point, I honestly don't his place, relatively veteran actor Warren Oates is taking on the role. This time Hammond is older and...well...I'm not sure we can say wiser just yet. So far it seems like he's being played less like King's earlier depiction, more like James Mason's role from the first movie.

...yep, expect more charming racism and lines that will make you stop and go "Did he REALLY just say that?", folks.

But, we're getting off-track...back to the house of ill repute! Over the course of this scene, we're slowly introduced to much of the rest of our key players...among them:

Drum himself. That's right kids, Ken Norton's back for one more trip to the plantation. All things considered though, despite this film's lesser known status, he does seem to get a better deal from it. The script lets him act more, kick more asses, and there seems to be less awkward groping...but we'll get back to THAT later.

De Marigny, as played by John Colicos. This was kind of a hard blow for my younger inner nerd to deal with. My memories of Colicos primarily come from his role as the villainous Baltar on Battlestar Galactica. Seeing him playing a rather flamboyant and lecherous aristocrat with a bad French accent was, as inner child moments go, like having your inner child rush to check out the Christmas tree on the 25th, only to get suckerpunched by Santa Claus and told he left you nothing outside of that five upside the head.

That said, about the best way I can sum up DeMarigny's role in this movie is that he is the bad thing that happens to debatably good people. Every time this guy shows up, things go to Hell in record time.

Blaise. A former slave of DeMarigny's, played by Yaphet Kotto (whom many might remember from such better remembered films as Alien and The Star Chamber.) His first appearance here is...well, simply put, Ken Norton kicks his ass... ...then befriends him. I'd like to say this is the start of a beautiful friendship...and I would...but then I'd be lying to all of you. While I do enjoy deceiving you kids for my own laughs, I have my limits. Rather, Kotto seems to be playing a variation on the role Richard Ward played in the first film - he acts as the more cynical slave who's had a harder life and seen the darker side of white folks that Norton's character has been (relatively) spared. As a result, he acts as a sort of racial conscience and counterpoint to Norton. Unlike last time, however, the gap is wider, and, as in all sequels, the more extreme is the way to go here...but, no getting ahead of ourselves.

Anyway...along with the aforementioned Hammond and Mariana to round out our key players (as well as a few side characters we'll discuss in a bit) we begin the story. Whereas last time we started semi-serious and started easing our way into the craziness one step at a time. Here, we get thrown into the deep end of the pool with cinderblocks taped to our legs and told "SWIM, MAGGOT!"

It seems De Marigny, everyone's favorite antebellum Caligula, has arranged for another exhilarating round of slave fight club in Marianna's back yard. Unfortunately, it seems one of the contenders was a no show.

Never one to be deterred (and thanks to the fact he's already spent screentime ogling him with ever so creepy intent) De Marigny hatches on a brilliant idea: send Drum into the ring! Of course, he's careful to take into consideration the feels of Marianna...he offers up a good deal of threats to get her approval first...

One begrudging consent later and...

I had to promise myself I wouldn't repeat the Mortal Kombat joke from the
last entry...
so, in the interests of other played out death match jokes:

Drum's first fight goes...well...let's just say he doesn't exactly start out fact, he gets trashed pretty hard his first time out (much to the borderline ridiculous taunts by Colicos. See the "White People Say the Darnedest Things" reel at the end of this.) Eventually, he begins to start fighting back, and even manages to secure a victory.

After persuading De Marigny to spare Blaise's life (well...that and his ol' cotton fields, if you take my meaning,) Drum is given an offer for another reward. As he is a lover as well as a fighter, Drum asks for a woman. The scene's where some of that ol' Mandingo charm comes back. These scenes actually carry themselves pretty well...until the white folk start talking. The scene where Drum is looking over possible candidates for a woman becomes REALLY hard to take seriously thanks to Colico's commentary. The sad part is, it's not even as much what's said, since I'm sure the right actor could have captured the dehumanizing element well with that's...well, again it's that accent. It's like the Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau voice...only it's not played for comedy!

Anyways, after this madcap pimping session comes to its end, Drum has made his choice in Calinda (as played by fellow Mandingo alumnus Brenda Sykes.) The two have a 'getting to know you' session that, to their credit, could have been really laughable with other actors. They actually carry the scene pretty well...and it looks like this may be a sign things are improving.

...and then he's back.

As though we needed confirmation, it seems DeMarigny has had an ulterior motive in getting on Drum's good side. Remember when I said we had less awkward groping on Ken Norton's part? This was one of the two parts where it still comes up. Luckily for us, Calinda decides to act on our behalfs and tries to interrupt this creepy, accented molestation attempt. When DeMarigny gets rough with her, Drum decides to act on the other part of the audience's behalf and gives him a much deserved smack in the mouth.

But alas, it's not enough to fix that blasted accent!

Slighted, DeMarigny vows a painful, if vague, revenge, and storms out. In this setting, that could run anywhere from a drawn out, Shakespearean revenge that seeks to destroy everything and everyone Drum's ever cared about...or, it may just mean he's gonna send an angry mob to try and take Drum out.

But before we find out his sinister, elaborately planned scheme, we cut to another scene set to move the story forward: Hammond, it seems, has been making a deal with Marianna. After two wives, Hammond's decided he wants to settle down again... ...with a whore.

His words, not mine. He makes it quite clear he doesn't want a wife (it seems, besides Blanche from the first film, his second left, he's still got a soft spot for the wenches.) With this in mind, Marianna has someone lined up for him: Augusta Chavet (as played by Fiona Lewis. It's worth noting she's not actually a seems alongside being a pimp, Marianna's been dabbling in matchmaking.)

Back to the secretive and dangerous world of slave fight club, we see the big reveal of DeMarigny's machinations. It seems his brilliant idea of swift and savage vengeance is to send some goons by and have Drum fight another of DeMarigny's slaves...except this guy's using a knife.

It almost feels like a bad video game now:
You beat the first boss, next one comes at you with something bigger.
By the end of this, Drum's gonna have to fight a slave in either a tank or a
giant robot,
Depending what the budget allows for...

Things don't go as planned for either side...DeMarigny's goons get the crap
kicked out of them, and it's here that Drum's adoptive mother, Rachel, is

A moment of silence.
She was only in this film briefly, but she touched all of our lives with her
role as human shield
and sometime lesbian lover to Marianna,
a role that allowed us to look at this film and think "Wow...this has

Fearing for the life of her son, and having already paired Hammond off with his 'whore,' Marianna gets a brilliant idea: she makes an extra deal to send Drum and Blaise to go with Maxwell's party back to the wonderful land of Falconhurst!

It'll be the Emerald City...only with less munchkins and more
...that seems to be the end of a lot of comparisons here.

Remember that quasi-incestuous moment I was talking about before?
Marianna says her goodbyes to her son...all the while noting how much he looks
like his father.
...this wouldn't be as awkward had she not had him take off his shirt before she
pointed this out...

Surprisingly, however, on getting to Falconhurst, the insanity actually seems to step down this time. Whether it's from the lack of James Mason peppering the walls with colorful drawling epithets, or just someone actually trying to make a good film, it's a welcome change.
...although I do admit, I missed some of the insanity.

...and it's because I thought that that the movie decided to throw one more joker into the hat (and after the number thrown in so far, I'm starting to wonder what the Hell the actual composition of this deck is...)

It seems, with the second wife, Hammond had a daughter, young and hormonal Sophie Maxwell (as played by Rainbeaux Smith.)

The sociopathic spirit of Hammond's first wife lives on in this precocious young lady...who makes it a point to prove workplace sexual harassment knows no boundaries of age, race, or gender!

I guess they figured if the work staff aren't getting paid,
it technically didn't qualify as standard issue sexual harassment.

In fact, it's thanks to her that we see a rift form between Drum and Blaise in their attitudes on white people. For the most part, these scenes at least try for seriousness...but, in a rare turn of events, this is one time where the script seems out to cut the black actors in on the craziness as well (again, Norton and Kotto largely do pretty well for the material there dealt here...but Goddamn, it's hard to keep a straight face seeing Norton seriously ask Kotto "Did you let her touch your snake?")

These rather cheeky elements of workplace harassment begin setting the stage for what will be, if nothing else, a bit more of a grounded finale than the last film...but, we'll get to that in just a bit.

As conflict rages between the two former friends, we also learn there's troubles for the whities as well (as always...this pleases me, if only cause their drama tends to be the stuff of comedy gold compared to the slaves.)

Alongside Hammond trying to keep his sex offender daughter under control (as we see, she has a regular habit of groping slaves' crotches) he also has to deal with the fact his 'whore' is actually a wife (literally. She didn't sign on for this...)

...under the circumstances though, she's a real trooper here...
You'll see more of that in a bit...

This plot strand goes through several bizarre points, including a pep talk between Augusta and one of Hammond's wenches, several arguments where Oates gets to give us more of that ol' time Southern Charm (two conversations of which are sampled in the earlier mentioned 'White Folks Say the Darnedest Things' montage below,) one of which culminates in probably one of the single greatest argument killers I've ever heard...said argument also leads to them patching things up...I guess it's a touching turn of events...seeing a wife who pretended to be a whore and a cantankerously racist old slave breeder overcome their differences and find love together...
...say now, there's a pitch for a romantic comedy I can guarantee you the studios aren't sizing up yet.

Meanwhile, in the midst of all this, Sophie's actions also come to a head when Hammond gets wind of what's going on (...somewhat...another for the clip reel) and, having already had issues with Blaise over fighting earlier on, decides he's become too unruly to keep around, and intends to sell him at the upcoming dinner party (it DOES stand to make an interesting icebreaker.)

Once again, while I'm tempted to explain the finale, I feel like I should leave you guys some mystery (I already skimmed enough here to try and avoid just spoiling the whole ride.)

The things I WILL say:

-We get another for the '...oh WOW' white people file care of a ruthless, and
rather stereotypical slave trader played by Royal Dano.

I never thought I'd see the day a movie had a Southern character named
Zeke...that they were actually serious about...

-Things between Drum and Blaise finally come to a head (in a BIG way)
-DeMarigny comes back, and once again shits things up (and, once again, Drum acts on the audiences behalf with regards to him...this is a part that's as much 'Holy shit' as it is 'Thank GOD!')
-Hammond proves he may not be a complete asshole afterall.'s still a majority of him, but it's not the full deal.

Overall, I have to say, this film kind of surprised me. After the first 20 minutes, I found myself expecting the worst from this. I mean, we start off with slave fights, assorted sexual antics, and one of the worst French accents I've ever heard in a serious role.

Granted, I had the expectation bar a bit low anyways. So part of me figured we were in for another "laugh your ass off, then feel guilty for doing so" experience like Mandingo was. To my surprise, while we got a lot of rather ridiculous moments of bad acting and writing, they didn't seem to dominate the film as heavily as they did in Mandingo. I think a large part of this is the fact the looniness seems to favor the white characters in these films...and with the blacks getting much more time and focus this time around...well...

(On this note, a fun fact for anyone who this inspires to find this movie - Among the other side characters in this, keep an eye out for the slave Regine at Falconhurst. It's a young Pam Grier in a role I imagine she probably doesn't have many people bring up nowadays.)

That's her. See? Again, I sometimes tell the truth,
just to confuse you guys when I AM lying.

So, in some regards, this film exceeded my expectations, if only by virtue of a low hurdle to top. I can't say I'd call it a great film by any stretch (in fact, while I respect the serious elements of
the film for what they're aiming for, they kind of left me missing the craziness) it still actually managed to, once I finally got the blasted disc fixed, be worth the time spent watching it.

...and, as I'd mentioned earlier, and cause I didn't get the chance to properly focus on some of the craziness earlier on, I'm pleased to give you a sampling of the peppered in bits of insanity in a little presentation I like to call 'White People Say the Darnedest Things'

It was this or a Warren Oates tribute set to Cotton-Eye Joe

...yeah, even I felt that'd be a little much.

That concludes this week's WAY too Goddamn late installment from The Third Row.

Please join us next week (and I promise, it WILL actually be next week) when we view a Fred Williamson classic whose title further reminds why they just don't make 'em like they used to.