Today we explore two men of show business named Bert Gordon. First we'll meet Bert Gordon, a comedy actor from the days of old time radio with a crazy face, a funny voice and a wildly popular but short career. Then we will meet the other Bert Gordon, an inept film director who pumped out fodder for the drive-in circuit, almost always about exposure to atomic radiation resulting in monstrous growth.
THE FIRST BERT GORDON...
Most fans knew the first Bert Gordon simply as The Mad Russian (a moniker that would later be co-opted to describe various wrestlers, ball players and communist adversaries). Bert Gordon used his "real name" when doing business, although it turns out that Bert Gordon was also a pseudonym.
Barney Gorodetsky entered vaudeville in 1914, at the age of nineteen, working primarily as a dialect comedian. He appeared frequently as an actor in several different Yiddish theatre companies populating Broadway at the time. Come the early twenties he was a regular performer in George White's Scandals, a successful annual revue of sketches and music that stole its format from the famous Ziegfeld stage shows. The show incorporated all the familiar elements of vaudeville in the twenties: lusty chorus girls, cornball jokes and plenty of the white man's scandal - blackface.
Gordon broke into radio in the early thirties, initially appearing on primitive episodes of The Jack Benny Show. His character, despite its name, did not possess a credible Russian accent. Instead The Mad Russian spoke in a weird, airy sounding voice. He didn't speak his words so much as pant them - an exasperated manner of speech. His catch phrases are meaningless out of context. "How do you do?" and "Do you really min it?" were mimicked for easy referential gags on other radio shows and comedy acts throughout the thirties and forties. Allusions to Gordon's familiar annotations appear in several old Warner Brothers cartoons, alienating children for over fifty years. Could anybody have predicted that the phrase "How do you do?" would catch the country by storm? It was, like most verbal comedy performance, all in the delivery. Listen to The Mad Russian's catch phrase as exclaimed on an episode of Duffy's Tavern at this page.
It was in the mid-thirties that Gordon, after being a transient character in radio, finally found a home. Eddie Cantor knew Gordon from their days on Broadway. Cantor was resident stooge in the Ziegfeld Follies and Gordon had the same role in the competing George White's Scandals. Cantor invited Gordon to join him on his weekly show Texaco Town. Cantor eventually made sure to bring The Mad Russian with him whenever he was scheduled for a guest shot on another show like The Camel Caravan - Gordon was a sure-fire crowd pleaser. When The Eddie Cantor Show was exported for American soldiers overseas during World War II, Bert Gordon's character was edited out so as not to escalate any hostility with the enemies turned allies in Russia. The two performed together regularly for the next fifteen years. Although Cantor, for some reason, remained the big name, Gordon was the one who always got the biggest laughs and the most enduring applause. That's a picture of Cantor in blackface on the right.
Another pseudo-ethnic character on the Cantor show was Parkyakarkus. Like Gordon he had three names. The character's moniker, his business name, Harry Parke, and his birth name Harry Einstein. He raised two very famous children, Bob and Albert Einstein, who also became well known under new names. Bob Einstein followed his father's path into show business starting as a writer on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (with a stellar group of other scribes that included Steve Martin, Mason "Classical Gas" Williams, Lorenzo Music and a young Rob Reiner) and eventually gaining public recognition as Super Dave Osborne. Look at a rare photograph of Parkyakarkus with his son Super Dave over here. Super Dave's brother, Albert Einstein changed his name, for obvious reasons, becoming famous as Albert Brooks.
Parkyakarkus was with Cantor just as long as Bert Gordon and filled a similar role of "ethnic comedy." However, Parkyakarkus' ethnicity, despite the Greek sounding name, was usually ambiguous. Parkyakarkus died in the greatest showbiz manner imaginable. Appearing at The Friar's Club Roast of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on November 28th, 1958, Einstein's turn at the podium ended with the statement, "No matter what time you walk into our club, you'll always see two or three of our members standing around looking for pigeons. So Desi, we sincerely hope you'll be using [The Friar's Club] very often. And Lucy, while ladies nights at the Friar's are traditionally Fridays and Saturdays, we love you so you can come any time. Thank you very much." With that Parkyakarkus returned to his seat, beside Milton Berle. As the applause died down Einstein collapsed head first onto Berle's crotch. The audience howled. Milton Berle shouted, "Is there a doctor in the house?" The audience howled more. Parkyakarkus had died of a heart attack.
Bert Gordon's character often went under various names but the personality was always the same. Occasionally he was billed as Mischa Moody, Boris Rascalnikoff or some other goofy faux-Russian title. In the late thirties The Mad Russian would log regular cameos on the show of another catch-phrase dependent comedian, Joe Penner. Penner too is forgotten today and his obnoxious personality does not ingratiate itself well to contemporary ears. Penner's two most famous lines, always good for an anticipatory laugh, were "You nah-hasty man!" and "Wanna buy a duck?" The latter enjoyed an homage of sorts courtesy David Letterman in the Chris Elliot film Cabin Boy (1994) with his line "Wanna buy a monkey?" Watch a film clip of the annoying Joe Penner here. Watch Letterman's scene in Cabin Boy here.
Gordon appeared in several low-budget comedies over the course of his two-decade career. New Faces of 1937 was a wonderful comedy-musical and a great example of Hollywood in the thirties. It featured Bert with his biggest supporters, Joe Penner, Milton Berle and Parkyakarkus. The picture had the same plot as Mel Brooks' The Producers (thirty years earlier) - a Broadway producer intentionally mounts a flop and sells three different investors an eighty-five percent stake in the production. Sing For Your Supper (1941) was released by Columbia Pictures to general apathy. Gordon was the biggest name on the bill, which isn't saying much. Few of radio's character actors were able to translate their unique brand of verbal comedy to a visual medium. If anybody could have done it, however, it should have been the visually exciting Mad Russian. Unfortunately, poor scripts and low-budgets helped bury his potential as a screen star. Sing For Your Supper also featured a young Eve Arden, still a few years from achieving radio star status on Our Miss Brooks.
Bert briefly returned to Broadway in September 1940, acting in a satirical musical that spoofed the world of radio titled Hold on to Your Hats. Produced by Al Jolson, the minstrel man also starred in the production as a Lone Ranger type. Gordon played the Native sidekick, Concho, speaking in his familiar goofball voice. Ruby Keeler was the female lead in the show during its test run in Chicago until, according to Time magazine, "ex-husband Jolson's ad-libbing got in her hair," or so they say. Perhaps every time she looked at Jolson it brought back disturbing memories of having sex with someone in blackface.
A Russian born screenwriter named Harry Sauber provided the stories for most of the pictures Gordon appeared in. Outside of Paradise (1938), Sing for Your Supper (1941), Laugh Your Blues Away (1942) and Let's Have Fun (1943) all involved their collaboration. Let's Have Fun was the first film with Gordon in the lead instead of a supporting role. The feature used the tagline "The Mad Russian of the air waves... in a tidal wave of rhythm and laughter!" In the film Gordon persuades a couple of Russian cafe owners to put up the money for a play called "Road to Siberia," and that paper thin premise is the excuse for several musical variety numbers.
How Doooo You Do? (1945) hoped to capitalize on Gordon's catch phrase and also emphasized the wrong "do" in its title. Released by the shittiest film studio going, PRC, the film cast Gordon as an overworked radio star (with a Black servant) determined to escape the daily grind. Gordon takes off for rest and relaxation at a secluded resort. During his stay a guest is murdered. A police detective bars anyone from leaving until the crime is solved. The picture featured Keye Luke and Benson Fong, two of the busiest Asian actors in racist Hollywood - and both regulars at PRC's main competitor for low-budget supremacy Monogram Studios.
Bob Clampett directed a crazy cartoon titled Hare Ribbin' in 1946. It pitted Bugs Bunny against a Mad Russian hound with frizzy hair and a Bert Gordon voice (supplied by singer/comedian Sammy Wolfe). Watch the whole short here. A couple years earlier another Clampett cartoon, the incredibly jazzy anti-nazi short, Russian Rhapsody (1944), featured a Bert Gordon reference. A "Gremlin from the Kremlin" confronts Hitler, shouting "How do you doooo?" before belting him in the nose with a mallet. Watch that cartoon here. See what the Gordon dog looked like in this clip that features another old time radio reference - the Sonovoxed B.O. voice - from the Life Buoy soap commercials of the 1940s. A 1941 Columbia cartoon directed by Dave Fleischer featured a personified Mount Baldy speaking like Gordon as well.
The cartoon and radio worlds merged for Gordon in 1946 when The Mad Russian made an appearance on the embarrassing short-lived relic, The Mel Blanc Show. The program featured Blanc as the owner of his own fix-it shop and, as you would expect, playing an assortment of characters. Most of them sounded just like his famous cartoon voices, one of which was identical to that of Porky Pig, but with a different name. Blanc's program was one old radio show that attempted to guide a dumb catch phrase into popularity but alas, it did not catch ("Ugga-ugga-boo, Ugga-boo-boo-ugga!"). You can listen to more episodes of The Mel Blanc Show than you would ever want to over on this page - forty-two different episodes in MP3 format. To hear the episode with Bert Gordon click on the ninth episode from the top - titled Community Chest Fund Drive Show. The Mad Russian enters at the 15:30 mark, but the laughter from the studio audience picks up a good fifteen seconds earlier when Gordon takes to the microphone waiting for his cue. It is amazing what a huge response Gordon got on every show he appeared. Nobody else in radio got laughs like this.
While still a permanent cast member on Cantor's program, The Mad Russian continued as a radio journeyman, putting in regular appearances on The Al Jolson Show and The Milton Berle Show. He also became a fixture on the popular Duffy's Tavern (Cantor's program was re-dubbed The Eddie Cantor Pabst Blue Ribbon Show around the same time - ensuring that The Mad Russian was associated with alcohol at all times). Duffy's Tavern was the popular brainchild of revered comedy writer (and one of those who "named names" during the McCarthy era) Abe Burrows. Abe's son James went on to create the sitcom Cheers and many say that Duffy's Tavern - a program that took place in a pub - was the inspiration for that hit show. Duffy's, however, was one of many successful radio shows that failed when transferred to the young medium of television. It was one of the first TV shows to employ a laugh track. It is obvious that nobody was exactly sure how one was supposed to use a laugh track. Surviving episodes of Duffy's Tavern feature the laugh track on a loop - cackling through straight lines and serious moments and often drowning out the labored punch lines. Even by 1954 standards the show was abysmal. It lasted less than a year. The Mad Russian was spared an appearance on the program, but by that time his career, for reasons not exactly clear, was over.
In Milton Berle's 1974 (dirty) autobiography, Uncle Milty takes credit for The Mad Russian's success. Berle appeared on a program with Gordon called the Gillette Original Community Sing. "Bert Gordon, who was still known as Mischa Moody, but was already starting to use those lines I wrote for him that were to become his signature as The Mad Russian ..." Berle does not elaborate anywhere in his book, nor has anyone else explained when or how Berle wrote Gordon's trademark lines. There probably isn't much to explain beyond Berle's vanity. Taking credit for the sentence, "How do you do?" is pretty meaningless without Gordon's voice making something out of it.
After a long absence from the public spotlight, Bert Gordon, like so many other old nightclub comics, guest starred on an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show. The episode titled The Return of Edwin Carp was Carl Reiner's salute to many of his favorite (and faded) radio stars. The plot has Rob Petrie trying to coax an old radio star (played by Richard Haydn) out of retirement for a guest spot on a radio special. Bert Gordon appears as The Mad Russian alongside Arlene Harris (once famous for the radio program The Chatterbox) in this, his final on-screen appearance.
Although Bert Gordon's career had ended by the early fifties, the baton was passed to his namesake, whose career was just about to begin.
THE SECOND BERT GORDON...
Bert Ira Gordon broke into the movie industry producing and acting as cinematographer on a Technicolor piece of tripe, Serpent Island (1954). Filled with stock footage of "authentic Haitian voodoo rituals," the film is a fun B-movie with snakes scattered around coupled with schmaltzy romance and machismo. Serpent Island not only marked Gordon's entry into the world of Hollywood hackdom, but it also served as the directorial debut for one Tom Gries. Gries went straight into television directing, a place where many B-movie makers moved in the ensuing years. Television needed a lot of directors; particularly ones who knew how to shoot film quickly and efficiently on a low budget. Hence, many of the nineteen fifties masters of camp, most notably Jack Arnold, went on to prolific careers on the small screen. Gordon went the reverse route, starting out shooting no-budget commercials on no-budget television before graduating to no-budget features. Gries went thirteen years before making another film, eventually leaving television to shoot Will Penny (1968), a film that the Maltin guide describes as one of the best "loner" westerns ever made. Gries worked steady on features for the remainder of his life, most notably the made-for-television Manson pic, Helter Skelter (1976) and the ludicrous biopic The Greatest (1977) featuring Muhammad Ali as himself. Watch clips from that film (which was Gries' last before he died) here and here.
Bert I. Gordon took his first stab at directing a picture the following year. King Dinosaur (1955) would be the blueprint for, essentially, every Gordon picture that followed for the next twenty-five years. The popularity of giant creature features had been firmly established several months earlier with the success of Them! (1954), Godzilla (1954) and Jack Arnold's Tarantula (1955). Gordon would churn out his own take on all three concepts soon enough. Mighty Joe Young (1949) had rejuvenated the familiar King Kong concept of a giant beast run amuck. King Dinosaur takes place on a distant planet populated by giant animals. Four scientists travel to the planet and are terrorized by the beasts until one of them finally comes to a decision. "I brought the atomic bomb," states the adventurer casually, "I think this would be a good time to use it." Apparently it was conveniently packed in the cooler with the soda, unbeknownst to the rest of the group. As the mushroom cloud rises, the hero deadpans, "We brought civilization to planet Nova." King Dinosaur featured what would become Gordon's trademark - "rear projection." This was the process in which normal sized lizards (in this case) are filmed in advance, then projected onto a large screen, that live-actors in front of the screen had to fight, run from, etc. You wouldn't think that this technique would be convincing. You are correct - it isn't. Gordon apparently started filming the picture Saturday morning and wrapped Sunday night. Tom Gries scores a writing credit and the film was partially financed by Al Zimbalist, the man who also put up the money for Cat Women of the Moon (1953) and Monster From Green Hell (1958). It clocks in at a very tolerable sixty-three minutes. Here is the King Dinosaur trailer.
Gordon rested for all of 1956, perhaps spending the year conceptualizing a brilliant new and original story. This seems a plausible theory as Gordon came back with creative vengeance making Beginning of the End (1957), the tale of giant grasshoppers that terrorize Chicago. Peter Graves starred as Dr. Ed Wainwright, a man that don't take no shit from no grasshopper! Before achieving television credibility as the star of Mission: Impossible (1967-73), Graves was one of the drive-in's hammiest actors (his brother was Gunsmoke's James Arness, who also starred in Them!). Graves was to the fifties what William Shatner was to the nineteen seventies: A straight-faced actor, never once placing the tongue in cheek despite standing in the most ridiculous situations. Peter was the featured player in many of the era's most beloved trash items: Red Planet Mars (1952), Killers From Space (1954 - watch that entire movie here) and, in 1956, It Conquered the World (Red Planet Mars is perhaps the funniest of the three, as Martians warn earth to get its act together and accept the word of Jesus Christ... the film is worth it alone to see Soviet Russia collapse when religion takes over and reinstates the capitalist system!). BOTE features giant grasshoppers spawning from an experimental farm run by the military. The military attempts a cover-up, but it's not easy to hide giant insects bent on destruction. It is decided that the only way to stop these monster is by dropping an atom bomb on the windy city. The picture features many familiar faces, including the dopiest Superman ever, Kirk Alyn, as a pilot. Morris Ankrum receives top billing as the military general in charge of anti-giant-insect strategy. Ankrum was always the on-call no-nonsense military man (and occasional doctor) in the genre. He played crusty authority figures in Rocketship X-M (1950), Flight to Mars (1951), Red Planet Mars, Invaders From Mars (1953), Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), Zombies of Mora Tau (1957), The Giant Claw (1957), Giant From the Unknown (1958), How to Make a Monster (1958), X - The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) and would have continued on this prolific tear if not for his death in 1964. Watch a short clip of Gordon's Beginning of the End special effects wizardry here. According to B-movie lore, two hundred (small) grasshoppers were used in the film. However, over the course of shooting, the bugs fed on each other in a cannibalistic manner, leaving about twelve grasshoppers in total by the time filming was completed. Watch the trailer for BOTE here.
Bert made another two films that year, more than making up for his inactivity the previous twelve months. The Cyclops (1957) treads into the same territory of physical embellishment via atomic radiation. A pilot carrying a cargo of uranium crashes, contaminating lizards, insects, and his own body. As you have already guessed, we soon have giant lizards, giant insects, and a giant one-eyed man. And as any teenager who has experienced a sudden growth spurt will tell you, the first course of action after unexpected physical evolution is to terrorize the countryside. The Cyclops was the first of Gordon's efforts to feature a real bona fide movie star, albeit long past his prime. Lon Chaney Jr. has a welcome role in the film, taking a break from all the B-westerns he found himself in during the fifties. The picture also features nineteen fifties B-movie icon, Gloria Talbott. Gloria's resume is also full of genre goodies: Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957), I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) and the memorable Girls Town (1959) with Mamie Van Doren and Paul Anka. The naturally gargantuan Duncan Parkin played the post-radiation man on the loose, but his growls were dubbed in by the true voice of God, the eccentric Paul Frees. Watch The Cyclops trailer here.
The Amazing Colossal Man finished off the year and would become Gordon's most profitable drive-in picture to date. Gordon received help on the script from Mark Hanna whose most famous work was Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1958) - proof that Bert wasn't the only hack in the biz stuck on the growing big concept. Our hero is taking part in a military experiment when something goes horribly awry. Caught up in a plutonium blast, Lieutenant Colonel Glenn Manning comes away disfigured, eventually growing to a momentous size, perhaps a girth that could be described as colossal... some might even say amazing. The film gave birth to a much-repeated (sometimes shouted) line, "Why don't you ask me what it feels like to be a freak!?" The film marked Gordon's first film for American International Pictures, the number one supplier for drive-in movies and, arguably, the most entertaining film studio of all time. Watch the trail for TACM here.
Earth vs. The Spider (1958) was the next project and had a very appropriate title indeed. The film needs no more description, at least it didn't until AIP went behind Gordon's back and re-named the picture The Spider, hoping to draw some of the audience away from Vincent Price's runaway hit, The Fly (1958). The film features one scene where the giant spider comes barrelling through a small desert town. The town folk are sent screaming past a movie theatre that has a poster up for Beginning of the End (the title of that picture is also on the marquee). EVTS had a small budget, of course, but the film suffers from general neglect. Case and point, the opening credits tell us who is "Starrring" in the picture - if you're paying attention - that's three letter 'R's. Watch the trailer here.
Attack of the Puppet People (1958) was a change of pace for Gordy, but still featured his penchant for optical effects. Instead of anybody growing large - the lead characters shrink to Tom Thumb proportions. Also noticeably absent this time around is anything having to do with radioactivity, plutonium, uranium or general atomic rigmarole. This time the physical modulations come at the hand of a mad scientist and his shrinking machine. I feel obligated to point out that although no radioactive growth is featured as a plot point, there is one scene featuring star John Agar and his girl going on a date and taking in a drive-in movie. The film the two choose to see? The Amazing Colossal Man (they also watch the screen without so much as cracking a smile - defying our suspension of disbelief even faster than usual for a Gordon flick)! Watch AOTPP's trailer here.
John Agar was one of the least talented men in Hollywood history. When he first broke into films he was made a mockery of by gossip columnists. He had never acted before until he married Shirley Temple in 1945. He was quickly crowned "Mr. Shirley Temple" by the press. Such titles gave Agar an insecurity complex. It also gave him a movie contract. David Selznick believed that Mr. Shirley's olympic-sized press could be channeled into serious box office returns. He would be cast as a cardboard sidekick in a handful of John Wayne blockbusters. His film debut in Fort Apache (1948) was followed by She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). Agar's marriage to Temple ended the same year, and so did his career in big pictures - his ticket in - gone. At the time scandal sheets published unsubstantiated tales of Agar the wife-beater. John Agar went on to "act" in an incredible list of B-movies for the next twenty years, often upstaging good actors with his incredible cardboard ineptitude. Agar did I Married a Communist (1949), a picture that RKO's Howard Hughes used to "test the patriotism" of Hollywood directors, offering the script to several prominent filmmakers, and personally blacklisting any that turned it down. It took fourteen tries until Hughes could find someone who would make the piece of junk (in the end it turned out to be decent looking piece of film noir). John Agar also starred in The Rocket Man, a creaky 1954 obscurity scripted by Lenny Bruce! The film tells the story of a young boy equipped with a ray gun that when used against someone, will comply them to tell the truth. The rest of Agar's output included Revenge of the Creature (1955), Tarantula (1955), The Mole People (1956), Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957), The Brain From Planet Arous (1957), Destination Space (1959), Invisible Invaders (1959), Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962 - Bert I. Gordon helped develop some special effects for the picture, uncredited), Hand of Death (1962), Zontar the Thing From Venus (1966), Curse of the Swamp Creature (1966) and Women of the Prehistoric Planet (1966).
The Amazing Colossal Man spawned a sequel in 1958 called War of the Colossal Beast. The colossal beast was really still just the colossal man. The film starts with Colonel Manning wondering, "What happened?" His friends say, "Why Colonel, don't you remember?" The film lapses into a flashback - which is in most of the first film shown all over again - for sixty minutes. "Ah, now I remember." The end. I am taking some liberties with my explanation of the movie - but not many. George Worthing Yates, a sci-fi veteran whom had ghost written much of the original feature, shared onscreen credit with Gordon this time around. Yates had scripted some of the best fifties drive-in pics like the aforementioned Them! and Earth vs. The Flying Saucers. It is a good bet that Bert I. Gordon was the one responsible for lines like those escaping from the mouth of Sgt. Murillo, "Giants can run fast. They have long legs." This film marked Gordon's sixth in the "growing menace" category. War of the Colossal Beast's trailer is here.
Somehow Bert was handed the job of directing a children's picture for United Artists in 1960. The Boy and the Pirates was an uninspired Disney-esque adventure. The film studio was obviously less than impressed with Gordon's crack at a script and handed it over to Lillie Hayward who actually was a Disney writer. Hayward had written The Shaggy Dog (1959) and did her best to punch up Gordon's mess. Jerry Sackheim, a hack that had written for Lassie, also took a stab, but to no avail. Without radiation it seemed nobody could save Bert's behind. However, if you're a fan of Technicolor swashbucklers, it'd be a fine thing to see on the big screen. It was released on DVD a few weeks ago.
Gordon used the money UA paid him to finance Tormented (1960) a film that lifted plenty of its music from William Castle's beloved House on Haunted Hill (1959) and featured his ten-year old daughter Susan Gordon. The film is a very effective chiller with moody atmosphere abetted by the constant roaring of the ocean and the sounds of a theremin. A man allows a woman he no longer loves to fall to her death as she stumbles and hangs from a lighthouse. She drowns in the ocean but returns as a ghost, yes, tormenting the star. One scenes features the leading man haunted by a record player! The movie's best moment has a woman's disembodied head resting on a coffee table. Nor can you go wrong with a jive-talkin ferry captain. "Man, this is a crazy pad. Listen, Dad, she owes me a fin." The dead woman owes the beatnik some money for driving her to the secluded island and he constantly hassles "her old man." You can download this movie in its entirety over here. Do it. It's worth it. It is probably Gordon's most competent film and enjoys an excellent pace.
Bert returned to children's fantasy with 1962's The Magic Sword starring Basil Rathbone. Rathbone was probably the biggest name Gordon had worked with to date, but sadly, the former Sherlock Holmes was not exactly a hot commodity. Like too many Hollywood giants (Joan Crawford in Trog, Lana Turner in The Big Cube, Rosalind Russell in Mrs. Polifax - Spy, Erroll Flynn in Cuban Rebel Girls, the list goes on), the last years of Rathbone's life were spent in low-budget exploitation film. Although The Magic Sword was a big step-up for Gordon, it was most certainly a step down for the one-time box office giant. After Sword, Basil showed up in Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965), Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966) and Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967). The Magic Sword features a giant ogre, a medieval amazing colossal man, if you will. It's another children's film (that surely no child would sit through for more than five minutes today) that would be dynamite to see on a big screen. It has the distinction of being the only film lampooned on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 in which the show's snide characters confessed the movie was, "pretty good." Watch the whole film here.
The brilliant voice actor Paul Frees (best known as Boris Badenov) had provided voices in both The Magic Sword and Beginning of the End. Frees also fancied himself a screenwriter (Frees wrote and directed an awful juvenile delinquent picture called The Beatniks in 1960 - it featured a song about sideburns) and sold Bert I. Gordon the rights to a pair of science fiction scripts he'd put together. The Demon from Dimension X and The Crawlers were never made. They would, instead, remain obscure objects of trivia for both Frees and Gordon fans alike.
A three year lull hit until Gordon came out with another movie and it's safe to assume he was busy brainstorming - because when 1965 hit - it was time for his most brilliant concept yet. Village of the Giants (1965) was the story of several rowdy teenagers who consume a substance whipped up by little Ronnie Howard. These teenagers then grow to enormous heights! Gargantuan proportions! And, as you might expect/hope... wreak havoc! VOTG is probably my favorite Bert I. Gordon movie. It features both Beau Bridges and The Beau Brummels. Freddy Cannon, Toni Basil, Tommy Kirk and many other well-known young folk appear. Watch the mod rockers play a teenage dance while a giant duck struts around to the song "Woman" here. My (and I imagine your) favorite scene features the giant teenagers (draped in theatre curtains after their clothes have been ripped to shreds during the surge in growth) confronting the adults on a football field. They then dance for four minutes to the fantastic lethargic surf sounds of guitar legend Jack Nietzsche! Watch that part here. I haven't seen Grindhouse (2007) yet, but apparently that Nietzsche song is on the soundtrack. Here are the opening four minutes of Village of the Giants. The other Beau Brummels performance in the movie can be viewed here. The film used many of the same sets that Bewitched and I Dream of Jeanie were filmed on at the time. It was also the first Gordon picture to use product placement (for a product other than one of his other movies that is). The mid-sixties fried chicken chain Chicken Delight gets a plug when the giant teenagers enjoy a bucket of the stuff. Also, the opening sequence shows off Milwaukee's famous Blatz Beer. Doesn't seem like their association with the film did any good. Watch another clip here and the trailer here. Also be sure to check out this Village of the Giants fan page, which includes images from the original press book and a quote from giant teenager Tisha Sterling, "I felt exploited through-out the whole movie." The episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 that made fun of the film was dedicated to Frank Zappa who had just passed away, certainly a salute to FZ's affinity for "cheapness."
Picture Mommy Dead (1966) starred Zsa Zsa Gabor, Don Ameche and, once again, Bert's daughter Susan, now in her late teens. Maverick film director Robert Aldrich financed the picture. It is probably Gordon's least known film, and for good reason. Nothing grows (other than the viewer's boredom) and nothing shrinks (other than the viewer's enthusiasm).
What was Gordon doing for the next four years? Living off his millions? Trying to keep his daughter from LSD crazed heathens? With giant creature flicks all but dead, replaced at the drive-in by hillbilly movies, hippie exploitation and soon enough, blaxploitation, Gordon's career seemed over. He wrote and directed How to Succeed with Sex (1970), which did not know how to succeed at the box office. The picture featured exploitation femme fatale Bambi Allen, a familiar face to fans of "biker movies." Allen had appeared in Satan's Sadists (1969), Hell's Bloody Devils (1970), Angels Die Hard (1970) and Outlaw Riders (1971). She also acted in two movies competing for best title ever: The Fabulous Bastard From Chicago (1969) and Terror at Orgy Castle (1971). HTSWS was mild sexploitation about a promiscuous college student. It was essentially a poor knock-off of Three in the Attic (1968).
Necromancy (1972) is a common find in old video store horror sections, often in a giant puffy box, and under several different titles. The slow and muddy looking picture was filmed and shelved, re-released and re-edited various times over the course of several years. It has the feel of a thousand other "gate to hell" horror pictures. Orson Welles as the head of a witches' coven is the only reason this Bert I. Gordon film remains notable (Welles appeared in Brian DePalma's obscure Get To Know Your Rabbit the same year - along with son of Parkyakarkus - Bob Einstein). The trailer for the Necromancy is really all you need to see.
The Mad Bomber (1973) is another Gordon misfire available under various titles (often as The Police Connection). For years Bert was mocked for recycling the same concept. But truth be told, when a giant monstrosity wasn't involved in the plot line, Gordon's pictures were often boring. Chuck Connors is a crazed terrorist walking around the residential neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Vince "Ben Casey" Edwards uses his unbearably hairy arms and police know-how to track down the anonymous killer. Despite my dismissive attitude, the picture has a following among many that troll the bargain bins.
Another four-year hiatus provided plenty of time for Bert Gordon to prepare his next innovative scheme: a movie about giant farm animals and rodents. Food of the Gods (1976) reiterates that sad story of former Hollywood superstars turned exploitation film players, with its lead players Ida Lupino and Ralph Meeker. Ida held on to her credibility longer than most from her era, having put in a solid performance in Sam Peckinpah's Junior Bonner (1972) just four years earlier (then again, that film was immediately followed by a part in the made-for-television Strangers in 7A with Andy Griffith as a drunken landlord). A favorite of horror nerds, Pamela Franklin (who also appeared in Necromancy), has a prominent part. Food had Gordon revert back to his familiar rear-projection gimmick for the first time in almost twenty years. His first giant animal picture in color, the filmed-in-Vancouver trash piece is often disgusting. Watch Ida fight a giant rat with a meat cleaver here. Watch the trailer here. It'd make a swell double bill with Night of the Lepus (1972), that movie with Janet Leigh fighting giant rabbits.
Empire of the Ants (1977) marked a drastic departure for Bert I. Gordon. No longer did he bother with giant spiders, giant rats, giant teenagers, giant soldiers, giant crickets, giant ducks or giant lizards. Those days were long behind him when he decided to enlist Joan Collins in a movie about giant ants. Joan Collins has called it her "worst ever acting experience." Visuals are always better than words when dealing with giant ants, so here are clips one, two, three, and four, plus trailers one and two
Ants was Gordon's last "big" movie. Burned at the Stake (1981) was a horror movie about the Salem witch trials. Let's Do It! (1982) was a typical eighties sex comedy and so was Gordon's The Big Bet (1985). Bert's final picture would be Satan's Princess (1990), a dull police mystery starring Robert Forster. It also featured ancient stand-up comedian Jack Carter as a priest. In short, he should have stopped after Empire of the Ants. Bert I. Gordon is still alive. He occasionally appears at fan conventions and will turn eighty-five years old in September.
The Encyclopedia of Radio by Ron Lackmann (2000, Checkmark Books) makes the blunder of confusing its Bert Gordons. The book gives the idle promise "[The Mad Russian's] films include The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and The Magic Sword (1962). I wish! To only be able to see The Mad Russian and his frizzy hair look up at a towering radioactive monster and shout, "How do you doooo!?"