Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s – Part 1
“There’s a story about an adolescent boy who was taken to a psychiatrist. The doctor drew a rectangle on a sheet of paper and showed it to the boy. ‘What does it make you think of?’ he asked. The boy looked at it and said, ‘Sex.’ The doctor got the same response when he drew a circle on the paper. When he had drawn a triangle and an octagon and an ellipse with the same results, he said, ‘Son, you need help.’ The boy was amazed. ‘But, doc,’ he protested, ‘you’re the one that’s drawing the dirty pictures!’” (Zern 1958: n.p.)
In the 1960s, themes which had previously been dealt with only in the most serious fashion were suddenly subject to burlesque, or parody, as filmmakers and audiences sought to move beyond the strained seriousness that characterized many of the most respected problem films of the 1960s. In such films as Roger Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) and A Bucket of Blood (1959), Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), Theodore J. Flicker’s The President’s Analyst (1967), Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), William Castle’s The Old Dark House (1963), George Axelrod’s Lord Love A Duck (1966), Mel Brooks’ The Producers (1968), Tony Richardson’s The Loved One (1965), Roy Boulting’s I’m All Right, Jack (1959), Stanley Donen’s Bedazzled (1967), Michael Winner’s I’ll Never Forget What’s ’is Name (1967), Karel Reisz’s Morgan! A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966), Robert Downey’s Putney Swope (1969), to say nothing of Richard Lester’s The Knack… and How to Get It (1965), as well as Kevin Billington’s acidic political comedy The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970), viewers embraced a new vision of the world unfettered by the constraints of prior censorship, and wedded to a sense of the absurdity of life, in which all previous values were suddenly called into question, and found either morally or socially bankrupt. These films, which treated such subjects as war, sex, death, the workplace, national politics and the family with studied irreverence, found both a willing audience, and a place in the emerging national consciousness of the post JFK assassination era.
Jules Feiffer’s groundbreaking collection of multi-panel cartoons, Sick, Sick, Sick, published in 1958, was a harbinger of things to come, and along with the standup comedy of Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce and others, paved the way for the “sick” humor movement that in many ways dominated 1960s cinematic comedy. Predictably, “sick” humor was embraced most enthusiastically by those on the margins of society; Feiffer’s cartoons were almost immediately picked up by the then-cutting-edge New York newspaper, The Village Voice, as a weekly feature, and in Los Angeles, maverick filmmaker Roger Corman soon added his own twist to the nascent genre. Working with screenwriter Charles B. Griffith, Corman, then an outlaw visionary making five-day films on budgets as low as $40,000, shot the groundbreaking dark comedy A Bucket of Blood in 1959. The connection with Feiffer’s humor was stressed even in the poster for the film, which promised potential viewers that they would be “sick, sick, sick from laughing!” while seeing the film.
The film, which runs a scant 66 minutes and was shot for $50,000 in five days on hastily pre-lit sets, which seem ready to collapse at any moment, chronicles the “artistic career” of hapless busboy Walter Paisley (Rick Miller), who is the lowest man on the social totem pole at the Yellow Door, a beatnik café run by the imperious Leonard (Anthony Carbone). His only friend is the platonically sympathetic Carla (Barboura Morris), who tells Walter that he needs to learn to express himself. But the real force behind the Yellow Door is free-form poet Maxwell H. Brock (Julian Burton), who declaims aimless, Allen Ginsbergesque improvised verses, while a sax wails mournfully in the background. The arbiter of taste for the Yellow Door crowd, Maxwell thinks little of Walter, until Walter appears at the café one day with a “sculpture” in tow, entitled “Dead Cat.” Actually, the “sculpture” really is Walter’s dead cat, which had somehow become stuck in the walls of Walter’s beatnik pad. Trying to extricate the poor animal, Walter instead accidentally stabs it with a knife, and then, recalling the exhortations of Maxwell Brock to “create, create!,” covers it in quick drying clay. Predictably, the “Dead Cat” sculpture is a sensation at the Yellow Door, and Walter is “discovered” as an artistic genius by the hyperbolic Maxwell.
The next night, leaving the club, Walter is followed home by undercover policeman Lou Raby (Bert Convy), who has been casing the Yellow Door as a possible narcotics distribution center. One of Walter’s admirers has given Walter a small vial of heroin as a gift; Raby searches Walter, and finds the illicit substance. The naïve Walter has no idea what heroin is, and is completely innocent, but that doesn’t stop Raby, who tries to arrest Walter. In the ensuing struggle, Walter hits Raby over the head with a frying pan, killing him, then covers Raby’s body in plaster, and displays the finished sculpture as “Murdered Man.” The acclaim is instantaneous; Walter is a star. Now on a roll, and intoxicated by his newfound fame, Walter deliberately (for the first time) strangles an artist’s model and displays her dead body as yet another art work; this is followed by the decapitated head of a mill worker, whom Walter has also deliberately killed. At length, Walter’s “artistry” is exposed, and the admiring crowd at the Yellow Door turns into an angry mob, out for Walter’s blood. With no way out, Walter runs to his apartment and hangs himself, just as the mob breaks down his door. For Corman, the film was an experiment. As he told Ed Naha,
“I wanted to see if we could do some comedy-horror for a low budget. This film and The Little Shop of Horrors were made partially to make money but partially just to have fun. Bucket of Blood was made to see if I could shoot a film in just five days. My previous record was six. Little Shop of Horrors was made to see if I could break Bucket of Blood’s record and shoot a film in two days. Little Shop actually took two days and one night.
The nicest thing about this movie is that the hero is also the supposed villain. He’s been referred to as a schlemiel by some people. Certainly, in one sense, he’s a weakling. Yet, in another sense, he’s more powerful than the law. I don’t like to work with traditional heroes in my films. I think I deliberately try to place emphasis on the characters who are not totally heroic. What it boils down to is this: if you’ve gone through school and you’ve watched the halfback get the girls all your life, when you get the chance to make a film that calls for the halfback to get the girl, you can dull his luster by making the other characters around him a lot more interesting.” (Qtd. in Naha 1982: 138)
Variety, the then-powerful show business trade paper, was less than impressed, commenting that:
“The film is a 66-minute joke compounded of beatniks and gore. During the first half of the picture there are many opportunities for gruesome humor, of which writer Charles B. Griffith takes full advantage. In the latter half, the humor becomes lost as the filmmakers concentrate more on the horror and as it becomes necessary to punish the lovable maniac for his crimes. Corman has expertly captured the espresso house atmosphere and peopled it with accurate characters whose real-life counterparts should wince.” (Qtd. in Naha 1982: 138)
Screenwriter Charles B. Griffith has his own memories of the production, noting that in the scenario for A Bucket of Blood, Corman and Griffith (who had worked together on many screenplays before, all of them straightforward genre films) found a new format to work with. As Griffith later noted, “that’s the most precious thing you can find [. . .] a new structure” (as qtd. in Graham 2005). Working together, the two men kicked around a number of ideas, including a script in which the “hero” would be a chef who cooks his customers, and then serves their barbecued corpses to his other patrons, without their knowledge. This idea was too “sick” for the Motion Picture Production Code, however, so they reluctantly abandoned the project. Then Griffith had an inspiration, which would lead to Audrey, the giant, insatiable carnivorous plant at the center of Little Shop of Horrors. “How about a man-eating plant?” Griffith asked, to which Corman noncommittally replied, “Okay,” and Little Shop was off and running.
The film’s plot is simple, yet effective. Seymour Krelboyne (Jonathan Haze) works in Gravis Mushnik’s (Mel Welles) flower shop where he is every bit as exploited by his boss as Walter Paisley was in Bucket of Blood. Seymour’s life seems hopeless, except for the love of his girlfriend Audrey (Jackie Joseph). Devoted to his beloved plants, Seymour is distressed when he finds one particularly exotic bloom dying, and failing to respond to any restorative measures. But when Seymour accidentally cuts his finger while feeding “Audrey Jr.” (a name he has given the plant to honor his girlfriend, Audrey), the plant laps it up, and in a nasal, Bronx-accented voice, pleads for more.
Unwilling to use more of his own blood to supply food for the rapidly growing plant, Seymour starts scouring the streets at night for transients, killing them and then dragging them back to the flower shop, where Audrey Jr. devours them whole. By now, Audrey Jr. has become a celebrity, but the police are suspicious of Seymour, and charge him with murder. In desperation, Seymour offers himself to Audrey Jr. as a last human sacrifice, which is eagerly consumed by the ravenous plant. As the shocked onlookers watch in horror, Audrey Jr. suddenly bursts into full bloom; on each of the flower petals are the faces of Audrey Jr.’s (and Seymour’s) victims, including, of course, Seymour himself. As Corman himself noted,
“This whole movie was a joke. I was trying to break a record for making a movie. One of the fellows at the studio showed me a storefront set that wasn’t in use and asked me if I wanted it. I said that I didn’t have a project at the time but if he could leave the set standing for a week or two, I was sure that I could come up with something. He didn’t think I could. I told him that not only could I come up with a movie in that period of time, but that I could shoot it in two days! He dared me. So, I called up Chuck Griffith who had written A Bucket of Blood. We had a lot of fun shooting that film and we managed to do it in only five days. I figured if anyone could come up with something zany for a two-day schedule, Chuck could. We brainstormed for a night. He wrote the script in a week and we shot the movie in two days and one night, on the store set, which became our florist shop.” (Qtd. in Naha 1982: 142)
As Griffith recalls, Corman used two Mitchell BNC cameras simultaneously to record the action, and shot 50 pages a day for two days, and later did one night of “pick ups” to complete the film, mostly the scenes in which Seymour searches for new victims for his beloved plant (Graham 2005). But according to Jackie Joseph, who played Seymour’s girlfriend Audrey in the film, there was another reason for the speed with which the film was shot. As she noted in an interview many years later,
“The [real] reason Little Shop had to wrap by midnight of New Year’s Eve, 1959, was that, contractually, starting in 1960, the concept of residuals would come into play. Roger, being an exquisite businessman, certainly didn’t want to pay anybody [residuals] if it wasn’t really necessary! It was a question of beating the deadline before the new residual rule, and so it had to finish in two days.” (Qtd. in Weaver)
Making all of this more ironic, Little Shop ultimately wound up in the Public Domain through careless record keeping, something that Corman abhorred, and when the Frank Oz musical remake came out in 1986, he profited little from the venture. The film also features an early performance by Jack Nicholson as Wilbur Force, a masochistic dental patient, who through a plot contrivance, mistakes Seymour for a dentist (actually, Seymour has just killed the dentist, albeit accidentally, and plans to feed him to Audrey Jr.). “No Novocain, please . . . it dulls the senses” begs Nicholson, as the utterly inept Seymour proceeds to grind Wilbur’s teeth to dust. Certainly Little Shop was pushing the limits of conventional comedy, but it’s the sheer manic energy and intentionally abrasive humor of the film that ensured its status as a “sick” humor classic. As for the big-budget musical remake, as Corman notes,
“[the] $25 million picture [. . .] is history, and is never referred to. My two-day picture which was made maybe 35 years ago is still playing. And I think one of the reasons is the (1986) picture was obviously a bigger, better-looking picture, but it didn’t have the youthful verve and excitement of the original, and frankly, it wasn’t as funny.” (Qtd. in Simpson 1995)
Both of these projects were low budget, groundbreaking, and entirely out of the cinematic and dominant cultural mainstream, which is, of course, exactly what Corman and Griffith were looking for: “a new structure,” as Griffith put it. They had created, out of desperation, alienation, and their outsider status, a film that challenged late 50s comedy movies. As Nancy Pogel and William Chamberlain note of dark comedy (first known as “black” comedy), the genre operates using an entirely different set of rules from more conventional, mainstream humor. As they argue,
“black comedy involves an ultimate and finally frightening or horrifying subversion of all logical structures [my emphasis], even the medium through which the comedy itself is conveyed. Black comedy, at its best, permits the audience not a single refuge or crutch [. . .] true black comedy permits no safe island from which the chaotic or absurd world may be observed; not even the art itself is left available as a refuge in which the reader may seek aesthetic solace and ‘meaning’.” (Pogel and Chamberlain 1985: 187).
This is the essence of all nihilist humor, because it calls for the reevaluation of all values, and questions the supposed boundaries that we set, as a society, on humor. But in post war America, and the world, the old social structures were crumbling, to be replaced by an emptiness which allowed greater transgression against perceived normative rules.
Then up-and-coming comedian Rodney Dangerfield witnessed this first hand when he saw comedian Lenny Bruce perform in the mid 1950s, working with material that would have been impossible to use only a decade earlier. Bruce’s humor was, even for its time, almost too far ahead of the curve, and as Dangerfield recalled, Bruce’s “edge” was very rough indeed. The night Dangerfield caught his act, Bruce began his set at a Greenwich Village nightclub with these words: “Tonight, here’s how I’m going to open my act. I’m going to pee on you. If a guy tells jokes, you’ll forget him. But if a guy pees on you, you’ll never forget him.” An outraged audience member shouted out “Keep it clean! Keep it clean!” And as Dangerfield wrote in his memoirs, “Lenny answered him in these exact words: ‘Fuck you, Jim, you square motherfucker!’” (Dangerfield 2004: 159). Instantly, Dangerfield recognized that this was the coming trend. Bruce’s retort strikes to the heart of dark comedy. It’s about you, Jim; you are the butt of the joke. There’s no distance, there’s no safety zone. If you don’t like it, get out of the room. That’s your only option.
Indeed, Bruce himself had written the screenplay for, and had appeared in a particularly sleazy film noir / sick comedy, Phil Tucker’s Dance Hall Racket (1953), in which he played Vincent, a psychotic hit man employed by the owner of a rundown “dime a dance” club. (One of the strippers at the club, by the way, was his wife at the time, Honey Bruce; amazingly, Bruce’s mother, Sally Marr, also appears in the film). The dialogue throughout Dance Hall Racket is delivered with the twist of a well-honed knife, with the most dramatic turns of phrase being delivered as throwaway gags, as in Bruce’s nonchalant delivery of the self-scripted line, “Big deal! I killed a guy, it just makes me a criminal,” after he has done just that. Cheap, rotten, and unapologetic, Dance Hall Racket stands as a precursor of what was to come. An outlaw production all the way, it was hastily produced as a Poverty Row quickie at the inaptly named Quality Studios in Hollywood. In its brutally dark vision, and its unrelenting gallows humor, Dance Hall Racket was the sort of project the majors would never touch in the 1950s, but in the sharp-edged 1960s, things would prove to be very different.
This is the first article in a 4-part series. Continue to Part 2.
Wheeler Winston Dixon is the Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video. His newest books are Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access (University Press of Kentucky, 2013); Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (Rutgers University Press, 2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2011); A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010), Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Edinburgh University Press/Rutgers University Press, 2009), and A Short History of Film (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2008; revised 2nd edition published 2013). His blog, Frame by Frame, can be found here and a series of videos by Dixon on film history, theory and criticism, also titled Frame by Frame, can be found here.
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The author wishes to sincerely thank Richard Graham of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln’s Love Library for his invaluable assistance in the research for this article.