2 years ago
Wednesday, July 07, 2010
Duke Mitchell: An Appreciation
This past Saturday night, I had the pleasure of attending a screening of GONE WITH THE POPE, Duke Mitchell's previously incomplete, final film. And, yes, I dug it. But, truthfully, there was no way I wouldn't. If the film was an hour and a half of Mitchell going up and down an escalator, I would proclaim it to be greatness.
But, more on that later.
I became a fan of Duke Mitchell, by way of being a Bela Lugosi fan first. My initiation was the infamous cult oddity, BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA, which I first saw as THE BOYS FROM BROOKLYN in either 1985 or '86 on a long-since-defunct Oregon-based local channel which exhibited tons of public domain classic features along with occasional episodes of PERRY MASON. It was this channel (22 on the dial, but I don't remember the call letters), where I first saw Lon Chaney's PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, George A. Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and my first Lugosi film (and, that of the East Side Kids, as well), SPOOKS RUN WILD.
The audacity of aping (no pun intended) the Martin & Lewis dynamic with a "devil may care" approach, I've always found fascinating. And seeing Petrillo's uncanny mimicry of Lewis is pretty surreal the first time around. I couldn't believe this was a real film. How could they get away with it? Well, they only did once, thanks to Lewis, but that's another story.
As for Mitchell's performance, I admired that he didn't steal from Martin and really did his own thing. Sure, he was cool and had an amazing voice, but that's where the similarities end, I think. Not that they should be compared, but Mitchell's voice was so amazing that he, dare I say, tops Dino. Mitchell's range took crooning to a whole 'nother level, really. As much as I love Martin, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, et al, Mitchell seemed to be in a different, advanced class. To this day, I find his style difficult to describe, almost as if he combined operatics with conventional lounge singing. A deep, interesting, soulful vibe. At first, I thought "He's dubbed". Well, yeah, he is lip-synching ...to himself. It wasn't until years later, when I came across one of his records, a 45 of the theme from THE CARELESS YEARS (a film, which I still have yet to see), that I put two and two together.
Fast forward to 1991, when upon the introduction of Hollywood Video in my hometown of Corvallis, Oregon, I rented a film based on it's sheer exploitation value entitled, THE EXECUTIONER. (I should also point out that it was distributed by Video Gems, one of the great, early VHS companies, which specialized in obscure, exploitation fare. Their brand had a major impact on my decision to pick it up. I rented as many Video Gems cassettes as I could find. Ah, I miss them so!) Looking at the big box, I didn't realize that the Duke Mitchell credited as writer/director could be the guy I knew and actually didn't think twice about it since his acting was credited to Dominic Miceli (his real name). It wasn't until I started watching the film, when I realized... "Hey, wait a minute!" Could this be the same guy? Good luck trying to find any information. This was pre-IMDB, pre-internet, pre-everything, really, and my only references were video/movie guides (Maltin, Ebert, Crisp... ACK... cetera) which never seemed to (and, probably still don't) mention this film. So, I was left to draw my own conclusion, which wasn't difficult once I heard his voice. Wow. Yes, this was an enjoyable, unapologetic mob picture, but the fact that this has Mitchell all over it, elevates it quite a bit. A few years later (my first week in Texas, actually), I was lucky enough to find a copy for purchase at a Wherehouse Music that was selling out their VHS rental library. Nevermind the fact that all their tapes were severely butchered cutboxes, for a mere five bucks, I finally had my own copy of Duke Mitchell's ultra-obscure THE EXECUTIONER and I was happy.
Not only was I going to finally see Fulci on the big screen, but there was a slew of classic exploitation trailers prior to the feature. CANNIBAL FEROX, DEEP RED, DETROIT 9000 and THE EVIL DEAD were all on display. Oh, and one more... MASSACRE MAFIA STYLE. To put it mildly, I nearly shat myself. Here was the trailer to the film I always knew as THE EXECUTIONER and I thought I was the only one, besides those involved, who knew of it. The crowd was going nuts watching, what was essentially, a reworking of the film's opening scene and I couldn't believe it. It's always a good feeling when you're in on the joke, and everyone else is just... there.
So, what did this really mean? Was this film available in another version I was unaware of? Nope. That was the film's original title, but didn't exist on video as anything other than THE EXECUTIONER and no one had released it, in the United States, besides Video Gems. Years later, Grindhouse Releasing (teases that they are) added the trailer to some of their DVD releases, but alas, still no word of a DVD release. It wasn't until Mitchell's son, Jeffrey, took it upon himself to get the ball rolling, just last year, on the first legitimate release -- a limited edition 2-disc affair known as "The Family Edition".
Produced, with great care, by John R. Hand in association with Jeffrey Mitchell, I am so pleased to have this DVD. To be fair, the film's presentation isn't pristine, rather the way we (anyone privy to the Video Gems release) have always known it. Having said that, it's important to note that it is better than that prior VHS, simply because there are no technical flaws. After going through two copies on my own (that Wherehouse VHS is nearly unwatchable now) I can honestly say that, for me, this DVD is a sigh of relief. No more tracking issues, Hi-Fi drop-outs or any other artifacts due to several rewinds and replays. I'm not sure if Hand and company tracked down the initial Video Gems master (removing the "A Joseph R. Juliano Presentation" logo from the beginning and restoring the MASSACRE MAFIA STYLE title card), but it definitely looks like that's the case. Or, they at least managed to find a reliable, mint copy. Whatever the case, I'm just happy to have a clear version that I don't have to worry about. No more "which VCR will track it better?" and so forth.
The real reason to pick this DVD up is for the plethora of bonus content. The DVD serves as a tremendous retrospective of Duke Mitchell's career -- one that was not dominated by film, rather a passion for music and the continuous performance of such. Mitchell was a true entertainer and here we get a rare and welcome glimpse into his legacy.
I cannot go on enough about how much care has been put into this package and, for the measly price of $30 (a true independent release and a limited one of 500 copies), it is well worth it. The exclusive LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON documentary is worth the price alone. Not to mention, there's a recording of an entire Duke Mitchell live performance, in addition to individual tracks (by both Duke and Jeffrey... think "Jacknife," folks), PDF files of the film's script (multiple drafts), a trailer to the upcoming release of Duke's tribute to Jimmy Durante and so much more. Apparently, Grindhouse is preparing a remastered version of the film, which some may want to wait for, but most likely, you won't see any of this supplemental material on their disc. As a completist, I look forward to their version, but for the feature presentation only. But, when Jeffrey Mitchell deemed his release as "The Family Edition," he really meant it. This is the real deal.
Back to GONE WITH THE POPE. Until a few years ago, I had no idea there was another Duke Mitchell film out there. When I first saw the trailer (or, should I say "teaser") back in 2005 on the Grindhouse DVD for CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, I was both excited and mystified. Another Mitchell movie?! How could this be? Simple. It was never completed. Thanks to Jeffrey Mitchell, who had kept all the film elements, notes, et cetera, it was passed to the Grindhouse boys (Bob Murawski and Sage Stallone) to live another life in a completed state, that is, if they could get it there. A long-time coming, Murawski has stated that the process took nearly 15 years. (Read about it HERE.)
So, when I found out that the film was truly getting released, again I was both excited and mystified. Was this really about to happen? Finally?! Having since seen the finished product, I can say that it was definitely a surreal experience. An experience that, if it were related to me 10 years ago, I'd never believe. "Guess what, Nate? There's this film that Duke Mitchell started shooting in 1975, yet he never completed and it will be painstakingly remastered and assembled for your theatrical viewing pleasure in 2010!" "Bullshit!," I most likely would have said... "Yer bluffin'!"
As for being his final film, it really does smack of a swan song and is relatively bittersweet at times. All the signature Mitchell elements are present along with touches by Jeffrey (a brief performance towards the beginning and additions to the film's soundtrack, the amazing "Jacknife" included), which make the film very special.
GONE WITH THE POPE may not be groundbreaking or everyone's cup of tea but, as these things go, I think it's rather swell. Like MASSACRE MAFIA STYLE and BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA, we have yet another catchy-titled Mitchell extravaganza which has to been seen to be believed. Purely by happenstance, an astounding trilogy when you think about it.