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Review: Fonda’s Inferno

Wow, high-res does not look good on the KTMA era.

(1979 | Barry Newman, Susan Clark, Leslie Nielsen, Shelley Winters, James Franciscus, Henry Fonda, Ava Gardner)

Disaster movie showcase of the stars! Anyway, knuckle down, because this might take a bit of work to summarize.

Somewhere in… um, a city… Sorry, I wasn’t really paying attention. Anyway, a house burns down because a kid tries a cigarette – but WAIT! That’s merely a prelude to the nasty, evil fire that gets “On” “City.” The titular fire is started by a decidedly mental young man obsessed with Susan Clark. Meanwhile, Susan Clark is secretly getting funky with Mayor Leslie Nielsen, and Photographer Guy has the scandalous pictures to prove it! Meanwhile, Dr. Barry is boinking one of his new nurses, but this isn’t really relevant. Meanwhile, Ava Gardner(!) is TV producer James Franciscus’ alcoholic anchorwoman! Meanwhile, Mental Stalker Guy is denied a promotion to foreman at the refinery, so he floods the entire city with oil, setting the stage for two welders to accidentally start the not-quite-towering inferno! Meanwhile, nearly the entire cast gets trapped inside Dr. Barry Newman and Nurse Shelley Winters’ new hospital! Meanwhile, the hospital catches fire and Dr. Barry Newman has to save the day, while the rest of our cast redeems themselves via their own little subplots… uh, with the exception of Shelley Winters and Mr. Mental, who die just seconds away from safety. Finally, the hospital gang flees to safety which, oddly enough, was just down the street, as Mayor Leslie Nielsen has way too much fun hosing people down. Meanwhile, Henry Fonda safely watches over everyone like some kind of Fire Chief god.

City On Fire! Henry Fonda IS the God of Hell-fire! Sorry, it’s hard to write short synopses for these all-star-cast movies with a million little plots. More intense action after the jump.

Leslie Nielsen in his most not-funny role ever!

“What happened to them could happen to you… in any town anywhere.” Only not really. Unless, of course, your town is prone to mentally unstable Susan Clark obsessives unleashing gallons upon gallons of highly-flammable oil into the city’s sewer system. In which case, I would suggest that you move. Quickly.

Chief Fonda tells his monkeys to fly.It’s not so much that City is a really bad movie – it’s just an unfortunate movie. Nothing about it says “theatrical release,” and everything about it screams “hokey TV movie.” I’m not sure if Ava Gardner and Henry Fonda were forced to do this for the paycheck, or some sort of odd contractual obligation, but they really just don’t belong here. It’s one thing to watch Pernell Roberts strut around San Francisco International airport, but it’s another thing entirely to see two actors as legendary as these meandering through this overdramatic Canadian brain-softener. As I previously said about Adam West – who also happened to be appearing in a Canadian bomb… is Canada a ‘has-been’ magnet? – this just makes me want to go back in time and mail them my paycheck and tell them that I still love them. But I guess Fonda still had an Oscar coming at this point, so maybe I’d just send him half of the paycheck.

As with most disaster films, this is pretty much one long series of highly unlikely downers. Nearly all the characters in this film have major flaws that make them, to varying degrees, less than likeable, and they’re constantly being rabbit-punched by really unfavorable circumstances. And the ones that don’t have glaring flaws (i.e. Shelley Winters; corpulence is not necessarily a character flaw) get killed off. Of course, in the end, the characters all get redeemed. At least, I think they do. These movies are usually too confusing, trying to cram a hundred subplots into two hours – a feat that should not be attempted by anyone but the hairiest of Kiwis. Somewhat needless to say, I had to skim through this thing at least twice, in order to straighten out the details. Not fun.

It’s a bleak and flimsy film, a blunt and largely uninteresting stab at making a disaster picture. The whole premise is unlikely and not too sharply carried out, but that’s to be expected from the genre. Disaster movies are a dime a dozen and Canada should not try to make them, and I could probably count the well-made American ones on one hand… if I could think of any. It’s like watching a series of trainwrecks – and that’s usually just the principal cast. Let me tell you, it’s not as fun as you’d think it would be to watch people suffer multiple life-threatening tragedies.

MOVIE GRADE: D+

The b-grade defiant ones.

  • The Mads aren’t mad enough and might have their licenses revoked. We don’t see Joel or the robots at all, and we go straight into the theater. C+
  • The Bots play the old “ink on the telescope” gag on Joel. D
  • Joel demonstrates his purse protector – “Hell In A Handbag.” B-
  • Joel gets oddly militant with Tom and Crow, only to be chased into the theater by Cambot. C
  • Joel displays the fruits of a fan club membership. C
  • STINGER. Stingers didn’t exist yet, but the best candidate? “…a 47-footer?” “When you get to my age, you just don’t fiddle around.” Sorry, Mr. Fonda. Spin gently in thy grave.

Cutting-edge humour from Joel Hodgson.

As of this writing, I have yet to elaborate on my KTMA grading curve, though it’s somewhat similar to my Sci-Fi era grading curve. Obviously, the show was only seventeen episodes young at this point (including the pilot), and they didn’t even start writing out the theater segments yet. This is old, raw MST3K, and not for the squeamish or easily-deterred. It’s ugly and, often, not all that funny. But, in my opinion, it’s still worth the true fan’s time. Maybe it’s just because my expectations are low when it comes to KTMA episodes, but I found this one to be surprisingly watchable (though, maybe some of that is owed to the movie that’s being riffed here).

I was shocked to find myself somewhat enjoying Josh Weinstein‘s Tom Servo. Normally, I can’t stand his relatively few performances on the show, but here he’s holding his own with, at least, Joel. Trace still has Crow in his somewhat infantile stage, where he pronounces everything somewhat oddly and particularly. The characters haven’t found their charm yet, but that didn’t come around until season three. The riffing is sparse in places, but that’s not altogether uncommon for these early episodes. They did manage to make me smile a lot, and even managed to raise a surprised laugh out of me, on a few occasions. In the end, I didn’t feel disappointed, as I did with my first encounters with the KTMA era.

The host segments aren’t particularly exceptional. We get some unnecessary but interesting backstory on the Mad Scientists, and are treated to some monumentally humbling SOL segments. The set is starting to come together somewhat, and the skits at least vaguely resemble what we’ve come to know and, sometimes, love. The telescope gag and the military sketch seem largely out-of-place, and really don’t do too much for me. Joel’s “Hell In A Handbag” invention is a pretty clever and fun device, and it makes for one or two good chuckles. Beyond that, we only have Joel (with a downright skeletal Gypsy in tow) showing what people recieved for joining their then-new fan club. It’s some fun nostalgia.

Not a bad piece of work, given the time that it was made. As I said, this is not for the casual viewer, but a patient fan will most definitely feel rewarded. Yay.

EPISODE GRADE: B-

The finder of lost loves!

  • Canadian Leslie Nielsen had already gotten some experience with the disaster movie genre, playing the captain in 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure. A year after making City On Fire, he would parody this genre in the legendary spoof Airplane!, as you surely already know. (“And don’t call me ‘Shirley.'”) I can’t help but feel that he knew this film sucked.
  • Susan Clark is probably best known as Webster‘s mom. The guys reference that a couple of times. Yeah. I’m just sayin’, is all.
  • Ava GardnerOh, Ava Gardner. I really do adore her. I suppose she really was kind of a “has-been,” as Crow calls her, at this point in her career. But please be aware, younger readers, that she was quite an exceptional bombshell during her time at the top. In fact, I can think of few women in Hollywood that I’ve ever found more attractive and alluring. She seemed to be a genuinely interesting person, with a sharp wit and personality to spare. A closet bisexual for much of her career, she was nominated for an Oscar and was once married to Frank Sinatra who, though they were divorced, was quite kind to her in her final days.
  • In 2001, the film Ablaze was released. The plot is strikingly similar to City On Fire. It’s pretty much a remake, but I can’t say whether or not that was intentional. I certainly hope that it wasn’t. Just know that it “starred” Tom Arnold and Ice-T. I can safely say that I’d probably be rooting for the fire.
  • Supposedly, Henry Fonda and Ava Gardner refused to attend the premiere of City, and Shelley Winters tried to get her name taken off the credits. (And yet she still went and did Fanny Hill.)

1. The 1970s were a veritable fruit basket of all-star celebrity casts, particularly in the disaster movie genre. It’s a pity MST never dug deeper into this genre when they were in their prime, though they did touch on it once or twice. It’s both a hoot and really, really sad to see familiar faces gadding about this dismal, unimpressive plot, but the likes of Fonda, Gardner, Franciscus, Winters, and Nielsen are the only things keeping this turkey watchable.

2. The rock-stupid medical staff and firefighters. So, a nurse gasps in horror at a ridiculously burnt patient who most closely resembles jerk chicken. And how fresh out of medical school must she be? Another nurse opens a door that smoke is clearly pouring out from under and gets attacked by the malicious flames. Even I know to check how hot the door feels before opening it, and I put out candles with my forehead. And need I even mention the firefighter who starts giving an unconscious child CPR – while still inside the burning building?! Come on, Canada!

3. On his death bed, that sneaky photographer who took the incriminating pictures of Leslie Nielsen and Susan Clark tells Ms. Clark’s character that he has the pictures that will bring her down. Get that? The man is half-dead and he’s threatening the woman who is caring for him. Uh huh. Smart. Josh chimes in with, “Doctor, I think we’ve found our blood donor.”

4. In an amusing and surprising gag, at the end of the military host segment, Joel is chased by Cambot down the tunnel that leads to the theater. I guess it’s not really all that hilarious in and of itself, but it does elicit some hearty, surprised chuckles. This would later be duplicated by Mike Nelson, towards the end of the series in season ten’s Soultaker Final Justice Soultaker. (Sorry. Got confused.)

5. I think the boys were a little too harsh on Ava and Shelley. Maybe I just remember them more fondly from their younger days. With Shelley Winters, were the fat jokes really necessary? I mean, there are few jokes cheaper than fat jokes, and they’re rarely all that original and funny. (Although, I will admit, they did manage at least one good one.) Here, they just seem hostile and unnecessary. And I’m sorry, but I really have to confess that I don’t think Gardner looked all that unattractive, for someone her age. I don’t know, maybe I’m insane. The guys just seemed finicky here.

6. In this episode, Joel laughs. I don’t know if maybe the pressure of being on a network like Comedy Central got to him, or if it was the lack of spontaneity in the pre-planned theater segments or what, but this pretty much never happened in the later episodes. Kevin laughs, Trace laughs, but never Joel. It’s nice to hear him noticeably having fun, for once.

7. …and one of those laugh-inducing scenes comes towards the middle of the film, at the start of the chaos. After the welders accidentally start the blaze, they’re sent flailing around while covered in flame. Joel and the Bots begin advising them to stop, drop, and roll. Somewhat unexpectedly, they drop dead before they can begin the task. “Well, he got the stop and the drop…” Joel enjoys this observation. So do I.

8. Okay, now, I admittedly don’t know a whole lot about the physics of large explosions. I don’t know what they’re supposed to look like in reality, and I don’t know what shapes they can take in different circumstances. But as far as I know, open-air explosions are not usually perfectly cylindrical, as seen in this wide shot of the city at right. Maybe the laws of physics were having an off day… whatever they are. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.)

9. After the order to evacuate the hospital comes, Dr. Barry tries to calmly prepare the children to leave the hospital: “Now, you all know how to play follow the leader?” Crow: “This is called ‘Follow The Burning Doctor.'” Ha. It’s funny.

10. At the climax, the occupants of the burning hospital finally make their way to safety through the burning streets. They’re recieved by emergency teams, including fresh ambulances. Joel chimes in, “I hope those guys know enough to not drive to the hospital with them.” You know, frankly, I wouldn’t give them that much credit.

GOT ANY STUFF MAN I NEED MY STUFF PLEASE GIVE ME THE STUFF.

Unfortunate. With aging Hollywood legends and c-grade no-names, City On Fire is just a sad, unfortunate Canadian spectacle, not unlike Loverboy. But at least it has Leslie Nielsen, who is enjoyable and not in Loverboy and seems to realize that this flick is just an easy paycheck. The low production values of the KTMA era actually don’t hurt the show too badly, and I would honestly say that this is better than probably most of seasons one and maybe even two. Oh, and… was Crow on speed, back then?

FINAL GRADE: B-

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3 Responses

  1. [Mike’s “running from Cambot” gag,] it was Soultakers.

  2. You know, I was thinking it might be, but then I remembered that he also did another “running” joke in the theater, when the camera showed the car’s point-of-view speeding down the road. Thanks. I didn’t realize how many callbacks Soultaker had. I’ll have to watch that one again, soon.

  3. I know this site isn’t being updated anymore, and I sincerely doubt you’re even going to read this, but I’ve noticed many instances where Joel laughs post-KTMA. It may not be frequently, but it’s not as rare as you seem to think it is.

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