Monday, April 7, 2014

DVD Dumpster Diving: Game Show Models, and Baffled!

The fellows at Vinegar Syndrome specialize in long forgotten’70s sleaze, and while most of their titles should probably remain forgotten, their latest "lost treasure" was the enticingly titled Game Show Models. The models, I imagined, would frolic in bikinis and enjoy a few pillow fights before revealing their true identities as secret agents, or something along those lines. Hoping they'd finally turned up a winner, I plunked the disc into the machine. 

Game Show Models, to my dismay, isn't even about models. It's about a young man named Stuart Goober (John Vickory) who left his girlfriend to pursue his vague dreams of success. She’d seemed like a decent, free-loving sort, the kind of young woman who paints her face and dances in the street for money, but Goober has given himself a five-year plan and time is running out, baby. As written, Goober is one of those Sweet Smell of Success schemers who wants to scratch his way to the top, but director/writer David Gottlieb cast Vickory, a soft spoken, Peter Fonda/Michael Sarrazin type. Vickory isn’t fiery enough to make us believe he gives a damn about making it big. He seems more like a coffee shop hippie. 

Things pick up a bit when the aptly named Goober gets a job with a Los Angeles public relations agency. The firm’s latest client is Cici Sheridan (Diane Sommerfield), a young rock & roll singer surrounded by family members and a stone-faced posse, each determined to protect her from the dangers of show biz. After quizzing the agency goons on the names of the seven dwarves from Snow White, Cici inexplicably falls for Goober. Well, so much for the models. 

One of the original tag-lines for the film read: 'You've seen them give out the prizes on Daytime TV - Now see the Goodies they give out at Night!' Yet, there's not much model action here. There is some nudity and some sex, including the opening scene where a guy makes his model girlfriend wear a Japanese mask while they make love (similar, incidentally, to the mask in Kaneto ShindĂ´'s Onibaba, a great 1964 movie you should watch instead of this one). Full disclosure: I'm not a great judge of sex scenes. Even the best of them look dumb to me. The only sex scene I've ever really liked was a five-second lesbian scene in The Last Emperor. In that one, the girls looked like they were having fun, and it didn't go on for so long that they ran out of ideas. In Game Show Models, we get a lot of grimacing, and groping, and of course, the Onibaba mask. 

By the end, Goober is disillusioned by show business and seeks out his old girlfriend, the one who danced in the street. Naturally, she's already shacked up with someone new, but she invites Goober to join in on one of her interpretive dances. Cue the bittersweet theme music, roll the final credits, and get us the hell out of here.

Game Show Models is an uneven mess, but it isn't entirely without merit. The film has a nice, ‘Vaseline on the lens’ mid-70s look, thanks to cinematographer Alan Capps, and there’s a lot of great LA scenery. The game show set, loaded with brilliant pinks and yellows, is a kitschy marvel, as is the PR firm, which is an explosion of craggy men wearing ugly neckties and gemstone rings the size of dinosaur eggs.

The supporting cast is pretty interesting, too. Well-known character actors Dick Miller and Sid Melton steal every scene they’re in. Diane Thomas, who would go on to become a successful screenwriter before her death in a 1985 car crash, is touching as Josie, Goober’s dancing girlfriend. LA Times entertainment editor Charles Champlin has a funny cameo as himself. Meanwhile, Cici's entourage includes Thelma Houston, whose career had skyrocketed in 1976 with her Grammy winning recording of ‘Don't Leave Me This Way,’ and Willie Bobo, one of the top Latin jazz drummer/bandleaders of the era.

Did this colorful cast know what they were signing on for? Maybe not, for as we learn in the DVD's commentary track, Gottlieb didn't set out to make a skin flick. He originally intended to make an artsy film called The Seventh Dwarf about his own experiences working in a public relations firm. It was Sam Sherman of Independent International Pictures who suggested Gottlieb add some dirty stuff so he’d “have something to latch onto.” It was also Sherman, who’d made a successful career out of producing such exploitation fare as Blazing Stewardesses (1975), who suggested the game show angle. Gottlieb, who hadn’t wanted to make an exploitation film, agreed. It was either that, or continue lugging around giant film cans and being turned down by distributors.

Vinegar Syndrome’s 2-disc set features anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfers of both cuts of the film. The Seventh Dwarf is a bit more dog-eared, and the Dolby Digital 2.0 mono tracks are hissy at times, particularly at the beginning of both discs. The outtakes (7:56) feature some additional game show footage, some frames from the opening sex scene, and some unexpectedly overt (not hardcore) moments in the bedroom scene with Goober and Cici. Gottlieb, evidently, was going for broke in order to get his film shown. A gallery of stills is also included, plus a rather tedious conversation between Gottlieb and Vinegar Syndrome’s Joe Rubin. Ultimately, this film that Vinegar Syndrome is marketing as “a mind bending blend of art house drama and drive-in sleaze,” is neither artsy enough or sleazy enough. Gottlieb fumbled in trying to serve two masters.

Perhaps the oddest thing about the film (both versions) is that Harriet Schock's lovely 'Hollywood Town' serves as the film's unofficial theme song. Indeed, the song, which was the title track of Ms. Schock’s 1974 debut album, feels out of place in the film, like a butterfly landing on a busted open garbage bag. But the song does lend gravitas to the film, and fits in with the theme of LA being, “where the lost and found come to find their way.” Schock, who wrote the Helen Reddy hit, ‘Aint No Way To Treat a Lady,’ and recorded several top selling albums of her own, told Cinema Retro that she had no idea her song was featured in Game Show Models.

“Somehow I missed that,” Ms. Schock said. “The publisher probably kept the sync fee and I simply never knew about it.”

Since she didn’t mention Game Show Models in her on-line bio, I’d wondered if she distanced herself from the movie. It turns out she’d never even heard of it.

“Is it porn?” Ms. Schock asked, curious as to how her song was used. “Should I be worried?”

I’m sending her my copy.


One forgets how busy Leonard Nimoy was during the early and mid ‘70s. There’s a tendency to think he vanished once his three year hitch as Mister Spock on NBC’s Star Trek was over, but he was everywhere for a while, acting in Mission: Impossible, lending his voice to the classic show In Search Of…, writing books of poetry, and even recording albums. Granted, his demonic eyebrows and somber voice limited him to some degree – he would always seem otherworldly - but he had an undeniable star quality.

In late January of 1973, Nimoy starred in Baffled!, an NBC Tuesday Night Movie of the Week. It was projected as a possible TV series, where Nimoy would play Tom Kovack, a race car driver who survives a crash but returns from his near death experience with the ability to see visions of the future. Unfortunately, the idea didn’t take off. By the year’s end, Nimoy was supplying the voice of Spock for a Star Trek animated series. He never quite escaped the role that made him famous, but in Baffled!, he appeared to be trying very hard to create a new character. Now available on DVD from Scorpion Releasing, viewers can judge Baffled! for themselves and decide whether Nimoy could’ve succeeded in another series.

The movie starts with the crash. Kovack is roaring around a speedway when he begins hallucinating that a Victorian manor has popped up in the middle of the track. His car spins out; he goes flying through the air, and the next thing we know he’s being interviewed on a talk show. He discusses his visions, but stops short of saying he has ESP. Meanwhile, a paranormal expert named Michelle Brent (Susan Hampshire) contacts him, believing Kovack is blessed with special powers. Soon, Kovack and Brent are in England, investigating a complicated case involving a weird family, a mansion that may or may not be haunted, and some sort of curse involving a wolf’s head insignia.

At its best, Baffled! feels a bit like other ‘70s shows such as Night Gallery and The Sixth Sense. It even owes a bit to The Avengers, minus the cheeky, swingin’ London vibe. At its worst, Baffled! is a bit dry and takes too long to get from one point to the next. It was directed by Phiip Leacock, a television veteran who specialized in one-hour shows like The Waltons. At times, Baffled! feels like an hour show padded out to make a feature length piece. One wonders if NBC opted out of the series because of the slowness of the movie, rather than looking at Nimoy’s potential.

The flaws of the movie aside, Nimoy is fun to watch here. He tries to be the kind of wise-cracking leading man that series television required in those days, and even pulls off a few action scenes. NBC may have missed a good bet when they didn’t pick this one up 40 years ago. With some care, it could’ve worked.

The Scorpion Releasing DVD includes the UK version of Baffled!, which is 89 minutes long (The US version is 99 minutes). It’s presented in full screen for, after all, it was a TV show. There are also some trailers for other Scorpion DVD releases, including a nice clip of Peter Bogdanovich’s Saint Jack. If for no other reason, the disc is worth a look to see Nimoy battling his way out of Spock’s shadow.

(These two reviews originally appeared on the Cinema Retro website, the best of its type.)

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