Monday, December 29, 2014
THE LORDS OF FLATBUSH (1974)...
BY DON STRADLEY
If there’s one overriding reason to view “The Lords of Flatbush”, it is to watch a young Sylvester Stallone steal every scene he’s in. This was two years before his star making turn in “Rocky”, but there’s a sense that Stallone knew his career was at a crossroads and he needed to turn in a command performance. The joy in watching him, though, is because he doesn’t take focus by chewing the scenery. No, Stallone is downright subtle in this movie. To watch him here is to see a smart young actor at work, not a bloated movie star.
Stallone, along with Henry Winkler, Perry King, and Paul Mace, star as “The Lords,” (comically misspelled as “Lord’s” on the backs of their leather jackets), a gang of shiftless teens in late 1950s Brooklyn. High school is almost over, though, and the boys are beginning to understand that the future looks awfully big and empty.
King is “Chico”, the inarticulate lover boy. Stallone is “Stanley,” the group’s muscle. Winkler and Mace are “Butchey,” and “Wimp,” the wise guys of the group. The gang’s life consists of hanging out at the pool hall, or the all night malt shop. At one point they steal a car, but they aren’t bright enough to be competent criminals. They like to talk about “busting heads,” but in the movie’s single fight scene they don’t seem to be particular handy with their fists. These photogenic losers find their uneventful existence interrupted by two things: Chico falls hard for a new girl in school (Susan Blakely), and Stanley learns that his mouthy girlfriend is pregnant. Though Chico and the new girl provide the traditional “nice girl/bad boy” love angle, it’s the plot about Stanley that provides the film with its heart.
Stallone is a whirling dervish of activity in this movie. He’s constantly cracking his knuckles, slapping his hands together, or craning his neck, as if he’s simply too dynamic to be contained in a movie frame. Watch him in scenes where the group is walking together. He’s continually in motion, hitching his shoulders, munching a toothpick, reaching up to knock a leaf from an overhead branch, doing anything to take attention from his co-stars. And it works. He’s the guy we watch. The scene where Frannie (Maria Smith, looking like a pint sized Fran Drescher) enters the pool hall and demands Stanley marry her is mesmerizing. Not believing she’s pregnant, he kneels by a table and grabs a cue ball. He plays gently with it, listening to her describe their future together. There is anxiety on Stanley’s face, but also resignation. He cracks a few jokes, but we can see him sweating. Childhood’s end is near. He is about to walk stoop shouldered into adulthood, complete with screaming babies and nagging wives.
Nostalgia pieces about the ‘50s were big business in the ‘70s (think “American Graffiti”, “Grease”, “The Wanderers”, etc). Audiences paid good money to see flashy old cars, greased pompadours, and hear some period music. As one critic noted in his review of “Lords”, “by conjuring up the magic appearance of that era, a kind of off-beat joy fills the theater,” and that the gang’s striving for coolness was “perversely thrilling.” “The Lords of Flatbush” rode the nostalgia wave and was a surprise hit, but it had plenty working against it, not the least of which was that the four male leads and Blakely were too old to be playing high school kids. Also, the ersatz rock and roll score by Joe Brooks and Paul Jabara pales next to the soundtrack of “American Graffiti”. (In fairness, many people are fond of the “Lords” soundtrack, and Brooks and Jabara did go on to become successful songwriters.)
Still, there’s an animal energy in the movie, particularly in scenes involving Stallone. I loved how a friendly punching game with King escalates into sudden, explosive violence. The two also have a scene on a rooftop where Stallone offers a bizarre monolog about pigeons. Stallone allegedly wrote some of his own dialog for the movie, and his rooftop prattle sounds a bit like something Rocky Balboa might say a few years later.
Though many reviewers appreciated the film as a sort of pop artifact, not everyone was impressed. Jay Cocks of Time magazine pronounced it “pretty flimsy stuff.” Others, like John Simon of the National Review, described it as “a film awful enough to strangle talent in the cradle.” William Sarmento , the curmudgeonly critic of the Lowell Sun, was so annoyed by the film’s grainy look that he derided “Lords” as “an amateurish home movie,” and “exasperatingly inept.” Meanwhile, Roger Ebert wrote that the film “did a good job of seeing past its black leather jackets and into the hearts of the essentially immature and unsure people who wore them.” Oakland critic Robert Taylor may have given the film its most accurate notice by writing that it was like “a quick flip through a fat ‘50s wallet crammed with snapshots.”
Co-director and producer Stephen Verona spent three years putting "The Lords of Flatbush" together. Inspired by the foreign films he’d seen during the 1960s, Verona set about making his own statement about the life he’d known. He had the idea to revisit the 1950s long before it was fashionable, but it took so long to fund his production that the 1950s craze began without him. Raising money by putting the squeeze on “friends, family, and crazy people,” Verona gathered $50,000, and shot the film in five weeks in 1972. Verona and co-director Martin Davidson shot some more scenes and fiddled with the ending before selling their feature to Columbia. When it became one of the sleeper hits of the season, Verona claimed that the simpler codes of the 1950s were a key to the movie’s success.
"You knew the good guys from the bad guys by the way they cut their hair, and the clothes they wore,” Verona said in a 1974 interview. “But what we tried to get across in this picture was that we all had the same problems. We all wanted the girl, and the car."
Verona certainly had an eye for new talent. Along with Stallone and Winkler, Verona also chose a very young Richard Gere to be part of the original cast as Chico. According to ‘The Making of The Lords of Flatbush’, Verona’s 2008 memoir, there was “a glitch in the chemistry” between Stallone and Gere. Much of the script was written through improvisations involving Gere and Stallone, but Verona knew that Gere had to go. “Here they were supposed to be best friends” Verona wrote, “and in real life they didn’t like each other.” Pointing to Stallone’s “immense imagination and focus,” it wasn’t a hard decision to keep Sly and give Gere the boot. With a bit of amateur psychology, it’s easy to see why the two young actors didn’t get along. Like Stallone, the young Gere was another twitchy scene stealer. One can imagine Stallone seeing Gere and thinking, Here’s a guy I might not be able to upstage. Hence, friction. That’s my hunch, anyway. Perry King, destined for a long TV career but not movie stardom, had a less showy acting style, so Stallone was probably less threatened by him.
Stallone has joked that “The Lords of Flatbush” was so low budget that he was paid in T-shirts. He also claimed that when he was making “Rocky” two years later, the producers showed the studio heads a clip of “Lords” so they could see him. The studio mistook Perry King for Stallone and grew excited. When it was explained that Stallone was actually the brooding Stanley, the studio's enthusiasm quickly faded. It’s unknown if any of these tales are true, or just examples of Stallone exaggerating his humble beginnings. He wasn’t exaggerating about the film’s budget, though. It was such a shoestring operation that when the film wrapped, it took over a year to edit and score because the producers needed to secure additional financing.
Winkler is excellent as Butchey, the wisecracking kid who is too smart to be in the company of such thugs. Winkler would soon find a crazy kind of fame on television on the ABC hit ‘Happy Days.’ In the meantime, “Lords” would have a long life in TV reruns during the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was, after all, the film featuring Rocky and the Fonz. For a short time, the film also capitalized on Blakely, who had appeared in the popular ABC mini-series, ‘Rich Man, Poor Man’.
Sadly, the fourth “Lord,” Paul Mace, died in a motorcycle accident in 1983 at age 33. His vulnerable but hard-nosed “Wimpy” was an indelible part of the gang. “Looking back,” Verona wrote in his memoir, “I think he was the most talented actor in my unknown cast.”
“The Lords of Flatbush” is currently available in many forms, including Amazon’s streaming service, as well as a 40th Anniversary DVD from Mill Creek Entertainment. The movie’s look has long been a subject of controversy. Verona has claimed that Columbia botched the color job initially and never bothered to to correct the problem. The movie have often looked dark and grainy, though I recently watched the 2014 Sony DVD, and it looked miles better than the last time I saw it on television. Where Sony blew it with the new DVD is that it’s not widescreen, but rather, a cropped full screen transfer. I can’t imagine why they released it this way, unless they’re trying to recreate the baby boomer experience of watching the “The Lords of Flatbush” on TV in the ‘70s. Evidently there was a 2000 DVD release that was presented in the correct ratio. I think this film deserves a full treatment release, with some extras. Verona would be an interesting commentator, that’s for sure.
Verona directed a few more features, but has also branched out into painting and photography. He was also one of the pioneers of the music video, working with such recording artists as The Beatles, Natalie Cole, and Johnny Winter. Co-director Davidson worked behind the camera for many more years, his most memorable feature being “Eddy and the Cruisers”.
Many people have warm memories of “Lords”. It works on two levels, as both 50s nostalgia and 70s nostalgia. It’s a double whammy. Yet, it shouldn’t be written off as just another “American Graffiti” knockoff. It’s very much the work of a man inspired by the art films of the day – at times “Lords” feels like the films of John Cassavetes, but with motorcycles and schoolyard rumbles. I’ve often flip-flopped on the sentimental medley at the movie’s end, a syrupy coda made up of still shots of the various characters, while someone sings a number about those great days we’ll never forget, or something along those lines. As cheesy as this final bit might be, I enjoy it because I liked these characters, and wonder what happened to them once the movie ended. Were they happy? Did they squander their lives? Did they grow up, and, was it painful?
I’ll also go out on a limb and say Stallone has never been as good as he is in “The Lords of Flatbush”. As Stanley, he’s churlish, but also curious enough about life to sit in a pigeon coop reading maps of the world. I love the scene where he finally buys a ring for his girlfriend. He’s clearly not thrilled by his future, but being a husband and father might trump spending his nights at the pool hall. Stanley is a great character. He deserved his own movie.