by John Legry
When comedian Mel Brooks decided he wanted to take a break from comedy and produce a serious film, he settled on the story of Joseph Merrick, the famed “Elephant Man” of the Victorian England sideshow circuit. When it came to choosing a director, he looked for a candidate who could bring a strong artistic vision to the project. He found what he was looking for in David Lynch. Lynch’s first feature-length film Eraserhead had been a surprise success. Although the film wasn’t a box office hit, it was respected as a surrealist masterpiece featuring lush black and white photography and an intricate sound design. Brooks had liked Eraserhead and hired Lynch to direct The Elephant Man and co-write the screenplay.
Abandoning the surreal elements that populated Eraserhead, and would also turn up again in future projects like Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet, Lynch crafted a sensitive and moving portrayal of Merrick, a young Englishman who demanded to be treated with dignity in spite of his catastrophic physical deformities. The film was a huge success, garnering eight Oscar nominations and winning BAFTA Awards for Best Film, Best Actor and Best Production Design.
When it became clear that the film was a hit, Brooks approached Lynch
and informed him that The Elephant Man was always intended to be the first of a trilogy of films about people who had been marginalized due to their deformities. Brooks offered Lynch the
chance to direct the sequel to The Elephant Man tentatively titled The Lobster Boy. It was to be the story of Grady Stiles, a circus performer who suffered from ectrodactyly, a deformity in his hands and feet that caused them to take on the appearance of lobster claws. At the time, Stiles was at the height of his fame as a circus performer, and was quite successful in spite of his disability.
Lynch appreciated the offer, but was already deep in preproduction for his next film – the epic Sci-Fi Fantasy Dune. Brooks was disappointed and spent the next ten years searching for a director willing to take on the project, but met with no success. Things took a turn for the worse when, on November 29, 1992, Stiles was shot to death. The gunman had been hired by Stiles’ wife and son. During the subsequent trial, unflattering details of Stiles life emerged, including the fact that he was a violent alcoholic who terrorized his family.
Brooks decided that making a movie about an abusive, drunken Grady Stiles would be a poor fit thematically with the story of the sensitive, harmless Joseph Merrick. Brooks subsequently dropped plans for the Lobster Boy movie as well as for the planned third film in the trilogy, The Baboon Lady.
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was a huge hit in 1968 and also something of a revolution in science fiction filmmaking. Previous science fiction films had been heavily action-oriented and even frivolous, generally featuring aliens in unconvincing rubber suits and tough-guy heroes. Kubrick’s film, on the other hand, was slow moving and contemplative. The special effects were meticulously crafted and realistic. Classical music gave the space sequences a sense of elegance. The film thoughtfully raises questions about what it means to be human in a universe in which we are not alone, but provides no answers. Viewers are invited to enter the Monolith and fly through the “star gate” with David Bowman, but they must decide for themselves the meaning of what he finds on the other side.
Not all viewers were impressed with this ponderous epic, but those who were returned to the theaters again and again, ultimately making the film a financial success. This popularity meant that MGM was anxious to produce a sequel as soon as possible. Kubrick was dead-set against any sequel. He would not produce one himself, and he threatened legal action should MGM try to make one with a different director. Kubrick’s threats were essentially
empty because MGM owned the rights, but studio executives found that, in a show of solidarity, no reputable director would touch the project. Finally, in desperation, they contacted low-budget film impresario Roger Corman, who agreed to direct the sequel so long as he was given absolute creative control. Fearing that momentum built up by the original film’s success would stall if they waited too long, the studio agreed to Corman’s demands and hired him to direct the film.
Corman chose to write the film himself and, three days after signing the deal, presented the finished screenplay to MGM executives. The executives were unsure what to make of the script, which Corman had titled 2002: Another Space Odyssey. In Corman’s story, David Bowman returns to earth from the mysterious alien world that he inhabited at the end of the first film. In an attempt to reintegrate into society, he opens a car
repair shop in Alabama with his pal Skeeter. One day Bowman is replacing the valves on an El Camino when Lulu Blossom, the daughter of the county Sheriff, wanders into his shop. The two hit it off right away, but just as they realize they are falling in love, Lulu is kidnapped by local moonshiners. Bowman and Skeeter give chase in Bowman’s sentient Camero “HAL” (the acronym for Hot As Lightning) which has a caustic personality and makes wise cracks through a glowing red light on its dashboard (predating the hit television series Knight Rider by ten years.) Bowman, Skeeter and HAL pursue the moonshiners, while simultaneously being pursued by the Sheriff, who wrongly believes that Bowman is the kidnapper. Skeeter is ultimately
killed when he is run over by a conflicted HAL, but Bowman finally defeats the moonshiners with the help of a band of surprisingly violent apes who derive their fighting abilities from an eerie, black Monolith. Shortly after her rescue, Lulu becomes pregnant with Bowman’s baby. In the final shot of the movie, the Starbaby (actually
Bowman and Lulu’s unborn child) appears over the earth. Angry that it was conceived out of wedlock, it destroys the Earth in a moderately-priced effects shot.
Realizing that producing the film would likely lead to box office failure and would tarnish the legacy of the original film, MGM executives pulled the plug. Corman shrugged off the setback and set to work on his next film, Von Richthofen and Brown. The sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, was eventually made, but not until 1985. All of Corman’s ideas were discarded for the sequel except for the character Skeeter, who was retained.
I rolled off the couch in the back of my office at 6:00 a.m. with a hangover that had hung over so long it owed me rent. A shot of last night’s coffee cold from the pot and I shambled out the door. I checked the sign on the outside. “Richard Derringer Private Eye”…it used to say. But time and cheap dime-store paint had not been kind, so now it read “—hard —ringer Priv-y.” I pulled the last quarter of a cigar out of my hatband. I’d made it last all weekend. I snapped a kitchen match with my thumb and fired the butt. It tasted like the floor of a tavern restroom. A taste I knew all too well.
My private detective’s license had been suspended again until I could cough up the yearly license fee. Two hundred clams was a lot of seafood for this Dick. Work was thinner than my shoe leather, and my shoe leather was so thin I could step on a coin and tell you what year it was minted.
I couldn’t carry my gun without the license. It was just as well – bullets cost money. I didn’t dare go about my business unarmed though, so I made my way six blocks south to Grossmann’s grocery cart. Grossmann carried the worst produce in town. Wormy apples, limp lettuce and the greenest bananas you’ve ever seen. Grossmann’s bananas were so green you could near kill a man with one. That’s what I came for. I picked out the biggest, greenest banana from the bunch. I paid with a dime I’d dug out of the couch. Grossman grabbed my sleeve as I turned to leave and said, “That’s eleven cents, pal.”
“Put it on my bill,” I said.
“No more credit. You still owe me for that cabbage last week,” he spat back.
“That wasn’t a cabbage, it was an avocado. And it was disgusting,” I said.
“Just pay up, gumshoe, or I’ll strangle ya to death with some rubbery bean sprouts.” I knew he meant business.
“Fine, fine,” I said. I searched my pockets for a penny, but came up dry. Luckily I spotted one in the gutter. I scooped it up and dropped it on the counter. Grossman scraped the gum off it and put it in the till. “Nice doing business witcha,” he said. I slid the banana into my shoulder holster. It felt good to be armed and dangerous again.
Needless to say I was flat broke until payday. And in my line of work a payday is something you have to make from scratch. But I was short some ingredients. If I was going to bake this cake before I starved to death I had to get a stake together. At the mention of cake and steak my stomach growled. “Shaadup!” I shot back. “I said ‘stake’ not ‘steak’!” But my stomach can’t spell any better than the rest of me can.
I had to get some operating capital together. I squeezed my way through a network of narrow back alleys. Three alley hops and two backyard trespasses later, I found myself just outside the back door of Sid’s Pancake House. It was just shy of 7:30 a.m. I resisted the urge to relight my stogie while I waited so as not to spook my pigeon. Danny Pigeon to be exact. Danny was a pool hustler. Danny’s dodge was to lose money to the mark for a couple of hours – just enough to get him to pull out his wallet and put the money away. Danny would eyeball the mark’s bankroll. If it was fat he kept losing money and buying the flattop drinks for 90-ish minutes. When the mark’s guard was down, Danny, who was a mediocre pool player but an exceptional pickpocket, would pat his new friend on the back, suggest they shoot another rack and lift the guy’s wallet. While the mark set up the next game Danny substituted a fat stack of singles for the chump’s wad of Franklins. He would always leave a few large bills sandwiching the plug of Washingtons. Then he would deftly un-pick the mark’s pocket, and proceed to lose a final game to the lucky SOB. He would leave the mark smiling and slightly drunk.
The dodge with the singles often bought Danny a full day before the mark discovered he was light several hundred clams. He worked this gambit in several pool halls and upscale bars around town. Danny left such a friendly impression most marks didn’t pin it on him and just assumed they had made a serious accounting error. He almost never had trouble with angry stooges hunting him down and demanding their money. That’s why Danny had gotten so sloppy with security.
The back door opened and I nabbed my quarry by the collar and stuck Grossmann’s greenest in the small of his back “Hello, Pigeon,” I said.
“DICK!” He squawked. “I’ve been meaning to come see you!”
“Sure Danny. Glad to hear it. I came to see you. Time to pay back that loan.”
“You bet Dick! I’ll have to go to the bank…my branch is across town so it’ll have to be this after-noooooooooooo!”
I had just picked the pickpocket’s pocket and glommed his night’s take. I slapped the empty billfold against his chest. He clutched it and coughed. “I gotta find a new place to have breakfast,” he said as he checked out the space in his wallet where his money used to be.
“Try Louie’s. They got waffles. Nice doing business witcha” I said and I headed for the beach.
Malavista Park was my patch. That wasn’t the actual name of the neighborhood – it didn’t have a name as such. It was typically referred to as “that gravel bar where all the dead fish wash up,” and it truly was the worst stretch of beach on the whole coastline. The air smelled like a pile of hobo’s underpants that were on fire and being stomped out with a track shoe covered in dog crap. The place was so unpleasant that if you put a shell up to your ear, instead of hearing the surf all you’d hear is a crustacean begging for mercy. There was no sand – just sharp gravel and razor clam shells, and at unpredictable intervals giant sneaker waves would crash ashore dragging all the dead fish and olfactorily challenged sunbathers out to sea.
A derelict pleasure pier, ‘Buena Vista Fun Park’ still clung precariously to the shoreline. By now it was just a treacherous collection of rotting deck and leaning pilings that, despite the hopes of city fathers, refused to collapse into the sea. It was lined with the rusty remnants of kiddy rides, dilapidated games and concession stands that had long since conceded defeat. A weathered wooden barricade plastered with “condemned” signs blocked the entrance. Of the three large dance pavilions that had faced the pier, one was a pile of burnt rubble with two sections of wall standing. One was intact and was now home to a commune of neo-hippies who had settled there because the abundance of dead fish provided ample fertilizer for their crops of vegetables, legumes and cannabis. As a bonus, the smell of rotting fish also blocked out the smell of body odor and patchouli oil that wafted off of Maynard G. Krebs Jr. and his gang.
The last pavilion had been converted into “ocean view” timeshares that were marketed to unwary vacationers from out of state. After their first stay in Malavista Park most of the vacationers swore never to return, so the delighted sales staff were able to criminally oversell the units.
I paused out front and looked up to see if Honey was on her balcony. No such luck. Statuesque former peeler Beehive Honey was the timeshare’s onsite manager. Honey had parlayed 15 years of leers into a tidy condo on a filthy beach. She was almost six feet tall if you counted her signature honey blond hairdo. It was kept aloft with the aid of Honey’s pre-fluorocarbon-ban hoard of Miss Breck Super Hold Hairspray. Having bought a lifetime supply just before it was removed from the market, she did her part to keep the hole in the ozone layer from finally clearing up. She was upbeat, friendly and adept at chilling out unwary sunbathers who had recently been swept beneath the fish cannery’s waste pipe.
Just as I was about to give up on glimpsing Honey’s golden gams, a scream rang out. It was Honey! I un-holstered my banana and took the stairs two at a time. Honey’s door was ajar. I burst through, leapt over the couch, caught my foot on the end table and careened shoulder first into the bathroom door. Honey screamed again as I crashed through. “AAHHHHHHH DICK!!! What are you doing here!? And, why are you wearing those ridiculous glasses???” she yelled. I reached up and found that I was still wearing my Jr. Detective Disguise Kit “Groucho” Glasses. I’d worn them on surveillance the night before. I must have fallen asleep in them. No wonder I was getting all those extra odd looks today.
“Sorry! I thought I heard you scream,” I said.
Honey gathered her towel the rest of the way around herself and gave me a hard shove out of her bathroom. “I was just frustrated at how the salt air rusts out my hairspray cans before they’re empty,” she said, her pouty lips curved into a frown. “This stuff has got to last! Now quit pointing that banana at me and make me a cuppa joe.”
“Sure Honey,” I said. I started the coffee and stood in the kitchen, absentmindedly peeling my banana. I smiled as honey dropped her towel just before she stepped behind her changing screen. Old habits die hard. Still smiling, I bit into the banana… and chipped a tooth! Damn! Grossmann’s bananas were the greenest.
To Be Continued…