Friday, November 29, 2013

The Life of Coleman Francis

Back in 2008, the original cast and crew of Mystery Science Theater 3000 gathered for a panel discussion at Comic-Con in San Diego. In the hands of a James Lipton or a Charlie Rose this might very well have been legitimately interesting and produced some fireworks, shedding new light on the actors and writers of the beloved show.

Instead, the event - like so much of what is fed to the masses to keep everyone neatly pacified - was a watered-down affair, hosted by funnyman Patton Oswalt, who reminded everyone to watch The King of Queens, and then proceeded to boldly lob grapefruit after grapefruit at the panel, which they effortlessly hit out of the ballpark, to the delight of the assembled sycophantic fanboys and girls. If you're looking for a discussion with MST's principles regarding creator Joel Hodgson being driven to quit because of producer Jim Mallon's obstinacy, you're better off simply googling "jim mallon dick," rather than watching the footage on the 13th MST box set.

However, despite the carefully tailored sterile tone, there was one truly instructive moment, a moment pregnant with subtext, heavy with the burden of history, that went completely unnoticed by the audience, the world at large, and even the panel members themselves.

"Was there ever a movie," Oswalt asks early in the discussion, "you started to sit down and watch and thought, ok, this is gonna be great, and then you realized, oh, this is actually a hidden gem, this is pretty good, orwas there ever a movie that was so bad, so horrifying, that you're like, this would be - we can't even make fun of this. This would be cruel."

"Manos the Hands of Fate," Bridget Jones Nelson pipes up. The crowd erupts in applause. A lost film from virtually the moment it was released in 1966 by El Paso fertilizer salesman Harold P. Warren, Manos was re-discovered by MST writer and cast member Frank Conniff, ridiculed during MST's fourth season in 1993, and has been an infamous cult classic ever since. 2011 saw a Manos special edition DVD, featuring the original movie, the Mystery Science Theater episode, and the 30-minute documentary Hotel Torgo.

Twenty minutes later, Frank Conniff throws in his two cents on Manos: "That seems like of all the films we did, that's kind of the one we brought to the world in a big way, um, that otherwise - and I also like to think that, when people talk about directors who made bad movies like Ed Wood, I like to think that we contributed to the fact that maybe Coleman Francis' name comes up."

A scant smattering of unenthusiastic applause greets the mention of Francis' name. The loudest clapping comes courtesy Kevin Murphy, the voice of Tom Servo for nine of MST3K's ten seasons.

Coleman Francis' last credit in a movie - acting, directing, or otherwise - is from 1970. He is billed as the "Rotund Drunk" in Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Less than three years later he was dead at the age of 53. If his partner Anthony Cardoza is to be believed, Francis was found in the back of a station wagon with a plastic bag over his head, and a tube either around his throat or in his mouth. He is interred in the Columbarium of Remembrance Mausoleum, near Cecil Kellaway, at Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles. His tiny nameplate reads simply: "Coleman C. Francis. 1919 - 1973."There are no books written about Coleman Francis. There are no documentaries about his strange Hollywood career, no webpages devoted to explaining the three movies he directed. Ed Wood fans chafe at the mention of the Medved brothers' The Golden Turkey Awards, but that's where most of them first heard of Wood. The book at least brought Wood's name to a whole new generation of fans and researchers. None of Coleman Francis' movies come up in the Medved's book. Francis himself doesn't come up in the Medved's book.

It's as though the coffee-obsessed, portly friend of Russ Meyer never existed.

In a world where a movie as ghastly as 1997's Titanic wins academy awards for best picture and director, and Elmer Bernstein starts his career by scoring Phil Tucker's Robot Monster, you would be right to characterize the absence of Coleman Francis from most scholarly works on American cinema history as cosmically unfair.

You would also be right characterizing all three of Francis' movies as nearly unwatchable. He knocked out three in six years as a director: The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961), The Skydivers (1963), and Red Zone Cuba (AKA Night Train to Mundo Fine, 1966). Individually they are the nadir or filmmaking, and watched in chronological order, seem to somehow get worse as you go.

But this is no reason for Francis to be forgotten. As shockingly bad as his triumvirate is, any one of them is still much, much better than, say, Ted V. Mikels' Astro Zombies. Yet, it is Mikels, not Francis, who gets his own chapter in ReSearch's famous Incredibly Strange Films issue.

So who was Coleman Francis? Sadly, there really isn't much to go by as far as surviving participants in the three movies he directed. The testimony of his welder friend/partner Anthony Cardoza, who was involved in all three movies, is tantalizing but clearly biased.

And then there are the movies themselves. Inscrutable, impenetrable, nonsensical, they stand as Francis' legacy to the world, and perhaps ultimately the best source of biographical material. If we know nothing else, we certainly know this: coffee and light aircraft were very important to this man. The more unsubtle points of the director's personality are there, however, embedded in the frames of his movies, waiting for the truly fearless to sift through them and make some sense of it all.
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