Tuesday, 18 August 2015
Fight of Fancey
I’ve wanted to see all of 1957’s FIGHTING MAD ever since its last television screening on the Movies4men channel back in 2011. I only caught the tail end of the film then, and couldn’t for the life of me work out what lonely, dark alleyway of cinema I’d chanced upon here or indeed what time or place this film had been made in. A disorienting, but alluring experience that- let’s face it- is a rarity given the bland and predictable nature of TV these days, where few films make it onto the box that haven’t already been well documented or released onto DVD. Had I caught the film in the middle of the night, rather than the early morning, I would have given serious consideration to the idea that I’d dreamt seeing it. My initial impression was that Fighting Mad was a poverty row Western made in Hollywood at some point in the 1930s, an assumption formed on the basis that Movies4men were quite partial to screening that type of fare. 1933’s Jaws of Justice – in which a heroic canine battles gold rustlers- seemed to be on the channel at least twice a week back then.
As Fighting Mad went on though tiny details began to poke holes into that thinking, if this was a product of 1930s Hollywood why did the two leads have extremely well educated British accents? However the unnaturally post synched dialogue meant it couldn’t also be ruled out that this was the badly dubbed version of a foreign language film. And what was I to make of all of the film’s heavy handed attempts to establish Canada as being its setting?
It was only by the time I made it to the closing credits that Fighting Mad began to give up some of its secrets and the pieces of this puzzle finally started to slide into place. The end credit acknowledgment that Fighting Mad was ‘photographed entirely on location in Scotland’ sure shattered any thought that this was an American or even Canadian production, and understandably came as a huge surprise to me. The biggest clue as to who was responsible for the journey to planet obscuro I’d just taken was the listing of ‘Adrienne Scott’ in the end credits. Adrienne Scott being the acting name of Adrienne Fancey, the daughter of the infamous film producer and distributor E.J. Fancey. Her presence quickly giving the game away about Fighting Mad being one of E.J.’s own productions, as Adrienne rarely -if ever- acted outside of her father’s films.
Edwin John Fancey was the crooked grandfather of British exploitation cinema. In the business since the early forties, Fancey’s busiest period would be the 1950s. While his output largely consisted of crime films –in keeping with that of close competitors Butchers Films and the Danziger Brothers- Fancey’s opportunistic eye for pop culture trends would also see him producing a cinematic cash in on radio’s The Goon Show called Down Among the Z Men, and the first British Rock and Roll film in 1957’s Rock You Sinners. In that typical exploitation film huckster manner Fancey displayed little care, insight or understanding for whatever subject he had in his sights. A cynical attitude to the material permeates Rock You Sinners, whose onscreen turns are for the most part jazz musicians attempting to adapt to rock and roll whilst no doubt quietly hoping the new music will turn out to be just a passing phase. One of the film’s songs “You Can’t say I Love you to a Rock and Roll tune” even openly puts down the very music the film is meant to be championing.
Fighting Mad falls well outside of E.J.’s usual remit, for what we are dealing with here is a British Western, filmed as already noted in Scotland, that for reasons now likely lost to time went to considerable lengths to pretend that it is set in Canada. A premise that is surely worth 50 minutes of anyone’s time.
Several Fancey productions showed up on Movies4men around 2011, although by that time these films had fallen into such obscurity that not even the channel itself appeared to have much of a clue about them, and had a habit of confusing them with better known films with the same titles. Fighting Mad was advertised as being the 1976 Jonathan Demme film of that name, while a few minutes into “Fools Rush In” –a b/w Fancey presented NYC thriller co-starring a young Betsy ‘Friday the 13th’ Palmer-should have tipped off viewers that they weren’t watching a 1997 romcom starring Matthew Perry and Salma Hayek.
The only way to rout out the Fancey films in Movies4men’s schedule tended to be their timeslots, E.J.’s productions rarely troubling their audience for over an hour. Even applying that line of detective work didn’t stop Fighting Mad from falling through my hands though, and naturally the screening that I only caught the last twenty minutes or so of turned out to be its final airing on Movies4men. Thankfully the film turned up again last month on the fledgling Talking Pictures TV channel, the television arm of Renown Pictures who now appear to own the vast majority of the Fancey back catalogue. Something which would explain why not only have Fancey’s own productions been turning up on the channel, but also later films made by his children and/or common law wife Olive Negus-Fancey (Legend of the Witches, A Little of What You Fancy, White Cargo).
Fighting Mad focuses on Mike ‘Muscles’ Tanner (Joe Robinson), a boxer who is left traumatised after his latest two matches cause both his opponents to die in the ring. Guilt ridden, unpopular with the fans and incapable of continuing his career, Muscles and his wife Paula (Adrienne Fancey) decide to relocate from Scotland to Canada and live with Muscles’ uncle Jake (Beckett Bould). Neither appears to be deterred by the fact that his uncle lives a hermit’s existence high up in the Canadian wilderness, where he has earned the uninviting nickname of ‘Mad Jake’.
Unbeknownst to Muscles, surprises of both the pleasant and unpleasant variety await him and Paula in Canada. The good news is that there be oil in them there Scotland highlands…sorry Canadian mountains, and Mad Jake has discovered oil on his land. The bad news is that news of Mad Jake’s good fortune has already reached the villain of the piece, Walkers (Jack Taylor) a logging yard owner who has designs on stealing the oil and claiming the land as his own. Walkers’ scheme involves sending one of his heavies to prevent Mad Jake from registering his claim on the land, namely by shooting at Mad Jake whenever he attempts to leave his cabin. The presence of Muscles however means Walkers’ plan isn’t going to be an easy as he thought, and after an attempt to kill Muscles and his wife whilst they’re en route to Mad Jake’s place fails, all-out war is declared between the ex-boxer and the malicious lumberjacks that Walkers has sent to finish off Muscles and Mad Jake.
Although I was completely bamboozled by Fighting Mad the first time I saw it, looking at it again from the perspective of someone who has managed to catch several other Fancey films in the interim, and become wise to how he operated, it is now highly recognisable as one of his productions. The E.J. Fancey hallmarks come into play almost instantly here. Fancey was quite the fan of using second hand stock footage and merciless padding in his films, to an extreme degree, and the Fancey love affair with both shows no signs of abating with Fighting Mad. The utterly meticulous manner in which Fighting Mad documents Muscles and Paula’s journey from Glasgow to Canada can be judged by the fact that Muscles’ idea to travel to Canada occurs five minutes into the film, yet the couple don’t arrive at Mad Jake’s cabin until just after the half-hour mark of a film that only lasts 50 minutes.
Of course you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduct that the reason why we linger so greatly over their journey is that it was so inexpensive to film. Thus we get Paula and Muscles walking around Glasgow for a few scenes, Paula and Muscles getting on board a cruise ship, Paula and Muscles walking around on the deck of a cruise ship, a shot of a seagull. Stock footage of a train, Paula eating a sandwich and looking out of the window of a train, a panning shot over a map of Canada, more stock footage of a train, Paula and Muscles getting off a train. Paula and Muscles getting a lift in the back of a jeep, Paula and Muscles walking around a forest, and finally Paula hitching a ride on Muscles’ back. As the Mummy narrator says at the end of Antony Balch’s Secrets of Sex “so it goes on…and on…and on….and on…..and on”. A journey that in a typical film would be a 30 second montage, Fancey manages to stretch out to about 20 minutes of screen time.
When Fancey isn’t exhausting his leading man and own daughter to the extent that the latter has to ride on the back of the former, he is falling back on that other trusted Fancey standby, scratchy rat eaten stock footage. In this instance E.J. has gotten his hands on documentary footage of the Canadian logging industry, and this pre-existing footage of trees being felled by lumberjacks, timber being transported downstream and cable logging techniques acts as Fighting Mad’s main source of excitement while tensions between Walkers and Mad Jake are still only at simmering point.
In light of the fact that nearly everyone involved with the film is now dead, I can only speculate here, but I’d wager that certain elements to the film, the sudden availability of two Mountie outfits, the stock footage of a boxing match and the logging industry, and the use of a lumberyard location in Scotland all came together prior to the plot of the film. Resulting in some poor Fancey underling being handed the job of writing a script that incorporated a boxer, a pair of Mounties, the logging industry and a lumberyard setting. Given how inconsequential that setting and the fact that the bad guys are all lumberjacks are in the grand scheme of all things Fighting Mad, it is unlikely a person of E.J. Fancey’s character would have gone the extra mile of seeking out that particular type of stock footage and a lumberyard in Scotland purely to satisfy the whim of a scriptwriter. The bad guys might as well have been gynaecologists or firemen for all the bearing their occupation and place of work has on the plot of Fighting Mad. In fact if a reel of film relating to gynaecologists or the fire fighting profession had fallen into E.J.’s lab prior to this film being made, Muscles would have undoubtedly been battling evil firemen or evil gynaecologists in it.
While many a filmmaker benefited from the Eady Tax system until it was phased out in the early Eighties, E.J. Fancey can claim the prize for pushing harder than anyone else when it came to exploiting that well-meaning tax on box-office receipts. Intended to encourage activity in the British film industry, the Eady tax dictated that a percentage of a British film’s box-office earnings was diverted away from cinema chains and found its way into the pockets of the filmmakers instead. Just to give an idea of how powerful an incentive Eady money was to E.J., his 1940s filmmaking efforts prior to its introduction consisted of the odd travelogue short, whereas after its voluntary introduction in 1950 his productivity grew to the extent that he was producing an average of five films a year throughout the 1950s. E.J.’s con appears to have been to make films for the least amount possible, bring them in at the shortest length possible, then send them out on a double-bill with a film that was a bigger box-office draw and make back his production money and a healthy profit thanks to the Eady money that would inevitably come his way.
I suppose the cineaste in me should be offended by Fancey’s output. Even the slightest exposure to the films clues you into the fact that E.J. clearly never gave a flying fuck about cinema, and it’s hard to believe that being involved with one of these films was a happy experience, you surely couldn’t have worked on a film like Fighting Mad and not feel the creeping realisation that you’d found yourself at the rock bottom of the film industry, that you were …ahem… Down among the Z-grade. Tales of Fancey himself paint a picture of a controlling no-nonsense Cockney, a creature of smoke filled Soho offices who wasn’t above threatening to dish out knuckle sandwiches to unruly crew members. ‘Bill Anderson’ the mean and repugnant pornographer that John M East plays in 1981’s Emmanuelle in Soho is said to have been based on Fancey, making East’s performance in that film one of the most unflattering portrayals of a real life human being outside of Raging Bull.
The list of people who began their careers in Fancey fare is an impressive roll call of figures who’d go on to play important roles in British exploitation cinema and in a few cases mainstream culture. Graham Stark, Robert Hartford-Davis, Jackie Collins, Michael Winner, Pete Walker and John M East all served their time either in front of or behind the camera in E.J.’s productions. Although the assembly line nature of the films they made on E.J.’s watch, coupled with the fact that none of their careers flourished until after they left E.J.’s orbit, makes it hard to put forward a case for E.J. being a Roger Corman-esque nurturer of future talent. It is also difficult to ignore the fact that in a couple of those cases we’re also talking about people from privileged backgrounds. Therefore their motivation for getting mixed up with Fancey was probably as a way of getting a foothold into showbiz, for it surely couldn’t have been for the chickenfeed people got paid for being involved in Fancey’s films. What toll did having E.J. Fancey as an entry level influence in showbiz take on these people though? Winner, Collins and John M East’s personalities are all bonded by a shared aura of ruthlessness, ambition and self-preservation. Were those qualities instilled into them by Fancey, or were those personality traits they had to grow merely in order to deal with a man like E.J. Rightly or wrongly Emmanuelle in Soho passes on such a nightmarish image of Fancey –cheating and bullying underlings, insisting on casting couch favours from actresses, generally laughing at the entire world behind its back- that it becomes hard not to take this insider portrayal of him with you when you watch his own films.
As I say the cineaste in me should be offended by Fancey’s output but I cannot tell a lie films like Fighting Mad, The Missing Scientists and Behind the Headlines have haunted me since I first encountered them, and probably always will. The Fancey aesthetic can be a tough one to get acclimatized too at first, trust me they are maddening, infuriating experiences the first time around. The rules of conventional storytelling and filmmaking mean nothing in Fancey’s little world. The narrative of The Missing Scientists runs around in circles several times over, and begins with a five minute documentary style look at the day to day running of a nuclear research facility; a location the film abandons a few scenes later. At least The Missing Scientists has a plot, unlike Fancey’s Behind the Headlines. Imagine a film that can never fully commit to being either a documentary or a narrative film and unfaithfully goes back and forth between both. Imagine a film that looks like it was put together from leftover scenes from other films and whatever crap Fancey could scrape off the cutting room floor, and therefore has no real protagonists or antagonists. Imagine a film which includes five minutes of real life surgery footage, despite it being mentioned in the previous scene that the character meant to be the man in the surgery footage didn’t survive the operation. Behind the Headlines is that film.
Stick with Fancey’s films though, because the more you see, and the more you learn about why these films were made, the more you become in on the joke that these films are, and the con trick played on the film industry and the British public that they represent. Maybe it is a form of Stockholm Syndrome, but at a certain point with Fancey’s films you learn to re-program your sensibilities and what should by rights hit you as being utterly tedious becomes a source of fun. I laugh like a drain when a character in a Fancey film suggests a trip from A to B, knowing from prior experience of Fighting Mad and The Missing Scientists that we’ll be dealing with a tortoise paced journey from A to B here, one that will encompass every form of transport known to man. As I watch these films I hear in my head the collective groans of a 1950s audience about to embark on another of E.J.’s a long day’s journey into stock footage, as well as the obscene cackle of E.J. laughing all the way to the bank. Is that wrong and wicked of me? Maybe it isn’t just being around the man himself that causes his personality to rub off on you, maybe simply watching E.J.’s films can do that too. A cause for concern indeed.
With E.J.’s films I can guarantee you that they are like nothing else you’ll encounter in cinema. The sole reason they were made, to exploit the Eady tax situation, frees them from being duty bound to either impress the critics or entertain the public as all other movies are. From a purely sociological perspective these films are now a lasting history lesion in the underbelly of the British film industry of the 1950s. Think, as I once did, that the Butchers and Danziger Brothers films as well as those Edgar Lustgarten Scotland Yard shorts were as low as British films got back then, then be prepared to have the rug pulled from under you by E.J.’s antics, he went lower than any of ‘em. As bottom half of a double-bill material these films were what lay in wait for unsuspecting 1950s audiences with a hankering for the sensational. The price to pay for getting out of the rain and going to the cinema to see one of the trashy American or European horror films that E.J was distributing back then, was having to put up with something like Fighting Mad or The Missing Scientists as the co-feature.
For even seasoned exploitation film aficionados the penny pinching, relentlessly threadbare nature of Fancey’s films is often overpowering. ‘Action’ scenes in The Missing Scientists generally consists of ancient, nobody actors talking on the phone in some drab, miserable office, probably Fancey’s own. One such actor is so amateurish or indifferent about being in the film that he doesn’t even bother to disguise the fact that he is reading his dialogue off a piece of paper on the desk before him. A young Jackie Collins briefly plays the film’s femme fatale figure. An image the film builds up for her, only to then undercut it thanks to a few viciously unflattering profile shots whose bitchy purpose seems to be to point out that our Jackie had a right schnozz on her back then.
Watching Fancey’s films poses the intriguing question; can a person become an auteur filmmaker by accident? There can’t be a least likely character to try and build up as an auteur than Fancey, only a person deaf, dumb and blind could mistake him for anything other than a tough businessman who saw film as his way to a fortune. Yet, his films, especially the 40 to 50 minutes ones are instantly recognisable, they have their own set of built in characteristics, they speak their own language, they play by their own rules and nobody else’s, therefore they would technically pass the majority of tests for auteur cinema. E.J. is always the dominant factor, the directors of these films are unimportant and interchangeable. Whether the man in the director’s chair was Maclean Rogers, Robert Hartford-Davis, Steve Sekely, or in the case of Fighting Mad Denis Kavanagh is neither here nor there. Due to the strict, cheap skate, conditions they were made in the films always end up feeling like the work of the same man.
Fighting Mad might be the best place for the inquisitive to start, it gives you a crash course in ‘the E.J. way’, but unlike many a Fancey production doesn’t totally short change an audience. Once the padding and the stock footage is out of the way, Fighting Mad turns out to be an extremely simplistic, physical and exciting film. E.J. presumably having had the brainwave that sending a bunch of actors up to Scotland to run around, wrestle and knock each other out was as inexpensive to film as having them talk on the phone in his office. Despite its Glasgow set opening and initial reliance on 20th century means of transport, Fighting Mad definitely has aspirations towards being a Western, albeit a modern day one. The problem is that Fighting Mad is the kind of ‘modern’ Western that gives the impression that its makers hadn’t seen a Western for the previous twenty years. 1930s American serials and B-Westerns of the Republic and Monogram variety are heavily evoked in the gloriously over dramatic music that accompanies chases on horseback, gun battles and fist fights here. Also in abundance is a particularly American variety of insults, “you knucklehead”, “why you dirty double crossing rat”, “the dirty jackals” and my own favourite “you lily livered son of Satan”.
The appropriation of old west lingo by actors attempting to bury their own natural English accents under a mishmash of faux American and Canadian ones, frequently pushes Fighting Mad in the direction of parody. However Fighting Mad is an even greater source of unintentional hilarity due to its cast playing it straight as they deliver out of place and out of time dialogue like “I’ll keep an eye on that coyote”, “bless my hide if it ain’t Lucy’s boy” and “as it is we’ve gotta go round the Indian village”.
Fight scenes come complete with indications that the employment of a fight chorographer, or stunt doubles were luxuries that the production couldn’t afford. The scene in which Muscles exchanges blows with one of Walkers’ henchmen by a waterfall finds both actors becoming visibly preoccupied by losing their footing and the threat of slipping on the wet stones. Lending both an awkward yet believable quality to this fight scene, as well as the guilt trip of watching actors place themselves in what appears to be legitimate danger. Sure enough your fears and theirs prove to be well founded when the actor playing Muscles’ adversary falls backwards, hits his back against the cold, hard stone and winds up in the drink. Towards the end of the scene Joe Robinson, who plays Muscles, breaks from character in order to lend a hand to his co-star, discretely helping him get out of the water that their characters have just been slugging it out in. Good on ya, Joe.
Fancey films may plead poverty by giving the impression they were made by a family of paupers who didn’t have a pot to piss in, but there is one piece of evidence in Fighting Mad that argues the very opposite was true, and that this film biz thing was a very profitable racket for E.J. The evidence in question being his own daughter Adrienne Fancey, part of the profits from E.J.’s films look to have gone towards giving his children the best public school education that the era had to offer. Adrienne sounds like the queen, and resembles a young Margaret Thatcher, making it all the more hilarious when her character here introduces herself as “Mrs Muscles Tanner”.
The constant use of his daughter in his films, and the charges of nepotism this inevitably invites is countered by the fact that Adrienne was usually allocated the lousiest, secondary roles his films had to offer, often as receptionists and secretaries. Her entire onscreen purpose in Behind the Headlines is to make cups of coffee for Gilbert Harding. Not for a second do you get the impression that these films had a secret agenda of showcasing Adrienne’s talents. Ironically, she isn’t a bad little actress and someone who is easy to warm too over her successive roles in E.J.’s films. Adrienne might have risen up in the cast list by the time of Fighting Mad, but her status as the producer’s daughter offers her no special privileges here. The one-take nature of the filmmaking here is illustrated early on in the scene where Muscles and Paula leave the receptionists, watch closely and you’ll see Adrienne bash her arm on the railings as they leave, the first of multiple indignities that Fighting Mad has in store for the producer’s flesh and blood. It is impossible not to feel for the dear girl, Adrienne has the sophisticated demeanour of a person who’d be more at home attending a high society ball and hobnobbing with nobility, instead the cruel hand of fate dictates that she was shipped off to an inhospitable part of Scotland in order to appear in another of her father’s terrible films. Inappropriately sent there in high heel shoes and a flowing white dress, the rocky and woodland terrain soon transforms those high heel shoes into an instrument of torture. “They weren’t made for walking in the Canadian Forrest” claims Adrienne’s character in the film, a line straight from the heart if ever there was one. Fighting Mad also sees Adrienne having to go barefoot in scenes that take place in the lumberyard, jump from the back of a moving pick-up truck, stumble about further in the dreaded high heels, then finally stand behind the actor playing Mad Jake as he fires off a gun, which causes Adrienne to flinch and then hold her ears in pain.
Such is life for the long suffering daughter of an exploitation film impresario. Judging from what ended up onscreen, by the end of filming her feet must have been blistered, her arm black and blue and her hearing not what it once was. Adrienne Fancey emerges as quite the trouper in Fighting Mad, and completely earns your respect and admiration during the course of it. Can anyone blame Adrienne for losing the acting bug and opting for a quieter life behind the scenes soon after. I, for one, bloody well cant!
Special thanks to Grahame L. Newnham, the unofficial gatekeeper of all things Fancey, for providing me with a copy of ‘Behind the Headlines’ and several other Fancey obscurities.