Book Review CornerMarch 26, 2009
MY LIFE OF FAILURE
by Sheldon “Buddy” Landwehr
Memory Lane Press, $29.95
“Everything I’ve done is no damn good!” These, the first words of Sheldon Landwehr’s autobiography, may seem unduly harsh, but upon reading through the list of the seventy-two movies on which he served as director and writer, one feels compelled to admit he may have a point: only the best are awful, most are simply unwatchable. Another man might feel badly about a career which has maintained itself below the level of mediocrity for more than sixty years, but Landwehr seems darned cheerful. “They were worse when I was trying!” he comments at one point, and his frankness in describing his own ineptitude is what lifts this book above more self-serving memoirs.
Landwehr began his career in the mailroom at low-budget crank-em-out Prolific Studios in 1941; within three months he had been promoted to assistant writer, thanks to a little thing called World War Two. “All the competent guys at Prolific got drafted, but I had fallen arches!” he explains. Soon Landwehr was cranking out as many as two scripts a week for deservedly forgotten Bs such as Gas Busters and The Island of Doctor Moron. By 1943 he had moved to directing; his first film, What’s That Clanking, was described by Leonard Maltin as “the worst robot butler movie ever made.” Others followed in quick succession, including Rotating Commandos, 1944; Stop that Hitler!, 1945; Map Chasers, 1945; and Hey! G.I.!, 1946. Most of these film were an hour long and featured twenty-minute scenes of two characters punching each other; they are considered so execrable that fifty years later Martin Scorcese personally lobbied for their destruction.
Then, in 1947, Landwehr attempted the somewhat more ambitious task of writing and directing a musical, and to everyone’s surprise it was a mild hit. Holiday Woman is the story of a woman who loves holidays, and as entertainment it fails in nearly every regard; it doesn’t help that the color film was developed improperly and so we watch green-skinned people against a purple sky. “I’m colour-blind, you see.” says Landwehr. But “the studio actually managed to turn the lousy color to our advantage, because they tacked on a prologue explaining that the whole story took place on Mars, which was a big deal at the time. They didn’t explain why the Martians were all excited by the Earth holidays, though.” Still, the ruse worked, and led to Landwehr being hired at more prestigious Superior Studios the following year, when Prolific went bankrupt.
“They wanted me to do another musical, but boxing pictures were also big, so they assigned me to do a boxing musical” remembers Landwehr. “That didn’t work out so good.” I’ll Never Box With You, My Lovely originally starred Manton Withers and Giggy McClane; they had to be replaced three weeks into shooting, due to sprained ankles apparently caused by Landwehr’s discarded banana peels backstage. “My mother always told me not to throw banana peels on the floor. I should’ve listened.” muses the author. Replacement stars Milton Suggs and Virginia Leith do their best, but are defeated by awful songs like ‘Give Dat Mug a Pasting for Me” and leaden dialogue written by the director:
Punchy Joe: I could really go for you, Sally.
Sally: But you’re standing right in front of me.
Punchy Joe: That’s right, maybe I should go outside and then come back and go for you.
It was not a hit. Still unfired, Landwehr was taken off musicals and put to work on crime films; Hey Presto! Murder!, 1949; Murder Irritates My Sinuses, 1950; Racket Mushers, 1951; and the aptly named Boring Underworld, 1952. “I meant that the underworld was boring it’s way into civic government, as in boring a hole, but I guess it was a mistake to put the word ‘boring’ in a movie title. That one made about twenty dollars at the box office.” Landwehr was taken off crime films and put onto historical material; the result, The Six Chives of Henry VIII, is probably the only film to be completely based on a typo. At this point the studio noticed his incompetence and let him go.
Surviving as a cobbler for the next five years, Landwehr was finally noticed for his strong anti-communist stance. “Those commies, they’d never tolerate a guy like me” he explains; he was hired to make propaganda films for right-wing studio Patriotic, helming the Dirty Reds series. From then on his career continued uninterrupted through most of the film trends for the next thirty years; a few selected titles show the variety of his misfires. The “Spaghetti Western” Shut Uppa-You Face, 1968; the “swinging Sex comedy” Swingers Love Doing It, 1971; the Blaxploitation flick Black Lady Quixote, 1973; and the dreadful semi-pornographic horror film Ghost Nuts, 1976, which featured a phosphorescently painted pair of testicles as its main special effect.
Drugs were having a strong effect on Hollywood at this time, and Landwehr benefited, as “people were so high they didn’t notice I didn’t know what I was doing. And a lot of movies were being financed as a part of elaborate drug deals.” This helps to explain astonishing bombs such as The Stepford Stepchildren Meet Sanfords Wives, 1979, and Quit Horsing Around, Man Called Horse!, 1981, which paired Richard Harris with Donnie Most from Happy Days. The disco musical Good Grief! It’s Wednesday! led to the breakdancing film Breakin’ Through the Night, and to it’s sequel, Breakin’ Even, both of which were notable for their all-white casts. Cleanin’ Up was a comedy about a fun-loving group of janitors, and features an eccentric performance by a man who Landwehr thought was Robert Stack but who, as it turns out, wasn’t; Lovin’ It, It the movie about “a marriage interrupted by an orangutang,” showed a reversion to form for Landwehr; it features a twenty-minute scene where two characters punch each other, and occasionally fall over cardboard boxes. Explains Landwehr, “I’m lazy, and to me punching is an acceptable way to fill screen time. Although Olivier seemed kind of angry afterwards.”
During the nineties, his career slowed only slightly as the proud bungler aged. “I was having trouble finding the studio, so if I did happen to stumble across it I just stayed there.” The Afro-American comedy Oh No You Didn’t! sparked protests from the NAACP; the kid’s film The Hardly Twins in Almost-land was never finished because “we killed the two leads, accidentally I mean. But we paid off the parents and hushed it up good. Oops, maybe I shouldn’t be writing this. God, I am such an idiot.” Recently, he’s directed the teen comedy Log Cabin!, and is slated to direct Vin Diesel in They call me Wine Gasoline next year. “I can’t say no, cause they keep giving me so much money! I’ve got it all in shoeboxes under my bed in my house at 1226 Laurel- don’t trust banks. Oh, there I go again.” It’s that peculiar brand of blithe honesty that makes us like the author, and makes this book such an entertaining read.
(This was printed in an altered version in Cracked magazine).