I watched the 1953 movie "Prince of Pirates" last weekend. It is now forever ensconced in my personal pantheon of memorable movies.
That's because it was, far and away, the worst movie I've seen in at least 10 years.
I've never been one for swashbucklers but this one was in a class by itself. I was going to write that it was the worst I've seen in at least 20 years but didn't want you to think I was being hyperbolic. Worst in the past decade is bad enough.
It's not the worst I've ever seen. That was the 1978 film "The Norseman" directed by a fellow of marginal-import named Charles B. Pierce (He wrote Clint Eastwood's "Sudden Impact.") In "The Norseman," Lee Majors, no less, played an 11th century Viking prince who sailed to America in search of his father. For reasons never explained in the movie, the actors playing Vikings in the cast wear Lone Ranger masks. Call it the first and last Vikings and Indians movie and you've probably gotten its number.
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Back in the late '70s, we tried to review every movie that came to Shea's Buffalo Theatre. "The Norseman" was an astoundingly bad accident in the departmental policy. It was nominally a "B" movie certainly but it wasn't throwaway insta-trash. Its cast included Cornel Wilde, Mel Ferrer, Jack Elam, Chris Connelly and Kathleen Freeman, all noble practitioners of the "B" movie trade.
That's the secret, for me, of the profoundly bad movie. You can't think of them as throwaway garbage. Truly transcendent junk requires a morsel of ambition. Somebody involved in the movie has to be perceived as actually trying. In the case of "Prince of Pirates," that was Barbara Rush, the reason that TCM was running the film in the first place. Crucial to understand is that the estimable Rush is still with us. She is 95.
So don't do what I did, as a matter of knee-jerk reflex, which is to curse TCM for baring its corporate taste so nakedly. Though I didn't hear Ben Mankiewicz mention that she's still with us in the movie's intro and outro, the obvious intent was to celebrate a lifelong busy actress for her entry-level career in 1953, when she was also declared a "New Star" by the Golden Globes for her performance in "It Came From Outer Space." "Prince of Pirates" was a stunningly leaden and joyless delayed companion movie to the same producer's "Prince of Thieves" – Jon Hall and Patricia Morrison in that one.
The subject of awful movies is a very interesting one. It took on a new life for those of us who were part of TV's first generation. Cheap old movies were easy, go-to programming in the earliest days of TV.
There was a plenitude of such fare, enough of them to fill air time from here to eternity. Not all of them were rubbish, of course. I remember, when I was 10, being home sick as a kid and watching on the midday movie "I Walked With A Zombie" an ultra-trash title if ever there was one. I was too sick to change the channel. How was I to know at that age that the great primal movie critic James Agee was a huge fan of that movie's producer Val Lewton? The film is no masterpiece but it's certainly masterpiece-adjacent. All I knew for years until I began looking things up is that it has always haunted me.
During the Reagan presidency, Johnny Carson always made a standing joke out of Reagan's chimp movie "Bedtime for Bonzo."
Watch the film sometime. It's smarter than at least 60% of the sitcoms in TV history. It's a challenging "idea movie," a primitive comedy about nature vs. nurture. Imagine what might have happened if George Bernard Shaw had suddenly gotten it into his head that he should be writing movies for 11-year-olds.
The reason Carson made so much fun at the movie's expense is that its director Fred de Cordova was his "Tonight Show" producer.
I hope you understand that the minute I discovered Rush was still with us, I privately applauded TCM's sentimental programming gesture – a whole evening devoted to her films.
Apart from Rush, whose blessed longevity seems to have been the reason for "Prince of Pirates'" inclusion, the movie has otherwise not a single thing to recommend it to anybody.
But imagine the grand old actress now coming upon TCM showing her larval career attempt to inject spitfire life into a movie that never, for a second, deserved it. It would be lovely to think of her remembering her youthful idealism.
When I thought about her contribution to the energy of the film, though, I found it nothing but depressing. Her liveliness made everything else look that much worse.
An oddity of being a professional movie critic for seven decades is that people, when they meet you, usually ask first for recommendations of current movies to see. Then they ask "what's the best movie you ever saw?" Then "what's your favorite movie?"
Once they have gotten to know you better, they want to get down and dirty: "What's the worst movie you ever saw?" Sometimes they'll edge into the question shyly. Other times, they will brazenly communicate their desire to party down.
That's why TV was so important. Movies, old and not so old, have always been profusely visible on TV since Day One. We've all seen a ton of garbage of all kinds on TV. No wonder we find it so easy to ask – and talk – about the major contenders in our personal repertory cinemas.
TCM is taking its responsibilities much more seriously these days – so seriously that the "classic" part of its very name has clearly bitten the dust and been redefined as merely "memorable."
Part of "The Movie Generation" – which emerged from the first TV generation – is that they invented the idea of the "underground" and "cult" movie.
Which, in its newfound dedication to diversity, TCM turned to for the midnight Friday show "TCM Underground" from which Millie De Chirico and Quatoyhiah Murray selected from the 400-plus that have been shown, 50 of the most memorable since 2006 for a book called "TCM Underground: 50 Must-See Films From the World of Classic Cult and Late-Night Cinema" (Running Press, 230 pages, $24.99). You'll find all manner of jolly cinematic flotsam and jetsam in this book written with uncommon expertise and intelligence. You'll find everything from " Across 110th St." and "Friday Foster" to "Shack Out on 101" and "Eating Raoul" and Joseph Losey's "Secret Ceremony" (Elizabeth Taylor and Mia Farrow) and "Blacula" and Monte Hellman's "Two-Lane Blacktop" and, yes, Roger Corman's "The Trip."
I applaud TCM's expanded specialty affections, especially Eddie Muller's "Noir Alley" at midnight Saturdays and 10 a.m. Sundays. On this weekend's "Noir Alley," it is showing one of the best movies it has had in a while, Delmer Dave's "The Red House," which Muller describes as horror noir.
I remember being chilled to the bone by its ending when I first saw it – as well as tickled by the antsy hormonal antics of Rory Calhoun and Julie London and chilled by Edward G. Robinson as one of post-war Hollywood's earliest and scariest creations in what people are now pleased to call "the patriarchy."
Let's face it, though, if not for Rush's splendid longevity, I would have found it impossible to celebrate "Prince of Pirates" on any film list anywhere. Some films, I think, are meant to perish for the good of us all – not to be canceled, mind you, but perish by virtue of their total absence of worthwhile content.
But that, of course, comes with its own thorny self-contradiction.
When a film is as unwatchable as "Prince of Pirates," it makes for a ready-made answer to the lively and perennially commanding question "What's the worst film you've seen in the past decade?"
Hard not to get your attention, that one, I think.