The Skydivers (1963) (part 1 of 7)
Normally when we work on these recaps, we like to provide you, the reader, with a little background information. The juicy hows and whys of the movie production—or more likely the answers to questions that will occur to you while watching the film. Questions like: “What were they thinking when they decided to produce this piece of garbage?” And so, when I first set about to recap The Skydivers, I foolishly attempted that approach.
First, I looked in Ephraim Katz’s The Film Encyclopedia for director-writer Coleman Francis. Though he spent years as a character actor, and was the director of three films (all abysmal), he doesn’t get a mention here. So, I decided to look up producer Anthony Cardoza. After all, he’s got his own production company and has appeared in lots of low budget stuff. He should be listed, right? Nada. If it makes anyone feel any better, Hal Warren didn’t get a mention either.
So I changed tactics. What did Leonard Maltin think of this film? No entry. Of course, now that he’s broken his book into new and old movie editions, you can never find the movie you’re looking for, anyway. So not a big deal, except Beast of Yucca Flats actually did get listed. And… how? On the merits of a Tor Johnson appearance?
Even on the internet, there’s precious little of the history that led to this dark, dank, depressing little movie. The IMDb has the usual small blurb. (Though I’d love to know who put the following on Coleman Francis’ trivia page: “Father of actors Ronald Francis and Alan Francis,” considering they were only in two films, and both of them were made by… Coleman Francis. I also like that his last acting credit was “Fat Drunk” in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.)
As expected, there are some MST3K fan sites that provide a synopsis of the episode this movie appeared in. And then there are the websites of a few radical thinkers who argue that Coleman Francis’ misogynistic work was his way of sticking it to Hollywood, and that with more money, his movies would stand today as great cinematic achievements. Sure. And then there’s one scant (but good) interview with Tony Cardoza that gives us precious insight into just what was going on in the desert for three crazy movies.
Currently, Francis’ other two films, Beast of Yucca Flats and Red Zone Cuba have much bigger followings (if that’s the right word) than this film. Yucca Flats was actually considered a success (by the filmmakers) and Red Zone Cuba, as Albert has shown, was such a dreary mess it’s become a cult classic. Skydivers, however, is the forgotten, neglected gem of the Coleman Francis trilogy. Perhaps that’s because it’s actually the best of the three, and almost verges on watchable. Is that saying a lot? No.
And yet, this little forgotten film is netting the Booth six, yes six, Repeat Offenders. They are: Coleman Francis (Griffin in Red Zone Cuba), Tony Cardoza (now a Three Strikes Repeat Offender thanks to his roles in Red Zone Cuba and The Hellcats), Harold Saunders (Cook in Red Zone Cuba), Eric Tomlin (a policeman in The Hellcats), Marcia Knight (Helen in Impulse), and Frederic Downs with a whopping four offenses (Jack the Innkeeper in The Hellcats; Tinsley the cop in Red Zone Cuba; and Professor Erling in Terror From the Year 5000)! Of course, these are also the only actors in The Skydivers to actually appear in any other movie at all besides this one. But it also shows how all these people had shockingly poor judgment when it came to finding work. Think about that the next time you’re feeling blue about your job. Then say to yourself, “Well, at least my work hasn’t made me a Four Strikes Agony Booth Repeat Offender.”
So with precious little in the way of actual behind-the-scenes dirt to share with you, dear reader, I decided instead to just reconstruct the whole thing in my own head. Step 1: Coleman Francis knows a guy who knows a guy who’d been a paratrooper in the Korean War, and still jumps all the time for the fun of it. Step 2: Coleman writes a story on a cocktail napkin about it, or possibly on the back of a fortune cookie fortune. Step 3: Tony Cardoza has some money in a shoe box he’s eager to throw away. Step 4: They rent some equipment, borrow a couple planes, and make a movie. But this time, rather than only involving themselves (as in the nearly cast-free Red Zone Cuba), they think, “Hey, we’re weirdoes, and we know a ton of other weirdoes. Let’s include all of them in bit parts in our movie!” And with reasoning and planning like that, how could this movie possibly fail? Step 5: Movie fails. Then, finally, comes the inevitable Step 6: The Agony Booth recap.
The credits open with random scenes from the movie edited together, which pretty much give away the entire film. The title score swells grandly, trying desperately to assure us the movie will be thrilling and suspenseful. Hey, at least John Carradine’s not singing. Point in the movie’s favor right away. Later in the credits, we’re promised more music, courtesy of the incomparable Jimmy Bryant and His Night Jumpers. Which means they either formed solely for this movie, or they’re a very skydiver-centric band.
One title card lets us know the movie has a guest star. Oh boy, who could it be? Beast of Yucca Flats had Tor Johnson, Red Zone Cuba had John Carradine, so you know this is going to be good! Yes, it’s the great… Titus Moede, as Frankie! Or as I like to call him, Kool Titus Moede. Or as I also like to call him, Who? I don’t know, I’m not sensing real Guest Star appeal. He has more of a Guest Meteorite Fragment feel to him. Seriously, this guy was the sound mixer on Beast of Yucca Flats, and that qualifies him for guest star billing? Did Yucca Flats sweep the sound awards at the 1961 Crap Oscars or something?
Also, the opening credits, which go on and on and feature dozens of names, include a mixture of Cardozas and Francises that’s a little too rich for any one movie to run smoothly. There’s Tony Cardoza, Tony Gary Cardoza, Coleman Francis, Paul Francis, Barbara Francis, Alan Francis, Ronald Francis—well, you get the idea. Tony Cardoza wasn’t exactly shelling out top dollar for talent here. And yet, way, waaaay down in the billing, fourth from last on like, the sixth screen full of names, we find Frederic Downs. An actual grade Z actor! Seen most recently here at the Booth in Hellcats. So. Kool Titus Moede gets Guest Star billing, and poor Fred Downs gets a credit next to one of Coleman’s kids? Nice one.
With exactly the technical skill you’d expect from this movie, the music runs out way before the title sequence ends, so we’re left to watch silent footage of two guys skydiving. The story hasn’t even started, and already Coleman is in over his head.
Our movie proper opens to bright and cheery music. Somewhere out in the desert, a gal in coveralls is sprucing up an airplane. A white T-Bird drives up, and another gal gets out and approaches. Now comes one of the worst aspects of this movie: dialogue. Even though it features a lot of people falling out of planes, this movie is actually incredibly light on action, so it has to rely mostly on dialogue. This was not a wise choice, given how the main prerequisite for getting cast in The Skydivers was not so much acting skill as it was being a friend of either Coleman or Tony.
Every line sounds like it comes out of a bad high school play. Add to that the lousy script (which Coleman actually took credit for writing), and you get scene after scene just like this:
Beth: [in a flat monotone] Frankie’s not here.
T-Bird Gal: Oh? When will he be here?
Beth: He won’t. He was fired.
T-Bird Gal: Fired?
Beth: [glaring at her] Suzy, Frankie was fired for being drunk. Besides, I don’t think you came out here in the hot sun looking for Frankie.
Now, just imagine this stilted but otherwise marginal exchange as performed by Frankenstein’s monster and Robby the Robot. It’s unnatural and uncomfortable, from the dialogue to the staging to the acting. As such, it’s unfortunately an excellent indication of what’s to come. It’s as if Coleman put up a warning label right at the front of this movie. Get out now! Start up your pickup and peel out of the drive-in! Hurry, before your date falls into a coma!
The music in this scene is completely wrong, too. It’s still the bright, cheery driving music, and in no way matches the (supposed) tension between these two characters, which the dialogue (and Beth’s glaring) just established.
So why don’t they like each other? Well, that leads to our next hard-to-swallow pill. They’re both in love with the same man. Which man? Why, Tony Cardoza, of course! I know what you’re saying to yourself: “Duh! Who isn’t?”
Speaking of the object of their affections, Tony drives up and gets out of his jeep. He looks at the girls and stares blankly at them. This could be an uh-oh they’re talking about me look. Or maybe he’s just wondering if he has time to pick up his dry-cleaning after the shoot. He’s hard to read.
The girls look at Tony, then Suzy gives Beth a strange once over and a smirk, apparently a jab at Beth’s unattractive coveralls, as if to say, “Yeah, he’s really gonna want you when you look like Joe Patroni.”
Suzy walks away and Coleman gives us a generous helping of Suzy butt—and what a butt it is! By the looks of it, I’d say Suzy’s had three, maybe four kids, is about 40, wears granny panties, and has been hitting the donuts, hard. In case I have to spell it out for you, there’s a lot of cottage cheese down there. Then we see from Suzy’s tightly packed mid-section that she’s also sporting a girdle. It’s just too bad (for us) she didn’t think to wear it slightly lower. This, ladies and gentleman, is Coleman’s vision of the hot town hussy that no man can resist. This film brings the concept of Pioneertown Hot to an all-time low.
Tony, whose character’s name is Harry, walks up to Beth after Suzy leaves. He just stares at her. She tells him there’s coffee on the stove, and that she’s going to take a repaired plane up for a check. He just nods a marriage is suffocating me nod and steps over a fence to head inside. Now, if only he never says anything throughout the entire movie, that could be kind of funny. Going all Marcel Marceau on us using all two of his facial expressions.
Beth smiles as he walks away, like everything is just fine. What a sad, self-deluded world she lives in. She then heads over to the airplanes. Now, do you really need to take an airplane up in the sky to make sure the engine is fixed? That seems a bit foolhardy to me. Shouldn’t there be ways to tell on the ground if it’s safe or not?
In this case, we’ll never know, because Beth can’t even get off the ground. In one of this movie’s editing masterpieces, we see Beth taxiing down the runway as her plane makes the goofiest sounds possible. Imagine someone sticking cardboard in an old oscillating fan, while jumping up and down on a squeaky old box spring, and you’ll have a pretty close approximation. And then imagine it’s Coleman Francis jumping up and down, while Tony Cardoza holds a boom mike, and you’ll be right on the money.
Upon hearing this, Harry turns and sprints down the tarmac toward the malfunctioning plane. Now we see Beth’s plane in close-up, and it’s obviously stationary in this shot, and being shaken violently by a couple of grips who (actually, kind of surprisingly) aren’t visible.
Harry runs under the wing of the allegedly moving plane, stops, turns around (while the “moving” plane patiently waits) and opens the door. Beth falls into his arms, like this was the most frightening 25 cent kiddy ride she’s ever been on. Come to think of it, shouldn’t he have been running after the plane, not toward it?
Regardless, I love this scene, not just for the stupidity seen so far, but for the three guys just casually walking around in the background like nothing is going on. Crackerjack framing and editing, Coleman! Anyway, Beth suspects that the drunk, recently-fired Frankie didn’t overhaul the engine. You’re kidding me! Man. With a drunk mechanic and (as we’ll soon see) a comatose pilot, no wonder you need a parachute when you come to this place.