Monday, December 28, 2015

HERCULES IN NEW YORK (1969)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*

I panned the hell out of the script for 1953's THE NEANDERTHAL MAN, which was particularly bad considering that the same writing-team, Aubrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen, produced THE MAN FROM PLANET X in 1951.

HERCULES IN NEW YORK, solely credited to Wisberg (his last such credit), is far worse than NEANDERTHAL MAN. Yet I must admit that HERCULES is superior to the earlier film in one respect. Since NEANDERTHAL appeared during the height of the 1950s SF-craze, its "Doctor Jekyll and Mister Caveman" storyline might have had some potential to be good.

In contrast, there was almost no chance that a comedy about the demigod Hercules descending to Earth would be any good at the time when it showed up on theater-screens. Despite the fake movie poster seen in the still above, Italian muscle-hero films had fallen out of favor by 1969, and I'd be surprised if any of these creaky epics had appeared in theaters during the five years previous.

NEW YORK is even cheaper and creakier than the Italian muscleman films, and is remembered today only as an early role for Arnold Schwarzenegger, over ten years away from his breakout success with 1982's CONAN. At the time Arnold's only fame stemmed from winning a "Mister Universe" contest, and he's billed here as "Arnold Strong," probably as a play on the name of his co-star Arnold Stang. In addition, because his Austrian accent was deemed overly thick, Arnold is sometimes dubbed over.

Centuries have passed since the days when the Greek gods were worshiped. Yet for some reason, when 1969 rolls around, the demigod Hercules, who's apparently been tooling around the halls of Olympus with the other gods throughout those centuries, gets the idea that he wants to visit Earth again. I'd be a little curious as to where Wisberg got his basic plot, since it seems to me that I've encountered earlier stories where Hercules harbored the same wish, and got the same negative reaction from Big Daddy Zeus, who wants his son to stay put. However, this Zeus is particularly dumb, for when Hercules annoys Zeus with a lot of whinging, the god-king zaps Herc with a thunderbolt. (It looks like a jagged pipe-cleaner, by the bye.) The effect is to dump Hercules down on Earth (technically, in the ocean near New York). This might seem to be a classic reprise of the old "don't throw me in the briar patch" schtick, except that Herc doesn't expect the result and Zeus barely comments on his goof. Once Herc is on Earth, Zeus just pettishly watches for a while from his cloud. So does his wife Juno, who still resents Hercules as being the fruit of some other woman's loins after Zeus did some planting therein.

For a while the Olympians watch from beyond while Hercules makes his way to New York. Though the Greek hero magically speaks English, he doesn't understand Thing One about American customs. Enter Stang's character "Pretzie," playing a basic 98-pound weakling, who guides Herc through the rigors of modern life. Surprisingly little is made of the physical disparity between the "two Arnolds." Less surprising is the script's inability to provide any reason why Pretzie befriends Hercules, who acts as if everyone should know him on sight as the Son of Zeus, and who repeatedly clobbers anyone who doesn't show him the proper deference. Maybe Wisberg's idea was that Herc represented a fantasy-ideal to Pretzie, doing the kind of things Pretzie would like to do-- which is about as psychological as this lame film gets.

Once the two Arnolds have teamed up, Herc's muscles get them into the Big Time, earning the Greek muscleman accolades for athletic accomplishment. He also gets noticed by some gangster-types, who force Pretzie to sell them Herc's contract, though the audience barely sees Herc doing much of anything by which a gangster might make money. Mostly the hero keeps butting heads with confused New Yorkers-- including a bear escaped from the zoo-- until Daddy Zeus has had enough.

Zeus orders Nemesis to execute his will; to consign Herc to the deathly realm of Pluto. This sounds like filicide, but apparently it's just a temporary punishment. Juno, however, wants Herc dead for real, so she persuades Nemesis to slip the hero a mickey to remove his super-strength. Herc loses his strength at a critical moment and costs his gangster-bosses some dough. So then it's a race, if you can call it that, to see whether Herc gets killed by the crooks before his Big Daddy can give Herc back his godly strength.

In addition to being entirely predictable, the ending is flat and without much emotional effect. I can only imagine this film being popular with filmgoers who hate Arnold Schwarzenegger, because it's nearly the only film where one can see Arnold beat down to the ground by a bunch of ordinary-looking schnooks.


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