Friday, December 28, 2012

I'm Really in a Stew Over This!

As I mentioned in the very earliest days of this blog, I was raised on a stack of record albums from the film adaptations of Broadway shows. Time and again (and again) I would listen to the LPs of The Music Man (1962), Oklahoma! (1955) and, in particular, The Sound of Music (1965.) South Pacific (1958) was another one. I knew every song from all of these shows without every having actually seen the movies! (One exception being The Sound of Music, which is the first movie I can ever recall seeing in a theater... I made my poor mother sit through it almost all the way through twice!)

Later, I saw these films on TV or, later still, on faded, pan 'n scan VHS. Imagine my stunned reaction to recently catching South Pacific, fully restored, in wide-screen high-def on my 55” TV. It was sumptuously beautiful and positively overflowing with tan, hunky, scantily-clad men! Seeing a movie in a format that is more close to how it was intended to be viewed (even my way pales next to the cinema screen it was intended for) can really reveal details and splendor that just aren't appreciated in a smaller, cramped format.

But we really aren't even going to go into South Pacific today. What caught my eye was the appearance of one of the supporting players. Ken Clark played the towering, blonde sidekick to Ray Walston's Luther Billis, a character called Stewpot. It's not enough that there is a plethora of fit, good-looking sailors sprinkled throughout the movie (or, in some cases, jam-packed into numbers like “Ain't That Too Damn Bad” and “There is Nothin' Like a Dame”), there's also the lean, yummy Clark, trotting around in a cropped t-shirt and revealing demin trousers.

He's barely made his first appearance in the film when he swaggers over to a group of other men and hoists his jeans up by the belt, ensuring that his bulge will stand out!
Then, as he walks towards the camera during a later sequence, his bulge continues to hypnotize, making one look away from even the beautiful Ed Fury, who is also in the scene (and is certainly no slouch in his jeans either!)

With Stewpot stirring me up like this, I began to delve into just who this guy was because I had no real knowledge of him. He was born Kenneth Donovan Clark in Neffs, Ohio on June 4th, 1927, meaning he was about thirty during the time this movie was shot. A tall, lean, furry ferret, he really had to grow into his body before reaching the peak of handsomeness.

He'd gotten started on TV in the mid-'50s after serving in the U.S. Army for a considerable stint. His first gig was a bit role as a uranium prospector on one installment of The Jack Benny Program in 1955. Fortunately, slightly better parts awaited him in movies, such as the 1956 Guy Madison film On the Threshold of Space.

1956, in fact, proved to be a busy year for him. Having won a contract at 20th Century-Fox, he had supporting parts in Robert Ryan's The Proud Ones, Richard Widmark's The Last Wagon, Richard Egan and Elvis Presley's Love Me Tender and the Robert Wagner war film Between Heaven and Hell.

The following year, he had a bit role in The True Story of Jesse James and proceeded to TV roles on The 20th Century-Fox Hour (in a remake of 1951's The Frogmen), Jane Wyman Presents The Fireside Theatre, G.E. Theater and the first of four installments of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In one, he played one of the police detectives who is fed the murder weapon (a leg of lamb) by a murderess played by Barbara Bel Geddes. In another, he was a police detective who arrests Skip Homeier, another murderer, whose crime had been committed just to see if one could get away with killing someone when there's no motive.

He played a fireman in another episode and then still another (uniformed) policeman in a fourth.  His uniform pants seem to be making an impression here.
It would be a stretch to say that his career was taking off, though. He continued to act in plenty of television, from Death Valley Days to The Thin Man to M Squad, but rarely in a significant way. He's shown here with Gale Storm during a stop on The Gale Storm Show: Oh, Susanna!

Then came South Pacific, released in 1958. Here, he was cast by Joshua Logan (a Broadway and Hollywood director who frequently decorated his projects with prime examples of the male physique) as Stewpot. Standing head and shoulders above many of his costars, his blonde hair showing through his uniquely cut-out sailor cap, he made a strong physical impression.

Clark was given the part of “There is Nothin' Like a Dame” in which the notes get lower and lower and lower until you think it can't go any further (yet it does), though in truth, this was not his own voice. He was dubbed in the film by Thurl Ravenscroft, the man behind Kellogg's Frosted Flakes' Tony the Tiger (“They're greeaat!”) and the vocalist for “You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Incidentally, as a bass, I always loved that part of the song and could (and, I think, still can) sing it the same way.

South Pacific was a monumental production and was released as a Road Show production, with reserved seating in select, well-heeled theaters. Running 171 minutes, it was a big, visually-interesting, tuneful (and faithful) adaptation of the smash Broadway musical. It cost about $6 million, but made more than six times that back in the year of its release.

For general release, 14 minutes were trimmed from it, leaving some of the less integral, but character-building, scenes out. One of the casualties of this editing was Clark. Not so much his character (which was never fleshed out much in any case), but his body! There is a scene taking place at rehearsals for the big variety show that has Clark wearing nothing but a red Speedo. In the rendition of the film that most of us are familiar with, he is seen only in the background and mostly in profile.

In the Road Show version of the film (some bits of which are depicted here and are of a lesser quality than the rest of the restored movie), we see that he is shown closer and with more detail. Having had the words “Stew Pot” drawn on his t-shirt throughout the film, he hilariously has them written on his bare chest here! (As if anyone could mistake who he is!)

His contribution to the variety show is to be a strong man act wherein he will lift a brace across his shoulders with a nurse dangling from either side. He seems to have gotten some attention out of his fellow actor to the left as well!
His show costume consists of merely a skimpy brief with some grapes tacked on here and there! This, too, was cut out of the general release print, but, detective that I am, I have located a photo of it!
He still appears in the big finale of the variety show, sporting that delicious little grape number and some tan lines, to boot!
What kind of maniac cuts a movie and edits out the parts with a red Speedo-clad sailor and the same man in next to nothing but a few plastic grapes?! A heterosexual one, I presume.
Despite the considerable success of South Pacific, Clark found himself back on TV in shows like Highway Patrol, Lock Up and Sugarfoot (though there was an episode of Adventure Showcase called “Brock Callahan” meant to serve as a TV pilot for him. It wasn't picked up.) He also landed the lead role in a low-budget American-International movie called Attack of the Giant Leeches.

The bargain basement, 62-minute movie was shot in only eight days and was produced by the Gene Corman and his (eventually to be more well-known) brother Roger. It's become a staple of bad movie websites and was chosen for (mis)treatment by Mystery Science Theater 3000. Still, it affords some welcome glimpses of its male lead's hairy chest.

Bits of TV work and the occasional movie (such as a brief appearance in 1960's Heller in Pink Tights with Anthony Quinn and Sophia Loren) came his way until he won top-billing in the low-budget Columbia Pictures sci-fi flick 12 to the Moon. This one later wound up getting the MST3K razzing as well.

The progressive (for its time) movie concerned a dozen top scientists (ten men and two women) being sent to the moon. I say progressive because the cast was multi-racial as a result of the international selection of “brains” on board. So that we don't dwell too much on the science of the matter, we are treated to a shot of Clark on his way to an air shower, clad only in a low-slung towel!
Not only that, but look at the space suit Mr. Clark was given to fill out! Um... can we make that “13 to the Moon?” I wanna come!
With the virtual collapse of the Hollywood studio system and the lack of decent work for so many previously employed actors, many strapping, good-looking men discovered that they could head to Europe and forge all-new, successful careers there. Lex Barker, eager to shed his Tarzan image, had done so in Germany and body-building marvel Steve Reeves found great success in Italy as Hercules.

Figure-model-turned-actor Richard Harrison (shown at right), who'd played a navy pilot in South Pacific, was one of a horde of handsome, well-built men who jumped the pond to star in films made in Spain and Italy. Following this lead, Clark headed there himself and found considerable success. Amazingly, though he starred in a dozen-and-a-half or more movies in his new home base of Rome, Italy, few Americans (other than cult film buffs) probably had any idea of this!

He starred in swordplay flicks like The Defeat of the Barbarians (1962) and Biblical movies like Jacob and Esau (1963), even playing the son of Genghis Khan in a dark wig in Hercules Against the Mongols (1963)!

With age, he began to thicken out a tad in the face and physique. I think he looks even better than before! Apart from the strong man spectacles such as Hercules the Invincible and Hercules Against the Barbarians (both 1964), he also began to star in spy films. The success of Dr. No in 1962 had spurred a mountainous wave of imitators, many of which were made in Italy and surrounding countries.
There was None But the Lonely Spy and FX 18 (both 1964), followed by a three-film series in which he played a spy called Dick Malloy.
From the Orient with Fury (clearly aping From Russia With Love!) and Mission Bloody Mary were released in 1965 and 1966 brought Special Mission Lady Chaplin. He was even identified in some of these as “Agent 077!”

In them, he was a rugged, virile, seductive, manly presence, taking on bad guys and curvy ladies in equal measure.
He also worked in westerns, including 1964's The Road to Fort Alamo, directed by the famed Mario Bava, though it is not considered one of Bava's better efforts. More enthusiastically received was 1966's Gunman Called Nebraska, which was also primarily directed by Bava despite his not being credited for it.
Are ya getting the fur carpet on this guy's chest? I know that hairy chests aren't everyone's cup of tea, but if they happen to be yours, you're going to want to look this man's films up!

In 1967, he costarred with Irina Demick in the comedic spy-romance Tiffany Memorandum, ironic since she was the girlfriend of his long-ago boss at 20th Century-Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck! His role in this was Dick Hallam.

That same year, in Desert Commandos, he played a tall, blonde Nazi commando on a punishing mission in the Sahara. They're on their way to Casablanca with orders to kill Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill, who are meeting there in alleged secrecy!

In 1968, he made Fuller Report, that had him portraying a race car driver caught up in an espionage plot. His character's name was Dick Worth, making it the third different Dick in five films that he'd played since moving to Italy!
His final starring role in a movie came with 1969's Tarzana, the Wild Girl, a female take on the timeless and often retold Edgar Rice Burroughs story. The movie's primary draw was the scantily-clad, even nude figure of the girl playing Tarzana. Like many such epics, she was fortunate to have eyeliner and lipstick out there in the jungle...

In 1970, James Garner starred in the spaghetti western A Man Called Sledge and Clark was among the cast members to be found in it. This marked the end of his film career for over a decade. He made a return in 1981 as a Commando involved with clumsy terrorists in the comedic Teste di quoio.

During a temporary return to the U.S., he filmed a bit role as a flower man in Gene Hackman and Ann-Margret's Twice in a Lifetime (1985.) He also popped up in the Italian-made sci-fi flick Arena in 1989.

Remaining in Rome until his death of a heart attack in 2009 at the age of eighty-one, Ken Clark carried on a career that most of the people in his homeland weren't even aware of. His chiseled, manly looks were put to great use in movies that only saw scarce, if any, distribution in America. Did I mention that in between the Army service and his film career he worked as a figure model? You know I try to save the best for last. Get a load of those feet!  Now, I'll be off work and out of town for four days, so it will be well into the new year before I post again.  Best wishes to ALL for a very happy new year!!


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