Bruce Kauffman 7:30 a.m., March 11
Dig a hole: Allan Arbus
He had the boogie on his fingers and the hubba-hubba in his soul!
It's one thing to overlook the fact that Allan Arbus was the only actor ever to immortalize screwball comedy director Gregory LaCava on film (W.C. Fields and Me). Even The New York Times failed to mention the actor's star-making turn as Jessy in Robert Downey's western parody, Greaser's Palace (1972).
Yes, he was the husband of famed photographer Diane Arbus and later a beloved cast member of the MASH* TV series, but for me, Allan Arbus will always have the boogie on his fingers and the hubba-hubba in his soul.
The time was the early '70's, an era when Hugh Hefner's swingin' empire was situated in Chicago. Hefner owned a movie house on the Gold Coast named, surprisingly enough, The Playboy Theatre. If you thought women's dimensions were the only ones to catch Hef's wandering eye, guess again. With its bunny broadloom carpeting, lush rocking chair seats, and perfect sight-lines, the Playboy was one of the city's most comfortable, if not ornate, movie destinations. There were even live bimbos, sporting trademark rabbit ears, pumping butter behind the concession stand.
The Playboy All-Nighter was a weekly showcase that kicked of every Friday and Saturday at midnight. The programming was an art house connoisseur's dream, dusk to dawn double features complete with pre-show cartoons and serials! It was here at a screening of Greaser's Palace that I first became aware of Allan Arbus.
While en route to Jerusalem to find work as an actor/singer, Jessy (Arbus) parachutes from the sky and lands in a western town run by the meanest varmint this side of the Pecos, Seeweedhead Greaser (Albert Henderson).
The film features this stunner of a cameo by a pre Fantasy Island Herve Villechaize. The lisping little man was never better than as Mr. Spitunia, the lucky guy fortunate enough to be married to the grits-stirring, cross-dressing Spitunia (Stan Gottlieb). (Get those dirty pictures out of your head.) Study Villechaize's sterling delivery of the line, "More grits, Spit?" He remains forever irreplaceable.
Christ's long hair is replaced by a Jiffy Pop Isro (the Jew's answer to an Afro) and a zoot suit covers His swimmer's body. Was Arbus the only Jew ever to play Jesus on film?
The film played 3 or 4 times a year, always on the second-half of a double-bill with Downey's previous film, the Madison Ave. satire, Putney Swope (1968). (Arbus first received screen credit in Putney.) Make no mistake about it: Greaser's Palace is a frightful mess, an outrageously parodic Christ parable. I throw myself on the mercy of the court. My critical aesthetic had not yet kicked in and this was long before I ever even considered trying drugs. Even before Pink Flamingos, Greaser's was my answer to Rocky Horror. There is no defense other than it must have looked good at the time.
Arbus gets to shine in the spirited musical number, Jessy's Back in Town. (The audience at the Playboy clapped and sang along.) What coverage on the part of the director! Compared to Downey, Vincente Minnelli was a stylistic virtuoso. The honky-tonk toe-tapper, forever soldered to my brain, can be found here at 1:08:15.
He is also remembered as playing the designated racist opposite Pam Grier in Coffy.
Arbus died on Friday at his home in Los Angeles. He is survived by his second wife, Mariclare Costello, two daughters from his first marriage, a daughter from his second marriage. Arin Arbus was was 95.
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