Remembering Charles B. Griffith
Audrey II opens wide for her creator, Charles B. Griffith, in the original THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, colorized version.
"Life is an obscure hobo, bumming a ride on the omnibus of art."
-- Charles B. Griffith, A BUCKET OF BLOOD (1959)
Roger Corman has always said, though in not these exact words, that the recipe for a Roger Corman film was a good, fast-moving story, rich in exploitation potential, with an added element of social commentary or satire. Even if audiences didn't consciously pick up on that last part, it was there and got under their skin. You don't find much of this secret ingredient in Corman's earliest works, like HIGHWAY DRAGNET (which he wrote) or SWAMP WOMEN, but from the time screenwriter Charles B. Griffith joined his posse on GUNSLINGER (1956), it was suddenly there in full force. GUNSLINGER starred Beverly Garland as a woman whose lawmaker husband is killed, motivating her to pick up his badge as the marshal of a small western town. Post-JOHNNY GUITAR (1954), of course, but still early enough to qualify as the frontline of feminist cinema.
Woe is us, as Howard Beale might say, because Chuck Griffith died of undisclosed causes on September 28th at the age of 77 -- and we are in a lot of trouble. With the possible exception of Charlie Kaufman, I don't see any other Chuck Griffiths climbing up the ranks of today's screenwriters and the movies need such voices -- irreverent, acerbic, edgy, well-read, flippant, disdainful of the hoi polloi yet also generous, transcendent. Griffith was an unpolished gem of a screenwriter, a beatnik/stoner/outsider who smuggled those crazed and (then) highly individual sensibilities into the mainstream via Corman's commercial cinema. He was the sort of writer who could answer cinema's cry of "Feed me!" by dashing off a non-conformist vampire script like NOT OF THIS EARTH and make room in it for Dick Miller to shine as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, or to introduce a character like Jack Nicholson's masochistic dental patient into the midst of the two-day mayhem of THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS; who could write a whole movie like ROCK ALL NIGHT that more or less took place in a single room; who had the audacity to write the dialogue for THE UNDEAD and ATLAS and A BUCKET OF BLOOD that ran the gamut from mock-Shakespearean to quasi-Homeric to Beat poetic. Chuck Griffith, man! Who else would have dared? Sometimes his quirky cantos got rewritten, but it was impossible to subvert their essentially subversive character. His zany script for Corman's Puerto Rican lark CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA is the reason why it's the closest thing to a Thomas Pynchon novel ever to appear on the screen... and Griffith pulled it off years before the first edition of V. hit bookstore shelves.
Griffith's credited screen work disappears between 1961 and 1966, a period of European self-exile after which he scripted Corman's still-shocking and iconographic THE WILD ANGELS. Yes, he was responsible for Peter Fonda's unforgettable tirade: "We wanna be free! We wanna be free to do what we wanna do! We wanna be free to ride! We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man! And we wanna get loaded! And we wanna have a good time. And that's what we are gonna do. We are gonna have a good time... We are gonna have a party!"
One of Chuck's known activities during this blank period is tagging along with his pal Mel Welles to work as a script polisher on the Italian cheapie now known as THE SHE BEAST -- the directorial debut of Michael Reeves (WITCHFINDER GENERAL). It was apparently Griffith's idea to turn the horror film into a tongue-in-cheek essay on how the mythologies associated with Transylvania were corroding under 20th century communism. Chuck Griffith, man! Who else would have effing dared?? Mel Welles told me that it was his idea for the moment when the resurrected witch Vardella kills someone with a scythe, then throws it across a mallet to form the hammer-and-sickle symbol of Soviet power -- but I've always felt that Griffith must have had a hand in it. It was precisely his brand of crazy, a Third Man in a triumvirate with PAIN Magazine and the statue called "The Third Time Phyllis Saw Me, She Exploded."
When Roger Corman had the idea to make a film about LSD, Griffith was still his go-to guy for cutting edge counterculture and he asked him to write the script. The result was deemed "unfilmable" by Corman, because it was too long, too costly, too outré, whatever -- so the job of writing the film ultimately fell to Jack Nicholson. When Charlie Largent and I were writing THE MAN WITH KALEIDOSCOPE EYES, our comic screenplay about the making of THE TRIP, the character of "Chuck" sprang to immediate life and got a lot of the script's best dialogue. Joe Dante (who has optioned the script) later told me that, when Quentin Tarantino read it, his first response was to say that he wanted to play Chuck. Well, you know and I know that Quentin says a lot of things, but I think his reaction shows what a standout character Chuck became in our scenario. I don't know how the casting cards will eventually play out, but Quentin went on to dedicate "DEATH PROOF" to Charles B. Griffith, and I'd be happy if our script played even a small part in putting that particular bee in his bonnet.
Consequently, I am feeling at the moment not only as though a hero has died, but that one of my characters has died -- one that Charlie and I loved so much, we worked extra hard to assign him a happy ending. I never got to meet the real Chuck Griffith. Joe tells me that Chuck never got to read the KALEIDOSCOPE script, which is a shame, but then again, he might have felt funny about it. I feel confident that the movie will be made someday and shine a spotlight once again on Griffith's particular maverick shade of genius.
Griffith also directed a half-dozen films over the years, the most commercial being EAT MY DUST! (1976) and the most interesting being DR. HECKYL and MR. HYPE (1980) with Oliver Reed, a contemporarily comic twist on the R. L. Stevenson story about man's dual nature -- but directing was not his strong suit. He was a writer through and through.
A lot of people get away with saying they did it their way, when they actually spent years if not decades paying their dues and kow-towing to lesser mortals, but as far as I know, Charles B. Griffith really did do it his way -- living in Hollywood (later, San Diego) but apart from Hollywood, living incognito on giant silver screens, directing enough movies to know it wasn't what he was best at, writing a number of genuine countercultural classics -- and he'll always be immortal to those who care as one of the primary colors, arguably the primary color, in Roger Corman's palette.
From his point of view, Chuck undoubtedly saw things differently and harbored some bitterness, as I know Mel Welles also did -- but I'm betting that, deep down, he knew moments of deep satisfaction in the crafting of his work, enough to matter, and that he understood he was living the life given him to live. Not as the celebrated Walter Paisley, sitting on his throne with a toilet plunger scepter, as he once parodied every artist's dreamed-of moment of success, but happier still as "an obscure hobo, bumming a ride on the omnibus of art."
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