“Gravity”: David Wechter and Michael Nankin’s educational film parody was a festival cult hit

By and on July 16, 2018

David Wechter and Michael Nankin’s short film Gravity (1976) — from the same co-directing team who created another Night Flight Plus streaming exclusive, Junior High School — is a parody of those 1950s-era educational A/V films you might have seen in public school classrooms in the ’60s and ’70s.

You can find this nearly 9-minute black & white comedic short — which became a perennial cult hit at an Ohio film festival, which we’re telling you more about below — in this Night Flight Short Film Showcase, which originally aired on November 14, 1987.

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Gravity features a young girl named “Mary Jane” who wants to know, “What is Gravity?”

She’s played by Michelle Stacy, best known for voicing “Penny” in The Rescuers and for being the “I take my coffee black…like my men” girl in Airplane.

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She gets nowhere by first asking some of her family members, including her parents — singer/songwriter Dave Frishberg and comedienne Mitzi McCall — and her topless “Big Sister,” in bed and enjoying oral pleasures with her boyfriend (although we’ve blacked-out her NSFW boobies in this safe-for-TV version).

Eventually, Mary Jane turns to Dr. Waxman of the Karl LaFong Foundation for Gravitational Research, who tells her that gravity is caused by a substance the world happens to be running out of, called “GR12.”

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Finally, animated cartoon character Jiminy Gravity — Frishberg, who wrote “I’m Just a Bill” for “Schoolhouse Rock,” provides his singing voice — shows up to tell us how we can all help conserve gravity by doing simple things like sitting on the floor and carrying helium balloons.

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Night Flight contributor Marc Edward Heuck worked a yearly 24-hour sci-fi film marathon in Ohio, and he tells us a little about his adventures with Gravity below.

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Marc Edward Heuk:

“I started attending the It Came from the Drexel North marathon in its second year of 1988, and later went to work for the Drexel Theatres after graduating in 1991.”

“Over that time, I saw Gravity become a phenom, from being just one of several sci-fi shorts screened throughout the 24-hour festival (other faves included Duck Dodgers, Mark Sullivan’s High Rise, and Sheldon Gleisser’s Mime Legend), to being THE short that the audience screamed for almost as soon as they filled up the 700-plus seat Drexel North on festival day!”

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“At that time, Picture Start, a short film clearinghouse in Chicago, would rent the film to the Drexel for the shows. But then one year – not sure which one – they sent a censored print which had both the ‘new’ credits that hid Stacy and McCall [Mary Jane credited as “Herself” and Mother credited to “Lil Cocker,” likely because the short film is a non-union production and both actresses were Screen Actors Guild members] and did not have Big Sister’s big moment.”

“Mitzi McCall used “Lil Cocker” for Wechter & Nankin’s Junior High School too, since that was also non-union, while her husband, Charlie Brill, appeared in that film under the name “Chickie Brewster.”

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“At that time, Bruce Bartoo — who created the Ohio 24hr Science Fiction Marathon (aka “It Came from the Drexel North”) — was in contact with co-director David Wechter, and let him know about it.”

“I think it was that same year that Bruce had a chance meeting with Michael Nankin, who was doing a press tour for the TV show “Life Goes On,” and was taken aback at Bruce’s memory/fandom of the film. The filmmakers arranged to strike an uncensored 16mm print for the exclusive use of the Marathon from that point onward.”

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“Eventually, the big ‘get’ was to try to find Michelle Stacy and bring her to the Marathon to meet her fans.

For a long time, she seemed untraceable. There was another Michelle Stacy who had starred in the Sam Raimi-produced Lunatics: A Love Story, but that wasn’t her.”

“Finally, I think I had the inspiration that since Stacy had done The Rescuers, she was likely still getting royalties from Disney for it, so Bartoo and Drexel boss Jeff Frank called in a favor, and in the Spring of 1998, we brought Wechter, Nankin, and Stacy to Columbus for the Marathon.”

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“We had a big reunion and Q&A, and followed that with a live-action re-enactment of Gravity, where we found a very clever way of reworking the Big Sister scene. (Hint: it involved a certain POTUS with a thing for blue dresses).”

“The three of them were such great guests, and I think a lot of people were happy to finally meet the real Mary Jane.”

“Wechter & Nankin went their separate ways post-Midnight Madness, and Wechter made two more shorts in a similar vein to Gravity, parodying the style and morals of the ’50s educational film. Both were made for the Cinemax short film omnibus series “Likely Stories.”

Thanks, Marc!

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Watch an uncensored full version of Gravity here, uploaded to Youtube (w/permission from the filmmakers) by Keith Cutler, who played Big Sister’s boyfriend!

Over on NF Plus, in addition to more Night Flight Short Film Showcases, we’ve also got a behind-the-scenes look at 1978 short film Junior High School in this 40-minute Director’s Commentary, in which Wechter and Nankin provided us with a candid conversation about the film that you won’t see anywhere else.

Night Flight’s Short Film Showcase also includes Skin Deep from Outer Space — a psychedelic fever dream about alien abduction — and stay tuned afterwards for a classic selection of videos from Devo, Falco, the Pretenders, Talking Heads and much more, they’re all streaming over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.