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“J-Men Forever”!: the Firesign Theatre’s Proctor & Bergman’s “rock’n roll’em high comedy”
“Far out, I’m the Lightning Bug, and my rock ‘n’ roll invasion of Earth is underway. Look at them, they’ll be rocked and rolled…they’ll all shake and dance… and now I must split to Earth in my Rocket 88 and personally train willing slaves to spread my deadly music and enslave the Earth as I enslave the Moon. Pack all my disguises!”
J-Men Forever was one of the more popular films that aired during Night Flight’s heyday, an underground cult classic that became the most demanded rerun for the entire eight years “Night Flight” aired on the USA Network!
It was a project started by two members of the Firesign Theatre comedy troup, Phil Proctor (our newest contributor here at Night Flight) and Peter Bergman, who regularly did projects on their own, and originally began when producer Patrick Curtis began working with Republic Studios and produced an homage film to another one of Republic’s key genres, the B-movie western.
Clark told Proctor and Bergman about the cliffhanger-styled serialized shows in their vaults, among them: Undersea Kingdom (1936), S.O.S. Coast Guard (1937), The Fighting Devil Dogs (1938), The Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940), Adventures Of Captain Marvel (1941), Spy Smasher (1942), Secret Service in Darkest Africa (1943), Captain America (1944), The Purple Monster Strikes (1945), The Crimson Ghost (1946), Radar Men from The Moon (1952), and Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952).
Proctor and Bergman watched the serials and we can only imagine them cracking wise and making jokes during the screening — which led to them having the idea to do edit the different series all together to form a completely new feature, and then dubbing in their own written dialogue, like Woody Allen had done a decade earlier for his 1966 film What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, which combined two films from the series of Japanese James Bond rip-offs (International Secret Police: A Barrel of Gunpowder (Takashi Tsuboshima, 1964) and International Secret Police: Key of Keys (Senkichi Taniguchi, 1965)) with newly-shot footage starring Allen himself.
The concept of taking footage of old, corny and/or low budget films and re-dubbing new dialogue is certainly not a new idea, and Allen’s feature certainly wasn’t the first. You’d probably have to go back to the found footage genre of art cinema (as early as the 1920s), or you’d have to at least to go back the misappropriation (called détournement) that was proposed and practiced by the Situationists, an art movement in France, in the 1950-60s.
That’s where you’ll find some of the best early examples of what has been called, variously, mock-dubbing, or hijacking art then reediting, subtitling and dubbing to produce “rip offs,” turning forgotten movies into political statements, which is what the French Situationists did by mock-dubbing Chinese movies of the 30s and 40s.
By the early 70s, French Situationist filmmaker René Viénet was making mock-dubbed movies like L’Aubergine Est Farcie (The Aubergine is Stuffed, 1975) and Une Soutane N’a Pas De Braguette (A Cassock Has No Fly), Chinois, Encore Un Effort Pour Être Révolutionnaires! (One More Effort, Chinamen, If You Want To Be Revolutionaries! AKA Peking Duck Soup, 1977), which made fun of Mao and Chinese politics while utilizng a collage approach to documentary footage rather than feature films.
However, for comedy’s sake, it might be that the approach of mock-dubbing is best suited to the condensed TV format, and you could say the television style was pioneered by the TV show Fractured Flickers (1963-64), which used classic silent films.
Another European example, The Magic Roundabout (1965-77), was arguably one of the earliest examples of a dub parody, in that it took French TV series Le Manège enchanté (1964-71) and redubbed it with entirely different storylines to the original.
Proctor and Bergman seized upon the same ideas and began writing a screenplay for the movie that became J-Men Forever. They didn’t stray too far from the French Situationists’ idea of mock-dubbing a story to put forth counter-cultural political ideas, like the insanity of the Vietnam War, for one, while also lampooning inept bureaucratic governmental agencies like the FBI, the Pentagon, while also making fun of sprawling megalopolises like Los Angeles and New York City.
I suppose we should talk about the movie’s plot here, which to boil it down is essentially about a secret culture war. In fact, until the film was released theatrically, it was known as The Secret World War.
On one side there’s the leader of the Moon, the enigmatic Lightning Bug, an evil genius who appears in various super-villain disguises (he explains his changing appearance by saying to his underling, “Pack all of my disguises!”) — one of those disguises is called the Crimson Ghost, whose face famously served as the punk band the Misfits’ band logo — and his henchmen and henchwomen (including the villainess Sombra), who attack Earth with transistorized radios blasting rock ‘n’ roll and an onslaught of marijuana they hope will devastate the peace-loving populace, corrupting wholesome middle-class America while brainwashing the planet’s citizenry into becoming his slaves.
On the other side, battling back against the Bug’s rock ‘n’ roll invasion from outer space, are the the J-Men, a group of unhip government agents hired by the legendary J. Eager Believer. Besides the Chief and his bumbling sidekick, Agent Barton, the J-Men include Agents Spike, Claire and Lance, Buzz Cufflink, James Armhole, Rocket Jock (featuring clips from a Commando Cody serial), the Lone Star (featuring clips from a Captain America serial), the Caped Madman (featuring clips from The Adventures of Captain Marvel), Spy Swatter (featuring clips from Spy Smasher), Sleeve Coat, Juicy Withers, and Admiral Balzy.
The bumbling agencies they represent are all known by their acronyms too: the F.C.C. (Federal Culture Control), KRAP Radio, and M.U.S.A.C. (Military Underground Sugared Airwaves Command). Joining forces with these governmental clods are various masked crusader type superheroes, who step forward to lead the battle, including security guard Billy Batchit, who becomes ‘The Caped Madman’ by uttering the magic word “SH-BOOM!”, enabling him to take on all the vices of a J-Man of the Secret Service: “SH-BOOM!” actually is acronym too: S for Sneaky, H for Hateful, B for Bigoted, O for Obnoxious, another O for Double-Obnoxious, and M for Mean!
The Bug’s first victims are un-hip record moguls Lawrence Milk (a jab at Lawrence Welk) and Jive Davis (jabbing Clive Davis) — who are both hypnotized or otherwise prodded into killing themselves — and bandleader ‘Scream’ Dorsey, whose car is booby-trapped and then driven off a cliff.
However, whatever form the plot takes, it’s really all about the clever dialogue, of course, with little in-jokes sprinkled throughout about the deadliness of “muzak” and boy oh boy are there drug references galore here too. It’s essentially apparent that the structure of the plot allows for Proctor and Bergman to actually make fun of both sides in the culture wars: the hippies and the counterculture who are brainwashed by sex, drugs and rock music on the one side, and the un-hip square establishment on the other, the ones who are more inclined to listen to schmaltzy Lawrence Welk orchestrations and syrupy pop. Both sides present great opportunities for humorous jabs.
Here’s a typical rant: “The air assault against the dope fiends will be led by our flying ace in the hole; yes, we’re putting our Duke up! He knows how to handle any John or Jane who’s driving around with a roach in their roadster. And our rock & roll attacks will be coordinated by our new Commissioner of Culture — Puke Earwax! He knows the Bug’s pirate radio station can be hidden in the innocent looking farmhouse, the suspiciously innocuous orphanage, the inconspicuous summerhouse. And as a last resort we’ll defoliate every forest and park, incinerate every private garden, balcony and window box, to ensure that this marijuana menace will never take root here again!”
When the Bug’s primary assault is rebuffed, the evil leader resorts to eventually launching a huge hash missile aimed at Lost Los Angeles. Fortunately, Rocket Jock disregards his personal feelings about the city and destroys the missile, getting a faceful of hash smoke in the process (“Makes me feel like I’m flyyyyiiiiiiiing!!!”)
The wonderful scene from the 1933 Italian movie Deluge — you know the one, where New York City gets swamped by a tidal wave — is used here once again to depict mass destruction. Many of the J-Men actually appear to die horrible, inescapable deaths in he course of the film. At the end, Agent Barton mournfully recites the list of J-Men who supposedly gave their lives in the epic struggle against the Bug. The Chief laughs, before he starts choking on the cigar he’s smoking.
As they were writing and stitching the various bits of serialized footage together (including a very short clip of John Wayne from the 1942 movie Flying Tigers a.k.a. Yank Over Singapore and Yanks Over the Burma Road) with quick-cut style editing that kept perfect time with the rapid-fire one-liners and double entendres, Proctor and Bergman also began putting together a new music soundtrack, replacing the original orchestral background music from the serials with a new score by Richard Thiess, plus music with high-energy 70s rock recordings from Budgie — tracks from their 1978 LP Impeckable — The Tubes, Badazz, Head East and Billy Preston.
J-Men Forever is also notable for having sound effects provided by Alan Splet, David Lynch’s sound designer of choice until his death in 1994.
Proctor and Bergman also began casting other performers, like deejay M.G. “Machine Gun” Kelly, and with an influx of funding Proctor and Berman were able to shoot new wrap-around footage — directed by Richard Patterson — featuring both of them as federal agents coordinating the galactic fight against the Lightning Bug.
Night Flight’s fearless leader Stuart Shapiro released the film theatrically in 1975, under his International Harmony label, and changed the name of the film from The Secret World War to J-Men Forever. It didn’t really attract its core stoner audience until several years later, when Shapiro bought the film for the “Night Flight” TV show and it began airing regularly on the USA cable network.
Soon, word of mouth began spreading between the Night Flight fan base (“puff, puff, pass…”) and Shapiro began hearing from fans of the show who told him they were making sure they had always had a video tape ready in their VCRs, on Fridays and Saturday nights, in case the film aired again, but they didn’t have to worry: J-Men Forever aired frequently on “Night Flight” and built a huge cult following through repetition.
Stoners watching “Night Flight” at home in the wee hours embraced it as kind of a late night “chronic high comedy,” a fact not lost on Proctor and Bergman either. After all, the J-Men’s motto was “U Cannibus Smokem,” adorning a stoned eagle. The new footage that Proctor and Bergman added actually allowed the Firesign duo bring in a lot more marijuana humor too, and nearly every scene they’re in has some kind of pot reference, which is one reason the film was marketed as a “rock’n roll’em high comedy.” They are “J-Men,” after all.
Soon there were spin-offs like Hot Shorts, for RCA Home Video, in 1983, which used the talents of the other members of the Firesign Theatre. After Night Flight ended its run, a deal was made to have J-Men Forever released on VHS home video in 1979, through a company called Lightning Video, but it didn’t remain in print very long, and bootleggers were soon trading tapes of J-Men Forever, the price escalating to as much as a few hundred bucks for original VHS tape copies.
Meanwhile, film copies of J-Men Forever languished in cinematic limbo and Proctor and Bergman were unable to do anything about their beloved project until Shapiro found a good print of the film and made a deal to have it come out on DVD, in 2002. That release featured a rambling and affection interview between Proctor and George Wallace, who had portrayed Commando Cody, King of the Rocketmen, in several Republic serials, and there was additional commentary from Proctor and Bergman on the making of J-Men Forever.
Then, in Southern California, a comedy group called the L.A. Connection that had been founded by Kent Skov in 1977, began presenting movies with re-dubbed dialogue done theatrically, the actors appearing in the theatre with the audience and making fun of what they were seeing on the screen, reinterpreting the films in what they called “Dub-a-vision”, live from cinema’s front rows.
L.A. Connection eventually moved on to mock-dubbing the 1958 sci-fi flick Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman, in 1982, and the popularity of their performances eventually led to them being granted a half-hour TV series, Mad Movies with the LA Connection (1985), which mock-dubbed public-domain sound films, including Blobermouth (1991), a feature-length dub parody of the 1958 Steve McQeeen sci-fi bomb The Blob.
This eventually led to them performing live movie dubs and creating dubbed clips for a regular feature, “Flick of the Night,” on Alan Thicke’s ill-fated late-night talk show, “Thicke of the Night,” and then they finally they settled into their own venue, and began putting on regular feature-length mock-dub shows, like 1982’s Ferocious Female Freedom Fighters and 1983’s What’s Up, Hideous Sun Demon? (1983), not to mention The L.A. Connection’s own Reefer Madness II: The True Story in 1985.
By this time, when Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (MST3K) came around in 1988, first with a snarky TV show and later a big-screen “movie” version of their show with the 1955 sci-fi classic This Island Earth, the idea of mock-dubbing had been around for quite awhile, but MST3K‘s new revisionist take on the satire was simply to make wisecracks through the film, instead of creating entirely new soundtracks with ludicrous new storylines to dub into the movie itself.
The concept of mock-dubbing has been taken to many extremes since the 80s, including this wonderful example from 1988, and, more recently, all of those great Bad Lip Reading videos, like this one for The Hunger Games, the NFL, and candidate Herman Cain during the 2012 presidential campaign.