Happy birthday, Chelo Alonso!

Chelo Alonso, the Cuban-born dancer and actress who became a star of 60s European sword-and-sandal films with her steamy dancing and femme fatale antics, turns 76 today. She was born April 10, 1933. As far as I know, she lives in Italy now. She married a film producer back in the 60s and then phased out her film career.

But what a memorable career it was! Check her out in Goliath and the Barbarians with Steve Reeves; Son of Samson with Mark Forest; or Atlas in the Land of the Cyclops with Gordon Mitchell, all readily available on DVD. Nobody was better at playing a feisty barbarian princess or evil queen. When Chelo comes on-screen, you’ll eagerly surrender to the allure of her blazing torches, slashing swords, or crocodile pits.

Last night I was with some friends and we were watching an Italian tv documentary that showed her behind-the-scenes on the set of Goliath and the Barbarians. As sexy as she is when she plays sultry for her scripts, these candid clips that showed her laughing and smiling with co-star Reeves as Reeves gets playful “instructions” from their elderly, gentlemanly director on how to kiss her were even more transcendently beautiful! Many actresses are called “legends” and “goddesses” but for most the term is just not true. But Chelo does not disappoint. In that behind the scenes footage, she also did a dance on a table, and then stepped with her bare foot on a guy’s hand so he could help her to the floor, while balancing herself with her own hand on his balding head! She did it with the fluid effortlessness of a woman who knows she really is some kind of goddess…or at least that some men want to watch her act like one!

These are a few of my favorite Chelo pix, which can be readily found all over the Web. Your life will not be complete unless you see her at least once in a movie! So don’t delay, put “watch Chelo Alonso movie” on your Things to Do List today!

Happy birthday once again, Chelo, you are forever our queen!

"Your queen, hmm? Then fetch me a soda..."

Mad doctor seeks curvy 1950s strippers and models!

The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1959) is one of my favorite movies. And with the zeal (or is it semi-derangement?) of the diehard fan of a truly wacky “cult” film, let me say that I cannot understand if it isn’t one of your faves, too!!

Honestly, what more does a movie need than all this?

A daring young surgeon, Dr. Bill Cortner (Herb Evers), gets into a car accident with his fiancee, Jan (Virginia Leith). She is decapitated, and he keeps her head alive in his lab. While his assistant Kurt (Leslie Daniel) engages in bitter philosophical dialogues with the talkative head, Dr. Bill trolls strip clubs, beauty pageants, and bikini photo shoots looking for a body onto which to transplant Jan’s head. He finds the perfect one in Doris (Adele Lamont), a photo model with a scarred face. But the monster in Bill’s laboratory, a result of botched experiments (played by Eddie Carmel, aka photographer Diane Arbus’s famous “Jewish Giant”), is telepathically commanded by Jan to bring an end to Dr. Bill’s unholy plans…

In its own way, a pioneering chick flick...

In its own way, a deep "relationship" movie...

I’ve tried not to spoil the plot too much for the uninitiated…

The movie was shot in 1959 but not released until 1962. One of the things I like best about Brain is how it takes me on a horny time-traveling journey into the seedy ambiance of mid-twentieth century sleaze life…

The strip club Dr. Bill visits on his quest to find the perfect body for Jan’s head was the Moulin Rouge at 47 W. 52nd Street in New York. At least, we see him at the entrance, looking at a large publicity shot of stripper June Harlow…she’s not in the movie, but her huge cut-out image was in the front of the club.

I've read that June was supposed to be related to the more famous Jean of movie fame.

I've read that June was supposed to be related to Jean Harlow of movie fame.

In the street photo above, the Moulin Rouge entrance is hidden by the sign for Jimmy Ryan’s jazz club. The image was captured by press lensman William P. Gottlieb in 1948 when “The Street” (as it was colloquially known) was a combination of music and jiggle joints. Club Samoa (its sign is just right of the center) was one of the best-known peeler venues. The Street started getting overhauled in the 50s thanks to encroaching real estate interests, and Club Samoa looked like this by 1958, close to the time that Brain was filmed across the road:

Sharon Knight, the name on the marquee, was a well-known headliner of the time, a protege of superstar Lili St. Cyr, who herself danced many times at the Samoa…

You can read all about her in Kelly DiNardo's excellent recent bio, Gilded Lili.

You can read all about her in Kelly DiNardo's excellent recent bio, Gilded Lili.

Here’s the interior of the Club Samoa…

If you wanted to light a lady’s cigarette, you could use this…

I don’t know if the scene where Dr. Bill watches a stripper was shot in the actual Moulin Rouge—I wasn’t able to find a photo of that interior—but wherever it was shot, the sequence wonderfully caught the seediness of that bygone world…

Later, this stripper flirts with Dr. Bill, but their scene is interrupted by another dancer with designs on the conniving medico—and this leads to a catfight!

It is reasonable to assume that this is an authentic depiction of the many catfights that probably did happen during the heyday of strippers on The Street.

It is reasonable to assume that this is an authentic depiction of the many catfights that probably did happen during the heyday of strippers on The Street.

One thing that really irked me when Turner Classics showed this movie last week on March 16th was that their print was one of the more heavily edited of the various extant versions, and newcomers to Brain never got to see Dr. Bill trade quips with the stripper and then duck out when the gals began fighting over him!

The other thing that irritated me is that the discussion between Robert Osborne and director John Landis didn’t scratch the surface of what makes the movie a fascinating treat…

To me, any film that can inspire such a wide range of interesting writing, as Brain does, needs no justification for its designation as a classic!

Adele Lamont (1931-2003) gave an indelible performance as Doris!

Another good pose. Adele Lamont (1931-2005) gave an indelible performance as Doris!

Whatever type of film criticism you enjoy, Brain has inspired it, whether you like your commentary hilarious as at Atomic Monsters, or thoughtful as at Classic Horror, or ironic and analytical as at Postmodern Joan. And by the way, I borrowed the great screen captures from a neat blog called Captured Monsters.

The bizarre bickering between Dr. Bill and Jan’s head is almost like a satire on the heavy-breathing melodramas of the 1950s, where men and women confronted their problems in passionate dialogue. In its own way, Brain is a “relationship movie”!

Jan was played by Virginia Leith, a 20th Century Fox contract player who, in 1955, appeared in the superb glossy thriller A Kiss Before Dying, wherein she was cruelly manipulated by a handsome but creepy Robert Wagner in a fashion no less outrageous than what her character endures in Brain under Dr. Bill Cortner. (Hey! Trivia alert! Wagner’s evil character in A Kiss Before Dying has the same initials as Dr. Bill Cortner! Coincidence, or homage?)

Wagner is brilliantly evil in this movie, and Leith is vulnerable yet steely—as well as gorgeous.

Wagner is brilliantly evil in this movie, and Leith is vulnerable yet steely—as well as gorgeous.

One of the fascinating side issues of Brain is the question of how Leith went from working in 1955 on a major suspense film based on a best-selling novel (A Kiss Before Dying) alongside stars like Wagner, Jeffrey Hunter, George Macready, and the fast-rising Joanne Woodward…

…to the low-budget fringe item Brain.

You must understand, I am not putting her down for it; she’s very effective in Brain, and does not condescend to the material. I’m just saying that the pairing of A Kiss Before Dying and The Brain That Wouldn’t Die serves as a commentary on the astonishing ups and downs of the actor’s life.

Kurt, on the left, was played by voice actor Leslie Daniel, who I believe also dubbed beefcake thespian Mark Forest in the title role of 1961's Son of Samson!

Kurt, on the left, was played by dubbing actor Leslie Daniel, whom I suspect on the basis of his distinctive voice also dubbed beefcake thespian Mark Forest in the title role of 1960's Son of Samson!

Artists of any kind are lucky to be immortalized for their work, for any work that lasts and fascinates into the coming years. Leith, as well as Herb Evers (later known as Jason Evers) and Leslie Daniel, and also Adele Lamont and Eddie Carmel, all shine into posterity thanks to their work on this strange manifestation of the cinema consciousness circa 1959!

This behind-the-scenes image from Brain would be well-paired with Diane Arbus's photo of Eddie, "A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx."

This behind-the-scenes image from Brain would be well-paired with Diane Arbus's photo of Eddie, "Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970."

Meanwhile, with Brain having given me a taste of the old days on 52nd Street, I’m ready for a time-travel journey back to the glory days in the 40s, when the late Sherry Britton (1918-2008) was the star at Leon and Eddie, 33 W. 52nd Street! I’m shown to my table…I settle into my chair…and order a beer. Lighting a Lucky Strike, I ask the waiter, “What time does Sherry go on?”

Yep, this is a show I wanna see!

Sherry was named an honorary brigadier general by President Roosevelt for her efforts at boosting the morale of our troops!

Sherry was named an honorary brigadier general by President Roosevelt for her efforts at boosting the morale of our troops!

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I got the William P. Gottlieb image of 52nd Street here, the matchbooks of Club Samoa here, the interior of Club Samoa here, the outdoor shot of Club Samoa here, and the nice color shot of Lili St. Cyr here.