Video of the Week: Frank Zappa on the Steve Allen Show, 1963 revisited

We received the sad news today of the passing of Gail Zappa, Frank Zappa‘s widow and the fierce guardian of his legacy. It seems appropriate, then, to reach back into the archives and re-post this video of young Zappa’s appearance on The Steve Allen Show back in 1963. He talks a bit about his involvement in The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962) and seems rather embarrassed by the whole thing. Then he plays a bicycle.

We send our love and support to the Zappa family, and thank them and Gail for protecting and curating Frank’s work for posterity. Peaceful rest.

Quote of the Week

For a weird, Z-grade movie, The World’s Greatest Sinner is remarkably prescient. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, there would be an explosion of God Hilliards out there. The Manson Family, the MOVE, the SLA, and Jonestown were all political and religious hybrid cults with charismatic leaders that led their followers into horrible ends.

The film’s music was composed and conducted by an (at the time) unknown musician from the L.A. area, Frank Zappa. There’s nothing in the music that is noticeably Zappa-esque, it mostly sounds like countless other swinging soundtracks from no-budget ‘60s films. Zappa briefly promoted the film during his 1963 appearance on the Steve Allen Show. There to show off his talents at playing the bicycle as a musical instrument, Zappa casually calls The World’s Greatest Sinner, “the world’s worst movie.” Zappa would later make the world’s worst movie, the unwatchable dreck known as 200 Motels.

The World’s Greatest Sinner failed to gain any wide distribution. For decades the film was the stuff of legend with rough bootlegs being passed around. That started to change with its initial airing on Turner Classic Movies – you can now purchase the film on iTunes. I first heard about it on a list compiled by Lux Interior and Poison Ivy of The Cramps where they ranked it their favorite film. Carey continued to work as a character actor in TV and films until his death in 1994, though he never completed another film as a director. He did work on directing Tweet’s Ladies of Pasadena, but the film was never completed and it has been said that the footage is unwatchable. Regardless, Carey has morphed into a full-blown cult movie icon. The Timothy Carey Experience is a regularly updated fan site dedicated to the legendary character actor.

As is the case with many no-budget, Z-grade films from the ‘60s, The World’s Greatest Sinner can be rough around the edges. The film does avoid the Z-grade pratfalls of padding the running time with stock footage to hit the 90-minute mark, running a tight 77-minutes. Even though Carey has worked with some of the greatest filmmakers in history, his work as a director varies from borderline incompetence to borderline brilliance. Even though the film isn’t the work of a cinema virtuoso, it’s an unusual, brave, and uncompromising work. Like its star, writer, and director,The World’s Greatest Sinner is truly one of a kind.

– Sean Mulvihill, “Reelin’ and Rockin’ – The World’s Greatest Sinner: A True Cult Film”; FanBoyNation.com, May 30, 2014

The World's Greatest Sinner

Quote of the Week

Perhaps the most notorious recording made during the PAL Studio days was the soundtrack to one of the greatest independent movies ever, The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962). The movie was written, directed, and produced by Timothy Carey, who had previously acted in The Wild One (1953), East of Eden (1955), and two movies directed by Stanley Kubrick, The Killing (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957). Despite being made very cheaply – much of the action was shot in Carey’s garage in El MonteThe World’s Greatest Sinner was certainly ahead of its time. Carey plays a messianic rock’n’roll singer who invokes riots, while the ensuing political takeover predates by several years movies such as Riot on Sunset Strip and Wild In the Streets. The score was produced in November and December 1961, with Zappa recording a 20-piece chamber ensemble and a 55-piece orchestra at the Chaffey College auditorium, as well as an eight-man rock’n’roll band at PAL. (Zappa later made an off-color remark about the movie on The Steve Allen Show – on which he also ‘played’ a bicycle – effectively ending his relationship with Carey.)

Domenic Priore, Riot on Sunset Strip: Rock’n’Roll’s Last Stand in Hollywood (Jawbone Press, 2007)

Frank Zappa with Tim at the TWGS premiere

Frank Zappa with Timothy at the Sinner premiere

 

 

Quote of the Week

THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER (1963)

Music like the worst nightmare the Cramps ever had.

Timothy Carey – the charismatically malevolent “heavy” of The Killing, The Wild One, Paths of Glory, and East of Eden – single-handedly made this film between 1960 and 1963 in and around the town of El Monte, outside Los Angeles. Its plot centers on forty-year-old Clarence, who quits his job at an insurance company so that he can don the mantle of a rock star and run for public office as God. Carey’s portrayal of a rock star in a gold suit backed by a ragtag Mexican band is so fantastically bizarre that it puts Salvador Dali (Carey’s idol) to shame. During his main performance, which is sour and atonal, Carey falls to his knees and screams, “Please! Please! Please!” (Without ever having seen or heard of James Brown!)

The World’s Greatest Sinner isn’t a music movie per se, but its soundtrack stands out. For the background music, Carey hired a young, unproven local odd-ball, Frank Zappa, to compose a full orchestral score. Their association was short-lived, however. Appearing on the Steve Allen show playing a bicycle, Zappa made disparaging remarks about the film that earned Carey’s lifelong enmity.  (Still, they both made cameo appearances in the MonkeesHead.) Although this crude but uniquely imaginative undertaking was ignored by major distributors when it first came out, history has heaped kudos on The World’s Greatest Sinner – and on Carey for his bravery, wit, and vision. Fans, take note: Still alive, Carey makes occasional film and TV appearances. He also pops up at showings of his films at revival houses around L.A. In early 1991, he was completing a stage play, The Insect Trainer, about a postal worker killed by a fart.

Art Fein, from Hollywood Rock: A Guide to Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Movies by Marshall Crenshaw (HarperPerennial, 1994)

The World's Greatest Sinner

Quote of the Week

Zappa still thought that the best way to get his music played was to write film scores and in June 1961 another opportunity presented itself: The World’s Greatest Sinner, one of the most eccentric (rather than experimental) films ever made. It was an independent movie produced, directed, written and starring the great character actor Timothy Carey – ‘the ugliest man alive’ – veteran of bit parts in everything from The Wild One (1954), where he throws beer in Brando’s face; East of Eden (1955); The Killing (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957). Brando liked him and used him in One-Eyed Jacks (1961). Frank always enjoyed Carey’s films, though he preferred the weird crazed ones like Rumble On the Docks (1956), a juvenile delinquent movie.

Frank met Timothy Carey at Wallach’s Music City in Hollywood while he was working on The Second Time Around, a western comedy. ‘A fellow came up to me and complemented me on my acting,’ recalled Carey. ‘He said he was a composer and the guy he came with, his next-door neighbour, played the guitar. I said, “What’s your name?” He said, “Frank Zappa.” So I said, “OK, I have something for you. We have no music for The World’s Greatest Sinner. If you can supply the orchestra and a place to tape it, you have the job.” And that’s what he did.’

The World’s Greatest Sinner is the story of a dissatisfied middle-aged insurance clerk named Clarence Hilliard who wakes up one day and decides that he is God: ‘We should be Gods, every one of us here, super human beings!’ He starts his own church, gets a guitar and fake goatee, acquires an Elvis Presley silver lame’ suit and works his audiences into a frenzy with wild, furious, rock ‘n’ roll shows, throwing himself around the stage, flopping about on his back as if he were having an epileptic fit and diving into the audience. He runs for President, has sex with 14-year-old groupies, seduces an 80-year-old woman for her money and drives a man to suicide. This disjointed, totally anarchic film uses flash forwards, upside down shots, breaks into full colour at the end and is narrated by the Devil, represented by a stentorian-voiced boa-constrictor. Just Zappa’s sort of film. Carey began work on it in 1958, shooting most of the scenes in his garage in El Monte. It cost $100,000 in total. […]

…In March [1962] Zappa was interviewed by the Pomona Progress-Bulletin about The World’s Greatest Sinner. Under the headline ONTARIO MAN WRITES SCORE FOR NEW FILM the paper described Tim Carey as ‘Hollywood’s “ugliest, meanest” character actor’ and revealed that Zappa played guitar, drums, piano and vibraphone. Zappa described the film as ‘arty’ and said, intriguingly, ‘The score is unique in that it uses every type of music.’ […]

His performance [on The Steve Allen Show on March 14, 1963] certainly irritated Timothy Carey whose movie had premiered six weeks before. Carey: ‘That’s where our friendship stopped. Steve asked him what films he did. He said he did The World’s Greatest Sinner, the world’s worst film, and all the actors were from skid row. It wasn’t true.’ Carey said that Frank was just saying that to curry favour. He described how on the opening night at the Directors’ Guild, Frank had been in such awe of his surroundings he walked into a window and banged his head. At the premiere at the Vista-Continental Theater in Hollywood on 30 January 1963, Carey, ever the showman, appeared in his silver lame’ preacher suit with GOD stitched on the sleeves and got the evening off to an exciting start by firing a .38 over the heads of the audience.

– Barry Miles, Zappa: A Biography (Grove Press, 2004)

Frank Zappa with Tim at the TWHS premiere

Quote of the Week

“When I was working with Debbie Reynolds for the second time [Ed. note: it was actually for the first time, at least as far as I know!] (in The Second Time Around, a western comedy) at 20th Century Fox, a fellow came up to me and complimented me on my acting. He said he was a composer and the guy he came with, his next door neighbor, played the guitar. I said, ‘What’s your name?’ He said, ‘Frank Zappa.’ So I said, ‘OK, I have something for you. We have no music for The World’s Greatest Sinner. If you can supply the orchestra and a place to tape it, you have the job.’ And that’s what he did. Around the same time he was on the Steve Allen Show. That’s where our friendship stopped. Steve asked him what films he did. He said, ‘I did The World’s Greatest Sinner, the world’s worst film and all the actors were from skid row.’ It wasn’t true. The press said I was the world’s greatest ham, and that The World’s Greatest Sinner was a travesty of the arts. Zappa didn’t like that and he started to get on their bandwagon. The opening night at the director’s guild, he was in complete awe. He walked into the window and banged himself in the head. He didn’t even know there was a window there.”

– Psychotronic Video magazine #6, Summer 1990; interview by Michael Murphy and Johnny Legend, research by Michael J. Weldon

For a video of Zappa’s appearance on the Steve Allen Show, please go here.

Video of the Week: Frank Zappa on the Steve Allen Show, 1963

This week we present something slightly different. This is a young Frank Zappa appearing on The Steve Allen Show in 1963. He talks about his involvement with Tim and the scoring of The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962). He is not exactly complimentary. Then he plays a bicycle. Take a look:

“Around the same time he [Zappa] was on the Steve Allen Show,” Timothy said in the Psychotronic interview in 1990. “That’s where our friendship stopped. Steve asked him what films he did. He said, ‘I did The World’s Greatest Sinner, the world’s worst film and all the actors were from skid row.’ It wasn’t true. The press said I was the world’s greatest ham, and that The World’s Greatest Sinner was a travesty of the arts. Zappa didn’t like that and he started to get on their bandwagon. The opening night at the director’s guild, he was in complete awe. He walked into the window and banged himself in the head. He didn’t even know there was a window there.”