Saturday April 14, 2021’s Smile of the Day: The Rocky Horror Picture Show
On this Day:
In 1975, the Rocky Horror Picture Show opened in the United Kingdom at the Rialto Theatre in London. However Frank-N-Furter has been singing and dancing on stage well before the movie was made.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a 1975 musical comedy horror film by 20th Century Fox, produced by Lou Adler and Michael White and directed by Jim Sharman. The screenplay was written by Sharman and actor Richard O’Brien, who is also a member of the cast. The film is based on the 1973 musical stage production The Rocky Horror Show, with music, book, and lyrics by O’Brien. The production is a parody tribute to the science fiction and horror B movies of the 1930s through to the early 1960s. Along with O’Brien, the film stars Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, and Barry Bostwick and is narrated by Charles Gray with cast members from the original Royal Court Theatre, Roxy Theatre, and Belasco Theatre productions including Nell Campbell and Patricia Quinn.
The story centres on a young engaged couple whose car breaks down in the rain near a castle where they seek a telephone to call for help. The castle or country home is occupied by strangers in elaborate costumes celebrating an annual convention. They discover the head of the house is Dr. Frank N. Furter, an apparently mad scientist who actually is an alien Transvestite who creates a living muscle man named Rocky in his laboratory. The couple are seduced separately by the mad scientist and eventually released by the servants who take control.
The film was shot in the United Kingdom at Bray Studios and on location at an old country estate named Oakley Court, best known for its earlier use by Hammer Film Productions. A number of props and set pieces were reused from the Hammer horror films. Although the film is both a parody of and tribute to many kitsch science fiction and horror films, costume designer Sue Blane conducted no research for her designs. Blane has claimed that her creations for the film directly affected the development of punk rock fashion trends such as torn fishnet stockings and colourfully-dyed hair.
Largely critically panned on initial release, it soon became known as a midnight movie when audiences began participating with the film at the Waverly Theater in New York City in 1976. Audience members returned to the cinemas frequently and talked back to the screen and began dressing as the characters, spawning similar performance groups across the United States. At almost the same time, fans in costume at the King’s Court Theater in Pittsburgh began performing alongside the film. This “shadow cast” mimed the actions on screen above and behind them, while lip-syncing their character’s lines. Still in limited release forty-six years after its premiere, it is the longest-running theatrical release in film history. In many cities live amateur shadow-casts act out the film as it is being shown and heavily draw upon a tradition of audience participation. The film is most often shown close to Halloween. Today, the film has a large international cult following and has been considered by many as one of the greatest musical films of all time. It was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2005.
A criminologist narrates the tale of the newly engaged and innocent couple, Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, who find themselves lost and with a flat tire on a cold and rainy late November evening, near a town called Denton in 1974. Seeking a telephone, the couple walks to a nearby castle where they discover a group of strange and outlandish people who are holding an Annual Transylvanian Convention. They are soon swept into the world of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a self-proclaimed “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania”. The ensemble of convention attendees also includes servants Riff Raff, his sister Magenta, and a groupie named Columbia.
In his lab, Frank claims to have discovered the “secret to life itself”. His creation, Rocky, is brought to life. The ensuing celebration is soon interrupted by Eddie (an ex-delivery boy, both Frank’s ex-lover and Columbia’s current partner, as well as partial brain donor to Rocky) who rides out of a deep freeze on a motorcycle. Eddie then proceeds to seduce Columbia, get the Transylvanians dancing and singing and intrigue Brad and Janet. When Rocky starts dancing and enjoying the performance, a jealous Frank gleefully kills Eddie with a pickaxe as Columbia screams in horror. Frank justifies killing Eddie as a “mercy killing” to Rocky and they depart to the bridal suite.
Brad and Janet are shown to separate bedrooms, where each is visited and seduced by Frank, who poses as Brad (when visiting Janet) and then as Janet (when visiting Brad). Janet, upset and emotional, wanders off to look for Brad, when she discovers Frank in bed with Brad (who is smoking a cigarette) on a video monitor. She then discovers Rocky, cowering in his birth tank, hiding from Riff Raff, who has been tormenting him. While tending to his wounds, Janet becomes intimate with Rocky, as Magenta and Columbia watch from their bedroom monitor.
After discovering that his creation is missing, Frank returns to the lab with Brad and Riff Raff, where Frank learns that an intruder has entered the building. Brad and Janet’s old high school science teacher, Dr. Everett V. Scott, has come looking for his nephew, Eddie. Frank suspects that Dr. Scott investigates UFOs for the government. Upon learning of Brad and Janet’s connection to Dr. Scott, Frank suspects them of working for him; Brad denies any knowledge of it, and Dr. Scott assures Frank that Brad is not involved in UFOs. Frank, Dr. Scott, Brad, and Riff Raff then discover Janet and Rocky together under the sheets in Rocky’s birth tank, upsetting Frank and Brad. Magenta interrupts the reunion by sounding a massive gong and stating that dinner is prepared.
Rocky and the guests share an uncomfortable dinner, which they soon realise has been prepared from Eddie’s mutilated remains. Janet runs screaming into Rocky’s arms, provoking Frank to chase her through the halls. Janet, Brad, Dr. Scott, Rocky, and Columbia all meet in Frank’s lab, where Frank captures them with the Medusa Transducer, transforming them into nude statues. After dressing them in cabaret costumes, Frank “unfreezes” them, and they perform a live cabaret floor show, complete with an RKO tower and a swimming pool, with Frank as the leader.
Riff Raff and Magenta interrupt the performance, revealing themselves and Frank to be aliens from the planet Transsexual in the galaxy of Transylvania. They stage a mutiny and announce a plan to return to their home planet. In the process, they kill Columbia and Frank, who has “failed his mission”. An enraged Rocky gathers Frank in his arms, climbs to the top of the tower, and plunges to his death in the pool below. Riff Raff and Magenta release Brad, Janet, and Dr. Scott, then depart by lifting off in the castle itself. The survivors are then left crawling in the dirt, and the narrator concludes that the human race is equivalent to insects crawling on the planet’s surface, “lost in time, and lost in space… and meaning”.
Richard O’Brien was living as an unemployed actor in London during the early 1970s. He wrote most of The Rocky Horror Show during one winter just to occupy himself. Since his youth, O’Brien had loved science fiction and B horror movies. He wanted to combine elements of the unintentional humour of B horror movies, portentous dialogue of schlock-horror, Steve Reeves muscle flicks, and fifties rock and roll into his musical. O’Brien conceived and wrote the play set against the backdrop of the glam era that had manifested itself in British popular culture in the 1970s. Allowing his concept to come into being, O’Brien states “glam rock allowed me to be myself more”.
O’Brien showed a portion of the unfinished script to Australian director Jim Sharman, who decided to direct it at the small experimental space Upstairs at the Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, Chelsea, London, which was used as a project space for new works. O’Brien had appeared briefly in a stage production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, directed by Sharman, and the two also worked together in Sam Shepard’s The Unseen Hand. Sharman would bring in production designer Brian Thomson. The original creative team was then rounded out by costume designer Sue Blane, musical director Richard Hartley, and stage producer Michael White, who was brought in to produce. As the musical went into rehearsal, the working title, They Came from Denton High, was changed just before previews at the suggestion of Sharman to The Rocky Horror Show.
Having premiered in the small sixty-seat Royal Court Theatre, it quickly moved to larger venues in London, transferring to the 230-seat Chelsea Classic Cinema on King’s Road on 14 August 1973, before finding a quasi-permanent home at the 500-seat King’s Road Theatre from 3 November that year, running for six years. The musical made its U.S. debut in Los Angeles in 1974 before being played in New York City as well as other cities. Producer and Ode Records owner Lou Adler attended the London production in the winter of 1973, escorted by friend Britt Ekland. He immediately decided to purchase the U.S. theatrical rights. His production would be staged at his Roxy Theatre in L.A. In 1975, The Rocky Horror Show premiered on Broadway at the 1,000-seat Belasco Theatre.
The film was shot at Bray Studios and Oakley Court, a country house near Maidenhead, Berkshire, England, and at Elstree Studios for post-production, from 21 October to 19 December 1974. Oakley Court, built in 1857 in the Victorian Gothic style, is known for a number of Hammer films. Much of the location shooting took place there, although at the time the manor was not in good condition. Much of the cast were from the original London stage production, including Tim Curry, who had decided that Dr. Frank N. Furter should speak like the Queen of the United Kingdom, extravagantly posh. Fox insisted on casting the two characters of Brad and Janet with American actors, Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon. Filming took place during autumn, which made conditions worse. During filming, Sarandon fell ill with pneumonia. Filming of the laboratory scene and the title character’s creation occurred on 30 October 1974.
The film is both a parody and tribute to many of the science fiction and horror movies from the 1930s up to the 1970s. The film production retains many aspects from the stage version such as production design and music, but adds new scenes not featured in the original stage play. The film’s plot, setting, and style echo those of the Hammer Horror films, which had their own instantly recognizable style (just as Universal Studios’ horror films did). The originally proposed opening sequence was to contain clips of various films mentioned in the lyrics, as well as the first few sequences shot in black and white, but this was deemed too expensive and scrapped.
Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert noted that when first released, The Rocky Horror Picture Show was “ignored by pretty much everyone, including the future fanatics who would eventually count the hundreds of times they’d seen it”. He considered it more a “long-running social phenomenon” than a movie, rating it 2.5 out of 4 stars and describing Curry as “the best thing in the movie, maybe because he seems to be having the most fun” but thinking the story would work better performed on stage for a live audience. Bill Henkin noted that Variety thought that the “campy hijinks” of the film seemed labored, and also mentioned that the San Francisco Chronicle’s John Wasserman, who had liked the stage play in London, found the film “lacking both charm and dramatic impact”. Newsweek, in 1978, called the film “tasteless, plotless and pointless”.
Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a rating of 79% based on 43 reviews, and an average grade of 7/10, with the critical consensus reading “The Rocky Horror Picture Show brings its quirky characters in tight, but it’s the narrative thrust that really drives audiences insane and keeps ’em doing the time warp again”. A number of contemporary critics find it compelling and enjoyable because of its offbeat and bizarre qualities; the BBC summarised: “for those willing to experiment with something a little bit different, a little bit outré, The Rocky Horror Picture Show has a lot to offer.” The New York Times called it a “low-budget freak show/cult classic/cultural institution” with “catchy” songs. Geoff Andrew, of Time Out, noted that the “string of hummable songs gives it momentum, Gray’s admirably straight-faced narrator holds it together, and a run on black lingerie takes care of almost everything else”, rating it 4 out of 5 stars. On the other hand, Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader considered the wit to be “too weak to sustain a film” and thought that the “songs all sound the same”.
In 2005, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
The film gained popularity because of fan participation as much as anything else. “Shadow Casts” of fans acting out the entire movie below, or in some cases directly in front of the screen, are almost always present at showings. At the Strand Theatre in San Francisco, fans came to see a well-organized group coordinated by Grady Broyles, performing with sets and props like a professional theatre troupe. At the Tiffany Theater on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, fans included a transgender individual performing as Frank N. Furter, just a few blocks away from the Roxy Theatre where The Rocky Horror Show made its American debut.
Audience participation also includes dancing the Time Warp along with the film, and throwing objects such as toast, water, toilet paper, hot dogs, and rice at appropriate points in the movie. Many theatres forbid throwing items that are difficult to clean up. In many cases, a total ban on throwing objects has been instituted due to severe damage to movie screens. Fans often attend shows in costume as the characters. At a now-defunct theater in New Orleans, the local “Eddie” would ride his motorcycle down the aisle during Meat Loaf’s/Eddie’s song, “Hot Patootie.” (per Wikipedia).
First, a Story:
A chemical in Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s lab can make your hands go numb. But math will make you number.
Second, a Song:
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is as famous for its soundtrack as it is for its visuals (which are not too abysmal).
At the end of “Fanfare/Don’t Dream It, Be It”, Frank-N-Furter breaks into “Wild and Untamed Thing”, which is the final section of the Floor Show.
“Wild and Untamed Thing” was written by Richard O’Brien and Richard Hartley with lyrics by Richard O’Brien.
This scene concludes Frank’s Floor Show, as Riff Raff begins to fire on the group, demanding that Frank is to be killed (to oblivion) while only Riff Raff and Magenta return to “sweet” Transsexual, in the galaxy Transylvania, where they will do the Time Warp, again.
The title of the preceding section originated from an advertisement for the lingerie company Frederick’s of Hollywood, featured in every issue on the back page of a film magazine popular in Richard O’Brien’s boyhood town. The advertisement presented gender-ambiguous models in a line-drawn style wearing lingerie, accompanied by the statement in a large font: “DON’T DREAM IT, BE IT!”. O’Brien states in a retrospective interview for the film it was somewhat known amongst readers that the ad was directed discreetly towards ‘cross dressers’ and other purveyors of lingerie besides women; transvestism and gender-fluidity being highly controversial subjects at the time.
Here is Frank and the crew in “Wild and Untamed Thing” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I hope you enjoy this!
Thought for the Day:
“Can’t you just see it? Don’t dream it, be it.” – Dr. Frank-N-Furter.
Further to the Rosetta Stone Smile, Pete Roberts of Seattle, Washington, USA writes:
I visited London in 2001 for the sole purpose of viewing the Rosetta Stone. I had a fantastic time in England in February without rain the week I was there! Amazing!
Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky