The James Franciscus Facial Tan Club came about in second year high school. My friends Scott and Paul were the members of clubs inscribed in my pencil case… along with The George Negus ‘I’m top shit’ Club and the Denise Marcos Orgy Club who were media figures of the day.
We were fans of the actor James Franciscus upon my instigation through watching him in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) multiple times on VHS. We would meet at recess and lunchtime and sun our faces – hoping for a tan as deep as Jimmy’s – as we sat on a school bench.
If Jimmy Franciscus had anything, it was a great tan, and you could even see the spots around his eyes where he wore sunglasses sometimes. For me, after Richard Carlson from Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Jimmy ruled. He was handsome and cool – it was hero worship – he was everything a movie nerd like me aspired to be.
It always seemed ironic or destined to be, that Jimmy and Carlson should star together in the movie The Valley of Gwangi (1969) which was filmed around the time I was born but had a delayed release… but enough!
Jimmy was born in Clayton, Missouri in 1934. He was a country boy with a dog and he loved dogs by all accounts. His father was killed in a plane crash during World War II when Jimmy was eight years old. His father had joined the war effort in Canada in 1941 flying planes before the United States entered the war. He was killed ferrying a plane to England in heavy fog.
Jimmy’s mother remarried a few years later and he and his brother were placed in boarding school. It was there at twelve that he appeared in his first play. By the end of school in his senior year, he authored and directed the class play. He also turned down a movie contract so he could finish his education. He did a Bachelor or Arts in English and theatre at Yale University in New Haven and graduated with honours.
Not long after that, he made his film debut in the now largely forgotten Four Boys and a Gun (1957), where he plays the most level headed of a group of young men who pull a heist, kill a cop and face the electric chair. A larger role followed in The Mugger (1958), distinguished by location work and also being the last completed film by B-movie director William Berke (1903-58). This led to a recurring role in the late 50s and early 60s half hour series Naked City, which really kicked off Jimmy’s career.
There was another time capsule movie entitled I Passed for White (1960) about a black woman who is so light-skinned that she enters society and marries Jimmy, only to return home when its discovered she really is black. A very dated opus, talk about people being only skin deep!
There was also The Outsider (1961) starring Tony Curtis as the Native Indian soldier who helped hoist the flag at Iwo Jima only to fall into a life of alcoholism and poverty later on. The film ends tragically when Curtis’ character drinks himself unconscious and he dies of exposure on the side of a mountain. Rejected by society for being an Indian and then rejected within his own Indian community when he runs for council… The Outsider is about the sometime latent homosexuality, if you want to call it that, between close male friends… my friend Paul of the Facial Tan Club I loved as the brother I didn’t have. I wrote a story that got a A+++ from the English teacher entitled Marooned – inspired by a Jimmy movie title – in which I made Paul the hero. He was a hero to me. How embarrassed he must have been when it got read out in class!
Such was my love of James Franciscus… not a sexual thing but one of hero worship… just as I worship some of the outsiders, the underdogs, the disenfranchised, the alcoholic, the mentally disabled and the forgotten in the movie business. Curtis in The Outsider worships his army buddy Jimmy to the point of near distraction. And when he is killed, the friendship dead, he was lost… almost like he had lost a partner.
The song Where Are You? plays on the jukebox in a bar in one scene with Curtis obviously lamenting his dead friend. It is the moment when Curtis starts to drink heavily. Curtis’ performance is the best thing about the movie.
Jimmy was a hero you could worship even when he was the bad guy. He was mean and lean. He could also be charming and exciting…. Jimmy is almost a brand and image. He is also in my opinion the real deal in this world of make-believe.
Jimmy did a short series entitled The Investigators also in 1961. He had already appeared in an episode of The Twilight Zone entitled Judgment Night.
It was around 1963 that he appeared in the series Mr Novak, where he played a high school teacher. It would last two seasons as Jimmy played an idealistic first-year English teacher at a Los Angeles high school where he would get involved in the lives of students and teachers. I have seen the first season and it is well written, with some good guest stars.
It was around this time that he starred in his first A-list movie Youngblood Hawke (1964). Written and directed by Delmer Daves (1904-77) who had success recently with a few Troy Donahue movies including A Summer Place (1959) in a long career. Yougblood Hawke was based on a novel by Herman Wouk (1915-2019 in sleep), which was in turn based on the life of writer Thomas Wolfe (1900-38 tuberculosis).
Jimmy wasn’t the first choice as Warren Beatty was considered for the role but turned it down in a long line of actors. As it turns out, the story of Youngblood Hawke, about an ambitious writer, reflects Jimmy in the middle part of his career when he dabbled in producing. It is the last movie of John Emery (1905-64) and was also one of writer Gore Vidal’s (1925-2012 pneumonia) favourite movies because it was so unintentionally funny to him.
Jimmy’s performance was described as “wooden”. He plays a Pulitzer Prize winning author who overreaches himself by spending too much money on a publishing house, not enough time writing and taking the advice of the husband of his mistress.
“I killed him,” Jimmy breaks down in one scene and cries about the suicide of a boy who hangs himself in his boarding school closet. The young boy was the son of his mistress and the one who admired him the most. He had seen his mother making out with Jimmy.
Certainly I was in a race with Jimmy to smoke myself to death. The actor reportedly smoked a suicidal four packs a day in the end. I could only manage two. John Wayne apparently did four packs a day while making The Alamo (1960). The cigarettes killed Jimmy along with Youngblood Hawke co-star Susanne Pleshette (1937-2008 lung cancer).
“You stop smoking ya hear… it’s not good for you,” is a line in the movie which obviously no-one in the film listened to.
The film opens at Christmas time and Jimmy’s character Youngblood has the first name of Arthur or Art for short. His artistic career is born like Christ with his very own bible after being told that publisher named Jason Prince is interested in his book.
In 1960, Jimmy had married Kathleen Wellman, the pretty redhead and daughter of famed Hollywood director William A. Wellman (1895-1975 leukemia). Several years earlier he had been the first boyfriend of Jane Fonda. Wellman had four daughters and they divorced in 1977. Whether it was a happy marriage I don’t know, but it seems to have ended with four young children without a father in the household and a short time after the death of Kathleen’s father William. Was Jimmy desperate for a son? Who can say who is the monster in a marriage, or if Jimmy was faithful the entire time. He remarried a younger woman. His main interest appeared to be tennis and he spent many an hour on the court.
Youngblood Hawke and the end of the series Mr Novak ended the first stage of Jimmy’s career. He had been considered for the part of Dr Kildare in the very successful series that ran from 1961 until 1966 but was committed elsewhere.
There would be a few years where little was produced on the resume of the actor until 1967 when Gwangi was made and then delayed by Warners.
It was by the time of this second period of success on the big screen with Gwangi and Beneath the Planet of the Apes that Jimmy was fully cool – well, so it seemed to me. He had matured.
He had already starred in Marooned (1969), where his first name was Clayton just like the town where he was born. The story about spacemen stuck in orbit around the planet, Marooned is also one of the first movies to call spacecraft “tin cans”, which was something probably common in the industry but was adopted by David Bowie as a lyric for his Space Oddity song in the early 1970s.
“I’m beginning to see visions…,” says Jimmy in a scene towards the end of the film. Indeed Jimmy should be patron saint of cigarette smokers!
“Never give up Jim/gym!,” an ironic catchphrase which saw the actor work on his fitness but also never give up cigarettes. Certainly Jimmy’s tanned and toned physique showed he lived an outdoor lifestyle and he was said to be fond of water sports as well as tennis.
It was around the time of Marooned that Jimmy made his first tv movie, which were about to become very popular to produce. The movie was Shadow Over Elveron (1968) and he would follow it up over the rest of his career with a number of tv movie classics such as Night Slaves (1970) and One of My Wives is Missing (1976) among others. He also did a few tv series, including the classic Longstreet (1971-72) where he plays a blinded insurance investigator. It features Bruce Lee in a few episodes and makes the most of its limited range in terms of storylines.
But it was Beneath the Planet of the Apes where Jimmy sealed his cool, mouth half open at times, sometimes with an almost quizzical or confused look which the Facial Tan Club called “James Franciscus ‘confusion’” along with the words: “ I… I… don’t know.” Enough of that!…
Jimmy played astronaut Brent in this follow-up to the original Planet of the Apes (1968) movie and in the end he would go down in a hail of bullets fired by the ape soldiers in one of the most memorable between the eyes death scenes of all time. It is also one of the first movies to deal with the extinction of the world through nuclear destruction.
Jimmy escapes the apes and enters the Forbidden Valley near the beginning of the movie. There he discovers just like Charlton Heston in the first movie that his world has ended and he is now in the future of planet Earth where apes have evolved from man. It is beneath the rock surface in the ruins of New York that he finds a psychic race of mutant humans… Poor Jimmy has a lot to contend with in this movie including being made to fight to the death with Heston – who makes a cameo – all caused by the murderous psychic will of the mutants. In fact, when Jimmy makes the psychic acquaintance of these futuristic humans, who are also scarred by radiation, it almost drives him mad!
But they’re a religious mob, they worship nuclear bombs and sing songs to it… At fourteen I made my own cut of the movie and cut out these “songs” as I found them embarrassing and an abomination – I have since changed my mind! Yes, lovely people who make lesser humans attack each other and like nothing more than “to reveal my inmost self unto my God!” taking off their masks and revealing the mutant horror which lies underneath.
Despite being panned by the critics, the film was a success and so another sequel was commissioned despite the entire planet being destroyed at the end of the movie. Such is the ingenuity of the plot device used for Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971). Try to check them out if you haven’t already.
The Valley of Gwangi concerns the “Forbidden Valley” rather than the Forbidden Zone of Beneath the Planet of the Apes. I love the opening music which accompanies the credits, a mix of classical music and Mexican trumpets. Filmed in Dynamation which was the name of the stop motion effects used by special effects wizard of the day Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013), the film is set at the turn of the 20th Century where a rather vine-ripened – that’s from too much wine – Richard Carlson leads his circus into a Mexican town… also arriving is tanned Jimmy, cocky on his horse, hair slightly blonded, white teeth flashing, along with that husky chuckle of his and inimitable voice and mannerisms. He is cool. Forgive me if I repeat this line!
And soon they are in the Forbidden Valley together with other cowboys where they capture Gwangi, the Tyrannosaurus Rex for the travelling circus.
Apart from being a juvenile fantasy which may only appeal to children and even that is questionable these days, Gwangi is a good movie which the studio had no faith in and eventually dumped on the market a couple of years after filming was completed.
Incidentally, the film’s script was decades old and was meant as a follow-up to King Kong (1933) but rejected at the time.
The film was not surprisingly a box office flop and Variety described Jimmy and actress co-star Gila Golan (1940-), who was dubbed, as “neither an acting duo or a bankable one.”
It is beautiful that Jimmy got to make a Dario Argento (1940-) movie. Argento and the Italians got Jimmy’s cool and over the years he would make several films bankrolled and directed by Italians.
Argento’s movie is Cat O’Nine Tails (1971) and despite its critical mauling, it is perhaps my favourite of the director’s “Animal Trilogy” which also includes his first directorial effort The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and his third Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971). Argento has said that it is one of his least favourite films but I disagree… With its plot revolving around a genetics laboratory…
“Our research is of a dramatic and far-reaching importance,” says the head of the research centre after there is a break-in at the laboratory’s headquarters.
Is it espionage? Beware because journalist Carlo Giordani played by Jimmy is on the case along with a blind Karl Malden (1912-2009) who also knows something about the break-in. Then comes an Argento murder, with someone pushed under the wheels of a train. Of course, as always with Argento, it is well staged.
Interesting enough, Jimmy’s tan isn’t as deep as usual nor his hair as blonde. It’s hard to know his real hair colour and certainly he never appeared grey during his entire career.
“I don’t care about your wife’s ravioli,” says Jimmy, frustrated about the case.
Catherine Spaak (1945-) is the female interest and daughter of one of the lab’s owners who tells Jimmy about the “very abnormal” XYY chromosome, which may lead to inherent criminal behaviour in an individual with these chromosomes. Plus it could be used in court as a criminal defence! In reality this chromosome happens in about one in a thousand males and the results are little more than learning difficulties, although that is something which could lead someone down the slippery slope to criminality. It is true that most men don’t know they have it.
Jimmy meets one character who works at the lab in a gay bar… “You have very beautiful eyes… blue with a touch of red,” Jimmy is told and he replies that he hadn’t noticed. I hadn’t either! But then I’m weird anyway. Maybe I have an XYY chromosome!!
The film contains a couple of good strangulation murders if you like that sort of thing, all presented in the best possible Argento taste! This also meanwhile leads to Jimmy breaking into a crypt in the dead of night also getting himself locked inside in the process. It’s a good sequence.
“Nine leads to follow,” says Jimmy to Malden later. “Like a cat with nine tails.”
Whose murderous eye is it that is shown in close-up during the murders? Who is the murderer? It’s all done in the best Italian giallo tradition as well and the plot which while speculative at the time in terms of genetic and psychopathic theory – may also be prophetic as new discoveries are still being made in the field. So the film was and remains well ahead of its time.
In terms of suspense, it is not Argento’s finest hour, except in the way the characters are blind to the mystery. And it’s a good one. Argento’s Deep Red (1975) was his 1970s peak though.
Jimmy gets the diary of the centre’s boss through a break and enter which reads about abnormal sexual behaviour through “induced fantasies”. Such is the “perverted” world of Argento’s sexual politics. Argento’s Tenebrae (1982) is another good example. The gays aren’t necessarily the murderers.
Crime and mental illness while seemingly sexually related may also be the result of a weakness in genetics which may lead to a predisposition to such behaviour. The beauty of Argento is he doesn’t judge his villains who are often seeking revenge in his giallo universe. He lets the viewer and the formula ending do that.
“What I’m doing is contemptible, but I can’t help it,” says one gay character related to the plot who threatens to kill himself. Thus, is such a condition and other conditions nature and not nurture? Or is it a conscious decision of the present self? It all depends on your point of view!
Certainly murderers who premeditate may have the dreaded XYY chromosome or whatever of Cat O’Nine Tails and/or may be influenced within the realms of the psychosexual, the result of a seed planted in childhood and/or early adolescence… Oh, what a screwed up world some of us may perceive we live in! But many carry on anyway!! Some ending up as the murderer in an Argento film!!!
“You petty, narrow-minded reporter,” says Spaak to Jimmy, when he confronts her as the murderer. Men can only have the XYY chromosome. Doh! And he is wrong, it’s someone in the laboratory who has tested positive to having the chromosome, much to his embarrassment – and I don’t mean Jimmy’s!
“I had to do it. It wasn’t my fault. Calibresi was the only one who knew I had the XYY triad… me of all people! After all those years of research!… I would have been ruined!!”
Oh, the humiliation of other people knowing our genetic make-up! Perhaps if he had never known!? Nature of nurture indeed! Some things are best left unknown and unexplored.The end of the movie where Jimmy has his head bashed in is also ambiguous, as we do not know if he is alive or dead. In fact, we assume he is dead. Or I did until I saw some lobby cards of a coda scene deleted from the final cut which shows Jimmy in bed with Spaak wearing bandages and bruising.
James Franciscus’s career ends with an exploitation phase in PART TWO.