(1959, Drama-Crime, b&w)
Johnny at the Fair
(1947, Educational-Newsreel/Children, b&w)
Who is Merritt Stone?
In a nutshell:
Short: A little boy runs away at the National Expo to meet Canadian celebrities.
Film: An arrogant beat club owner hires three artistic losers to rob an armored car.
In Johnny at the Fair, the eponymous youngster visits the Canadian National Expo to enjoy the thrilling midway with his parents. When they decide to visit the art museum, Johnny rebels and runs into the crowd to visit Chemical Wonderland, and meet such celebrities as Joe Lewis, Barbara Ann Scott, The Hellzapoppin’ Boys, and the Canadian prime minister. He gets to attend a baseball game, ride a helicopter, and help shape the future course of Canadian politics, all in one afternoon. The day wears on, and an alert security officer takes him to a cage full of lost children, where his parents pick him up towards the end of the day.
In The Rebel Set, a silver-bearded man with a deep voice plays chess for money in his own swanky beat club. Despite his lack of gold chains and his articulate command of the English language, they call him Mr. T. His hyperactively aggravating sidekick gathers three artistic ne’er-do-wells to meet him in his club after it closes. The members of this elite cadre of losers include a beefy actor wannabe (John), a failed novelist wannabe (Ray), and the spoiled criminal son of a famous actress (George).
Mr. T explains that since they really suck at what they do, they might as well help him rob an armored car. Somehow they all miss the glaring non sequitur in that argument and agree. Soon they’re heading off to Newark by train, with a four-hour stopover in Chicago. John has taken along his worried wife (wives in this kind of film are constantly worried by default) but ditches her in the station so that he can go help with the robbery.
Aside from all the time spent waiting for the truck to arrive (I can just imagine the director saying, “Keep filming the empty road; it’ll add tension”) the heist goes off without a hitch. They bury the evidence and catch their train just in time. Unbeknownst to the inept trio, Mr. T has shaved his white goatee and donned a priest’s collar to keep an eye on them. He loudly discusses scripture with a pair of busybody church ladies in the diner car. Despite his obvious distinctive voice, somehow the incompetent trio misses him every time they hustle through.
George has been assigned to take care of the money, but he freaks out and tries to take it all for himself. John beats him up and takes the money to Ray for safekeeping. They go back to talk some sense into George, but he’s dead—shot in the head, with a type-written suicide note beside him. Ray recognizes that it’s been written with his typewriter and tries to throw it from the train. Mr. T. knifes him and throws him from the train as well. When the cops meet them at the station he suggests that Ray murdered George and then leapt to safety.
Meanwhile, John has had a change of heart, confessing the whole thing to his wife and then the police. He tries to show them where the money was hidden, but Mr. T has already knocked out a guard and escaped with it. John escapes as well and gives chase through the train yard. Mr. T finally lives up to his name by picking up a chain (probably not a gold one, but close enough) and starts beating on John until he accidentally hits a switchbox on the backswing, electrocuting himself to death. The film ends with John being led away in handcuffs while George’s famous mother wanders through, telling a reporter about how she’s going to be a much better mother from now on.
Joel tries to read Tom and Crow a scary bedtime story, but In Cold Blood, Helter Skelter, and the seventeen novels by Steven King published this year don’t faze them. Joel finally terrifies them with Life’s Little Instruction Book. Quoth Tom (in a Brando-esque whisper), “The humor...”
Host Segment One:
For a truly terrifying read, Dr. Forrester recommends All I Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten. TV’s Frank has invented the Primp Kit. While waiting in line, you convince the person in front of you to wear a helmet covered in toiletries, and a segmented full-length mirror that hangs from the neck down the back. It nearly strangles Dr. Forrester. Joel has invented the Rothco Paint-by-Numbers. It’s easy, since Mr. Rothco is an abstract artist who paints his canvases a single solid color.
Host Segment Two:
Crow has ordered a set of recorded acting lessons that allow him to reenact scenes from Scott Baio television shows. He and Tom discuss Chachi’s motivation at length.
Host Segment Three:
Joel and the ‘Bots discuss what they would do during a four-hour layover in Chicago. Gypsy would go shopping. Joel would drop in on a Renaissance Festival. Tom would go on a senseless killing spree. Crow would don a good pair of walking shoes and embark on a frugal and extremely detailed tour of downtown Chicago.
Host Segment Four:
Joel gives a writing workshop based on the advice of the movie’s train conductor, erroneously identified as actor Merritt Stone. Crow writes starry philosophy while Tom plagiarizes James Joyce, but they’re both wrong. Only Gypsy can write in accordance with Mr. Stone’s narrative method, because her mathematical word problem mentions trains.
Host Segment Five:
Tom dresses as Hercule Poirot and speaks with a ridiculous Belgian accent, trying to identify Merritt Stone in the various movies they’ve seen. Crow, Joel, and Gypsy complicate the investigation until his head explodes. Down in Deep 13, TV’s Frank pores over movie guides and lists of credits trying to figure it out. Dr. Forrester pushes the button as he cries out, “Who is Merritt Stone!?”
A freaked-out, one-eyed beat poet proclaims, “I am bugged.”
What was the point of that short film? Was it advertising the fair, the local celebrities, or the security office’s child location services? They had an entire building called “Lost Children,” with a large fenced enclosure that was full to the brim. Perhaps they were trying to let inattentive parents everywhere know they still had a lot of unclaimed kids. Yet another cinematic proof that parents of the fifties didn’t really care.
The movie’s essentially a heist film with beatniks. It’s no Bob le Flambeur, Ocean’s Eleven, or even The Great Muppet Caper, but it’s not that bad. Compared with most of the films seen on MST3K, it’s halfway competent. There are a few issues, most notably the uninspired “waiting for the armored car” scene and Mr. T’s ridiculously transparent disguise. Also, I know that Mr. T. wanted to hire losers so that he could off them all after the heist and keep the money, but how did heartlessly insulting them gain their loyalty? As the proprietor of a poseur beatnik club, he ought to have known that the way to failed artiste’s heart is to stroke his fragile ego, not insult it. Despite these issues, it’s not a bad film, and at times it even manages to drum up something resembling tension.
According to online MST3K guru Stephen Finley (a.k.a. Daddy-O), Merritt Stone appeared in several MST3K films, most notably as the doomed father in the beginning of Earth vs. The Spider, but not in The Rebel Set. The train conductor was actually played by another MST3K regular named Gene Roth.
The host segments are reasonably funny. The only one that stands out is Tom’s Hercule Poirot impression at the end, and Frank’s subsequent tortured cry. The rest of them are fairly equal to each other in amusingness.
The film segments have some good lines. The replica of L’Arc de Triomphe at the fair’s entrance is greeted with Tom’s derisive cry of, “L’Arc de Full Retreat.” When they open the back of the armored car to find a bunch of lumpy white sacks, Joel says, “Oh no, we robbed a diaper service!” When people start disappearing and dying on the train, Crow calls it, “Murder on the Disoriented Express.” There are some plot holes and lags, but the film mostly moves well, and the Satellite crew riffs it proficiently. It’s worth viewing.
(1959, Drama-Crime, b&w)