Film critic and author Phil Hall has dedicated himself to the history of cinema and its rippling cultural effects. In this pursuit, he has found another great fascination and subject of his latest book, the disappearance of movies. As time marches forward, the chemical makeup preserved on celluloid film deteriorates, leaving only the impressions and reactions it left on its audience.
But once in a while, this very serious loss sometimes results in the most bizarre and hilarious pursuit of what may be the very worst movies. In this excerpt from “In Search of Lost Films,” Hall writes of his quest for the great and terrible cheap extravaganzas by filmmaker Phil Tucker (best known for his movie “Robot Monster”). With only the an Alaskan newspaper article and a Texan testimony of a riot at a drive-in, Hall journeys for the lost idols “Space Jockey” and “Pachuco.” These works are perhaps best remembered by their own creator, who once said, “It’s not art. I’m not trying to create art. I’m trying to make money.”
“In Search Of Lost Films” by Phil Hall will be available August 8. Check out the full excerpt below. You can purchase Hall’s book here.
“Space Jockey” (1953) and “Pachuco” (1956)
Phil Tucker was mostly unknown to the wider movie loving audience until his career was spotlighted in the books “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time” (1978) and “The Golden Turkey Awards” (1979), written by Harry and Michael Medved as a means of calling attention to films that are so deliriously awful that they generate some degree of a cult following. These books focused primarily on Tucker’s notorious 1953 no-budget sci-fi romp “Robot Monster,” which presented the concept of a lunar invader as an overweight gorilla wearing a diving helmet topped with TV antenna.
The Medveds made scant mention of Tucker’s other films, most notably “Dance Hall Racket” (1953), which featured Lenny Bruce in his only dramatic film performance. But two of Tucker’s films mentioned in passing by the Medveds have raised a great deal of curiosity, as it appears no traces of them are known to exist.
In these books, Tucker acknowledged the disappearance of something called “Space Jockey,” which he claimed was made prior to “Robot Monster.” “My other films are okay, but this ‘Space Jockey’ – now that was a real piece of shit,” Tucker told the Medveds. “In fact, I’d say it’s probably the worst film ever made.”
Considering that statement came from the creator of “Robot Monster,” it is a fairly significant claim. And while no footage of “Space Jockey” has been located to date, one article on the production of the film offers some tantalizing clues regarding Tucker’s talents and potentially problematic memory.
On August 5, 1953, the Fairbanks News-Miner reported on something that was fairly uncommon in pre-statehood Alaska: the production of a feature-length film. That film was “Space Jockey,” and the title character was a determined astronaut who was willing to sacrifice the happiness of his marriage in order to achieve his goals of trans-planetary travel.
“It’s a science-fiction thriller,” Tucker told the newspaper. “It’s geared for the audience that likes to be transported into another world. It’s not art. I’m not trying to create art. I’m trying to make money.”
Or, to be more specific, Tucker was trying to make money for his investors, American Artists’ Film Corporation, which the Fairbanks News-Miner identified as also being the financier for “Robot Monster,” cited in the newspaper article as having just been released in Los Angeles. This point contradicts Tucker’s interview with the Medveds, where he claimed “Space Jockey” was made prior to “Robot Monster.”
The newspaper article makes no mention of why Fairbanks, of all places, was chosen for this endeavor. Tucker told the Medveds that he lived in Fairbanks following a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps, and he supported himself by working as a film projectionist.
The newspaper article also refers to a professional crew behind the camera – although being shot outside of Hollywood, it was still a union production manned behind the camera with members of the United Motion Picture Workers of America, a trade group. Elmer Bernstein, who composed the “Robot Monster” score and would later become one of the most prominent music composers in Hollywood, was named as being in charge of the Space 116 In Search of Lost Films Jockey score. On camera, however, was another matter, with nonprofessional Alaska locals as the stars and a cheapjack set design that might confirm Tucker’s belief that “Space Jockey” was the cinematic equivalent of excrement.
“A spotlight is used instead of regular light,” the article reported. “The microphone boom is handmade. The spaceship, held together by masonite and boards, is equipped with such gadgets as old dentist chairs and paper cup containers, camouflaged to look other-worldly.”
Because Alaska lacked editing facilities, Tucker told the Fairbanks NewsMiner, he needed to take “Space Jockey” back to Hollywood at the end of its 12-day shoot to be completed.
And at this point, “Space Jockey” disappears into thin air. It is not known whether Tucker ever completed the editing on the footage – there is no evidence that the film was ever commercially released. By December 1953, Tucker was in an argument with his producers for a percentage of the “Robot Monster” grosses and reportedly attempted suicide out of despair – however, film historian Bill Warren has openly questioned whether Tucker’s flirtation with self-inflicted death was merely a publicity plot to call attention to his business problems, and no less a figure than Edward D. Wood Jr. once tartly remarked about an unnamed filmmaker who pulled phony suicide stunts to keep his cash flow in motion.
“Whenever he finds out his newest bad picture won’t sell, he comes up with the damnedest strategy: suicide,” Wood stated. “In one instance, he sat on the roof of a hotel with a can of his film on his lap and his legs dangling over the street fifteen floors below, and then he gobbled down sleeping pills. Of course, the police had been conveniently notified so they arrived in plenty of time.”
In Tucker’s interviews with the Medveds, he also cited a 1956 feature called “Pachuco,” which he dubbed his “masterpiece” and “greatest achievement.” The Medved books refer to “Pachuco” as a “violent, incoherent effort” about a “pair of Mexican-American tough guys making their way in their adopted homeland.”
Oddly, the only other source that references Pachuco is Emilio García Riera’s 1987 book “México Visto por el Cine Extranjero,” which described the film as “very modest” and briefly mentioned the plot focused on young Chicanos in Texas competing in drag racing as a means of finding their identity. The Medveds claimed that “Pachuco” had a single commercial exhibition, at a “drive-in theater in west Texas,” where a riot ensued that resulted in the robbing of the box office and the destruction of the big screen. García Riera repeated that story, but put the drive-in within Austin.
One might imagine that with the belated attention that Tucker received for “Robot Monster” and this wild back story of a violent drive-in screening, “Pachuco” would be readied for a new appreciation. But, to the contrary, the film’s total lack of availability has raised the possibility that something was very wrong in the interview that Tucker gave the Medveds.
Zoran Sinobad, a reference librarian in the Moving Image Section of the U.S. Library of Congress, generously offered to track down any information on the mysterious “Pachuco.” The result of this search was a curious blank.
“I was unable to find anything on the film ‘Pachuco’ or the related drive-in screening,” Sinobad said. “The title itself is not listed in any of the numerous reference sources I consulted, including contemporary motion picture trade journals (Variety, etc.) and modern sources such as the American Film Institute Catalog of Feature Films. What is even more puzzling, a search of both national and local (Texas) newspapers for the period 1955-1957 did not produce any mention of the incident at the drive-in which supposedly accompanied the film’s world premiere.
What little information is out there can be traced back to the 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards; its authors, Harry and Michael Medved, apparently interviewed Phil Tucker. Beyond that, I could not find any proof of the film’s existence. The film could certainly have been released under another title, although a broad search for everything related to Phil Tucker from 1955 to 1957 did not come up with any possibilities.”
So what was the story behind “Pachuco”? Did Tucker intentionally pull a prank on the Medveds? Or has the film vanished with such intensity that absolutely no trace of it can be found? That’s a mystery that deserves further attention – alas, not in this book.