My Life of Failure

(Originally printed in Cracked)


"Everything I've done is no damn good!" These, the first words of Sheldon Landwehr's autobiography, may seem unduly harsh, but upon reading through the list of the seventy-two movies on which he served as director and writer, one has to admit he may have a point: the best are awful, most are simply unwatchable. Another man might feel depressed, but Landwehr seems darned cheerful. "They were worse when I was trying!" he says, and his frankness in describing his own ineptitude lifts this book above more self-serving memoirs.

Landwehr began his career in the mailroom at low-budget crank-em-out Prolific Studios in 1941; within three months he had been promoted to writer, thanks to a little thing called World War Two. "All the competent guys got drafted, but I had fallen arches!" he explains. Soon Landwehr was cranking out as many as two scripts a week for deservedly forgotten Bs such as Gas Busters and The Island of Doctor Moron.  By 1943 he had moved to directing; his first film, What's That Clanking, was described by Leonard Maltin as "the worst robot butler movie ever made." Others followed in quick succession, including Rotating Commandos, 1944, and Stop that Hitler!, 1945. Most of these hour-long films featured twenty-minute scenes of characters punching each other; they are considered so execrable that fifty years later Martin Scorcese personally lobbied for their destruction.

Then, in 1947, Landwehr attempted a musical,  and surprisingly it was a mild hit.  Holiday Woman is about a woman who loves holidays; the color film was developed improperly, resulting in green-skinned people against a purple sky. "I'm colour-blind, you see." says Landwehr. But "the studio actually managed to turn the lousy color to our advantage, because they tacked on a prologue explaining that the whole story took place on Mars, which was a big deal at the time. They didn't explain why the Martians were all excited by the Earth holidays, though." Still, the ruse worked, and led to Landwehr being hired at Superior Studios the following year, when Prolific went bankrupt.

"They wanted me to do another musical, but boxing pictures were also big, so they assigned me to do a boxing musical. That didn't work out so good." I'll Never Box With You, My Lovely features awful songs like 'Give Dat Mug a Pasting for Me" and leaden dialogue written by the director:

Punchy Joe: I could really go for you, Sally.

Sally: But you're standing right in front of me.

Punchy Joe: That's right, maybe I should go outside and then come back and go for you.

It was not a hit. Still unfired, Landwehr was taken off musicals and put to work on crime films such as Murder Irritates My Sinuses and Boring Underworld. "I meant that the underworld was boring it's way into civic government, as in boring a hole, but I guess it was a mistake to put the word 'boring' in a movie title. That one made about twenty dollars at the box office." Landwehr was taken off crime films and put onto historical material; the result, The Six Chives of Henry VIII, is probably the only film to be completely based on a typo.  At this point the studio noticed his incompetence and let him go.

Surviving as a cobbler for the next five years, Landwehr was finally noticed for his strong anti-communist stance. "Those commies, they'd never tolerate a guy like me" he explains; he was hired to make propaganda films for right-wing studio Patriotic, helming the Dirty Reds series. From then on his career continued uninterrupted through most of the film trends for the next thirty years; a few selected titles show the variety of his misfires. The "Spaghetti Western" Shut Uppa-You Face, 1968; the "swinging Sex comedy" Swingers Love Doing It, 1971; the Blaxploitation flick Black Lady Quixote, 1973; and the dreadful semi-pornographic horror film Ghost Nuts, 1976, which featured a phosphorescently painted pair of testicles as its main special effect.

Drugs were big in Hollywood at this time, and Landwehr benefited, as "people were so high they didn't notice I didn't know what I was doing.” This helps to explain astonishing bombs such as The Stepford Stepchildren Meet Sanfords Wives, 1979, and Quit Horsing Around, Man Called Horse!, 1981, which paired Richard Harris with Donnie Most from Happy Days. The disco musical Good Grief!  It's Wednesday!  led to the breakdancing film Breakin' Even, which was notable for its all-white cast. Lovin' It, about "a marriage interrupted by an orangutang," once again features a twenty-minute scene where two characters punch each other and fall over cardboard boxes. Explains Landwehr, "I'm lazy, and to me punching is an acceptable way to fill screen time. Although Olivier seemed kind of angry afterwards."

During the nineties, his career slowed only slightly. The Afro-American comedy Oh No You Didn't! sparked protests from the NAACP; the kid's film The Hardly Twins in Almost-land was never finished because "we killed the two leads, accidentally I mean. But we paid off the parents and hushed it up good. Oops, maybe I shouldn't be writing this. God, I am such an idiot." It's that peculiar brand of blithe honesty that makes us like the author, and makes this book such an entertaining read.