Josef von Sternberg was an Austrian-American director whose first film, 1925’s THE SALVATION HUNTERS, is considered by some to be the first American independent film. He worked with Charlie Chaplin and Howard Hughes, he discovered and bedded Marlene Dietrich, Robert Mitchum threatened to throw him off a pier, he directed 25 movies including THE LAST COMMAND, THE BLUE ANGEL and THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN, and his influential films and stubborn dedication to directorial vision made him a hero to proponents of the auteur theory. Also he had a son named Nicholas Josef von Sternberg who was the cinematographer for DOLEMITE.
While DOLEMITE is arguably not as accomplished a picture as THE SCARLET EMPRESS, it does follow in von Sternberg’s spirit of independence, and that’s part of what appeals to me so much about the works of my man, the legendary Rudy Ray Moore, who passed away last month.
I don’t know about other places but in these past 10 or 15 years young white people in Seattle have picked up the adjective “ghetto” to mean low rent or shoddy. It kind of bugs me because I don’t know how the “ghetto Safeway” that doesn’t have the best selection of organic foods is comparable to the actual experience of living in poverty and segregation. But I think “ghetto” is a pretty good adjective for the life works of Rudy Ray Moore, because he seemed to maintain the same ethic from beginning to end, the ethic of a club singer who learned a poem from a homeless man, reworked it into a standup act, started pressing his own comedy records and selling them out of the trunk of his car, made a cottage industry of underground XXX comedy records like “Eat Out More Often” and used those profits to make a series of scrappy low budget movies shot in his house, at a night club where he performed and in the parking lot of Ralph’s.
I think he would’ve been great as somebody’s hilarious uncle or grandpa in a mainstream comedy, but he never went that studio route. He was independent to the end. To the age of 81 he was touring tiny clubs (I saw him perform with a broken hip on his 80th birthday) and making crazy no budget kung fu movies like SHAOLIN DOLEMITE and the please-God-release-this-on-DVD-soon DOLEMITE EXPLOSION!
His merchandising empire was definitely “ghetto” in the white people meaning of the word. The absolutely awesome DOLEMITE soundtrack CD reissue sounds like it was transfered straight from the record, and some of the songs don’t fade out, they just stop like somebody hit eject on a tape deck. The DOLEMITE dvd I own, if you go into the chapter selections, the titles for the chapters are all referring to what happens in a totally different movie, PETEY WHEATSTRAW (“Petey’s back,” “magic cane,” etc.) At his shows Moore sold chintzy wooden backscratchers tied into a song he was singing for a while. So yes, I do own an autographed Dolemite backscratcher.
When I heard about Rudy Ray Moore’s passing I thought about that DIYFS (do it your fuckin self) ethic of his and how it inspired me in the stupid shit I do. And I realized that although I wrote about that 80th birthday show and reviewed a couple of his movies I never officially reviewed DOLEMITE. So I got out my Dolemite box set (“Officially Disapproved By the Man” it says on the box) and here is my belated tribute.
Usually when I think of Rudy Ray Moore my image of him comes mostly from those comedy shows and from what I consider his two best movies, PETEY WHEATSTRAW and THE HUMAN TORNADO. Those two are exaggerated, comedic takes on the blaxploitation genre. But I forgot that this first one is pretty serious. Moore portrays Dolemite as a version of himself, a comedian famous on the streets for his toasting and his comedy records, but he puts himself in a typical blaxploitation plot. I guess that’s what you do when you’re trying your first home made movie, you take your character and put him in a plot you’ve seen before. In that great “Let’s put on a show!” tradition Moore got together friends and connections to pool their talents to make this thing. Some of his comedian and singer friends perform in the movie, director D’Urville Martin also plays the villain Willie Green, screenwriter Jerry Jones also plays Detective Blakely. Moore himself is credited as set decorator, and he found a local karate champion and a swordfighting expert to do the fight scenes. It was alot of hard work decorating those sets and shit so forgive him for not getting the Dolemite tone perfect the first time around. (Or you could argue this is the best one because it seems the least aware of how ridiculous it is.)
Dolemite just got released from jail and now that he’s back on the scene he pays Willie Green’s stooges the 50 grand he owed him and considers himself once again the owner of Dolemite’s Total Experience night club. Willie Green disagrees, because he thinks he should get 100 grand in interest, or if not should be co-owner with Dolemite. So it’s a story about business disagreements that end mostly in karate.
From the opening scenes, despite Mr. von Sternberg’s efforts, you can see that the filmatism is crude. But then the theme song fires like an arrow right between your eyes and injects you with six tons of funk so you know this movie means business:
You like that? It’s like the riff from “Inner City Blues” has been hanging around with a bunch of wah wah pedals and drinking too much caffeine, very fast and hard blaxploitation funk that would make the Pope strut like a pimp. The theme song is important because the lyrics impart ten crucial facts about Dolemite:
- He’s bad
- The man is outta sight
- He’s a tough son of a gun, y’all
- His name is Dolemite (maybe this one is self-evident)
- Ben Taylor (the singer of the song) heard of Dolemite’s coming even before his time
- He ain’t lyin’ about number 5
- On the day that he was born his pappy wore a sign saying “Dolemite is here and this bad little brother is mine.”
- In addition to being outta sight Dolemite also is all right
- He’s gonna let the whole world know how bad a man is he
- It is recommended that you stop, look and listen due to the fact that Dolemite is here for y’all to see.
(By the way, I highly recommend that soundtrack CD. Not only is this song a must-own, the thing is loaded with ridiculously funky instrumentals that I never even knew were in the movie because they play quietly in the background, you can’t really make some of them out. Also it has some radio spots at the end where Rudy Ray says under 18 won’t be admitted without a parent or a note from their jailer.)
The Dolemite we see onscreen is not quite the mythic figure of the Dolemite toast, who went 8 years without eating food, has an uncle who killed a dozen men with the smell of his breath, he caused the Rocky Mountains to part and, uh, fucked an elephant until she broke out in tears. Also he can look up a bull’s ass and tell you the price of butter, that’s one of his abilities. It’s like Rambo being able to eat things that would make a billygoat puke, though – you’re just never gonna see Dolemite using the butter pricing thing on film, unfortunately. So the movie Dolemite isn’t as super-powered, but he has the same kind of foul mouthed insults and boasts. His character is established pretty quickly when he comes out of the joint, gets picked up by a limo full of hot chicks, strips off his clothes, throws them back to the prison and tells the guard to wipe his ass with them. That’s a good one – many movies could benefit from these types of dramatic gestures. And to be honest I would rather see that than him fucking the elephant.
Everything about the plot is generic: released from prison, framed for a crime he didn’t commit, racist white cops trying to bust him, sympathetic black cop sees what’s going on, etc. If you just read a plot description it wouldn’t sound like it stood out from other blaxploitation movies in any way. But it does, because Dolemite is unlike any other movie character. He’s not suave like Shaft or Superfly, he’s not physically impressive like the Hammer or Jim Kelly. But he’s more sure of himself than any of them, and has a bigger mouth. He brags that “When I see a ghost, I cut the mutha fucka,” that “Dolemite is my name, and fuckin up mothafuckas is my game.” He calls somebody a “rat-soup eatin, insecure, honky motha FUCKA!”
One thing people like about the blaxploitation pictures is the ridiculous outfits. The ’70s was the best time for an audacious motherfucker to really go overboard on a white bellbottom suit or a fur coat. Dolemite took advantage of that window, and wears alot of silly shit in this movie. After performing part of his “Signifying Monkey” toast at the Total Experience we see Dolemite in a dressing room, wearing a silver sequined cape and powdering up. When he goes back into the club to confront Willie Green he’s wearing a white tux with a huge plaid bow tie.
But the thing that really makes Dolemite stand out from other movie heroes is his rhyming. He gets to perform his toasts, and not just in the club. One of my favorite parts is a long scene in a parking lot where he performs the “Shine on the Great Titanic” toast for some dudes who recognize him. He kind of gets self conscious that they don’t want to hear the whole thing, asks “Is that enough?” but they’re into it and he has to keep going. It’s a good story (the black guy working his ass off in steerage who shows those silly rich people up by surviving), Dolemite tells it well, and this is the one scene in the movie that feels like reality. I imagine this is exactly what would happen to him every once in a while when people approached him on the street.
DOLEMITE is not a good movie in any of the traditional ways, but the over-the-topness of the character combines with the crappiness of the filmatism and the funkiness of the music and clothes, causing a chemical reaction that can burn through metal. It’s a crappy movie that’s awesome enough that we hold it on a pedestal more than 30 years later. We’re protective of it.
When they were talking about remaking this with LL Cool J, the prestigious cracked.com complained that “some clever devil at Dimension Films… decided that Dolemite would be a much better character if he wasn’t a pimp, and if he was framed for a crime he didn’t commit.” But I gotta point out that neither of these would be changes from the original movie. Dolemite was in prison because the corrupt cops Mitchell and White planted coke and stolen fur coats in the trunk of his car. Although he seems like a pimp when he gets out and is met by what appears to be his stable of hoes, Queen Bee explains that while he was gone things got so desperate that his girls had to sell themselves on the street. In fact they are the employees of his club, and he never pimps them. He does call one of them a bitch for bringing him cotton drawers, which he says she should know he never wears. That’s disrespectful but it doesn’t really count as pimping in my opinion.
So I can’t really be outraged by that. Like with many things I think a pretty good remake could happen, but wouldn’t. The passing of Rudy Ray may or may not push along the development on that thing. Last I heard it was some nobody production company trying to do it with Snoop Dogg. I still think Bust Rhymes would be better, with his gravelly voice. Snoop is too tall and lanky, too smooth and soft-spoken. He’s more of a Superfly than a Dolemite. Him and Busta both had Dolemite on their album intros though. Maybe he passed one of them the torch. Good luck holding onto that thing, fellas. Not gonna be easy. I’d rather they not try, but if they do they better not fuck up.
What will a post-Dolemite world be like? It’s too bad, Rudy pretended to run for president so many times, but he didn’t quite live to see President Obama. Probaly would’ve been disappointed that legalizing prostitution wasn’t on the agenda. As far as an artistic output, the guy was 81, he had enough time there. I’m dying to see DOLEMITE EXPLOSION!, but I didn’t expect him to do another one. He was actually moved into a retirement home and had to be carried around. Even if he could walk the main thing he was doing in those later years was cameos in crappy low budget movies most of us weren’t gonna track down. I don’t care how big your posse is, I will not watch a movie made by Insane Clowns. It’s not my thing.
Will that remake still happen? With Dolemite gone will some studio take it over? Would that maybe be better?
What happens to the cottage industry anyway, when the boss isn’t here? Does his son take over? Or Queen Bee and the girls? Does it just disappear, since there are no shows to sell t-shirts at? Or does Dolemite become the registered intellectual property of some corporation? A license, a franchise, a property, a brand. House of Blues Presents The Dolemite Total Experience™ Resort with your host Dolemite™.
Whatever happens, the legacy will live on. DOLEMITE isn’t even his best movie, but it alone is enough to make him legendary in my mind. The power of DOLEMITE in your DVD player will overcome whatever some stupid motherfucker tries to do to make money off the name. But they better be careful fuckin with the legacy, and I’ll tell you why: