Coleman Francis

Active - 1952 - 1970  |   Genres - Drama, Crime, Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller

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Coleman Francis is frequently compared to Edward D. Wood, Jr. as a filmmaker, and with good reason: their movies have similar characteristics, and even a couple of overlapping cast members. But Francis isn't remotely as well known as Edward D. Wood, Jr., though not through any lack of effort on his part. The actor-turned-filmmaker started making movies about a decade later than his younger contemporary Wood, and only made three movies as a writer/director/producer. But those three movies displayed degrees of ineptitude more pronounced than most of what was seen in any part of Wood's larger body of work. It is only the fact of that more limited output, and also the reality that Francis' personal life wasn't highlighted by such elements as transvestism (or a connection to the sexual underworld of the Truman/Eisenhower eras) -- all leading to the Tim Burton biographical film -- that has prevented Francis' discovery by a larger-scale public. In point of fact, Coleman Francis' three movies make parts of Wood's work look, by comparison, almost polished, and mostly well devised and executed. Francis was born in Oklahoma in early 1919, and later moved to Texas, and finally, in the 1940s, journeyed to California, with the intent of joining the movie business. He started turning up in uncredited roles in some low-budget Columbia Pictures titles in the late '40s, and by the early '50s could be glimpsed in small, mostly uncredited roles, primarily in lower-budgeted productions: he's a power plant employee in Killers From Space (1954) and a delivery driver in This Island Earth (1955). Amid these tiny assignments, he also started doing television, including appearances on Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, Dragnet, and Highway Patrol. In 1958, he got his first credited part, as a detective, in Irvin Kershner's Stakeout on Dope Street. By this time, he apparently saw that the real money and control in the business lay in the production end, and he started devising screenplays with the advent of the new decade.

The first tangible result was The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961), a hopelessly amateurish sci-fi/horror film starring Wood alumnus Tor Johnson in the title role (and featuring Conrad Brooks, also a Wood player, in a small part). The movie was so ineptly made that a major part of a book could have been written about the errors in any given scene; indeed, next to Johnson's earlier films for Wood, much of The Beast of Yucca Flats had the look of a bad home movie. But Francis somehow soldiered on, making the even more amazingly threadbare (and incompetent) The Skydivers (1963) a couple of years later, and Night Train to Mundo Fine (aka, Red Zone Cuba) (1966) three years after that. Both were extremely low-budget productions, with seams showing throughout most scenes and shots. Francis' movies, with their incoherent plots, absurd characters, and portrayals (if that's the word; he mostly seems to have used friends in his movies, another point of comparison with Wood), and haphazard editing and assembly, were never taken seriously. The Beast of Yucca Flats, by virtue of its being science fiction, did make it to television in the early/middle 1960s, mostly on late-late-show programs by small stations outside of the major markets. Francis was one up on Wood in one very important respect, however, as he seems to have kept his acting career going -- something that Wood never could do -- and was still getting small roles in movies right up until 1970. What's more, where Wood sank lower and lower into the periphery of the movie business after 1960, when he ceased making his own movies, Francis somehow managed to remain within the orbit of filmmakers who still had a viable (and even rising) career. Several of his acting jobs, albeit mostly minuscule screen appearances, were in pictures made by directors who did attract attention as auteurs: Ray Dennis Steckler and Russ Meyer. The latter -- who may have peripherally identified with (or, more likely, pitied) the actor-turned-writer/director/producer -- used Francis in small roles in Motor Psycho (1965) and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970). Alas, Francis had developed a serious weight problem by the 1960s that he was never able to get under control, and he died in 1973, officially of natural causes, although there seem to be conflicting accounts of the precise circumstances. His reputation, such as it is, has outlived him, however, mostly by virtue of The Beast of Yucca Flats; that and the other two movies he directed all turned up on Mystery Science Theater 3000, which greatly boosted his name recognition starting 25 years after his death.

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