Timothy Carey’s 57 Varieties

I went up to Philly last weekend for a four-hour program of films featuring Timothy Carey, the late great character actor who hammed his way through dozens of bit-roles. I’ve written about him previously. Some of his movies you’ve seen and love – notably his significant supporting roles for Stanley Kubrick in The Killing and Paths of Glory (his famous scene in the latter involces a cockroach); some you haven’t seen and wouldn’t love if you had (Chesty Morgan, anyone?) A contrary fellow if there ever was one, he turned down roles in all three Godfather pictures, because, he claimed, he didn’t want to be one of those actors who was in it for the money. Chesty Morgan, anyone? I tease, but in my search for the Timothy Carey mysqtique I’ve watched a lot of bad movies, and the only one I couldn’t get through was the so-called sex comedy Chesty Morgan. Which is too bad, because the director let Carey go on at length during a dinner scene where you can clearly see his fellow actors becoming uncomfortable with Carey’s riffing.

Carey was also a director, most famously of The World’s Greatest Sinner, a film whose reputation was such that Elvis Presley asked to see it (Carey has an uncredited role in the Presley/Mary Tyler Moore vehicle Change of Habit, as a hulking, massive grocery store clerk.) Carey’s son Romeo presented a documentary about the making of TWGS (Mike White, who administers the Timothy Carey page on Facebook, writes about the documentary, and the other films shown that evening, here.) and answered questions at the screening. One of his remarks hit on why I’m so drawn to Carey – the guy simply didn’t care what people thought of him. If this can be seen in his supporting roles in other people’s movies, it goes in spades for his work as a director.

TWGS was rarely seen until it ran on TCM Underground last year. Carey plays Clarence Hilliard, an insurance salesman who up and quits his job to follow his own strange path – as a God. He enters politics as God Hilliard, and also tries his hand out as a rock star. One of the talking heads in the making of documentary notes that Carey has no proficiency on the guitar before making the movie, but claims that he got by on charisma alone, and could have opened for Elvis. That may be overstating things:

The film is a mess, but has a few remarkable scenes. As hard as Carey is for other directors to rein in, he’s even less inhibited here, which isn’t always a good thing. His performance relies too often on shouting – from streetcorners, from stage. The most memorable scenes are softer, or at least, not as loud: a seduction scene with an elderly former insurance client; and the final revelation.

TWGS has been difficult, but not impossible to see, until recently. Much rarer is Tweet’s Ladies of Pasadena, a collection of footage, shot between 1969 and 1974, that was slated for a tv pilot in the 70s. This train wreck makes TWGS look like Citizen Kane; my first reaction was that it was unwatchable, but as it went on and I laughed hard at one and then another ridiculous scene, I couldn’t look away, always wondering what the hell he might do next. Carey stars as the roller-skating, bib-overall wearing Tweet Twig, caretaker of a menagerie of animals including goats, chickens, ducks, dogs and kittens (all of which belonged to the Carey family). Who talk. Yes, Timothy Carey made a talking animal picture, and naturally, the German Shepherd has a German accent.

After the four hours of films were over, Romeo Carey, who expressed surprised that more people didn’t walk out on Tweet’s (several in the audience did) took questions from the audience. I asked if he knew about this newspaper item:

New York Times, May 8, 1957
Missing US Actor is Found

MUNICH, Germany, May 7 (Reuters)–Timothy Carey, 31-year old Hollywood actor who disappeared from his hotel here sunday night, was found gagged and handcuffed on a lonely road outside Munich this morning, the police said here today. They said the actor had hitched a ride in a car driven by two English-speaking men, who held him at gunpoin, robbed him of $40 and finally dumped him by the roadside.

Romeo Carey did know about it. After shooting for Paths of Glory had wrapped, Timothy Carey had been frustrated with the publicity around Kirk Douglas and his other co-stars. So he faked his own kidnapping. In another incident around that time, the crew had gone to a burlesque show one evening in which one performer ended her act in a buble bath on stage. Timothy Carey walked right up to the stage and got into the bubble bath with her.

Carey’s son painted a picture of life with father that was funny and uncomfortable. Romeo admitted that he used to be tremendously embarassed by the Tweet’s footage. Toward the end of his life Carey became obsessed with the artistic possibilities of the fart. His last, unfinished project was a play called The Insect Trainer, about a man convicted of murder by farting. Carey liked to fart in church, just before reaching out to greet his neighbor in a sign of peace.

Timothy Carey's fart chastity belt

The screenings were held at the International House of Philadelphia (amiably known as IHOP) in conjunction with the show “Dead Flowers” at Vox Populi (link NSFW), where it will run through the end of the month before moving to New York’s Participant Inc. Gallery in May. The curator was inspired by the work of Timothy Carey and his refusal to compromise his artistic vision. The show assembles a group of transgressive artists who work with the body: Genesis P-Orridge, Kembra Phfaler, Cynthia Plaster Caster, among others, and a selection of ephemera from Carey’s career – film stills and other promotional materials, and, pictured above, a fart chastity belt. The other artists’ connections with Carey seemed tenuous to me, other than their shared fixation with their own bodies, but it was a treat to see the Carey ephemera at hand.
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