It Came From Rifftrax: ‘How to Keep a Job’

Since I’ve been preoccupied with job-hunting and related issues lately, I thought this week we’d take a look at Coronet’s (yep, them again) film on How to Keep a Job.

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“Well, if it’s anything like my restaurant job, all you have to do is not get caught in the walk-in cooler, barefoot and eating coleslaw directly from the container.”

Meet Ed, an ‘ambitious’ young man who is laid off from his current job and sets about applying for another one. At his interview, he proceeds to bad-mouth his old company while trying to evade admitting that he was fired. The Riffers point out the flaws in his thinking pretty quickly:

“It wasn’t my fault: the company just up and started firing people.”
“And for some reason they started with you?”

Fortunately for Ed, his interview exists in an educational short, and so the manager, thinking (inexplicably) that Ed might amount to something, proceeds to tell him the story of Bob and his twin brother Walter, who demonstrate the dos and don’ts of keeping a job. Bob gets started right to work easy, Walter puts off his work until the last possible moment. Bob spends his office downtime catching up on work, Walter wastes time. Bob focuses on his job, Walter bad mouths the company to anyone who’ll listen (“What can Brown resentfully do for you?”).

As usual, Coronet makes some good points in a somewhat heavy-handed and corny manner. In this case, the points are rather nuanced when you look at them. For instance, they point out that it’s not so much a question of being actually fired as that, sooner or later, every company has to cut down staff, and when that time comes it’s going to be the people who do the bare minimum acceptable work, rather than making themselves particularly valuable, who get the axe first (“Fire both and outsource it for pennies”). They also show that bad-mouthing your current company does you no favors either in your present job or in applying for another one. 

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“Don’t I seem like a sharp, industrious character?”

Of course, the Goofus and Gallant-style storyline, as well as the whiney protagonist make for a lot of rich riffing material. Among others, there’s a running gag of the twins hiring strippers, jokes on the business world, and some gags dealing with the substandard state of the film print itself (“Sorry I time traveled real quick there”:

“Make yourself so valuable the employer can’t let you go.”
“Paint your whole body with pure gold!”

“I didn’t do anything; why fire me?”
“I think you just answered your own question.”

“I’m just kidding: that suggestion box is really a shredder.”

“No system! And no one in charge with enough brains to start one.”
“Shouldn’t have put the Scarecrow in charge.”

“A company has to operate within its income.”
“No one’s gonna bail them out if…oh.”

There’s also a great call-back to the earlier short This is Hormel (“I’m going to show you a room we call ‘the Hide Cellar'”),which was about some kids who request to take a tour of a meat disassembly plant and get to see cattle carcasses being graphically skinned and processed (no, honestly; that’s what it’s about). We will definitely be covering that one sooner or later.

In any case, this is a very enjoyable short, and, like many Coronet films, actually gives useful advice that you can take in while laughing at the jokes. Check it out and make your job secure!

I mean, unless the company decides it’s cheaper to outsource it to the other side of the planet after your union insisted on making it prohibitively expensive in order to justify their own existence, which they did because neither of them could possibly care less about you.

But that’s a topic for another time.

It Came From Rifftrax: ‘Welcome Back, Norman’

For this week, we have the introduction to one of Rifftrax’s most, ah, ‘beloved’ figures: the one and only Norman Krasner.

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“He puts the ‘lovable loser’ in the phrase ‘completely unlovable loser.'”

The best way I can describe the Norman films (of which four have emerged so far) is “Imagine an American take on ‘Mr. Bean,’ as written by Jean-Paul Sartre.” They’re about the misadventures of a middle-aged white-collar worker named Norman Krasner who encounters an endless series of arbitrary inconveniences and mishaps, while reacting in a way no human being ever would. Not in a funny way, you understand, just in a way guaranteed to make his situation worse, all the while looking as though he’s minutes away from sticking his head in the nearest oven.

For instance, this first short sees Norman trying to find his way out of the airport parking lot. Early on he finds that his car is blocked in either side so that he has to squeeze in between the other vehicles to force his suitcase into the back seat. Why doesn’t he just put it in the trunk? Because then we wouldn’t get to see him struggling to put it into the back. Then he might not have left his briefcase on the roof (though considering he later pokes his head out the window and looks directly at it without reacting, that might not have helped).

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“Okay, what the hell?”

Meanwhile, rather than a lovable manchild, Norman’s just a sour-faced ordinary guy who seems like every cliche of the modern, pathetic mid-tier businessman living a life of quiet desperation embodied in a single figure. And you’re right: that isn’t funny. Nor does Norman give any kind of humorous reactions or exaggerated expressions of dismay; he’s pretty underplayed, and the most he offers is a despairing “Uggh….” (“Ah, yes; Norman’s beloved catchphrase: ‘Uggh…'”). Other than that, Norman never speaks.

From what I understand, the Norman series was created, along with other similar short films, as a means to fill out the time between movies on early cable channels. Apparently, they were made by someone with no sense of humor whatsoever who saw that the ‘Mr. Bean’ shorts were popular and tried to copy them like a tone-deaf musician playing a piece by ear.

This results in a perfect storm for the Rifftrax crew: Norman both never speaks, allowing them to project whatever character they want on him, and what character he does have pretty much boils down to “hapless loser.” But he isn’t even an innocent victim whom you could feel sorry for; he actively makes his own situation worse by responding in the most senseless ways or just plain being rude. This makes for a character who is absolutely ideal for roasting, and they don’t let up. Jokes of Norman being a loser, being a pervert, and being the despised plaything of the universe abound. “In the case: third-quarter sales figures, a well-thumbed issue of ‘Penthouse,’ and oddly enough, several ICBM launch codes.” “‘Your Dad is a Norman!’ became the most popular playground taunt after this film was shown.” “In a few days, Norman will have them putting lotion in a basket.” 

The Riffers apparently had the idea that this was meant to be and educational film to be shown in school: a “what not to do” film, which would have made the whole thing even more inexplicable, and which prompts a lot of funny gags (“So, kids, the lesson is, never leave your briefcase on the roof of your Chrysler. Now let’s learn division”).

The short was originally shown with the live showing of ‘Manos: the Hands of Fate,’ with a few minor changes to the riffing when it was released as a stand-alone short: most notably reducing Kevin’s gag of Norman keeping his cat in his brief case to a single joke instead of an ongoing bit. But in whichever version, it’s a glorious introduction to a character who would soon become an institution among Rifftrax fans.

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“Norman will be back in, ‘For the Love of God, Norman, Put Down that Gun’.”

 

It Came from Rifftrax: “Jack the Giant Killer” LIVE

            I thought we’d do something a little more ambitious this week; our first feature length Rifftrax. While the shorts are fun and tasty, it’s the feature films that are Rifftrax’s bread and butter, as with Mst3k before it. Among other releases, they periodically do live shows with the guys riffing on films up on stage before an audience. These often lend a whole new level of fun to the proceedings.

Like most of their live performances this show comes with an introductory short, in this case an odd bit of ’60s…something called What Is Nothing? (“a film about the actual content of a Michael Bay movie?”), which has two young boys discussing the title question. I don’t know why anyone would make a film about two eight year olds having an extended philosophical discussion about the nature of non-existence, but they did. I mean, who would be the target audience for this? When would this film ever be shown? I get the impression that the filmmakers were largely as stoned as these kids appear to be (Kevin speculates the kids wrote the last two seasons of Lost).

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“I hope the nothingness consumes us after Sesame Street”

The pointless faux-philosophic musings naturally makes for great fun from the Rifftrax crew, and a strong opening act to the main event.

It’s followed by a pair of short cartoons narrated and written by the five-year-old daughter of an internet animator. They don’t even bother riffing the cartoons as they’re too insane and (obviously) childish to even need it; the stream-of consciousness child storytelling is enough (though the second one features a cartoon Jesus prominently and in ridiculous situations, which is kind of uncomfortable, despite this being a child’s imagining. They’re easy to skip, though).

The main feature is, of course, Jack the Giant Killer, a 1962 fantasy adventure film that is very clearly trying to cash in on the success of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Apparently, producer Edward Small had been one of the potential backers Ray Harryhausen and Charles Schneer had pitched that film to, but had turned them down. After it became a huge hit, Small belatedly tried to make a duplicate film for himself, right down to hiring the same director and two of the same stars (Kerwin Matthews and Torin Thatcher) playing essentially the same roles they played in the earlier film.

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“Going about as well as most of my first dates”

One thing it doesn’t share is Ray Harryhausen’s special effects. Instead the effects are provided by a crew of less prestigious names, including fellow stop-motion artist Jim Danforth (who eventually collaborated with Harryhausen on Clash of the Titans). The results dramatically illustrate just why Harryhausen remains so respected in the field. There are a lot of special effects in this film, of many different varieties; a bunch of stop-motion creatures, lots of matting on the witches and ghosts, and plenty of 2-D animation on the magical spells and such. The sheer scale is rather impressive, but unfortunately the effects are pretty lackluster for the most part. The stop motion figures look very rubbery and generally have lame designs (in stark contrast to Harryhausen’s intricately detailed and solid-looking creations), as well as being very jerky in their movements. The matting is pretty terrible for the most part, especially the witches’ assault on the ship, which goes on for a long time and is just rough to look at, with its deep blue filter and negative color animation (though the creature design on the witches is pretty good). The giants are very, very clearly inspired by the cyclopses from Sinbad, right down to the satyr legs (“Oh, thank God; he carries his own pants”). And the 2-D animation is nothing short of embarrassing at times.

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“Nice to see Miss Havisham getting out, meeting people.”

The plot of the film is also much less engaging than Sinbad, revolving around the evil wizard’s plot to take over the Kingdom of Cornwall by turning the princess into a witch (“And Lady Gaga is born!” “Born this way, of course”) and forcing the king to abdicate so that he can rule from behind the scenes, raising way too many questions about how this whole witch thing works in this world. In Sinbad it was nicely straightforward: the sorcerer wants his lamp back, greedy for its power, so manipulates Sinbad into taking him to the island by putting a spell on the princess. Also, the genie is more than a plot point, but serves as both a useful ally and occasion for Sinbad and the princess to show their nobility in contrast with the sorcerer by taking the chance to set him free, despite still needing his help. His equivalent here, a leprechaun in a bottle, is only a device to get Jack through his obstacles (Sinbad was also much less dependent on the genie), and isn’t released until after the heroes are already safe.

All in all, it might be an interesting study to examine why Sinbad works so well and this film doesn’t. Not that it’s terrible really; there’s certainly enough going on that you don’t get bored, and the fairy tale story is enjoyable at least. If nothing else, the film commits wholly to its fantasy tone and setting. Torin Thatcher is particularly enjoyable to watch, of course, hamming it up with as much gusto as before (though without the charisma and character of the earlier role). His sidekick Garna (played by veteran character actor Walter Burke) is even more fun, and whenever the two of them are on screen it’s a wonder there’s any scenery left.

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“Garna’s job satisfaction must be, like, 300 percent”

It’s evident that the Riffers are enjoying the film as much as mocking it. It’s a light-hearted, innocent romp that’s hard to dislike for all its faults. They have a lot of fun mocking the absurdities at hand, or obsessing over minor details (“Herla the Wizard is dead?! No!”). The riffing remains strong throughout, while the film itself is entertaining enough to keep your attention. Among other running gags are naming one prominent witch ‘Phil,’ imagining Sigurd the Viking cheerfully telling tales of pillaging and murder (“And my favorite part was the women weeping while we disemboweled their husbands.” “I don’t like spending time with you!”), and gags on how annoying and repulsive they find the imp in the bottle (“Even the leprechaun from Leprechaun thought this was offensive!”). As usual the monsters are given hilarious voices and dialogue (“So, ‘Giant Killer.’ Family name, I assume?”). The Riffers perfected their ‘monster’ voice back in Mst3k, and it’s pretty much remained unchanged since: a kind of high, nasal rasp that just makes every line funnier.

The film is just so crazy by the end that it doesn’t take much riffing, to the point where they speculate that the girl from the opening cartoons may have written it.

A few other favorite riffs:

-“Text from Admiral Ackbar: says ‘It’s a…’ eh, I’ll read it later.”

-“If we knew that, we would know what to do.” “Well, thanks! You’re fired.”

-“Avast and whatho the scuppers! I’ve got no idea what I’m sayin’ lads.”

-“I knew we should have used mortar to build our castle instead of pure evil!”

Overall, this is one of my favorites of the live shows; the audience reactions lend an extra sense of watching the show with an enthusiastic company. The fact that the Riffers occasionally flub their lines and improvise freely adds to the good-natured tone of the whole thing: the guys don’t take themselves too seriously and it’s all just about having fun. If you’d like to branch out into longer-form Rifftrax content, this is a good place to start.

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“And Sauron issued this statement: ‘Dear Pendragon, you have my thoughts and prayers during this difficult time.'”

It Came From Rifftrax: ‘The Myths of Shoplifting’

This week’s offering takes us back to the affluent, synthesized world of the 1980s to learn the truth behind common misconceptions of shoplifting. Like most of these shorts, it’s actually makes a pretty good point, though while being melodramatic and heavy-handed, which makes for a good combination for the Rifftrax crew.

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“For instance, did you know that many security guards are actually deadly cyborgs?”

The short depicts a few different characters (only two of them are actually connected, which admittedly makes the short less contrived than it might otherwise have been if they all knew each other) as they experience the myths of shoplifting (“Is that the one where Hercules picks up a 7-11?”). Among these mythes are that no one gets caught, nothing happens if you do, it doesn’t hurt anyone, and so on. It’s actually rather effective despite the melodramatic tone. The bit where the kid’s parents are called to the store to pick him up does a particularly good job of conveying the discomfort of the situation. It’s followed by a nice bit of the boy telling his friend (who was trying to laugh the situation off) that the worst part was “I felt like a thief.” (“Wait, felt like a thief? You were a thief. Hey, come back here!”).

Incidentally, the boy is Black, the son of two obviously middle-class parents who lay into him when they find out he was stealing, taking the store’s side one hundred percent and pointing out that the kid had no excuse to be doing that. Race is a topic I tend to avoid, since I find it incredibly tedious and I think most of the rhetoric surrounding it is painfully stupid, but to dip in for the moment, it seems to me that this is the kind of thing you don’t see very often anymore. The kid is just presented as a kid; not as a representative of a social class bearing the weight of x, y, and z issues. Same thing with the young woman who loses out on a job when they find out she was picked up for shoplifting as a teenager (“Prepare to live a life haunted by scarves and calculators”). Meanwhile, several of the police and security guards on display are also Black, just mixed in with the other characters. And this is in an extremely casual, educational film from the 1980s (this tallies with my experience of other films of the era, which, by modern standards, were incredibly relaxed about race. They didn’t ignore it, but they tended to relegate it to a secondary issue at best, behind, well things like ethics and the storyline at hand. So…good job with that, intervening years).

Anyway, leaving that aside, this is one of those shorts that is interesting in itself, but very funny for the riffing. The guys glean a lot of humor from the unimpressive leads (“We’re going to turn you over to the Nerd Crimes division”) and the subject matter itself (“Tough place; I’d better tell my cellmate I stole a graphing calculator”). They have fun taking the melodrama to the extreme (“Skulls of the shoplifters are displayed as a reminder”) and on the idea that the merchandise is probably not even worth the effort to begin with. Overall, the humor complements the short very well, letting the message play through while turning it to comedy (“Do you offer a five finger discount?”). The short is competently done enough to be engaging (including giving a realistically stupid portrayal of rebellious teenagers, like when one kid is more excited about having been arrested than concerned about the effect it’ll have on his future), while the Riffers inject supporting humor throughout (“Alright; on to my embezzlement hearing!”).

In short, a fun, engaging little flick enlivened by strong riffing making for another solid short from Rifftrax.

It Came From Rifftrax: ‘Flying Stewardess’

This is one of those shorts that’s as fascinating as a window into the past as it is amusing. In this case, a look at air travel in the 1940s. I do not recommend watching this short just before taking a trip, as thinking of the roomy seating, tasty-looking four-course meals, and sleeper berths of the past may make you feel as though you’ve been badly cheated as you wedge yourself onto cramped seats in the packed, germ-ridden, thermostat-challenged tube that will be your world for the next six or seven hours.

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“There’s not a man on the wing of the plane! I just wanted to sound the all-clear on that.”

The short is the documentary of a young stewardess from the classroom to her first solo flight, covering quite a lot of ground (literally and figuratively) in about eleven minutes. Did you know that stewardesses of the era took classes on radio theory? I didn’t. Not to mention that planes of the era flew low enough that you could actually make out key sights on the ground, such as the skylines of major cities and even Niagara Falls (“Oh, my God, you’re taking us to Canada?! Let me off!”). We get a quick cross-country tour of the old America, which is pretty cool, to be honest, including my home-town of Detroit (gets a hilariously underwhelmed “Yay” from Bill).

Though the short itself is pretty interesting, it nevertheless provides lots and lots of good riffing material, from roasting each location in turn (upon arriving in Los Angeles: “The morning vomit has been hosed off the streets and it’s shining like a jewel!”) to the sometimes overblown narration (“No use articles here Chicago”) to just riffing on the passengers and the scenario in general (“I’m Bob Executive; which way is business?”). As usual, there are a few ‘sexist forties’ jokes, but not very many or very notable ones, and the riffing imagines the stewardesses abusing far more than being abused (“try not to snore like a breeder hog, will yah?”).

Air travel in general just lends itself to humor, especially from our perspective given how I don’t think anyone really likes the experience these days (“It’s like eating at ‘Denny’s’, but with a much smaller risk of death”). This short shows us that it, perhaps, wasn’t always like that. I was particularly fascinated by the look at the ‘sleeper’ flight, where face-to-face booths were made up into actual sleeping bunks like on a train car. It’s almost as though the passengers expected a comfortable and convenient flight and the airlines meant to oblige.

Of course, the problem with that is there’s clearly a much lower capacity on each flight, and no doubt they were proportionately much more expensive. It is, I suppose, a trade-off, though I can’t help wondering whether we’ve traded too far in the opposite direction. That’s a whole other issue, of course, but still, looking through this little keyhole into the not-too-distant past, it’s clear to me that we’ve lost something along the way.

Meanwhile, other highlights of the short include a look at the stewardesses on break time, where they keep fit by sailing (amusingly, they really look like they’re about to tip over at one point and there’s an abrupt jump-cut, making me think they had to pause filming for a moment to make sure no one went overboard). The narrator helpfully clarifies that, though most stewardesses marry within a few years, they do not typically marry pilots. Mike gets a great moment with a fussy baby, while Kevin delights in finding synonyms for the solo flight and sniggers when the narrator apparently joins in.

All in all, a very fun short providing a legitimately interesting look into a vanished world amid some solid riffing. Recommended, especially for those who like a little view into the past.

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“The captain thanks you for keeping the plane snake-free.”

It Came From Rifftrax: ‘Courtesy: A Good Eggsample’

So, let’s do one from the ‘completely insane’ school of educational shorts.

This one is well-summed up by Kevin right out of the gate as “Batman villain Egghead’s brief foray into educational films.” That actually would make a lot more sense than the idea that this was seriously intended as an educational film.

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“I mean, we ordered up a thing for kids about courtesy; this is just a bunch of crap about eggs!”

Basically, it’s a stop-motion short about sentient eggs who, we are told, learn about courtesy. Mostly it just amounts to the antagonist Benedict being discourteous while protagonist Eggbert (“If your name is Eggbert, you’re pretty much required to wear a bowtie”) models courtesy to a much lesser extent. There’s little through line or thesis to it; Benedict is a jerk for most of the short, then falls off the slide and cracks (“Fry him up so we can feast on his innards!”), so Eggbert takes him to the nurse’s office, which somehow results in them becoming friends because Benedict has learned about courtesy (though very reluctantly, to gauge by his subsequent behavior).

See, the thing is, no one ever actually learns anything, despite Eggbert’s assertion to the contrary; we just see Benedict and a few others being discourteous, Benedict suffers an injury in part because of it, then he reluctantly behaves better. We’re never actually told what courtesy is, or how to show it, except for a since line where the teacher assures Benedict that, “if you show consideration for others, they’ll show consideration for you.” Something that is never demonstrated in the short, since Benedict is more or less just punished into being sort-of courteous, and Eggbert shows him consideration regardless. I’m not even sure how many of Eggbert’s actions are meant to be models of courtesy. Even if you re-filmed the exact same script with human characters, it still wouldn’t make much sense. As the guys point out more than once, it’s basically just a pointless exercise in egg-puns, even though someone evidently spent a lot of time making it (“I’m managing to have the courtesy not to call this short a cheap, annoying waste of time”).

Naturally, this results in a lot of very funny riffing on the sheer insanity of it all, such as commenting on how everything is egg-shaped (“Those green egg trees are missing something…”), or the logic of an egg-based society (“Remembering the dead egg Marines who died in the mess-kits at Normandy”). The extremely basic music gets a lot of good humor as well, not to mention Mike’s Vincent Price imitation. On top of that, just the utter madness and pointlessness of the short itself is good for a laugh; it would be funny even without the riffing just for the sheer weirdness. A definite recommendation if you like utterly bizarre, misfired ideas.

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“Horrible. None of them know they’re headed to the omelette bar.”

It Came From Rifftrax: ‘Understanding Your Ideals’

One of the hundreds of educational films made by Coronet (not an exaggeration, by the way), this is kind of a special case. Typically, these ’50s educational shorts are centered around basically ordinary, blandly decent kids dealing with a single, common problem (how to ask a girl out, being shy, etc.). Not this one! This one has an actively unpleasant, selfish, and moronic young man at its center.

Meet Jeff; a bow-tie wearing high schooler chasing the ideal of popularity. He does this by paying close attention to his wardrobe (“thank you, unmonitored clothing drive drop-off box!”), pinning up a photo of the football captain (but apparently not actually observing his behavior, to judge by his late-game realization that the guy does none of the things that he’s been trying), and dating a girl he admits he isn’t all that attracted to, but who everyone likes, all while daydreaming about how many people would want to be his friend if only he had a snazzy car and the right clothes. Then, the night of the school dance, his father (who had promised to loan him the family car) tells him that he’ll have to go back on the promise because grandmother had a fall and his mother has to rush out to take care of her for a few days. Jeff spares not a breath of concern for his aged, injured grandmother, but just keeps whining that his dad promised he could have the car, finally concluding “they just don’t want me to be popular” (“Right. They pushed grandma down and broke her hip to hurt you“). So, rather than take the bus to the dance, he calls his girlfriend and cancels with a lie about being sick.

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“Grandma’s last act was to write you out of her will.”

Does he then do the sensible thing and stay home? Maybe reflect upon his life choices and what a selfish little brat he has become? No! He goes out to the local malt shop, where he tries to show off to a bunch of Freshmen, who proceed to mock him mercilessly (no, seriously; that’s what happens). Then, predictably, his girlfriend walks in (you will be amazed at how sick you get of the word ‘popular’ before this film is over).

The short proceeds to have his father explain the concept of ‘ideals’ to him, though the short doesn’t have a particularly clear view of the subject. ‘Ideals’ end up meaning ‘vision’ or ‘drive’ or just about anything positive.

Needless to say, between the spineless, self-centered protagonist and the vague moralizing, the Rifftrax crew have a field day with this one. “Don’t you see, Dad? I’m the center of the universe!” Things get going right out of the gate when Mike speculates that the overly bombastic title music must be from the sword fight halfway through (prompting Bill to ask, “An educational film with a sword fight?”). The odd framing device of a point-of-view shot from a car driving at night (because ideals are like headlights: “They’re a bit dim”) also prompts some good jokes, as does Jeff’s dog, Stew, who serves as the recipient for his solipsistic musings (“You mean nothing to me”). Meanwhile, the father’s rambling speech on ideals gets a fair number of good jokes (“Aw, now you’re just being socratic and stuff”), though the short’s at its best when Jeff is front and center in his stupendous stupidity (“I’ve got to have ideals like honesty and sincerity…” “A spine and a pair…”).

I have to say, in my experience ’50s educational shorts generally don’t misfire very often. Oh, they can be stupid and ham-fisted, but the basic morals and storylines tend to be solid. This is one of the exceptions; the protagonist is an unlikable idiot whose redemption is far too little, too late, and the thesis is too vague; like they were rushed on this one. The result is a confused, basically pointless short and a very memorable Rifftrax entry.