January 14, 2015

How Stirling Silliphant was responsible for the worst movie ever made

I wouldn't have thought it was possible, but I'm about to make a link between one of the most literate writers from the '50s and '60s classic era of television, and the auteur of one of the worst movies ever made.  If nothing else, this proves that you really can be six degrees of separation away from anyone and anything.

The feature players are Stirling Silliphant, the mastermind behind series such as Route 66 and Naked City and Oscar-winning screenwriter for In the Heat of the Night, and Harold P. Warren, producer, director, writer and star of the astonishingly bad movie Manos: The Hands of Fate.  If you're familiar at all with Manos, it's probably because you saw it on Mystery Science Theater 3000, where it was known as the most famous - and worst - movie ever shown on the show.  Ever.  (You can see some of the reasons why here.)

So how does a distinguished writer and producer find himself involved with such extreme schlock?  Well, it's a fairly straightforward story, according to the always-reliable Wikipedia:
Warren [an insurance and fertilizer salesman] was very active in the theater scene in El Paso, Texas, and once appeared as a walk-on for the television series Route 66, where he met screenwriter Stirling Silliphant. While chatting with Silliphant in a local coffee shop, Warren claimed that it was not difficult to make a horror film, and bet Silliphant that he could make an entire film on his own. After placing the bet, Warren began the first outline of his script on a napkin, right inside the coffee shop. To finance the film, Warren accumulated a substantial, but nevertheless insufficient, $19,000 cash (equivalent to $138,106 in 2015 dollars), and hired a group of actors from a local theater, many of whom he had worked with before, as well as a modeling agency. Because he was unable to pay the cast and crew any wages, Warren promised them a share in the film's profits.

Ah, out of such chance encounters are history books written.  I would have loved to eavesdrop on that conversation between Silliphant and Warren.

Warren:  C'mon, it's not that hard.  Anyone can do it.

Silliphant:  Anyone?  I suppose you think you could do it, Hal?

Warren:  (perhaps having imbibed a bit too much)  I don't think, so, I know so.

Silliphant:  (Wanting to teach this punk that the movie business isn't as easy as it looks)   All right, smart guy, if it's that easy, let's see you do it!  (Reaches into his billford, pulls out a couple of bills, slaps them on the counter.)  Here's a hundred bucks says you can't do it.

Warren:  (Angrily)  You're on!  (Slams $100 of his own on the counter.)  We'll see who has the last laugh.

(Warren begins jotting down the draft of a plot on the back of a napkin, then pauses.)  

Warren:  (Sheepishly)  Uh, Stirl, do you mind if I borrow that hundred bucks back?  I'm afraid I'm a little short right now...

All right, maybe it didn't happen that way, but the gist of it was the same.  Warren did in fact write the first outline on a napkin, right there and then.  And while Abraham Lincoln may have been able to write the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope, he also started with a lot more talent.

Manos was pretty much what you'd expect from such an auspicious start.  The movie premiered at the Capri Theater in El Paso; Warren had arranged for for the cast to be brought to the premiere by a limousine, but  he "could afford only a single limousine, however, and so the driver had to drop off one group, then drive around the block and pick up another."  As for the rest of its run,

The film was briefly distributed by the Emerson Releasing Corporation. Following its debut, the film had a brief theatrical run at the Capri Theater, as well as a few screenings at various drive-in theaters in West Texas and New Mexico towns, including Las Cruces. Reports that the only crew members who were compensated for their work in the film were Jackey Neyman and her family's dog, who received a bicycle and a large quantity of dog food, respectively, would seem to indicate that even with its extremely low budget, the film failed to break even financially. Official box office figures for the film are unknown, if indeed they ever existed. 

But here's the thing: although even Warren conceded that Manos was perhaps the worst movie ever made, he did in fact make it on his own; therefore, he won his bet with Silliphant.  (I wonder if he ever paid off?)  It's a wonder that Silliphant's name didn't pop up in the acknowledgements section of the credits, although it's more of a wonder that there were any credits at all.

As I said, such are the small events that make up history.  And now you know the rest of the story.


  1. I thought you were going to state how Stirling Silliphant got his movie, The Swarm, on tv. It was funny reading your quotes of his snobby comments about tv & tv audiences (TV Guide 9/25/65) and knowing how he would thrust The Swarm upon unsuspecting movie & tv audiences eventually.

    1. This was actually Irwin Allen's The Swarm.
      Stirling Silliphant was Allen's scenarist of choice during his "disaster" period ( he also wrote the scripts for Poseidon Adventure and Towering Inferno, among others).
      The Swarm is known mainly these days as a movie that "killed more careers than HUAC"; that's an exaggeration, of course, but it is Fred MacMurray's final theatrical film, and it didn't help Patty Duke, Ben Johnson, or Olivia DeHavilland either.
      And Michael Caine made his decision to return to England not too long after ...


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