Times Staff Writer

“Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains” deserves more exposure than its one-night booking Wednesday at the Fox International, as part of its Summer Music Film Fest. Directed in 1981 by pop music impresario Lou Adler and written by Rob Morton, it’s a gritty, driving tale of a disillusioned, unswervingly ruthless teen-ager (Diane Lane, most impressive), utterly determined that the punk trio she’s formed with her sister (Marin Kanter) and cousin (Laura Dern) is going to get her out of their dreary Pennsylvania steel-mill town.

Her meteoric rise, based on her ability to connect with fans who feel equally negated, and the role of the media in her overnight fame may seem crudely simplistic. But there’s no compromise in the film’s bleak, often scabrously funny portrait of life on the road as the Fabulous Stains tour tank towns with an ill-matched heavy-metal group (headed by Fee Waybill) from the ‘60s and a British punk band (led by Ray Winstone and including the Clash’s Paul Simonon and ex-Sex Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook).

Christine Lahti, by the way, is splendid as Ladd’s defeated mother, blissed out on Carole King, something her daughter and nieces regard with contempt. In contrast to Rob Reiner’s hilarious “This Is Spinal Tap,” “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains” is more serious than satirical--no doubt the reason it has scared off exhibitors. Phone: (213) 396-4215.

Clearly, one of the summer’s pleasures for film enthusiasts will be the UCLA Film Archives’ Tod Browning/James Whale series, running in Melnitz Theater on Thursday evenings at 8 through Sept. 12. This week’s double feature is Browning’s “The Unholy Three” (1925), far superior to the 1930 talkie remake, and Whale’s “Show Boat” (1936), generally regarded as the finest of the three versions, although the silent 1929 film of the Ferber novel (rather than the Kern-Hammerstein musical) is quite remarkable in its own right.


“The Unholy Three” marked the start of Browning’s bizarre collaborations with Lon Chaney, whose fascination with the grotesque found in Browning an inspired collaborator. Chaney is a ventriloquist who talks his sideshow pals, strong man Victor McLaglen and midget Harry Earle, into embarking on a life of crime, which for highly tenuous reasons calls for Chaney to disguise himself as a shrewd, sickly, sweet old woman, proprietor of a bird shop, and for Earle to pose as the woman’s baby grandson (given to smoking cigars in his swaddling clothes). There’s a tear-jerking plot not worth describing; what counts is the amusing perversity in the matter-of-factness with which Browning presents Chaney and Earle’s kinky life in costume.

“Show Boat” marked a departure for Whale, specialist in the macabre, and was also the apotheosis of his career. It is a stylish, durable piece of epic Americana, replete with some of the most beloved songs in musical theater and rich in its sense of period. It boasts a splendid, indeed definitive, cast headed by Irene Dunne as the lovely Magnolia, fated to fall for Allen Jones’ dashing river-boat gambler, Gaylord Ravenal. From the original Broadway production are heart-wrenching Helen Morgan as the tragic Julie and Paul Robeson as the noble Joe. Hattie McDaniel is Joe’s spunky wife. Subtle and sensitive, “Show Boat” is marred only by its sentimental modern-day epilogue, a device beloved by Ferber. Most striking are the expressionistic vignettes with which Whale dramatizes Robeson’s famed basso-profundo rendering of “Ol’ Man River.” Phone: (213) 825-2581, 825-2953.

The 1933 “Moulin Rouge” (at the Vagabond today and Tuesday), the last 20th Century production before its merger with Fox, is a delightfully breezy, Depression-escapist entertainment. In this distaff “Guardsman” concocted by Nunnally Johnson, glamorous Constance Bennett, as the brunet wife of Franchot Tone, writer of a Broadway revue, passes herself off as a blond French headliner to prove that she has the talent to carry his show. Bennett is timelessly witty and chic in her Gwen Wakeling-designed costumes. With it is “Here Is My Heart” (1934), with Bing Crosby and Kitty Carlisle. Phone: (213) 387-2171.