BOOTLEG FILES 568: “Poor Devil” (1973 made-for-TV film starring Sammy Davis Jr. and Christopher Lee).
LAST SEEN: It can be found on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It is difficult to determine why is still bootleg-only.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: That would be sweeter than a glass of Manischewitz Almonetta!
Back in the 1970s, it was impossible to turn on the television and not find Sammy Davis Jr. somewhere on the dial. Everybody’s favorite one-eyed black Jewish superstar was a ubiquitous presence on the era’s variety programming, talk shows, game shows and sitcoms – and he could even be found as an occasional guest on top-rated dramatic series and as the hipster spokesman for the Manischewitz brand of kosher wine. And, of course, reruns of his movies were on many late night film shows that were staples of local programming during the decade.
The one thing that Davis did not have during these years was his own series. (He had a variety show in the mid-1960s that was among the decade’s more notable flops.) If fate had been kinder, Davis might have been able to claim sitcom stardom in his own vehicle – in 1973, he starred in a made-for-TV movie that was designed as a pilot episode for a potential comedy series. The movie was called “Poor Devil” and it was one of the most intriguing endeavors in Davis’ remarkable career.
The concept of “Poor Devil” could easily be summarized as a reverse of the plot of “It’s a Wonderful Life” – in this case, a bumbling devil has to prove his worth to his all-powerful employer by getting a tormented person to agree to sell his soul. Some biographers speculated that this vehicle was the result of Davis’ involvement with the Hollywood Satanism scene that was popular back in La-La Land during the early 1970s. The exact depth of Davis’ involvement with these folks is open to debate – Davis insisted that his participation was mostly dabbling, though some sources insist that he was deep into the scene. One clue used to support the latter claim is a throwaway joke in “Poor Devil” – when Davis is missing, a character trying to locate him remarks, “I’ll call the Church of Satan downtown, they’ll know how to contact him.”
“Poor Devil” gets off to an amusing start, with the newest arrivals in Hell being seated in an airport lounge-style setting while being instructed to fill out the necessary documents needed to process their passage to eternal damnation. Davis plays Sammy, an eager but not very intelligent member of the Hell staff. He’s been assigned to shovel coals into the brutal furnaces for several hundred years, mostly as punishment for his earlier failures in securing souls. (Among his earlier mishaps was allowing the Pilgrims to land on Plymouth Rock and insisting that Dr. Albert Schweitzer was a prime candidate for a Faustian bargain.) Despite the roasty-toasty conditions of his workplace, Sammy barely breaks a sweat as he shovels snow while wearing a red leisure suit.
Sammy’s girlfriend is Chelsea, a receptionist in the Hell welcoming lounge (played by Emily Yancy, a pretty actress previously seen in “Cotton Comes to Harlem” and “Blacula”). She tips Sammy off that there is a prime prospect to pursue in San Francisco: Burnett Emerson (Jack Klugman), a depressed accountant at a San Francisco retail store who has been stuck in the same miserable job for 25 years. Emerson makes a half-hearted attempt to rob the store, only to be caught by a security guard. While Emerson talks his way out of the situation, it seems like an excellent idea to pursue him for the sale of his soul.
Sammy gets up the nerve to see his boss, Mr. Lucifer. “I haven’t been in that office in 400 years!” he proclaims. Although Mr. Lucifer’s lieutenant, Mr. Bligh (Gino Conforti) wants Sammy to go back to the furnaces, he is allowed to see the boss.
Christopher Lee plays Mr. Lucifer – brilliantly, with a deadpan Shakespearean power. “What is the meaning of this intrusion?” the towering Mr. Lucifer thunders at his diminutive visitor. Sammy makes his case, claiming that he can relate to Emerson. “He’s my type of guy – he’s inept, he’s inefficient, he’s totally incompetent,” Sammy says with a smile.
Against his better judgment, Mr. Lucifer allows Sammy to go up to Earth to recruit Emerson. In the film’s funniest scene, the bedraggled Emerson arrives home late from his botched robbery, climbs into bed with his patient wife (the beautiful Madelyn Rhue), and then rolls over to find Sammy in bed with him.
Emerson finds himself in new conflicts – his atrocious boss (Adam West – yes, Batman as a villain!) is making unreasonable work demands on him, while Sammy is being a pest in getting him to sell his soul. Sammy is especially eager not to let this prospect slip away, and he explains that he is not happy over the possibility of returning to his 8,000-degree workplace. “When you’re hot, you’re hot!” he says, taking a line from a then-popular tune.
So, does Sammy snag Emerson’s soul? Or will circumstances beyond his control ensure that Emerson remain out of Hell? I would rather not give away how “Poor Devil” turns out, as the story takes a few unexpected and delightful turns.
“Poor Devil” is a surprisingly charming and often laugh out loud funny production. The best moments belong to Christopher Lee, especially in his nostalgic monologue on how he tried to infiltrate Eden in his satanic youth. “That Adam was a tough proposition,” he recalls in his deep, majestic voice.
Davis is amusing and expertly adds warmth and pathos to what could have been a one-note comedy. It is fun to see him playing against type as someone whose confidence runs miles ahead of his abilities. The film wisely gives Davis’ character limited powers – “Mary Poppins I’m not!” he insists when he is asked to perform magic – which requires him to use his wits (or what passes for wits) to get ahead.
But, oddly, “Poor Devil” never clicked with viewers. The film was broadcast on NBC on Valentine’s Day in 1973, yet it was not particularly popular. NBC executives were skeptical as to whether the concept of “Poor Devil” could be transitioned into a weekly series – it was fine as a standalone jokey film, but would people want to root for a devil to con people out of their souls on a weekly basis?
“Poor Devil” never made the leap into a series, and Davis quickly moved beyond the experience to pursue a myriad of more lucrative projects. “Poor Devil” was rerun over the years before dropping out of sight. Many film scholars have unfairly dismissed it as failed camp, and its poor reputation may explain why it has never surfaced in any commercial home entertainment release. Bootleg DVDs can easily be located on several collector-to-collector sites, and the full film can be seen in an unauthorized posting on YouTube.
“Poor Devil” may not be the most representative example of Davis’ versatility as an entertainer, but it offers evidence of his ability to float a minor vehicle with the sheer force of his talent. It is not deserving of the obscurity into which it fell – if anything, this devil is wickedly enjoyable.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.