Fearless Frank seemed one of those light, super-goofy 1960s movies I was most likely going to have to shut off just because of the sheer corn; so I hesitated to check it out for quite some time. Finally, I decided to take the plunge. While this bizarre take-off on the superhero craze— not to mention Jon Voight’s first movie role—is not for everyone, it’s a must-see for lovers of weird cinema.
The mid-Sixties was dominated by the popularity of the Batman TV series—and 1967, the year Fearless Frank was made, was the epicenter of this fad. Everything was “Pow” “Bam” “Zap,” and a number of movies and TV shows ripped-off capitalized over the campy Caped Crusader. On the small screen side, you had The Green Hornet (a very underrated series), Captain Nice (featuring a pre-Knight Rider, pre-Boy Meets World William Daniels, and Mr. Terrific (oof). There were also a number of movies obviously (shamelessly) modeled on Batman (1966’s Rat Pfink A Boo Boo comes to mind)— though a lot of them were made overseas.
Speaking of overseas, Fearless Frank would have made a lot more sense if it was Italian.
The movie opens with Voight portraying a super-dumb, L’il Abner type hillbilly who leaves the farm to go off on adventure. Along the way, Muppet Movie-like, he runs into The Stranger/The Narrator (literally, our narrator)—Ken Nordine, super-narrator, best known for the “Word Jazz” albums. Frank interrupts the kidnapping of the beautiful, super-buxom Plethora (Warhol actress Monique Van Vooren), and is subsequently shot dead in the gutter. Enter The Good Doctor (comedian Severn Darden), who, along with his butler Alfred (!) brings Frank back to life as a superhero.
At this point in the review I cannot stress enough the fact that unless you are a lover of weird movies, the goofy, super-camp first 2/3rds of this film will make you want to smash your TV set. For example, Fearless Frank—who, unlike the illustrated movie poster does not wear superhero togs but instead a super-chic European-looking suit and sunglasses— punches a villain so hard that he rolls all the way across town directly into a jail cell. Seriously. This is what I’m talking about.
And yet the camp is so camp that one gets the sneaking suspicion that it is all “uncamp.” This suspicion grows when you take into account that the movie is directed by Philip Kaufman, who went on to direct The Unbearable Lightness Of Being and The Right Stuff. Add the fact that in addition to Nordine and Van Vooren, Fearless Frank stars Nelson Algren (acclaimed writer of The Man With The Golden Arm—Algren’s character is named “Needles,” by the way), and a bunch of actors from the Second City Chicago Troupe (including David Steinberg)…and you start to wonder of the film might be more than just a Batman ripoff.
This suspicion is confirmed in the last third of Fearless Frank—which, basically, turns into an art movie. The bad guys come up with their own Frank—”Fake Frank,” a scarred copy who is literally a Frankenstein’s Monster. Only instead of being all rage-filled and monstrous, Fake Frank just stares into space in this really unsettling, specter-like catatonia. Meanwhile, real Frank—after sleeping with The Good Doctor’s daughter Lois (!) becomes a stuck-up asshole. The Good Doctor dies of a stroke.
Frank goes crazy and apparently kills everyone in a bar (!), and later falls off a roof to his death (his body, vampire-like, disappearing and turning to ash). Fake Frank becomes “good” (though it is questionable if he was ever really “bad”) and saves the city from a bomb—but instead of sticking around to receive accolades, FF somberly goes down a river in a boat surrounded by Plethora, Lois, and Alfred. The Narrator says that he was never heard from again. It’s sort of assumed that he might have killed himself and this is all just his fantasy of the afterlife.
By the finale, the movie has taken such a sharp turn away from its camp “source material” that one is tempted to reinterpret the entire story as parable about fame, the Hero’s Journey, or some other such intellectual exercise. The point is—it’s sort of deep and really catches you off-guard.
So ultimately, I enjoyed the film, despite its super (if you would excuse the pun) low budget and broad, slapstick humor. Because by the end of Fearless Frank it all seemed like a massive put-on, far more an elaborate crapping-upon the superhero genre than a celebration of it. It’s also hard to believe that the makers of Midnight Cowboy (1969) didn’t see Voight in this film and know he was perfect to play Joe Buck.