Wednesday, January 12

Further Entries from the Encyclopedia of Failed Ideas, compiled by Matt Alderman.

The Unicycle Diaries. This extremely independent film about the formative early years of dictator Benito Mussolini was made on a shoestring budget of $500, five Abyssinian Maria Theresa thalers and some pocket lint scrounged up by producer Burt Flintenmeyer (of Schulenburg, Minnesota) with the assistance of the Upper Midwest Primo de Rivera Fan Club. While supposedly based on a movie treatment once optioned by Fellini, it was later discovered to have been written by the Italian director's cousin Fredo, the justifiably forgotten auteur of the seventeen-part Taxicab of the Living Dead series, concerning the adventures of a jovial zombie (played by Italian comic Totò) in Naples.

Filming took place during one week in 1994, with the Upper Peninsula of Michigan doubling for the Tuscan hill country. This surreal treatment of Mussolini's young adulthood imagines him unicycling through rural Italy in search of a job as a human cannonball after his socialist aspirations go belly-up. It closes just as he leaves the circus behind and hits on the idea of becoming a vicious though comically inept dictator in a silly fez, though he has to pay his way there through waitressing. Largely devoid of recognizable jokes, its tin-ear for humor actually caused more trouble than it was worth. One irritating trope concerned the similarity of Benito's last name to a species of Canadian cervidae--indeed, Mussolini's spiritual guide throughout the film is a hand-puppet named "Benny the Moose."

Benny the Moose considerable copyright problems and led to Flintenmeyer being sued by the estate of Captain Wallaby, a well-known children's TV host, in June of 2004. After a surprisingly short run in 1998 at a film festival run out of a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, it was closed down after complaints that the cast list credited the bald actor Telly Savalas with the main role, when he had died nearly six months before production on the film began and had never even been in the same state as Flintenmeyer, much less expressed interest in the production.

The man playing Mussolini was never identified, even after a long search by FBI agents through the dark underword of professional dictator impersonators. Some suspicion fell on Gary Bellgauer (of Hart, Ohio), who does a double-bill vaudeville act of Khruschev and Pinochet, but it turned out rumors of his premature hair loss was greatly exaggerated. The disaster at the film festival is thought to have hastened the premature death of the empresario, the infamous Marty Flamsteed, still crushed from the Tangle Plywood fiasco of a year earlier.

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