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The Bootleg Files: Hot Dogs for Gauguin

BOOTLEG FILES 864: “Hot Dogs for Gauguin” (1972 student film short by Martin Brest starring Danny DeVito).

LAST SEEN: On the OK.ru website.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: An obscure film that fell through the cinematic cracks.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.

At the risk of being cruel, it needs to be acknowledged that the overwhelming majority of student films represent a victory of enthusiasm over talent. But that’s not to say the genre lacks gems – Denis Sanders’ “A Time Out of War” (1954) won the Academy Award, while George Lucas’ career has its roots in his 1967 “Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB.” Martin Brest is also credited with hatching one of the best student films of all time, the 1972 “Hot Dogs for Gauguin,” which he made while at New York University – that film wound up on the National Film Registry, one of the very few student films to earn such an honor.

However, for many years “Hot Dogs for Gauguin” was only known by its reputation – a 3½-minute version played on “Saturday Night Live” on December 13, 1980, but the complete 22-minute film was a mostly elusive commodity that only had occasional screenings at NYU. Somehow, the complete film turned up on Russia’s OK.ru video website in a bootlegged upload – and in viewing “Hot Dogs for Gauguin,” it is easy to see why the National Film Registry included this obscure work.

Brest had the good fortune to cast a then-unknown Danny DeVito in the starring role of Adrian, a down-on-his luck photographer whose perilous financial problems has brought him to the brink of starvation – the film’s title refers to the French artist Paul Gauguin, whom Adrian recalls as having starved to death due to his penniless existence. Adrian lives in a shabby lower Manhattan apartment and is visited by Fletcher (William Duff-Griffin), a hirsute and pompous high school English teacher who fancies himself as a potential private eye.

Adrian shares a plan with Fletcher on how he is going to gain instant fame and fortune – he planted explosives in the nose of the Statue of Liberty to go off at noon of the following day. He chose that day and time because the statue will be closed to the public and none of the maintenance staff at the venue will be in the structure at that time. Adrian will position himself on the roof of an office building facing the statue and will take a photograph of the statue’s head exploding – a right-place-at-the-right-time feat that he compares to the photographer who snapped the picture of the Hindenburg exploding at the mooring tower in New Jersey in 1937.

Fletcher is appalled by Adrian’s scheme, and the following day he tries to stop him. But Adrian tricks Fletcher into getting drunk and taking a ride on the Staten Island ferry, where flirts with a woman while her boyfriend watches in displeasure – DeVito’s then-girlfriend (and future wife) Rhea Perlman and Brest play the couple in the scene. Adrian tries to lose Fletcher to carry out his plan, while Fletcher takes it upon himself to save the statue from being destroyed.

What happens? Well, no there are no spoilers here, except to say there is a twist climax followed by a twist denouement – both being laugh-out-loud funny.

“Hot Dogs for Gauguin” was shot in grimy 16mm black-and-white by Jacques Haitkin, who would later gain fame as the cinematographer on such classics as “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “The Hidden.” The film’s harsh visual style matches the scruffy, down-at-heel worlds of the potentially deranged Adrian and his self-important pal Fletcher. Brest further amplifies their dead-end worlds by juxtaposing their desperate antics against Irving Aaronson’s bouncy 1930s rendition of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Misbehave” on the soundtrack.

I don’t know how Brest came to cast DeVito, but it was serendipitous – the diminutive actor fully displays the charismatic crassness that earned him stardom on “Taxi” and in his subsequent comedy movies. Duff-Griffin is a wonderful foil as an impotent voice of reason battling DeVito’s devilish plot – this might be his best-known screen work, as he would only become an occasional minor presence in film while mostly concentrating on a theatrical career before his early death in 1994.

Brest, of course, would enjoy a lucrative run of hit films including “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Midnight Run” and “Scent of a Woman” before the box office catastrophe of the Ben Affleck-Jennifer Lopez vehicle “Gigli” ended his career in 2003. He would later observe, “I had a good run, and I enjoyed success and freedom, and that was fantastic. I would’ve liked it to go on longer, but everybody likes everything to go on longer.”

The National Film Registry added “Hot Dogs and Gauguin” in 2009, which generated a new wave of awareness for the title. But to date, there has been no commercial home entertainment release. The aforementioned OK.ru posting went online last year, and to date this is the only way we can enjoy this scruffy mini-classic.

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.

Listen to Phil Hall’s award-winning podcast “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud and his radio show “Nutmeg Chatter” on WAPJ-FM in Torrington, Connecticut, with a new episode every Sunday. His new book “100 Years of Wall Street Crooks” is now in release through Bicep Books.