mike@projection-booth.com mike@projection-booth.com

June 17, 2014

Episode 171: The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

Special Guest: Ellen Burstyn

Bob Rafelson's 1972 film, The King of Marvin Gardens, stars Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern as David and Jason Staebler. Jason is a small time conman who's working on a big deal and wants to bring in his somewhat depressed radio monologist brother, David, to share in the score. Along the way they get tangled up with a gangster played by Scatman Crothers and a mother/step-daughter team, played by Ellen Burstyn and Julia Anne Robinson in Atlantic City. The King of Marvin Gardens is a contemplative film about ambition, love, and America played out during the final years of Vietnam.

Buy "The King of Marvin Gardens" on DVD/Blu-Ray or as part of The Criterion Collection Box Set
Buy Easy Riders, Raging Bulls
Buy your own copy of Monopoly

Listen / Download Now:



  1. Actually, Scatman Crothers appears with Nicolson in several films; KING OF MARVIN GARDENS, THE FORTUNE, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, and THE SHINING.

    1. Thanks for the follow up. I figured there was more but the only two I could think of was MARVIN GARDENS and THE SHINING.



  2. The Foreign ViewerOct 10, 2014, 9:43:00 AM

    Hey, Mike & Rob

    Found out about the film some 10 years ago while reading an article on forgotten 70s cult indie movies. The cast was impressive (fan of all three big names), the director famous father of indie cinema (not that big on him, though) and the plot was promising (if somewhat unclear). I dug up the movie, started watching it and quit after Nicolson's loooong walk home from work at the beginning. I knew Rafelson's style and this was as Rafelson as it gets, and I was not in the mood. Then I totally forgot about the flick. When this episode came up I finally decided to finish watching it, so I can follow the discussions. I love your show that much. :)

    And I must say I was not a big fan of the film. Kind of disappointed actually. Masterful introductory scene (the monologue) and three good plotlines (failing hustling scheme, dysfunctional ambitious brotherly relationship and tensions in a somewhat pervy menage a trois that's VERY risqué for the time, but surprisingly barely gets any mention) turn into a struggle with each other for time throughout and then one of them (arguably the least interesting of the three) just flat out destroys the build up of the other two.

    The movie does feel like it was based on a book, but not necessarily in a good way.

    Also, the characters are too often too clichéd and annoying and that ending felt like a bad joke on the part of the filmmakers (and I don't mean just the shootout).

    You see, in your discussion you failed to mention (or notice) that the final scene ends with their old father (not granddad as you sometimes call him) coughing more and more as if he's choking on that fishbone from Nicolson's story. You can hear the cough starting once Nicolson goes up the stairs and getting worse as the credits begin to roll. Since Nicolson can't hear him, the movie is probably implying that he's about to die just like he did in the Nicolson's made-up story. Now that felt like a down right slap to the audience's face.

    However, the movie is not without its strong points. The actors are great (maybe even Oscar worthy in Dern and Burstyn's case) and they do carry their performances on their sleeve. I was also curious about the identity of the fourth cast member and I was also shocked to find out that the poor girl died so soon. However, it's stated that she died in a house fire, not from cancer, as you mentioned. It's also messed up what happened to Burstyn in her private life soon after (not getting into it, read up online, if you need to know more). This made their characters feel even more tragic.

    And the nightmarish empty and murky location of Atlantic City were almost a character of their own and reminded me of a similar and much better movie (Lancaster's film Atlantic City from 1980). Rafelson knows how to capture the mood of a location and make it even more condemned-looking.

    Scatman Crothers' character was probably the most interesting and I totally get why he loves this role the most out of all of his characters.

    And it was GREAT to see John P. Ryan, even if only in a bit role as the hotel's manager that calls the cops on Burstyn while she's in the bathroom. Seriously, if you haven't seen him in Chuck Norris' Delta Force 2: The Colombian Connection, you don't know what you're missing. That guy is always nuts and (intentionally) hilarious. He plays a US general in that film who helps Norris and he steals every freaking scene. I'm not exaggerating here. You need to see the movie because of that guy, it's a blast.

    (Continues below...)

  3. The Foreign ViewerOct 10, 2014, 9:50:00 AM

    (continued from above...)

    Anyway, to get back on track...

    I'm not surprised that the the actors were suppose to play the other brother at first. The roles are so out of their usual element that that crossed my mind immediately. However, I wish we did get to see that version as well (or at least the test screening).

    The imdb trivia section for Marvin's Garden is short, but pretty interesting. Check it out.

    The fact that these actors acted together so often only goes to show how tight and incestuous the indie scene was at the time, for better or worse.

    That's how I feel about the movie, BUT, I still did like your episode, because you approached the subject matter as true fan boys (in a good way) by getting under its skin and arguing the films merits in a very honest and understandable way.

    In other words, although I disagree that this is a good movie (let alone great), and that the characters are representing the old hippy view and the new realistic pessimistic view, I do see the film's potential that attracted fans and I understand where you're coming from.

    Also, the interview with miss Burstyn was great (if unfortunately short). And I love that anecdote about miss Fletcher and her. :)

    So, thanks for the episode. We'll agree to disagree, but I appreciate your effort on this one none the less.

    By the way, how times have changes... The word scatman has a very different connotation nowadays and I have to giggle a bit every time I hear Crothers nickname which really bugs me 'cause I really like the guy. Childish, I know.

  4. Screened TKOMG & FiveEasyPieces in that order early this a.m.-left me in a strange stupour-then I took some Valerian Root*=&blew up the outside world.Blood&Wine was a return to form for Bob Rafelson:)The way Jack Nicholson cries in both films really got to me....