Rondo and Bob

Film review by Thomas M. Sipos




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Rondo and Bob (2020, director/script: Joseph O'Connell; cast: Rondo Hatton, Robert A. Burns, Ryan Williams, Joseph Middleton, Pribilski, Adam Littman, Dee Wallace, Stuart Gordon, Fred Olen Ray, Joe Bob Briggs)





Rondo Hatton (1894-1946) was a horror film actor. Robert A. Burns (1944-2004) wore many hats in the world of low-budget horror filmmaking, beginning his career as art director for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Rondo and Bob is their story.

Well, not really their story. They never met. Nevertheless, this documentary shows how their lives "intersected." Okay, not very much. Burns is described as a "lifelong" Hatton fan, and he did interview Hatton's widow, Mae, but that's only a brief part of Burns's life.

So how do you do a documentary about two men who never met?

Joe O'Connell's Rondo and Bob is a dual biography. It tells the life stories of Hatton and Burns through parallel editing, shifting between the two men, contrasting the dramatic and emotional similarities and differences in their lives. Hopefully some meaning or lesson will emerge.

As an actor, Hatton was relegated to horror films by his appearance. He suffered from acromegaly, resulting in facial deformities. He had no particular love for horror. Acting in horror films was a gig. Burns also claimed to have no love for horror, though he also made much of his living from horror films. But Burns might have been lying. If not, he certainly seems to have had a change of heart over the course of his life.

Rondo and Bob is a highly ambitious work. O'Connell's research is extensive. It's full of archival footage and interviews from the people in both his subjects' lives. A vast array of horror professionals and celebrities offer commentary on Hatton, Burns, and the genre itself. These include Dee Wallace, Stuart Gordon, Fred Olen Ray, Joe Bob Briggs, and too many others to mention. So many that most of them only provide brief sound bites. One wonders what was left on O'Connell's cutting room floor?

But this is not a talking heads documentary. I said O'Connell was ambitious. He has actors recreate scenes from both Hatton's and Burns's lives. Joseph Middleton and Kelsey Pribilski portray Hatton and his wife Mae. We see Hatton as a young man playing baseball in Florida, about to leave for Europe and World War One. We see convalescence in a hospital after a mustard gas attack. His courting of Mae.

Ryan Williams plays the adult Robert A. Burns. We see him collaborate with Tobe Hopper (Adam Littman). We see him at the University of Texas in 1966 on the day that Charles Whitman shot up the campus. Yes, O'Connell recreates the shooting from Burns's perspective, as described by Burns. (He was there!)

O'Connell not only alternates between dual biographies, he alternates between archival footage of his subjects, the actors portraying his subjects, and expert commentary on his subjects. One minute we're seeing the real life Burns discussing his life, then we see Williams portraying Burns, then a photo of Burns as a child, then Josiah Swanson portraying Burns as a child.

Ronda and Bob is a cinematic collage. A visual scrapbook composed of photos, film clips, interviews, archival footage, and recreations. It's an engrossing experience, wading through all these memories. Lots of fun for fans or horror or filmmaking in general.



Rondo and Bob has a messy feel to it. That's because life is messy. Fiction has a dramatic arc, a reason for every incident and then closure. But life is often random, pointless, and incomplete. Plans go awry, projects left unfinished, and then you die. What did it all mean?

Biographies often try to find meaning amid the randomness. Factoids are cherry picked and arranged so that, hopefully, a pattern, a purpose, a theme emerges. Messy life events are shaped into a story arc.

A unifying theme does emerge from all of O'Connell's research, linking these two men who never met. Both Hatton and Burns felt distanced from people. Hatton was physically deformed. Burns was likely autistic. Both men desired human connection but felt barred by personal circumstances from fully participating in human life. Ironically, Hatton was more successful at finding love than Burns.

Hatton died of a heart attack. Burns committed suicide after a cancer diagnosis. O'Connell offers sensitive recreations of both death scenes. Yet both men live on in their work.


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