Monday, 26 September 2016
Whilst Universal was gearing up to unleash its second wave of horror icons on the public, 1939 saw the genre overhauled with a new added ingredient to add extra zing to the potion, that of comedy. Toward the end of the year ex-Vaudevillian turned Broadway star Bob Hope would provide the laughs in the winning remake of The Cat and the Canary and into the 1940s Universal would collide its Horror Hall of Fame figures with ex-Burlesque double-act Abbott and Costello in a successful series, but in May 1939 another stage team would feverishly mine chuckles with chills in Twentieth Century Fox’s The Gorilla. This familiar mansion murder-mystery plot was based on a play by Ralph Spence that had already been filmed in 1925 and 1930 and was remade again as a vehicle for the Ritz Brothers, a real-life sibling act whose energy compensated for what they lacked in subtlety.
The Ritz Brothers hailed from New Jersey, first begun by vaudeville dancer Al before younger brothers Harry and Jimmy joined the act. They gradually introduced more comedy into their shows till this became their main selling point. Despite being real brothers, their true surname was Joachim and allegedly Al chose the Ritz surname after seeing the logo on a laundry truck. They were inevitably compared to the superior Marx Brothers but without the consistent distinctive characters of Groucho, Harp and Chico, it was hard to tell the trio apart except that Harry was generally the ring-leader of the troupe. Another comparable team of the period was the Three Stooges; indeed they shared the bullying chaos, mugging and cowardly ‘woo-woo’ squeaks of the other three-ring circus.
The Gorilla was the Ritz Brothers’ eighth movie feature following a stage tour and the final one of their contract with Fox. This was caused by a dispute between the studio and the Brothers over the delay to the filming schedule. They were meant to begin shooting at the end of January of 1939, however their father died so they did not come in to work. The studio sued the team for $150,000 citing a breach of contract for missing their start date. The Brothers finally showed up to begin shooting in March and never worked for Fox again.
The screenplay, such as you can wade through whilst being hit with shtick bamboo, is based around the perceived crooked dealings of Lionel Atwill’s Walter Stevens, a wealthy businessman who stands to be co-inheritor of the family estate along with his ward Norma (Anita Louise). Crippled with debt and about to be targeted by a ‘professional murderer’ known as the Gorilla, he appears to be tempted into bumping her off to be sole beneficiary. On the obligatory rain-lashed stormy night, he has hired three private detectives (the Ritz Brothers) to uncover the murderer in time to save him while a real (as in human-in-a-suit) gorilla has escaped onto the premises. Although the horror movie form was developing, somehow producers still couldn’t let go of the early 1930s man in a monkey suit trope.
Other occupants of the house, or more fittingly onlookers as we shall see, include Bela Lugosi as the butler, Patsy Kelly as Kitty the Maid and Edward Norris as the other half of the requisite makeweight romantic couple with Louise.
The defective detectives Garrity, Harrigan and Mulligan turn up and immediately swing into inaction, their combined three watts of lily-livered brain power make the Stooges sound like the Algonquin Set, manifesting as witless interrogation, expertly inept role-playing and internecine “Why I oughtta-” fraternal squabbling. To be fair, their quick-fire repartee forged on the tough theatre circuit is fast and furious enough that if you don’t like one gag, there’ll be another you can ignore coming right up. Juss joshin’ witya – they do have at least a couple of moments that earn a grin; the planned synchronisation scene where one mutters “Remind me to put some hands on this watch” – and a great sustained series of eye-popping facial mugs by Harry worthy of Jim Carrey when seeing the hairy gorilla for the first time. His reaction along with the occasional hairy disembodied arm is really the only concession to fear in the film.
Such is the Ritz trio’s high-voltage prowling and barked one-liners that the rest of the cast are allowed to relax in the background without taking collateral damage. Bela Lugosi serenely surfs the waves with Hungarian cool in an utterly wasted role bereft of any edge or purpose. Lionel Atwill provides exposition at the beginning and end and is basically along for the ride sandwiched between his more dignified releases of The Hound of the Baskervilles and Son of Frankenstein before his career-ruining court case. Only Patsy Kelly seeks to match the crackers style of the Ritzes with her own dialogue delivered as gratingly loud ‘ba-dum tish’ banter with them as though the foursome are in a fast-paced Broadway show of their own within the movie. During a long career, the actress dubbed ‘Queen of the Wisecracks’ would later make a stellar comeback winning a Tony in 1971 for the musical No, No Nanette.
The Gorilla is finally caged within a hurried climax where Joseph Calleia’s darkly mysterious Stranger, career typecasting for him before playing Pete Menzies in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, is unmasked as the murderer version of the Gorilla. By this point the audience is past caring now that their sporadic amusement and understanding has been monkeyed with enough. Both better and worse comedy-horror hybrids were to come over the next few years. Their success would be determined by the quality of gags, energetic playing and where possible one or two genuine frissons.
Friday, 2 September 2016
“And now as the Phantom there is nothing that I cannot do!”
In 1939, Universal released The Phantom Creeps, the 112th of their Saturday morning film serials made for the cinema. Although Columbia and Republic studios were as well-known for their output, Universal produced more than any other, 137 in total, going right back to the silent days with Lucille Love, Girl of Mystery in 1914. The film serial (or serial film) was a serialised story broken up into 12-20 episodes shown sequentially each week at the same movie-house preceding the main feature, B-picture westerns or Saturday afternoon children’s matinee. They had simplistic plots ideal for enthralling younger audiences, and a built-in hook in the form of the cliff-hanger ending to each instalment that placed the hero or heroine in sensational danger. This then brought audiences back to find out how the main character escaped from that fiery car/plane/spaceship crash. Part of the fun was the blatant cheating. I recall a cliffhanger from Flash Gordon where Flash is lowered into a burning pit up to his waist but then in the next episode is freed before he can descend that low!
Serials were cheap to produce; they were shot quickly, focused on a small cast and usually kept to low-budget genres such as the western, jungle adventures and crime stories. The relatively costlier science-fiction of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers were the money-spinning exception. Universal were not above recycling their music or stock footage to cut costs further. The Phantom Creeps reuses music cues from the Frankenstein films as well as film sequences from The Invisible Ray (actually of Boris Karloff digging for the unearthly meteor that provides some back-story to both films). Bela Lugosi, who co-starred with Karloff in the latter, took the lead in the serial as the evil Dr Zorka, (a capital ‘Z’ in the surname is always a dead giveaway) thus blurring the genre lines between crime, sci-fi and tinges of horror. It also highlighted the gradual downturn in his career trajectory as we shall see.
The Phantom Creeps had the benefit of a creative team behind it with a wealth of experience in this medium. Ford Beebe and Saul H Goodkind between them had directed, written and edited the Flash Gordon sequels, Buck Rogers, many other serials and quickie westerns. The screenwriters George H. Plympton and Basil Dickey (with Mildred Barish) had already written many Universal film serials. Overall story credit went to Wyllis Cooper had an illustrious background creating his own horror radio series Lights Out and would go on to write the last quality Frankenstein picture, Son of Frankenstein.
Lugosi’s Zorka the Hungarian is the familiar horror trope of the under-appreciated scientist – “They called me a fool!”- equipped with a beleaguered henchman Monk, (Jack C. Smith), and a nifty line in crafting inventions of great interest to the American war-time government since they can be weaponised. The first one we see is more mirthsome than fearsome: an eight-foot servant robot of concertina arms topped with an enormous grimacing head resembling a cross between a vengeful temple idol and a parade float. There’s also a rubber spider impregnated with a powerful meteorite fragment element irresistibly drawn by remote-control to a magnetic disc exploding near its victim. Understandably keen to persuade Zorka to sign his creations over to Uncle Sam is his former partner Dr Mallory, a wooden Edwin Stanley, reasoning that otherwise an(other) unscrupulous nation may get their hands on his technology. Zorka though is refreshingly free of patriotism: “That’s why they shall pay me dearly for it”. Even his quavering wife Ann (Dora Clement) cannot appeal to his humanity. In secret, Zorka triumphantly tests his crowning achievement of a ‘devisualiser’ invisibility belt. Through this, he will begin his rise as a super-villain – once he and Monk have bravely scarpered through a hidden tunnel in his garage.
Thus, the scene is set pitting Zorka’s machinations as the Phantom for his spy pay-masters against Mallory, clean-cut government G-man Captain Bob West of Military Intelligence, played by serial stalwart Robert Kent (with Regis Toomey as his sidekick Lt. Jim Daly) and Dorothy Arnold as the intrepid blonde newspaper reporter Jean Drew. A cat-and-mouse game ensues over possession of the catalyst meteorite fragment powerful enough to induce suspended animation. Another horror film alumnus is the identity of Jarvis the foreign head of the spy ring. He is Edward Van Sloan, channelling his bookish heroism from Universal’s triple whammy of Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy against type in the service of dastardly intrigue. Sans glasses for unacademic villainy, he uses the International School of Languages as a cover for coded messages to their foreign agents.
The plot of The Phantom Creeps moves along at a rattling pace even when watched as a near four-hour compilation. Careful never to pause too long for close analysis, what unfolds is a Groundhog Day loop of repeated planes, trains and automobile-related jeopardy. Miles are covered with speed but seemingly across the same stretches of location roads – all the better to save on interior sets. The potential interchangeability between government agents and spy goons who all sport fedoras and suits is solved by giving the evil henchmen pencil moustaches. The format of the show is however notable for one unique storytelling concept – the use of a scrolling text foreword at the beginning of each instalment summarising the story so far. This along with the various irises and wipes (the optical effect transition from one scene to the next) would become much imitated, most famously homaged by Star Wars and Indiana Jones.
As we spin round the circular racetrack of the plot, one highlight in Chapter Six (The Iron Monster) sees Zorka add to his weaponry with an oddly complicated premise: an invisible gas whose dispersal over a subject lies dormant needing the criminal to then blast it fatally with a Flash Gordon-style Z-Ray gun. This two-stage fiendishness could surely be simplified to just one of the devices doing the whole job. Can such sadistic over-engineering become a black market bestseller? Come back next week and find out.
There’s even one of those cheeky cliff-hanger cheat resolutions leading into Chapter Ten (Phantom Footprints) where Bob Daly grapples with the baddies on board a speedboat while Jean Drew at the wheel throws up her arms as they crash into a bouy. We aren’t even shown the concealed nick-of-time evacuation – instead the director just opens the new scene with them swimming to safety.
As the forces of good close in on Zorka, the producers go for broke intercutting climactic sequences of him in a bi-plane dropping miniature bombs with real-life footage of ground, sea and air explosions of his innocent targets. Whilst these were intended merely to give young thrill-seeker moviegoers sensational production values without expense, the most audacious (and tasteless) example actually qualifies as snuff footage. This was their use of the shocking Hindenburg airship disaster newsreels of May 6th 1937 in which 35 of the 97 souls on board lost their lives as the ship burst into flames whilst struggling to anchor itself to a mooring mast in New Jersey. At least there is the moral consequence of seeing Zorka’s aeroplane head into a fatal tail-spin, a seeming metaphor for the gradual plummet of Lugosi’s own career in the following years, with only Son of Frankenstein as a brief rescuing of the gear-stick.