Saturday, 29 October 2016


Following his rejuvenating effect on one franchise as the Baron in Son of Frankenstein, Basil Rathbone began another by going straight into this excellent adaptation of Conan-Doyle’s most famous Sherlock Holmes story The Hound of the Baskervilles. Not only has this tale become the most-filmed version over the decades, Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as his doctor sidekick Watson are arguably the most well-known pairing of the duo on film, making a total of 13 films between 1939-1946

Rathbone gives Holmes a precision and authority, coupled with a hint of more warmth than his creator bestowed on him, to humanise what would otherwise be an intellectual remoteness difficult for audiences to take to. Some fans of Conan-Doyle have been critical of Bruce’s slightly woolly duffer of a sidekick, taking issue with an interpretation that doesn’t reflect his battle-hardened background as an ex-military assistant surgeon wounded in the field, nor credits him overly with undoubted intelligence. However, Bruce is an avuncular, personable contrast to Holmes and represents the audience in needing to have the lightning-fast superhuman deductions of Holmes explained along the way. His is also more of a rounded character than the enigmatic narrator function Watson has in the original stories.

20th Century Fox mounted The Hound with decent sets and a quality cast whilst commendably cleaving to the Victorian era in which the story is set instead of the then-modern setting as previous versions presented. Working with a script by Ernest Pascal, the director Sidney Lanfield was an ex-vaudeville performer and jazz musician who transferred his light touch to directing comedies for the studio through the Thirties. After this most successful film of his, in the Forties he went on to helm the Fred Astaire vehicle You’ll Never Get Rich and a string of popular comedies with fellow Vaudevillian Bob Hope.

The plot concerns the arrival back to British shores of Sir Henry Baskerville from Canada who is to take up his inheritance of Devonshire’s Baskerville estate providing he can live long enough to enjoy it. In advance of his visit, Lionel Atwill makes a welcome appearance as Dr Mortimer, friend to Sir Henry’s late uncle, who unburdens his fears to Holmes and Watson that the family curse of the Hound of the Baskervilles will see Sir Henry savaged by the ferocious dog on the Moors that first killed Sir Hugo Baskerville (Ralph Forbes) centuries before – told to us in flashback. The curse is said to take the lives of all successive heirs to the estate. (In real life, Atwill was to find within the next year that he would be cursed himself by the ruinous sex scandal already covered within my earlier writings that would subsequently wreck his career).

Richard Greene is a pleasant enough, handsome Sir Henry and here capitalised on his heart-throb status as a Fox star that would later make him famous on TV in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955- 59). He actually took top billing in the film over Rathbone since the studio at first had no idea how popular the Sherlock Holmes series would become. Wendy Barrie, notable as a romantic leading lady of the period, was credited above Nigel Bruce as Sir Henry’s love interest Beryl Stapleton.

The pacing is good and the Moors are impressively realised with a realistic depth of perspective and atmospheric layering of fog. We also benefit from a suitable fierce, fang-baring Great Dane as the titular Hound. Aside from Atwill, another horror alumni (fleetingly seen as a cruel hunter hounding Karloff in a different sense in Bride of Frankenstein) is John Carradine as Barryman the butler – changed from Barrymore for the film to avoid comparisons with John Barrymore He would make his mark in horror movies across future decades in a hugely prolific career of roughly 350 credits.

Intriguingly for those new fans unfamiliar with this particular tale, Holmes vanishes for the whole of the middle act on the pretence of being too busy. He does however accord us an enjoyable cameo of his and Rathbone’s character-acting skills when he pops up in the vivid guise of a travelling old Devonshire hawker of musical instruments.

Eventually we discover that the curse is nothing more than a ruse cooked up by the family’s dastardly cousin Stapleton, played by Morton Lowry, who had trained the killer dog to help him dispatch all the other heirs in his master-plan to gain an unfettered claim on the estate’s title. He flees across the Moors, which we learn from Holmes won’t help him as there are alerted police lying in wait. 

Lowry would return near the end of the series in another role as a Steward in the sea-going Pursuit to Algiers.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016


“Though my life be taken, my work will not be left undone”

In August 1939 Columbia Pictures released The Man They Could Not Hang, a mad scientist movie assisted by a handful of excellent performances and a slightly less two-dimensional motive for the medical scheming. Directed by Nick Grinde who’d co-written Laurel and Hardy’s Babes in Toyland (1934), Boris Karloff plays Dr Henryk Savaard, pioneer of a mechanical heart invention. As he’s inventing this on the quiet due to the ethics of revivification of the dead, he enlists a healthy medical student to volunteer to be induced into death on the operating table and then revived with the new test heart. While Savaard assures her that every precaution is being taken and her beau is fully on-board with the plan, his girlfriend Betty (Ann Doran) has other ideas: “Don’t you realise he’s going to kill you? You’re going to die!”

Since alarmism seems to have no effect, Betty goes to the cops who raid the laboratory, causing her man to die mid-operation before life can be restored. In the ensuing trial, Savaard’s kindly bedside manner is replaced by the wrath of his denied underlying God complex. He castigates her meddling as “the treachery of a stupid woman” but saves his bitterest denouncements for the judge and jury for seeking to kill a man: “whose only offence is to bring life to darkness”. Karloff gives a strong and impassioned performance as usual, transitioning from sincere and well-meaning to full-throttle megalomania without descending into ham. We are in doubt though that the medical gloves will be off if he gets his chance to be revenged upon his executioners.

Sure enough, that opportunity comes courtesy of his assistant Lang, the immensely-busy character actor Byron Foulger who is equally as intense and convincing as Karloff. Under the radar, he is permitted to get consent from Savaard to donate his body to science, which means his mentor will become his own guinea-pig for the revolutionary surgery. Savaard goes from Death Row to escaping from Death Valley post-hanging by successfully being operated upon by Lang. His last words before execution - “Though my life be taken, my work will not be left undone” – ring true as he schemes to be revenged on those who killed him.

Scoop Foley (Robert Wilcox) is a wiley reporter who spots a connection between a rash of six suicides-by-hanging breaking out over the city. His editor misses the homicide angle, preferring to dream up sensational headlines about a Savaard curse. Foley knows better, but not quite enough to realise that a mysterious party he gate-crashes is a deliberate ploy by Savaard to gather together the judge, prosecuting District Attorney and all the jurors who sent him to the noose. Here the plot echoes 1934’s The Ninth Guest (reviewed earlier on my site) in its conceit firstly of the villain turning into a disembodied voice informing his guests of their inability to avoid being gradually killed off one by one – and the device of the electrified shutter which claims the life of the judge, his first victim.
There’s a neat reversal by Savaard’s beloved daughter Janet (Lorna Gray) who, in attempting to force her father to release the remaining guests, threatens to fry herself on the shutter – thus willingly giving her father power over her life and death against his will. Sadly, her bluff is called and she dies. In his grief, Savaard once more uses his technology to revive her. However, he is struck by a very last-minute (of the film) attack of conscience and in shooting a hooked-up flask of serum ruins his own handiwork for the last time.

By now, despite being ever-grateful for the boost to his career caused by recognition in the horror genre, the limits of the association were beginning to tell on him. He told the Los Angeles Times during the filming that although he was a gentle who loved his garden and animals: “What does it get me? Queer stares from strangers and even more unusual glances from friends. Every time I walk into a room, there is a noticeable lull in the merrymaking.” 

Karloff would go on to enjoy another three decades of longevity in Hollywood regardless of this perceived downside of his position...

Thursday, 20 October 2016


By 1934, Laurel and Hardy were coming to the end of their hugely popular run of short films and were about to branch out into long-form features. The Live Ghost, released that December, showcased a number of the much-loved repertory company of supporting actors they’d built up over the years in a fun farce of mistaken ghostly identity.

Directed by fellow Brit, Birmingham's Charles Rogers, it first allows us to enjoy Walter Long, one of their arch enemies, as a fearsome sea captain whose vessel has an even worse reputation (for being ‘aunted’). Long always played the tough grizzled villain, belying his real-life warmth and had come to Hal Roach Studios via film roles for D.W. Griffith -notoriously as Gus, an African-American bad guy in the ill-conceived Birth of a Nation (1915), the Musketeer of the Slums in Intolerance (1916) and three of Rudolph Valentino’s brief run of box-office hits.

Stan and Ollie are idly fishing on the dockside when Long offers them crewing on his ship. Wisely they demur although not from fear of him but of sharks - Stan hearing that the sea is ‘infatuated’ with them and Oliver correcting him that the correct term is ‘infuriated’. Numbskull heads prevail and they agree to Long instead paying them a dollar a head to shanghai other sailors from the local dive. 

This becomes a passport to the bar scenes where Stan places bets with gullible sea-dogs that an egg can’t be held in the mouth without breaking it. The resulting swallow caused by a fist to the chin gets him chased out to a waiting frying-pan bop from Ollie. One of the wilier pub denizens is another welcome face, Charlie Hall, a slightly awkward performer but a vivid opposing force for them as various cuckolded husbands, an exasperated ice-cream parlour employer and then his eye-for-an-eye vengeful business competitor in the following month’s famous Tit for Tat (1935). Here he gets the better of Ollie when he switches con-artist places with Stan, causing all three (plus Long) to get hit outside.

The nitwit pair awake to find themselves equally press-ganged on-board ship amongst some understandably bitter new workmates and the captain’s threat to turn any crew-member’s head 180 degrees if they utter the word ‘ghost’ again. None of this fazes the marvellously sozzled Arthur Housman (Hollywood’s go-to for comic drunk parts). He manages to be just sober enough to fool Stan and Ollie, threatened by Long into babysitting him, into thinking he’s abed while he tops up his alcohol stream on shore. A fall into a vat of paint gives Housman a full-body white spectral appearance which cues up ghostly chills for Laurel and Hardy back on board.

Meanwhile there’s a disappointingly brief two-scene cameo from Mae Busch whose hard-bitten sassy persona almost makes a perfect match for Long were it not for an unexpected reunion with her husband in the form of Houseman. The pleasurable chills are rounded off by Long making good on his threat when the boys excuse their incompetence.

As Laurel and Hardy retire to bed with their heads facing the opposite way to their nightshirts, so must we from their delightful company – making way for other notable comedy teams of the pre-war period to do their best in picking up the baton of comic-horror.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016


In November 1933, Laurel and Hardy released another cracking mad scientist-themed short directed by Lloyd French and written by H.M. ‘Beanie’ Walker. They play a couple of chimney sweeps hired to work in the home of the highly-eccentric Professor Noodle, the hugely memorable Lucien Littlefield who’d already earned his kooky comedy spurs as the Doctor in The Cat and the Canary (1927).  

Right from the special-effect opening credits featuring a bubbling conical flask, and tracking in to Noodle's desk of complicated experimental paraphernalia, we know we're in the presence of the archetypal batty boffin we all know and love. Noodle has the smoking jacket of the gentleman and the perched pince-nez of the scholar, coupled with a tufty, almost bald head and a look of maniacal determination as he stirs the tall frothing liquid. His long-suffering butler Jessop (Samuel Adams) has spent twenty years hearing him declaim his eternal youth goal with 'just a few drops' of his serum. Noodle's boasting is aptly punctured with a mischievous cuckoo effect followed by the doorbell.

As Stan and Ollie enter and begin to elaborately destroy the house, Noodle delights in his list of nonsensical ingredients to be added. An unfortunate adult duck subject is placed into a bathtub for the final test, and with a single serum drop from a teat pipette, the water boils like a jacuzzi resulting in the duck reverting to a cute little duckling. This causes the 'good' doctor to perform a madcap jig of celebration around the room, a wonderfully bizarre high-point of Littlefield's performance. He bursts with such infectious joy that he can barely contain himself in front of the boys in a glorious display of deliriously-committed ham. Littlefield’s cry of exultation that the greatest scientific breakthrough of the age is 'Mine! All mine!' is seamlessly followed by his hilariously un-self-conscious insane cock-crowing sound. His triumphant excitement is such that after he leaves the room with the boys in eager pursuit, he can't resist turning back on them to re-enter with a full-throated cackle. Savour the crackling voltage of a madcap actor who can single-handedly pull the focus from both Laurel and Hardy.

Our be-sooted pair are then shown a continuation of the previous experiment where the poor duck's bio-markers are now further reversed to the form of an egg. With a surprisingly uncharacteristic burst of self-preserving intelligence, Ollie reacts to this with an upbeat 'Well, be seeing you!' Inevitably while the Professor exits to find his butler, Stan and Ollie get busy with the fizzy, using a heroic dose that reduces poor Ollie to an impossibly retrograde self: a chimp.

Dirty Work is a fast-paced favourite of many (myself included) - and a neat, concentrated injection of inspired medical mayhem.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016


Laurel and Hardy's wonderful short subject plots could be based around any single idea no matter how outlandish, from the sophisticated body-swap of playing each other’s wives in Twice Two and devilish baby versions of themselves in Brats, to a ‘simple’ premise like leaving home in time for a wedding or just leaving home, period, in Perfect Day. Along the way, they cleverly gave the laughs an extra frisson by battling such darker forces as vengeful villain Walter Long and scorned harpie Mae Busch

The first Laurel and Hardy short to inspire ghoulish guffaws was Habeas Corpus (1928) which has the unique distinction of two Oscar-winning directors behind it.  As well as Leo McCarey, who insisted he mostly wrote for them and here is credited as ‘Supervising Director’, James Parrott went on to helm many of their classics like The Music Box in 1932 (and also their next horror-comedy after this, The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case).

Strictly speaking Habeas Corpus is a silent film, but for fans accustomed to their later ones it feels very much like a sound film with the sound-track removed and replaced with an orchestra plus added whistles, wood-blocks and other effects. The inciting protagonist is the balding mad scientist Professor Padilla (Richard Carle) who follows in a long line of horror movie medical whackos with his experiment to prove ‘That the human brain has a level surface – in some cases practically flat’. The irreverent H.M. Walker is the wit behind the titles though such is the strength of the sight-gags to come that he’s barely needed.

The Professor needs the help of enterprising idiots who can provide him with a body from a little nocturnal grave-robbing. As if by tragic, without seeing them we get a lovely visual clue as to who the prospective Burke and Hare will be: a close-up of a prissy hand dismissing that of another person to take over knocking on the door. It is Stan and Ollie, ever ready to bypass common sense in favour of ready money, in this case $500 for the job. Little do they know, even less than usual, that the butler is an undercover policeman by the name of Ledoux – very likely an in-joke reference to Inspector Ledoux in Lon Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera that we covered earlier. Charley Rogers in the role would work with Laurel and Hardy many more times over the years.

The police seize the nutty professor while the boys head to work. Along the way, Stan shows rare powers of perception in suggesting their employer might be ‘a trifle cuckoo’ – emphasised by a cuckoo FX cue. Ollie reminds us that the pair’s partnership extends to sharing the one brain by assuring him: ‘He is as sound mentally as you or I’.

The boys head for the graveyard where As usual even getting into the graveyard isn’t simple for those simple in mind. After wet paint shenannigans, they spend over three minutes in increasingly haphazard and funny bids just to get Stan hoisted over the wall by Ollie. Once in though, it may not be gruesome for the twosome yet their night-shift becomes hair-raising courtesy of a seemingly ghostly wandering lamp (placed on a nearby tortoise by Stan), a rubber bat that may be related to the unconvincing flapper seen in Bela Lugosi’s 1931 Dracula and the close surveillance by Ledoux that turns him into a running smokey spectre to terrorise our heroes.

The pace is excellent and the high gag-rate sustains throughout. Look out for Ollie’s demonstration of how to properly use your friend to scale a wall – or in his case utterly demolish it – one of their sublime moments of destruction that always deserves a rewind. There’s even a nice possible nod to Buster Keaton in the way that Ledoux, bagged by mistake, pokes his legs through Stan’s hefted sack and walks behind him in perfect sync. 

Habeas Corpus is a great example of a comedy team adding a touch of spookiness to a short, exploiting a single idea, playing on its main characters’ relationship and sustaining the chaos to the end. From here, audiences would now be able to hear their mirthful exchanges as well as see them...

Monday, 17 October 2016


 At the age of 40 Lon Chaney was at last a deserved superstar, but with his long-ingrained work ethic there was to be no complacency.  He turned his laser focus to craft a customary self-created make-up for the flamboyant, disfigured Erik in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), the world’s most pro-active opera critic and the second of his double-whammy of parts that catapulted him to the front rank of esteemed Hollywood actors. The Phantom’s look became one of the most famous Hollywood ‘monster’ roles - and partly inspired Batman artist Bob Kane in creating the face of the Joker, an even more iconic mix of terror and the blackest of humour.

Obviously in a busy schedule no performer can guarantee the highest quality in every project they agree to and this was the case in Chaney’s next role, a botched blend of horror and dark humour in The Monster, released by director Roland West’s production company with Tec-Art and distributed by M-G-M. This may have given the mistaken impression it was an M-G-M film but it lacked the talent of such a prestigious studio. The Monster had an intriguing premise to attract Chaney, that of a former surgeon of repute, Dr Gustave Ziska, who takes over the sanatorium asylum in which he is revealed to actually be one of its insane patients. However, we have to wait over thirty minutes for him to appear whilst we tread water through a convenience store love-triangle between Amos Rugg (Hallam Cooley), Gertrude Olmstead as the owner’s daughter Betty and Johnny Goodlittle - Johnny Arthur, who was better suited to noted effeminate roles than these lame heroics. The title cards aim for wry laughs and miss with tepid remarks such as deriding Amos who ‘Blew into town – and has been blowing ever since’.

Investigating the disappearance of a wealthy farmer, correspondence-course detective Johnny goes to the sanatorium along with Betty and Amos to search for clues. Chaney makes a darkly suave entrance as Dr Ziska, with white hair and fluffy eccentric white eyebrows concealing mangled teeth whilst sporting a frock coat and affecting a cigarette-holder like a sinister Noel Coward. Another attempt at quality by association is naming his servant as Caliban (Walter James), Shakespeare’s primitive man-servant from The Tempest – although here James' oiled bare-chest and ear-ring suggest more a gypsy circus artist. Chaney commands as much as he can but the material allows him no chance to be Prospero here and the outside torrent fails to remind us this is no more than a storm in a teacup.

Our three heroes survive fiendish traps laid by Ziska and his other henchmen, Knute Ericksen’s Daffy Dan and the mad monk Rigo played by George Austin. Amongst these distractions, a  couple of brief high-points are the sight of Betty saved from being crushed by a mechanical weight only to be gripped by unidentified hands as her bed retracts to unseen depths, while Amos is about to be clobbered from behind by the fearsome friar before a cut to black.

By the time Johnny finds the asylum’s owner Dr Edwards (Herbert Prior) and the missing farmer, we are given the big reveal of Ziska’s true status, yet truthfully we are past caring as the plot descends into standard mad scientist hack work. “At last, the fools have brought me a woman!” crows Ziska over Betty, strapped to an operating table. He is about to experiment on her to crack the old chestnut of the secret of life – “Rigo – my knives!”- yet instead is forced into his own ‘death-chair’ by Caliban and mercifully Chaney is electrocuted out of the movie. It only remains for Johnny to hoist Caliban up, ready-trussed for the police.

A clunky epilogue has Betty and Johnny together in a car. She stares up at him doe-eyed in admiration with the line “How can I ever be worthy of a wonderful man like y’all?” This reads like a weak parody of Deep South folks but at least serves to remind us that The Monster ultimately isn’t worthy of us nor Lon Chaney...

Sunday, 16 October 2016


As an individual, Stan Laurel often played belligerent, highly-physical characters eager to spoil for a fight - quite a departure from the milder persona he would later contrast with the overbearing Hardy. He’d been having combative relationships off-screen as well, going back and forth from working for Hal Roach to leaving him again temporarily for producer Joe Rock over a money dispute. During a prolific burst of creativity churning out twenty-four shorts across 1924 to 1925, one of the twelve he made for Rock was another direct spoof of the various versions of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Dr Pyckle and Mr Pride is a surprisingly funny and exuberant gem. Part of the fun is the wit of Tay Garnett’s many title cards undermining both the period and the characters from the novel with a modern subversiveness. Author Robert Louis Stevenson’s meditation on the fear of evil overcoming good, echoed in the 1920 film’s ‘In each of us,two natures are at war – the good and evil’ - is here considered with such repercussions as ‘Even saxophone players would be tolerated’. Dr Stanislaus Pyckle’s high reputation precedes him – ‘Heaven knows why’.

We then meet Laurel’s Dr Pyckle pacing the floor of his laboratory while a quartet of learned colleagues hang on his pronouncements, apparently bored, awaiting his divine inspiration. His pince-nez glasses, slicked-back hair and dark lips contrast starkly with his blue eyes. Even more striking than his appearance is the rare chance to see Laurel taking a high-status role. He is a strutting peacock of Victorian intellectual pomposity, not the famously meek dimwit we love. The main pleasure of the film is actually watching Stan clearly enjoying himself in the dual title role wherein he’s equally funny as both halves. Whereas Lloyd, always a serious actor playing comedy, used a crack team of gag-men and a sober analytical mind to create the architecture of funny from the ground up, Laurel gives all the appearance of being allowed to just turn instinctively as the camera turns over. As with Jim Carrey, the joy is in his unfettered creativity in the moment. As Pyckle, pre-Pryde, he is firing on all cylinders in his facial expressions dealing with his colleagues and Julie Leonard as his assistant.

The bonus, for those who’ve seen it, is in the mischievous lampooning of the most respected film remake starring illustrious stage star John Barrymore. In the main, the greatest Hamlet of his era was highly convincing as Hyde and channelled his performance with an impressive lack of prosthetics (other than extended phalanges and a late-revealed pointy skull). Barrymore’s wickedness though is matched by Laurel’s in mocking ‘the Great Profile’s slightly over-wrought metamorphosis into his alter-ego. Instead of his forerunner’s grasping of the throat and writhing, it is Pyckle’s legs that become supernaturally possessed after he downs what looks like a milkshake (Pyckle’s ‘58th variety’ spoofing Heinz’s 57 varieties) . He wobbles spaghetti-legged, kicks and spins laughably before throwing himself out of the window to land in a match-cut to a dummy that rivals Benny Hill for comedy obviousness.

Surrounded by suitable period detail and costumes, from here Laurel hits the ground running, or rather squatting in mimicry of Barrymore’s bent-legged Hyde stride. He takes the physical absurdity further still by bouncing up and down on the spot like a frog when in the throes of maniacal glee. To top off the imitation, he reproduces Barrymore’s long dark wig and wide-eyed stare but exaggerates his mouth into a permanently demented grin. Stan’s comically evil Pryde is rendered by a skilled transformative performance just as free of external make-up aids as his dramatic rival.
Where the comparison ends is in the bad self’s intention. Laurel spares us the slumming in dubious adult penny-gaffs for this demon, rubbing shoulders and other body parts with the lower orders like previous iterations. Mr Pryde is the amusing living embodiment of Pyckle’s child-like mischief, a Lord of Misrule more innocent than homicidal. Instead of the hideous trampling of the book’s small child, we get the stealing of his ice-cream cone; a woman is frightened by Pryde bursting a paper-bag behind her back.

More cheeky spoofings of the 1920 version abound. Whereas Hyde attempts to ingratiate himself with a flower delivered to a young man at her door, Pryde embarrasses her by converting it into a party streamer blown in her face. The ground-breaking dissolve-shots of Barrymore’s metamorphosis are comically copied. Whereas Jekyll’s smooth hand is shown in close-up gradually becoming that of the gnarled Hyde, Pyckle’s hilariously morphs into low-budget pen daubings over his knuckles and veins.

Laurel’s team also add their own ideas, extending Pyckle’s repeated accident-prone spilling of acid to the consequences if his dog was to eat food dripped upon by it. The result is the perfectly deadpan re-appearance of the pooch in his own fright-wig, forcing Pyckle to try concealing him against his colleagues suspecting his connection to the bestial murderer.

The ending varies slightly according to different surviving prints. There is a nineteen and a half-minute version attributed to director Percy Pembroke (or Joe Rock and Scott Pembroke according to some sources) which ends with Stan’s advance on Leonard being met with a vase cracked over his head. Also there exists a two minutes-longer version (approved by a display card of the old British Board of Film Censors), directed by Harry Sweet, whereby after her rebuttal Mr Pryde loops himself intimately under Leonard’s necklace while his learned colleagues clamour outside for him – which then cuts inconclusively to an end piano credit.

Dr Pyckle and Mr Pryde was the only comedy-horror send-up that Stan Laurel experimented with alone. The theme of split-personality extremes would however be mined repeatedly in his future partnership with Hardy – for example his concussion-inspired transformation into posh Lord Paddington in A Chump at Oxford, his sudden bass (then female) crooning of ‘The Trail of the Lonesome Pine’ in Way Out West after Ollie coshes him with a mallet – and the unsettlingly funny playing of each other’s wives in Twice Two.

What may also have inspired Stan during Dr Pyckle was the two conflicting faces of the public and private he had to wear during its making owing to debilitating domestic battles fought with his own common-law wife Mae Dahlberg. Simon Louvish’s invaluable biography Stan and Ollie: The Roots Of Comedy documents how Stan was forced after their vaudeville act ended to include Mae in his films despite her limitations of talent and looks compared to the belles of the day like Mabel Normand. He strained relations with his bosses by having her co-star status written into his contracts but ‘Behind the scenes, this clash of wills, and Mae’s delusions of stardom ate away at the foundations of the non-marriage, the ‘gentlemanly’ deal between Mae and Stan’.

Soon, with the dissolving of Stan’s ties to Mae, his happiest of collaborations was to come. In early 1925 Oliver Hardy came to work for the Hal Roach studio. Now Laurel and Hardy’s paths would properly narrow to a comic collision of history-making movies together that would be their real lasting legacy eclipsing all their individual work.

Thursday, 13 October 2016


During the Golden Age of silent shorts, there were a few examples of feature-length comedies tinged with frissons of horror, though sadly their number is further diminished by being lost like many films of the era. One of them was The Ghost Breaker in 1922, a haunted-house comedy made by Famous Players-Lasky before it merged into Paramount. It starred matinee-idol Wallace Reed who was a leading man of over 100 shorts as well as D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). The source was a stage play by Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard and was first filmed as a serious version in 1914 by another Hollywood directing giant, Cecil B. De Mille.
According to the website of the AFI (American Film Institute), the plot revolves around Warren Jervis (Reed) who escapes his Kentucky family’s feud straight into aiding Lila Lee as Maria Theresa in ridding her father’s castle from ghosts and finding treasure along the way. The spirits turn out to be a ruse by her dastardly neighbour the Duke D’Alva (Arthur Edmund Carewe) to claim both the trove and her. Little else is known other than the cast and a poster which bears demoralising evidence of more sinister masquerading within the film. The bottom right-hand corner shows another recurring ghastly spectre of the period - the wide-eyed, cowardly black servant, here dressed like an awful golliwog of British comedian Max Miller. It's debatable which is worse - the casting of black actors in such demeaning roles which had the dubious benefit to them of providing work, or the fact that this example was actually a white billed co-star -Walter Hiers - in minstrel black-face.
Jervis and Theresa at least end the picture happily together. This was tragically not the case in real-life for Reed who tragically died later that year aged only 31 from a morphine addiction resulting from pain-management he’d taken to treat his injuries from a 1919 train crash. The film’s legacy was happier for Reed’s co-stars. Shortly before The Ghost Breaker’s release the smash-hit Blood and Sand opened, a more effective career boost for Lee and the sensationally popular Rudolph Valentino. Equally, Carewe would do himself more favours in the purer horror genre as Secret Policeman Inspector Ledoux in Lon Chaney’s 1925 Phantom of the Opera.

The Ghost Breaker generated even more of an after-life for itself in the coming decades of horror-comedy. Felix the Cat tried his paws at ghost-busting in the animated short Felix the Ghost Breaker (1923) before live-action would wake the dead with mainstream star vehicles for Bob Hope in 1940’s hit remake The Ghost Breaker and the double-act of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin in 1953’s Scared Stiff (both being covered here anon...)

Wednesday, 12 October 2016


(Edited web-only version)

Buster Keaton produced a stunning body of films across the Twenties including features such as Sherlock Jr (1924), Seven Chances in 1925 and his masterpiece The General (1926). Before he expanded into these ambitious full-length films he had first perfected the two-reel short comedy for producer Jo Schenck (introduced to him via Roscoe Arbuckle).  From zero screen experience he soon learned to became an invaluable movie gag man, actor and director to Arbuckle before Schenck allowed him autonomy with the division Buster Keaton Comedies. He was only a little older than the decade and soon gained confidence with gems such as the insane police chase Cops and the crossed wires of The Electric House (both in 1922). Before either of these in 1921 he released his only comedy-horror hybrid called The Haunted House.
Co-written and directed by Keaton and Eddie Cline, our hero is a lowly bank clerk who like the aged manager doesn’t realise that their company is being fleeced by one of its staff. The other employee is the ring-leader of a criminal gang who dissuade police from entering their safe-house by making it appear as a haunted house by various gadgets such as a stair-case that turns into a smooth slide upon being stepped on.
We meet Buster as the good-natured klutz saying goodbye at the start of the day to his girlfriend Virginia Fox. Her beguiling looks as a student in real life caused Mack Sennett to instantly sign her up as one of his Bathing Beauties. She went on to co-star numerous times with Buster and later married famous Fox studio producer Darryl F. Zanuck.  Setting to work, Buster then attempts to dish out money to his customers (including actor Cline) whilst struggling with a spilt pot of glue. Consequently he causes mayhem by sticking everyone to the notes like a litter-spike. When the staff member’s cohorts turn up to rob the bank, he prat-falls backwards marvellously in trying to raise his glued hands from his pockets. Buster glues himself to the vault’s time locked door, forcing him to sleep standing up. When the police turn up, he flees the scene to avoid reprisals.
Meanwhile across town, the local theatre troupe are having trials of their own with a haphazard show. Keaton and Cline as writers set their accident-prone scene with the waggish screen card: ‘That night the Daredevil Opera Company are executing Faust – and he deserved it’. The scenery collapses upon Fox, one of their cast. The theatre audience decide to show their appreciation with vegetables and abuse which sets up the actor playing the Devil along Miss Fox to high-tail it away with the locals in hot pursuit. They certainly take their arts seriously in this town. The timing of the fleeing players links them up with Buster and the chase leads them all toward the alleged haunted house.
The house becomes a comedy play-room for Buster to mine physical gags and at least one genuinely unnerving sequence. He demonstrates his superb athletic prowess by unsuccessfully negotiating the stair-case-cum-slide and stumbling upon the robbers’ bids to frighten all trespassers. (There are so many criminals wafting about under white sheets that at one point he pulls out a whistle and co-ordinates two of them in the hall-way like a traffic cop). Amongst the gang’s staged fear tactics there is a scene which makes no logical sense yet delivers a surreal little chill. While Buster looks on, two of them in full-body skeleton suits are shown assembling a man from component parts from the ground up, torso to head, with glue. Once connected, the living man proffers a hand to Buster who understandably skedaddles. Spooky indeed.
The contrivance of having the actor made up as the Devil pays off toward the climax. After he stands too close to the fire, he rushes out smouldering to be confronted by the cops who in turn flee the grounds, their worst supernatural fears confirmed. There is a neat further link with the after-life lavishly realised at the end. In trying to stop the thieves, Buster is conked on the head which transports him, seemingly dead, on a stairway to Heaven. As he walks up the steps, he doffs his hat amiably to pairs of angels on both sides; in Buster’s world and out of it, there is always room for manners. On arrival at the Pearly Gates he offers his credentials to the bearded St Peter who refuses his entry, and to compound the rejection pulls a lever that turns the stair-way into a grander version of the stair-case slide back on earth. Buster is sent plummeting - to an even worse disgrace, - down a spiral stair-way to Hell, where Lucifer has been expecting him. Fortunately for Buster, his awful fate is a concussion dream exacerbated by catching fire from a fallen stove.

The Haunted House is good fast-paced knockabout fun, though like Lloyd’s Haunted Spooks it marginalises a horror-comedy premise to just the latter part of the film. It would take almost a decade before Laurel and Hardy would show how to sustain laughs and chills through almost an entire short film…

Tuesday, 11 October 2016


“Every fourth year, the ghostly grinning ghouls of the dead creep from their graves and roam the room…”

(Abbreviated web-only draft)

With gags turbo-boosted by adrenaline, it seems apt that Harold Lloyd was the first of the major movie comedy stars to venture across the haunted threshold of pulse-quickening horror titillation. This he did in 1920 with Haunted Spooks. By now he had been working for director/producer Hal Roach’s studio for five years. The direction was credited to Roach and Alf (Alfred J.) Goulding who in a prolific career went on to direct Laurel and Hardy’s excellent A Chump at Oxford (1940). Photography was by Walter Lundin and a rousing music score was added by Robert Israel for the 2004 release. The superbly witty and mischievous title cards were written by the renowned wit H.M. Walker, who as well as writing the scripts for many classic silent comedies also supervised their editing. Even his credits have a racey and amusingly cynical edge. Lloyd, labelled The Boy, is here summed up with: ‘He wants to get married – has no other faults - while Mildred Davis his love interest is: ‘Sweet sixteen and never – well, once or twice’.

The premise of Haunted Spooks is that the lovely and wholesome Miss Davis stands to inherit her grand-father’s mansion down in the Deep South providing that she and her husband live there for one year otherwise it goes to her uncle, the scheming Wallace Howe (who worked many times in Lloyd’s films). This would become a staple horror movie plot recycled into various versions of The Cat and the Canary for example. Here for comedic purposes the impoverished Davis has one immediate glaring problem: no husband.

We then switch to the grounds of another wealthy pile where The Other Girl, contrastingly dark in looks and self-interest (Maria Mosquini) is gleefully fending off the attentions of potential suitors. While one blue-blood cad woos her away, we realise that underneath her is the highly put-out Harold. Smart in his white suit and none too slow in conniving either, it’s telling that in this two-reeler he comes across as a somewhat sneaky and immature little lounge-lizard and yet his likeability is such that we sympathise with him all the way. After his winning of Mosquini’s hand comes to naught courtesy of another beau, Lloyd melodramatically flounces away to kill himself with some great attempted suicide sight-gags famously showcased in his later TV compilations. He steels himself to be run over by a tram-car only for it to divert tracks at the last moment. The sequence where he tries to drown himself off the bridge over the river is not only amusing but also highlights key elements of what made Lloyd’s persona and real-life approach to comedy distinctive. In preparing to take the plunge, there is his practical fastidiousness in taking off his jacket and plugging up his nostrils; and there is his engaging helpfulness which even then allows passers-by to distract him from impending death with their need for a light or the correct time.

It is only when Lloyd can’t quite get a car to flatten him that the lawyer driver introduces him to Davis and a head-spinningly quick marriage ensues. This then takes us to her family mansion where the title goings-on happen. Amidst the contrivings of the uncle (and oddly what looks like The Other Girl) and some mistaken accidental ghostly phenomena such as a cat knocking a flower-pot over, the most disturbing occurrences in the house are the sadly all-too-typical racist depictions of the staff. This was by no means rare either in the South or in Hollywood films going well into the 1930s - D.W. Griffith’s regrettable defence of the Ku Klux Klan shown in Birth of a Nation was only released three years before. Nonetheless, it’s grimly unfunny to watch Blue Washington’s African-American butler in wide-eyed, cowardly ‘Yassir’ mode running on the spot in fear of another white-sheeted spectral demon – not to mention the questionable humour of having a black child emerging from a fall into a white flour-bin to haunt the newly-marrieds.

Happily, there is some smarter comedic inventiveness on hand. Indeed, at one point, the uncle’s sheeted ghost casts a shadow that seems to spoof the infamous pointy-eared look of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu – intriguingly two years before his seminal and unauthorised version of Dracula was released! This is an enigma as the only notable Dracula film the Roach team could possibly have seen back then was the Russian Drakula (1920). However this version is lost and unearthed footage (displaying him with the authentic white whiskers of Stoker’s novel) has been disputed anyway. Perhaps they were alluding to another image in popular culture or creating a generically scary one, a less satisfactory answer.

Either way, the uncle and his accomplice are rumbled, at least redeeming the butler’s treatment slightly by having him apprehend the culprits. Lloyd and Davis thus retire to bed together with charming innocence.

There was a terribly ghoulish legacy though to Haunted Spooks. In shooting a publicity still during filming, Lloyd posed with what he thought was a fake bomb taken from a store of them in the props department. He pretended to jokingly light a cigarette from its wick but on realising too late that the unusually real smoke emanating from it would ruin the photo, he made to place the bomb down. At that moment what turned out to be the real thing detonated in his hand. The explosion blew off the thumb and forefinger of his right hand, damaged the upper dental plate in his mouth and cause severe gashes to his lips. He subsequently wore white gloves in all his following films, the right one fitted with inserts to make the damaged hand look complete.

At twenty-six, his life could so easily have been over just as he was scaling the heights of comedy immortality. Fortunately, he was made of sterner stuff and lived for many more years to bring the funny…