Wednesday, 30 November 2016
Before the grimness of war took direct hold on the American consciousness, there was still time for carefree horror-comedy undiluted by mounting concern. A perfect example of this was You’ll Find Out produced by RKO in November 1940. It also came at an upbeat time for the studio itself, released from receivership in January of that year and subsequently splashed out on literary properties to herald its new prosperity.
During its relatively short history, RKO Radio Pictures produced some of the truly classic films of Hollywood’s Golden Age standing the test of time against their bigger competitors, such as Citizen Kane, Bringing Up Baby and Gunga Din. They made an indelible stamp on the horror genre as well with arguably the greatest version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Charles Laughton and possibly their most successful film (judging from its many lucrative re-releases), King Kong – not to mention the cycle of distinctive horror films produced by Val Lewton in the 1940s including The Cat People and The Body Snatcher; low-budget and titled for sensationalism, they rescued the studio from later financial trouble.
RKO, under their President George Schaefer’s mantra ‘Quality Pictures at a Premium Price’, were irreconcilably caught between trying to satisfy both the demand for A-pictures and B-movies, unable to settle on an industry-recognisable ‘house style’ or specialism like the gritty gangster films of Warner Brothers of the lush glossy musicals of M-G-M. The same studio that in just one year would give us Citizen Kane was also the same one making vehicles for the Mexican Spitfire, Lupe Velez. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had a successful string of musicals in the 1930s here and an element of variety glamour was maintained by their support of radio show band-leader Kay Kyser, around whom You’ll Find Out was constructed.
James Kern ‘Kay’ Kyser was a radio personality fronting a hugely-successful touring swing band that settled into a broadcasting run staying in the Top Ten on NBC Radio from 1939-1949. During that time, he developed an act that combined his band’s music and singing with slapstick antics in his ‘Kollege of Musical Knowledge’ quiz-game format. Kyser did not hog the spotlight like many band-leaders. He allowed the star quality of his bandmates to shine such as future talk-show host Mike Douglas, vocalists Ginny Samms and Harry Babbitt, and comedian Ish Kabibble, whose wig-like dark basin-cut is oddly reminiscent of Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber. Their on-air fame was parlayed into a profitable run of RKO films beginning in 1939 with That’s Right – You’re Wrong (one of Kyser’s many catch-phrases). It was a thin caper solely designed to showcase the band but producer-director David Butler watched it make $129,000 and so a lucrative series was born.
You’ll Find Out (1940) was the follow-up, its focus on Kyser conveyed instantly by his name above the on-screen title card. This time Butler at least framed the band-leader and members within a plot, albeit the overly familiar haunted-house inheritance scam one. Bolstering the film’s chances with three of the most recognisable names in horror was a smart move By the director, who had asked the studio to furnish him with ‘three notable heavies”. Though to some extent your enjoyment depends on how much you like swing sound, the result is a winning combination. The whole film is played as a spookily-tinged spoof romp with Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre all in on the joke, a consistent irreverent tone that earns it entertainment value and goodwill.
For those of us born after Swing, the film begins with a live broadcast of Kyser’s show quizzing two audience members while the band showcase their sound. Their energy is infectious, with comedy set-pieces tightly rehearsed, if a little overdone, punctuating the songs. Soon, we and the gang are transported to a date playing at a 21st birthday party for Janis Bellacrest (Helen Parrish) at a creepy mansion owned by her wealthy Aunt Margo (Alma Kruger). The band are spooked, understandably so when they’re greeted by Margo’s otherworldly glazed eyes. She is under the influence of a medium by the name of Prince Saliano and claims astral familiarity already with Kyser’s music: “It comes to me from another source”.
As Aunt Margo remarks about the paranormal origin of the faces that come to her, in walks Boris Karloff. Apposite timing like this runs through the film adding to the fun. Karloff is the family solicitor Judge Mainwaring (pronounced as spelt here rather than the English Mannering as in British sitcom Dad’s Army). He easily surfs on a tide of audience typecast expectation – his urbane breeding is surely a cover for something - else why would he be here? Butler and James V. Kern’s script plays further on this knowingness by having him defend Aunt Margo’s sanity against Kyser’s concerns: “I can assure you that Margo Bellacrest is just as sane as I am”.
Kyser takes one look at the master bedroom where he’s staying and asks: “Who decorated this room - Robert Ripley?” referencing the cartoonist creator of Ripley’s Believe It or Not popular newspaper column. The whole house is full of exotic and macabre African artifacts brought back by Elmer, the deceased master of the house. As if on cue, enter Bela Lugosi – just as exotic and reliably inscrutable as always. He is Prince Saliano, Aunt Margo’s turbanned gatekeeper to the astral world. Amusingly, he has come to assure Kyser that the spirit of Elmer occupies the room “…but I’m sure you’ll find it a friendly one”. This coupled with the evidence of a blowpipe dart attack embedded in the wall is enough to convince Kyser that he should skedaddle with his band before the concert starts.
Another fateful response is the sudden lightning blast that blows up the bridge, their only means of escape that night. Unseen forces seem to be conspiring to keep everyone confined together. When Janis goes to call for help, wouldn’t you know Karloff promptly sidles up to her and elegantly dead-pans: “The telephone is probably dead”. The guests were hoping to assemble for a Saliano séance under the beady eye of expert fake-detector Professor Fenninger, but surely he won’t be able to attend? And with an almost audible click, the last piece of the jigsaw slots into place as the Judge presents the Professor already there, obscured all this time in an armchair. It is the silkily enigmatic Peter Lorre. I’m surely innocent of any real spoilers to state that the fix is now in.
I daresay I’m not alone in erroneously believing that, until coming across this film, Lorre and Karloff hadn’t worked together before The Boogie Man Will Get You in 1942, yet the welcome evidence is on show and adding Lugosi it becomes a priceless triple-play of sinister scheming between them. As soon as Lorre is alone with Karloff, he gets straight to the point regarding the bungled blow-dart: “Why’s she still alive?” All three men came to genre prominence in the early 1930s and each have a ball in laying down their cards of similarly veiled evil behind a gentlemanly facade, The three-shots of them together are a horror fan's joy. In Lugosi’s case as ‘that turban-top Svengali’, our disbelief is harder to suspend when we actually see his séance. It is pure Vegas coach-party hack magicianry using a silk bunko-booth style tent and a pair of crackling static electricity globes a’ la Frankenstein’s set designer Kenneth Strickfadden. The Prince sucks in the gullible with disembodied voices and floating masks posing as an African chief and Elmer. Kyser is not fooled for a minute, causing Lorre to query who this interferer is: “Oh, some band-leader”, mutters Karloff distastefully.
The band members soon catch on to the inherent phoniness of the enterprise. Before they can get to grips with some sleuthing though, they perform their much better show for the guests including the inexplicably Oscar-nominated song ‘I’d Know You Anywhere’ (an apt title for exposing the shenanigans they’ve just witnessed). Kyser and Chuck (Dennis O’Keefe) engage in Scooby-Doo detection along with Kabibble’s dog and uncover Lugosi’s lair from which he’s been projecting his voice electronically. This film was one of the first to demonstrate the real technology gadget called the Sonovox, (later nicknamed a Talkbox), arguably an early synthesiser that enabled musicians to sing or speak converting an instrument’s sound into their own vocals. The séance certainly makes effective use of its eerie synthetic drawl.
Regardless of the elaborate stage-management, even the horror threesome are no match for a bunch of intrepid musos and a second séance of hokum is exposed by Kyser and crew as a sham. One possibly unintentional detail of amusement is when the Elmer mask is ripped off to reveal Karloff – his own face of white hair and moustache is almost an exact double of the rubber version. If you’re in any doubt as to the value of screening this movie, or its gravity, consider that in the climax you get a rare sight of Lugosi in a stand-off, turbaned and brandishing a stick of dynamite.
The close of the picture is a good-natured capper scene that unusually breaks the fourth wall once Kyser’s band have finished their last number. He takes a moment to address us directly, reassuring us in a folksy way that, far from being the nasty figures they portray on-screen, in reality the trio of Karloff, Lorre and Lugosi are “nice fellers and good friends of mine”. (Karloff and Lugosi in particular might well have appreciated this movie gesture as neither could avoid occasional press grumbles about their limiting horror personas). Lest we take this seriously, we soon see it’s a mischievous set-up for one more undermining genre gag – during his sincere moment, the earlier static globes sidle into shot on either side of him and then zap him into an electrical-burst credit of ‘THE END’.
You’ll Find Out generated enough crackle at the box-office, like its predecessor, to exceed it in a respectable profit of $167,000, keeping Kay Kyser and company on screen for some time longer. This is just as well in terms of publicity for the actors as Lugosi was still dogged by the continual unequal bargaining power of a weekly salary less than a third of Karloff’s ($1,250 compared to $4,166.66 as documented by Stephen Jacobs). Lorre was paid $3,500 but gained the most prominent credit below Kyser who as headliner pocketed, on behalf of his team, $75,000 for the shoot.
Monday, 28 November 2016
Seven years after Warner Brothers released the excellent Doctor X they went back to the well with The Return of Doctor X (1939), though this had only minor connections to its predecessor. The fast pace of the Michael Curtiz-directed original was present in this version along with the story emphasis being on a journalistic crime-thriller with added humour more than horror. Also, the first film’s fascination with ‘synthetic flesh’ was now translated into the world of haemotology and ‘synthetic blood’. Director Vincent Sherman, who later went on to work with Joan Crawford three times, made his Warner Brothers directing debut here. He had a useful reputation in Hollywood for being able to re-write average scripts to make far better films.
The focus of the film is on the likeable Walter Garrett, a newspaper reporter with a breezy, loose style and an inveterate weakness for the ladies, much like Lee Tracy in Doctor X. He is plunged straight into a bizarre murder-mystery when he arranges to interview glamorous actress Angela Merrova (Lya Lys) in her apartment. He arrives to find her dead on the lounge carpet. As if that isn’t bad enough, her body disappears. After reporting the sudden scoop, his long-suffering Editor Joe Crehan fires him when she turns up very much alive in his office threatening to sue for reputational damage.
Luckily for Walter, he has a valuable friend in Dr Rhodes (future Warners’ leading-man Dennis Morgan), a physician he comes to with his conundrum. The body he saw was drained of blood and had suffered a four-inch chest wound around the heart. How could she return to life? Rhodes is sceptical but after analysing the blood and finding its composition looks artificial, asks his surgeon mentor and haemotology expert Dr Flegg (John Litel). Here we delve into the interesting world of blood types, which oddly in the film are numbered as one to four, with one being the rarest, (in reality types A, B and O had been categorised as such back in 1901 by Karl Landsteiner, his assistants adding AB a year later). No matter as the plot, if not the platelets, thicken. “Blood is the source of life” intones Dr Flagg whose work will emerge as less obvious than his statements.
By now the Warners’ studio had made its name as an innovator pioneering the sound feature in 1927’s The Jazz Singer as well as the home of the gangster picture and the gritty socially significant film. They made stars of the formidable Bette Davis, Errol Flynn and a whole roster of names forever associated with tough gang-land roles like Edward G Robinson and James Cagney. Another luminary who is about to make an unlikely and only horror appearance in this very film was Humphrey Bogart. He would hit his stride as an A-list leading man in the 1940s but before the likes of The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942) could seal his screen immortality, he had parlayed his Broadway experience into a Warners’ contract that first broke him in as a gangster with Cagney in the marvellous double-whammy of Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939). He would go on to win an Academy Award for The African Queen (1951).
Bogart fans who don’t like horror films should still see his work in The Return of Dr X as his ‘Dr Quesne’ shows a different side to the blue-collar tough-guy he inhabited winningly elsewhere. Quesne is introduced to Garrett as an enigmatic colleague of Dr Flegg; his striking appearance working against his secretiveness. His skin has an ex-sanguinated pallor, with a white Bride of Frankenstein streak to his hair and a disabled, gloved left hand clasped to his body. And there’s an eerie poise about him that draws unwitting attention despite his innocuous stroking of a cute white rabbit – until mentioning of blood triggers an involuntary shattering of a glass instrument. Clearly this is a man with a past that needs investigating – just the type that Garrett’s newshound instincts cannot ignore.
Sure enough, Garrett and Rhodes uncover Quesne’s secret, that he is actually the convicted and executed murderer Dr Xavier whose grave is empty. Foolishly Dr Flegg had revived his hitherto--wasted talent for ‘further research’ - he proves this by rejuvenating the (now dead) rabbit from earlier. He now cannot deny that injecting his restored subjects with artificial blood prevents their cells from self-regeneration resulting in a homicidal literal blood-lust: “My experiments have turned to madness. I’ve created a monster!” His growth of a conscience is too late though as Xavier pops in to shoot him by way of a reward for squealing and kidnaps blood-donor Joan (Rosemary Lane) for a chase finale that returns him to the cemetery for good.
The Return of Dr X is definitely a B picture but none the worse for being heavily influenced by Warners’ famous house style of hard-boiled crime dialogue, most notably in the insults accorded to Garrett by his editor and Charles Wilson’s Det Kincaid: ‘that corn-fed wizard’ - ‘Listen, Rigor Mortis…’ The film gains extra zing and energy from the wise-cracking conflict dogging Garrett’s attempts to convince others of his nose for a real story.
Making 1940’s Flight Angels inspired a passion for flying in Wayne Morris, who then trained as a fighter pilot and later served with distinction in aerial combat during World War Two, earning four Distinguished Flying Crosses and two Air Medals from the United States Air Force.
At the time of writing this incidentally, Walter Sherman must rank as the oldest creative ever to record a DVD commentary – for the 2006 re-release of this film - at the age of ninety-nine. It was a fortunate move as he passed away just before his 100th birthday.
Saturday, 26 November 2016
In November 1939, weeks after World War Two broke out across Europe, Universal released Tower of London, their re-telling of the machinations that led Richard, Duke of Gloucester to become the short-lived King Richard III. For this version, director Rowland V.Lee continued his sterling work with Basil Rathbone from that year’s Son of Frankenstein. He inhabits the main role in a plot that departs substantially from Shakespeare’s famous play, and also grants us two worthy supporting performances – from Vincent Price as his petulant bother, the Duke of Clarence and an entirely fictional henchman of horror from Boris Karloff as Richard’s deformed executioner Mord.
The basic story of Tower of London is largely the one we are familiar with in that it follows Gloucester as he ruthlessly kills his way to the crown - from his incumbent brother Edward through his elder brother in line Clarence and then the young Princes in the Tower before taking the throne. Along the way though, Lee’s brother Robert Lee fashions a screenplay that changes enough details for an engaging companion piece to Richard III. His prologue crawl sets us up for Machiavellian musical chairs: “A web of intrigue veils the lives of all who know only too well that today’s friends might be tomorrow’s enemies”.
Rathbone’s portrayal of Richard differs somewhat in appearance from the one we have loved to hate over the centuries. Whilst he is every inch the infamous schemer, the actor’s suavity is allowed to dominate. He is not the physically hunched-over Olivier incarnation of stage and screen, or the even more radical conception of Sir Anthony Sher in the 1980s, embodying an almost literal ‘bottled spider’ of externals whirling around the RSC’s stage on crutches as an arachnid-like creature. Rathbone’s evil is in his inner nature not an outer self tempted into histrionics. Here, his spinal curvature is incidental, a subtle ruck-sack rather than a hunch-back for a leading man’s performance rather than a character player. Whilst this may be an actor’s vanity, it also focuses our attention more believably on his political motives than vengeance for being cheated ‘of fair nature’. Vincent Price, whom we shall come to shortly, praised Rathbone’s work as more historically accurate than Olivier’s celebrated version.
Our first sight of Richard shows him sparring lustily with his monarch brother Edward (Ian Hunter), while by contrast Miles Mander is suitably weak and vague as the reluctant King Henry VI.
Karloff’s Mord is emphasised more as the traditional horror-movie villain. Bald-headed, his dark eyes glowering under bushy eyebrows and sporting a bowed and dragging right leg, he is the relishable monster of the piece. He commits fully to the nastiness of the man and is introduced throwing water at a pleading thirsty prisoner as if he were a stray dog. (This is nothing compared to his later stabbing of King Henry whilst he prays on his knees with his back turned). Gloucester and he make an enjoyably unholy alliance of master and willing servant, summed up by Rathbone as: “Crook-back and drag-foot. What we lack in physical perfection we make up for – here” indicating the brain.
Tower of London is a real treat for genre fans as in total there are three Gentlemen of Horror in attendance. Rathbone and Karloff are joined by a splendidly bratty interpretation of the Duke of Clarence, only the third film role for a young Vincent Price. He is vividly the petulant eldest man-boy, woefully out of his depths when he tries to match cunning with his younger brother in a drinking contest. Shakespeare buffs will delight in Richard’s hint of what is to come: “Malmsey will be the only weapon…” The over-confident Clarence giggles with fulsome maliciousness as he surveys Richard seemingly passing out at the table (no wonder as they sup from huge tankards). His crowing is about to reach epic proportions – ‘Little crook-back, you’ve met your master!” - when he sees Richard revive, fixing him with an awful unblinking resolve. Mord then drowns him in the traditional Malmsey butt of mythology.
The received wisdom is that Clarence was really executed in the Tower but Robert Lee does find some other differences from the fictionalised Plantaganet history we are accustomed to. This plot has no devious Buckingham to assist Richard to the throne. Our villain does have unusual help though in taking Lady Anne for his wife. The play famously shows Richard’s breath-taking gall in single-handedly seducing her verbally while she is only just mourning her newly-dead husband. The change here is that Lee forges the union as a persuasive idea of Edward’s to which Anne willingly agrees. This then allows Richard to dissemble the same posture of oh-well-if-you-insist that he does with the missing Buckingham offer of kingship in Shakespeare. Machiavelli and Mario Puzo would be proud of the political stratagems at work in this family. King Edward’s philosophy sounds like a worthy inspiration for The Godfather’s Don Corleone: “It’s an old axiom of mine. Marry your enemies and behead your friends”
We do get a little comic-relief amid the tastefully-executed murderings, courtesy of Ernest Cossart’s cockney chimney sweep and his suffering boy. Cossart had carved out a highly-regarded Hollywood niche for himself playing unflappable butlers, and during WWII would help to start a fund along with Rathbone and Sir Cedric Hardwick to aid distressed artists back home in England.
Although this conniving Richard does not take the audience into his confidence like the Bard’s, there is a ghoulish touch that lets us into his private satisfaction with each development. He keeps a child’s doll-house of figures representing the regal line at court, (in which he starts unpromisingly as sixth) and as he eliminates each obstacle to his crown he discards them one by one into the fire.
Rowland Lee’s direction of actors is as confident and sensitive as in Son of Frankenstein earlier that year. A particular scene highlighting this is in his handling of the Princes’ murder in the Tower. As the boys, Ronald Sinclair and John Herbert-Bond are given enough time to establish a touching innocence before bed without being cloying. Similarly, when Karloff’s dragging frame sneaks in to do the ugly deed, he pauses while bent over their sleeping idyll, a moment of possible humane doubt before measuring out his arm-span to judge their coffin-size. They children are mercifully murdered off-camera but we hear an unsettling scream reminiscent somehow of an abattoir pig’s slaughter. Incidentally, Sinclair exchanged careers to become a noted sound editor, eventually working on the first two Die Hard films and Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs (1987)
One other intriguing alteration to the accepted story is in the final Battle of Bosworth Field between the forces of Richard and Henry Tudor, convincingly staged with chaotic enthusiasm. Every school child is familiar with King’s Richard’s immortal plea exchanging his kingdom for a horse; on this battle-field however he is dispatched wordlessly in matter-of-fact haste. It is Karloff gets more savourable screen time, cutting and thrusting with vigour till he falls mortally down a hill-side.
The excellent cast of Tower of London is supported by the impressive period detail of the exterior castle sets built on the Universal backlot. These were so elaborate and effective that they were frequently reused, for example in that year’s definitive The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Charles Laughton.
Friday, 25 November 2016
When you’re presented with a film bearing a title like Torture Ship, it suggests a luridly-pleasurable piece of grisliness – until you realise it’s a Halperin Brothers production and you’re shit out of luck. The producer-director team of Edward and Victor respectively are best known for bringing us the so-so Bela Lugosi voodoo horror White Zombie (1932), then gradually descended through the dull Supernatural (1933) and the tepid cash-in Revolt of the Zombies (1936) –all of which I’ve reviewed elsewhere on this site. By 1939, on the evidence of Torture Ship, they were past caring about making any real effort at quality.
The film was based on adventure writer Jack London’s first published short story A Thousand Deaths, concerning a scientist who deliberately induces death then resurrection in his own son before being killed in revenge by him. The story appears to have been relocated to the sea. I say appears as you’d be hard pressed to guess this from the beginning except from the dialogue, as the Halperins clearly thought they could avoid sourcing the footage or paying for model work to show any establishing shot of a ship. We are thrust straight into what seems to be a hotel room studio interior where a group of disgruntled men talk of a Captain and a Mate and their dissatisfaction with conditions. They threaten to get hold of knives, their ring-leader Ritter (Wheeler Oakman) griping that what they really need are guns.
In Syd Field’s book on screenwriting, he advises the writer to begin a scene as late as possible into the action. Here, the uncredited screenplay (and doesn’t that tell you a lot), possibly by Harvey Huntley and George Wallace Sayre, seems to begin half-way through the film, not helped by its mercifully brief running time of 48 minutes.
This hilariously poor nautical endeavour is already capsizing and we’ve only just embarked. Irving Pichel marches in. He is Dr Herbert Stander, a step-up from Sandor the somnambulist servant whom we last saw him play in 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter. He drearily carries out dubious experiments on board like a mad scientist Pirate DJ, assisted by a sinister team, and assures the mutinous bunch via the medium of a crap scuffle that he is watching them all, so they’d better behave. Meanwhile, elsewhere there is a cat-fight between two ladies, Mary (Sheila Bromley) and Joan (Julie Bishop) who are feuding ex-partners from a poison scandal. Bishop was earlier known for comedies with Laurel and Hardy, fending off Walter Long’s advances in the boxing comedy Any Old Port in 1932 and The Bohemian Girl (1936). Despite changing her name to disassociate her past movies, somehow a ghoul like this movie found her.
To reinforce our suspicion that Torture Ship is heading into very inexpensive seas, when we do cut to an exterior night shot of Lyle Talbot’s Lieutenant on deck, it’s a laughable black screen over the ship’s stern. Only when we cut to a close-up of him, do we see a soft-focus moving horizon line behind to simulate the ocean. In daylight, there is no choice but to splash out on back-projection footage of a wave wake.
There is at least a blackly-funny macabre moment when Eddie Holden’s barber Ole Olsen and his awful Swedish accent come by for the refreshing change of a close shave from Harry Bogard (Russell Hopton). This becomes literally the case when Bogard invites Ole to look through his scrapbook just as he starts. Olsen sees Harry’s picture in a newspaper cutting, and as he unfolds down the page it reveals the headline: ‘HARRY THE CARVER GETS FIFTH VICTIM!! KNIFE KILLER LEAVES EVIDENCE’. Olsen of course scarpers just as Harry aims to make him number six.
The strapped-down Lieutenant manages to escape from his bed incarceration out onto the deck where he is subdued after killing then tossing overboard a luckless sailor. It’s only when punches in a fight-scene are under-dubbed as they are here that you realise how accustomed we are to ‘fake reality’ effects. Instead of the usual weighty ‘keesh’ sound, each blow in this film sounds like a finger of Kit-Kat snapping.
Dr Stander reveals that he is taking extracts from a part of the endocrine gland that governs criminality. ”I must let nature do this work for me in the body of a normal person – like you” he tells one of his lab assistants, who understandably drops his test-tune on hearing this offer. Lt. Bob, the poor test-subject from earlier flees again and almost kills the Dr and Joan before fainting, allowing the Dr to inject him into a zombified state. Stander’s ethics are neither present nor correct - Bob is related to him. “How could you? Your own nephew!”, Joan berates him. Pichel responds with a low-powered look that can only come from an atrocious actor one day realising he’s better off as a director (notably of Destination Moon in 1950). “Do you think we’re giving him too heavy a solution?” he asks an underling. Physician, heal thyself.
All of a sudden, Bob regains his mind and resolves to use smarter methods of escape from the movie, firstly by interrupted radio contact and then asking for the barber’s gun and pass-key. His fellow conspirator wrestles (or rather waltzes) for control of the vessel with Captain Briggs played by Stanley Blystone, who would gain more experience of kooks in many of the Three Stooges’ shorts.
On his death-bed, Dr Stander is confusingly validated for his crackpot work as he hears Mary repent for her sins. Since the plot is about to end, she speaks for us all: “I feel as if I have been born again”.
One future horror actor who is worth watching out or at the end is Sheffield-born purveyor of diminutive oddballs Skelton Knaggs as Jesse, a sinister henchman in coke-bottle glasses. Reminiscent of character maestro Jeffrey Combs, (and often compared to contemporary Dwight Frye) he inadvertently drinks Mary’s poisoned wine and is dispatched very soon after he appears. We will cross paths many more times with Knaggs in The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944), House of Dracula a year after and other better showcases.
Torture Ship is, need I say, a leaky dinghy of dingbats on the choppiest waters of incredibility helmed by film-makers who are all at sea.
Thursday, 24 November 2016
(Abridged, web-only draft)
Will Hay had been disparaging about the cinema in his early life. His first films for Elstree Studios didn’t catch on and it wasn’t until he transferred himself to Gainborough Pictures and his schoolteacher sketch persona to celluloid that he struck gold in Boys Will be Boys (1935). Although his dabbling in a comedy-horror hybrid was yet to happen, it was at this studio that he started fruitful collaborations with two future horror genre notables: writer (and later Quatermass helmer) Val Guest and director William Beaudine. Guest came to write for Gainsborough as an ex-actor cum film reviewer for the Hollywood Reporter who after criticising director Marcel Varnel’s work was challenged by him to do better. He did well enough for both men to continue together (thus benefitting Hay with Oh, Mr Porter! (1937) and Ask a Policeman (1939). Beaudine had already directed Will twice for other studios, yet Boys Will be Boys opened a string of four Gainsborough hits for their partnership. Sadly, though Beaudine made at least 350 films, he earned the waggish nick-name ‘one take’ for his less-than-perfectionist shooting style with real horror dive-bombers like Lugosi’s The Ape Man (1943) and 1944’s Voodoo Man (shot in just seven days). We will meet him again in the rowdy company of the Bowery Boys…
The most visibly successful team-up making Hay, as it were, was with Graham Moffatt and Moore Marriott whose respective young and old employees endlessly pricked his pompous bubble. Their combative chemistry with their boss was a winning combination. However, echoing Tony Hancock’s future self-sabotage, Hay’s ego could not accept that their great support was a vital part of his box-office formula (only George Formby could beat his popularity around 1940). Whilst Moore Marriott carried on as old Harbottle in Arthur Askey movies, over at Ealing Studios now Will Hay drafted in Claude Hulbert as his new wing-man for The Ghost of St Michaels (1941). While it might suggest a departure for Hay in experimenting with spook-fuelled chuckles, this has much more in common with Ealing’s gentle comedies and Hay’s established schoolmaster ones, being bereft of any ghosts or chills at all.
Hay plays Mr Lamb, the new teacher at the commandered St Michael’s school (Dunbain Castle) on Scotland’s Isle of Skye. They may seem safe from Germany’s aerial bombing, but Lamb isn’t from the campaign of schoolboy practical joking begun as soon as he sits on the crossing boat. The ring-leader is future Carry On company man Charles Hawtrey who was by now very much a mid-20s man having already played similar teen terrors in Hay’s Boys will be Boys (1935), Good Morning Boys (1937) and Where’s That Fire (1940). Hawtrey is Thorne, an apt name for one very much in Lamb’s side to begin with, forcing him to trudge the eight miles to the castle. Lamb arrives to be immediately ‘greeted’ by Jamie the janitor, Dad’s Army’s famous doom-bringer John Laurie. Before Lamb can even unpack his case, the Caledonian Cassandra warns him of the legend of the McKinnons whose family head committed suicide eight hundred years when his bride-to-be perished whilst traversing the loch. Lamb dismisses Jamie’s story and the supposed phantom bag-pipes foretelling an imminent death with the walls.
The boys in his charge aren’t Lamb’s only obstacles to an easy time. The Headmaster is the imperious Felix Aylmer, and fellow teacher Humphries (The Ghost Train’s Raymond Huntley) threatens to unmask Lamb’s fudged credentials from their shared former school. He does at least make a fast friend in Claude Hulbert’s Hilary Tisdale, the Old Etonian games teacher, an affable upper-class good egg.
Lamb goes to the slaughter in his first scene as teacher, allowing Hay to slot with ease back into the besieged schoolmaster pomposity that had made his name since the 1920s. He attempts to blag his lack of educational knowledge before his pupils, while they subvert and expose him with entertaining back-talk: “Suppose you tell us how much science YOU know?” They get the better of him that night as well by persuading him to into drunkenness instead of reprimanding them for a midnight dorm feast. Suddenly the sound of supernatural bag-pipes cuts through the Billy Bunter machinations and the Headmaster is found dead in the Great Bedchamber he occupied of the accursed old McKinnon.
At this half-way point, the tone switches more to murder-mystery intrigue as Hay, Hawtrey and Hulbert become an amateur sleuth team led by Thorne’s pulp novel-fuelled boffinry. The contents of an apparent suicide note left by the Head vaporise due to being written in invisible ink. The threesome suspect Humphries but the evidence must be played out officially in court. This is a cue for a tonal shift back into comfortable Ealing eccentricity when tradition demands that a makeshift court-room be staged in a local farmer’s barn. Proceeding are farcically undertaken amidst horses, ducks and pigs with Lamb giving his testimony holding a piglet. He is not above trying his luck in adding some verbal bamboozlement of the Prosecution: “Listen, if you’re trying to say that I wouldn’t have said what I said I’d say if you’d said what you said YOU would have said-“. Despite Tisdale over-playing his hand as character witness by claiming Lamb invented Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, the verdict is murder by persons unknown.
One peculiar yet welcome gag comes courtesy of Tisdale being offered the almost literally poisoned chalice of the new Headmaster-ship. There’s a chuckle to be had as he rehearses the maiden speech he’d present to the boys. He turns to the camera and asks us: “I’ll give you three guesses as to what I am”.
Lamb is not out of the woods of jeopardy yet. He and his friends stumble upon a plot by Elliot Mason’s Mrs Wigmore to use the battlements for signalling in German submarine spies. Before they can connect the dots to her though, the trio are almost squashed by a spiked ceiling in a tense sequence that makes up somewhat for the total lack of ghoulish thrills elsewhere.
As I’ve said, The Ghost of St Michael’s belies its title yet squeaks by as an amiable, rainy Sunday afternoon’s worth of family entertainment. The playing is energetic by the principal three and director Marcel Varnel keeps it moving ably enough. Hay was supported again by Hawtrey as a Hitler Youth student in the Nazi-doubling The Goose Steps Out (1942) and with Claude Hulbert in the legal comedy My Learned Friend (1943). We shall see Hawtrey again in the much more horror-centric spoof Carry on Screaming (1966)
Wednesday, 23 November 2016
In July 1944, the Three Stooges decided to tackle the Wolf Man, a variation of sorts on the established horror icon well into his franchise run by actor Lon Chaney Jr. Over at Universal, Chaney was mid-way through his five incarnations of the role. The House of Horror need have no fear of copyright issues though if they ever bothered to look at Columbia’s unrecognisable attempt.
Idle Roomers was the 80th of the Stooges shorts at Columbia, continuing their collaboration with director Del Lord (who co-wrote the script once again with Elwood Ullman). This time they are a trio of indolent bell-boys snoozing in the lobby while the duty clerk tries to wake them up. Once roused by a collapsing seat, they quickly become animated by the lovely Mrs Leander (Stooges’ regular Christine McIntyre) and begin frantically competing with each other for her affections whilst dodging her jealous knife-throwing husband Vernon Dent. The Leanders have captured Lupe, the Wolf Man, hoping to exploit him in their carnival.
After a well-staged optical effect bowing Curly under the weight of their trunk topped with innumerable suitcases, the Stooges are ordered to clean the Leanders’ apartment. There they come face to yak-haired face with Lupe, one of many monsters played by well-known stuntman Duke York. In Universal lore the Wolf Man is a tragic, cursed figure. Here, he is inadvertently all that due to the (deliberately?) laughable rather than pitiable face fuzz. The make-up artist has transformed him into a man who by the full moon seemingly transforms into a hybrid of Fu Manchu and an anti-semitic rendering of Shylock. Hilariously, York sprouts streams of coarse foliage from his eyebrows, cheeks and beard but magically the hair on top of his head is left as normal. For good measure, his suited physique is padded out a’ la Frankenstein’s monster and he sports a hunch-back. He is a walking greatest hits package of all the celebrated monsters - but wait - no Dracula fangs?
The Wolf Man runs amok through the hotel, bursting in upon two ladies sharing a bedroom. When the Stooges arrive, the older battle-axe of the two expresses more terror at witnessing Curly than their hirsute tormentor. “I resemble that remark!” he squeaks, indignantly. He then plays out a version of the old mirror routine opposite Lupe in front of the vanity table (the Marx Brothers’ one in Duck Soup is still peerless) till the lycanthrope loses it at being spat on by Curly making to ‘polish’ the absent glass. The trio attempt to calm him twice with the kind of music too awful to soothe this savage breast and after he pursues them into the confines of an elevator, a slack ending simply cuts in the middle of their cage going up and down the shaft. Hairy, hoary and rather hacky.
IF A BODY MEETS A BODY (1945)
The week before the end of World War Two was declared, the Three Stooges released their 86th Columbia short film in August 1945, If a Body Meets a Body, the fourth to stir in chills with the chuckles. The director was Jules White, who was in charge of the studio’s comedy shorts division. By 1938, competitors like Hal Roach and Universal were winding down their two-reelers in favour of increasing double-feature programs. Columbia though was so prolific that the output was split between separate units, one produced by White and the other by Hugh McCollum, who by handling the business end freed up White to pursue his love of comedy direction. He had a style rooted very much in the broad gestures and fast pace of his background in silent comedy as editor for his brother Jack White over at Educational Pictures. Jack was by now working for Jules as writer on his Stooges shorts
Despite the imminent end of WWII, there was a sadder legacy going into this film. It was the first of Curly Howard’s films after returning from a stroke. His manic gesturing and physicality gradually began to slow over time unbeknownst to the team. If a Body Meets a Body is not bad even so and barely reflects this. (The title incidentally is taken from Robert Burns’ song ‘Coming Through the Rye). The Stooges are as usual living a hand-to-mouth existence in penury, struggling with their latest meal of a home-made soup that ‘smells like a dead horse’ according to Larry. Sure enough, Moe pulls out a horseshoe from his serving and almost banishes Curly for going to the glue factory instead of the butcher’s shop when Larry spots a newspaper story that their near-excommunicated numbskull – ‘Curly Q. Link (Q for Quff-link) - stands to inherit three million dollars from a dead relative.
Larry: ‘We’re filthy with dough’.
Moe: You’re filthy without it’.
This causes some readjustment of Curly’s status in the group and the three high-tail it to the will reading at old Professor Bob O. Link’s mansion in horror cliché style. There, the gruff police Detective Clancy (Fred Kelsey) furthers the familiar plotting by dispelling the assembled relatives’ expectations of riches. He reveals that the Professor, an experimenter in chemistry, has been murdered. Kelsey bears a striking though fortunately not lumbering resemblance to Tor Johnson’s detective in Plan 9 from Outer Space. However he is not just a better actor but unusually gets in on the applied violence by administering a smart triple-slap to the boys in line when they demand a password to get back into the drawing-room.
The sinister Butler Jerkington wishes the trio good-night with “I hope you’ll have a nice looong sleep”, a famous line taken from Laurel and Hardy’s superior comedy-horror Oliver the Eighth (1934). Curly is too jittery to sleep. Moe bullies him to shut up ‘Or I’ll blow out your brain or a reasonable facsimile thereof’. The spookiness comes courtesy of the Stooges’ attempted bedding-down where Curly is plagued by a skull trundling along the floor on motorised feet, which then sprouts bat wings and a suspended sheet coupled with insane cackling to terrorise all three. A titled painting trips a sliding door-panel that opens to allow the professor’s dead body to fall out. This cues a slightly confusing gag where similar-looking bodies turn up wherever the threesome seek cover. (It’s unclear whether they are meant to be the same person or a pile-up of victims).
Ultimately the murderer and hopeful heir turns out to the maid, unmasked as a man. This would not be the actor Joe Palma’s last masquerade in a Stooges’ film as he helped to save the four films they still had left to finish when Shemp Howard suddenly died of a heart-attack in 1955. He posed as a body double for angled shots and the odd line of spoken dialogue in each film to cover for Shemp’s absence.
Tuesday, 22 November 2016
Following their army comedy Buck Privates, Abbott and Costello’s momentum slumped somewhat in applying the same irreverence to another forces branch with In the Navy, a weaker comedy watered down unhelpfully by matinee idol singer Dick Powell and the Andrews Sisters. Bud and Lou would continually rail against Universal’s incessant watering down of their high-energy funny business with lame love-interest sub-plots and musical interludes. (These got in the way of the Marx Brothers early high-jinx as well). They regained their momentum with their opening flirtation with the spooky in Hold That Ghost, a haunted-house comedy of gangsters and ghouls.
Abbott and Costello play a couple of temporary workers, Chuck and Ferdie, assigned by an agency to a nightclub as relief waiters Jim Mullholland’s book points out that the entire sequence was conceived after the film was shot – an obvious excuse to shoehorn in a couple of those songs that the duo complained about. The Andrews Sisters are pleasant enough crooning ‘Sweet Serenade’ but they are preceded by the top-hat and tails of Ted Lewis who fronts his orchestra with a highly irritating, swooping speak-sung rendition of ‘Me and My Shadow’ that begs for him to be engulfed by it – not to mention the questionable tactic of giving him a black side-kick.
Immediately the twosome fall foul of the frosty Maitre D, Mischa Auer, who’d already parlayed his ‘mad Russian’ persona into a hugely-busy career (last seen here in The Monster Walks - see my earlier review – a stink-bomb that was the first of 16 films IMDB credited him with in 1932 alone). Our first sight of the boys is on their knees in the kitchen playing cards with the other staff. Off-screen, their shared passion for gambling ultimately drained both men of a vast amount of their considerable earnings. Here they have nothing to lose, which doesn’t stop Bud lecturing Lou overbearingly about the correct way to wait on tables. Lou fits comfortably into their established dynamic of being the over-literal, dimwit man-boy. The polished gags work pretty well - Ferdie confuses Chuck’s bullet-point cues of how to convert a customer’s price objection:
‘I oughtta punch you on the nose’
‘If you don’t someone else will’
Ferdie also gauchely misreads a young lady’s secret dinner with a sugar daddy as being his real daughter. American TV stations usually edited out these prologue scenes which is really no-one’s loss.
The real plot begins when Chuck and Ferdie are relegated to gas-station attendants. Ferdie characteristically misunderstands Ethyl as a person not a fuel, reasoning that if a driver asked for it: “I’d tell them it’s her day off”. Public Enemy Number One, gangster Moose Matson (William B. Davidson) pulls in for gas and the boys are swiftly embroiled into driving him through a police-chase that ends with the gut-shot Matson gifting them with his Last Will and Testament. This leads to my favourite gag in the picture: as the solicitor reads the will, instead of being set out in the usual legalese, it is blended with a transcript of Matson’s own Damon Runyon-esque gangster lingo ‘wherein I can’t tell my friends from stoolies, leeches or chisellers’, made funnier by the solicitor’s dead-pan formal delivery.
After it sinks in that Abbott and Costello have inherited Matson’s rural hotel as the last people to have been in contact with him, they are assisted by a colleague of the executor, the shady Charlie Smith played by Marc Lawrence, who lived to the ripe old age of 95, allowing his career to stretch from 1932 to the old motel owner in From Dusk till Dawn and beyond. He makes veiled remarks about how “It’ll be a pleasure to take you boys for a ride”.
Smith sets them up, in more ways than one, with a long cab journey to the hotel that along for the rise picks up other passengers: the prissy health-nut Doctor Jackson (The Creature from the Black Lagoon’s hero, Richard Carlson), love interest Norma Lind (Universal’s horror stalwart Evelyn Ankers) and the stand-out of the ensemble - Joan Davis as Camille Brewster.
Three Stooges should keep a look-out for Shemp Howard as the sourpuss drug store soda jerk.
Davis is the highlight of the film, a terrific daffy comedienne with a sassy one-of-the-boys manner. Her life was tragically cut short at just 48 from a heart-attack in 1961, followed two years later by a horrific fire that killed her mother, daughter and her two grandsons. Hold That Ghost is a great showcase for how she lit up the screen in her brief life. I’d never seen her work before but she is a wonderful foil to Lou – their pastiche of Fred and Ginger’s effortless elegance dancing to the tune of ‘The Blue Danube’ in the hotel is a genuinely funny set-piece, continually scuppered by collisions and prat-falls. Her character is a radio horror actor much like Bob Hope in the previous year’s The Cat and the Canary and her genre knowledge comes in handy, not to mention a piercingly effective scream. Brewster’s tomboyish charm also helps to offset the developing romance between Dr Jackson and Lind, which to be fair is less intrusive than the usual pace-killing forced romances in comedies.
The hotel provides the familiar old-fashioned tropes of candles, cobwebs, oppressive shadows and bed-sheet spooks for the party to explore. Costello stumbles upon an intriguing feature where his coat-hook trips devices that turn his room into a clandestine casino of Matson’s. Smith is strangled by unidentified hands; his body falls dead into our bumbling hero’s path and yet when the police turn up, the corpse has vanished. The mystery and chills increase with another famous sequence where Ferdie and Camille discuss a map whilst one candle moves by itself across the desk, followed by the other levitating. His reaction each time raises a smile, a panicky speechlessness that can only stutter out as desperate Muttley wheezes till he can finally call out Chuck’s name. (Incidentally, that distinctive high-pitched kiddy voice of Lou’s was a deliberate technique borne of their early radio days when audience’s fed back that they couldn’t tell the duo’s voices apart).
In the climax, Lou discovers that Moose’s name was also a clue to the location of his cash stash, falling out of the stuffed head as he becomes jammed in its maw – “I’ll never join your lodge!” He them does a convinving enough imitation of a police siren to scare off arriving gangsters who were in league with the bent cops. Finally, the boys come full circle, if you’ve seen the uncut film, by owning their own nightclub with the inherited loot and turning the restaurant tables on the Maitre D’ who is now their harassed employee. This becomes a cue for the Andrews Sisters to sing Aurora.
All told, Hold that Ghost is a pretty good rehearsal for Abbott and Costello’s later full-on engagement with horror-comedy raiding the vaults of Universal’s monster Hall of Fame, and put them back on track as they rose to become the most profitable movie comics in the world.
Thursday, 17 November 2016
For The Three Stooges 69th Columbia short in 1943, director Del Lord chose to remake a comedy he’d shot for Mack Sennett in 1932 called The Great Pie Mystery. The significance of the title will soon become clear (or rather unclear) as Spook Louder is a bizarre and slapdash slap-stick effort that has one surreal gag that works and one that makes no logical sense at all amidst the mayhem.
A reporter (Stanley Brown) looking for a story interviews crackpot Special Investigator Professor J. Ogden Dunkfeather (Lew Kelly) who we can tell is a dingbat on entry as he studies a skull with a magnifying glass and concludes dandruff-related suicide from it. In flashback, he relates the story of Ted Lorch’s barking mad wealthy spy Mr Graves and how he relates to our trio. The Stooges classic line-up still of Larry, Moe and Curly begin as door-to-door salesmen hawking a reducing machine gizmo consisting of a skull-cap rigged up via wires to a complicated box of valves which jiggles the wearer furiously enough to shake off excess pounds (or make cocktails, as Curly helpfully suggests).
They are admitted to Graves’ mansion by his butler Charles Middleton, best known as the suavely menacing Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials and later as we shall see in the Bowery Boys’ own horror-comedy Spook Busters (1946). Graves mistakes the Stooges for his new caretakers, who are happy to go along with the chance to make some actual money despite the evident fact that he is insane with anti-Japanese spy paranoia. It turns out his madness is partly fuelled by his dastardly invention of a Death Ray of which he proudly boasts: “It will destroy millions!” While he heads to a secret Washington meeting, he instructs the Stooges to defend his eerie home from Jap spies, equipping them with a cartoon cannon-ball bomb plus wick for defence.
As Graves leaves, an American spy threesome led by Stooges’ regular Stanley Blystone lie in wait, dressed as a skeleton, a devil and for some reason a priest respectively. Larry, Moe and Curly then spend the next ten minutes negotiating such spooky elements as a cat tinkling the piano’s ivories and a hairy taloned hand abducting Moe and then trapping his head in a revolving book-case (played to better effect in Young Frankenstein). This scene contains the film’s funniest nonsense gag where Curly retrieves some volumes from a shelf and is repeatedly bashed by a boxing-gloved hand whose owner is never explained.
The skeleton-outfitted spy appears at the door prompting the lily-livered Larry’s hat to inflate in fear, echoed by Moe’s literal hair-raising in terror. Goodness knows how these characters function even in their make-believe world as they’re even terrified of a face-painted balloon! The team’s reliance on constant panicky ‘nyah-ahhh-ahhh’s to mask a lack of quality soon grates, rendering this a weak two-reeler mostly devoid of decent laughs. By the time Curly accidentally lights the bomb wick and blows up the house and spies with it, it’s not the only bomb on offer.
The oddest running sight-gag is a recurring pie-in-the-face hitting the trio from an unknown assailant. Each time we cut back to the increasingly-curious reporter dying to know the phantom pie-flinger’s identity, the Professor teases out the answer till finally admitting it is in fact he before receiving a faceful himself. John Cleese talked of the ‘internal logic’ of comedy plotting in his rigorous approach to structuring the peerless Fawlty Towers. Here, we are confused rather than amused by even a reliable laugh generator like a custard-pie because we don’t understand where it comes from or why. Shame on Mr Lord for passing-off such a half-baked gag in a weak-kneed comedy.
Wednesday, 16 November 2016
Bela Lugosi enjoyed a second wind of popularity after his remarkably subtle and affecting Ygor in Son of Frankenstein (1939). Universal offered him a five-year contract and he was suddenly in demand again for press interviews and public appearances. In this boom period, his services were requested over in England for producer John Argyle in The Dark Eyes of London (released in America as The Human Monster in a distribution deal with poverty row studio Monogram). It was a chance for British studios to capitalise on the brief late Thirties gap in the market while Universal had temporarily stopped making horror films – before their own second wave took effect with the aforementioned Frankenstein sequel.
Directed by Walter Summers, the film was adapted by a team including Argyle from a crime scam novel by Edgar Wallace and it shows – the resulting picture is an uneasy blend of a detective plot with horror undertones inserted. Argyle exploited the combination of London and Lugosi to the limit as the opening credits show. The unmistakeable Tower Bridge is superimposed upon by the dark penetrating eyes of the Hungarian horror star. A body is washed-up floats in the Thames and immediately we’re off to Scotland Yard presided over by Commissioner George Street who governs it with a monocle and stiff patrician acting style more suited to the last outpost of the British Raj. Luckily, his men offer a more relaxed approach to police work in the form of Det. Insp. Larry Holt (Hugh Williams) and the looser American naturalism of Edmon Ryan’s Lieut. O’Reilly freshly drafted in from Chicago to study British crime-fighting and hopefully boost the U.S. box-office. The Commissioner blithely insults Holt with the baby-sitting assignment - ”I’ll attach him to you then he won’t learn anything” - presumably while he nips off to shoot a few tigers.
Lugosi is then introduced in that most terrifying of horror movie locations: an insurance office. As Dr Orloff, he owns the Greenwich Insurance Company and has just cut a cheque for a business colleague Henry Stuart (Gerald Pring). Lest we worry this is a film about pen-pushing and premiums, his warn manner suddenly switches to the signature hypnotic Lugosi stare and for some reason he orders Stuart to visit the Dearborn Home for the Blind where he may “learn the joy of giving…charity”.
Social historians may be interested by the film (or period)’s depiction of attitudes to disabled people; the rest of us might simply wince at the level of condescension on display. The white-haired, shade-wearing Dearborn labels his sight-impaired residents “these poor creatures” – and also regards them as mentally disadvantaged. His institute is a bleak, wooden-benched Dickensian workhouse where his charges are either shambling zombies or engaged in the clichéd basket-weaving associated with convalescing Victorian asylum patients. If it’s real mental aberration you want, try looking upstairs where Orloff cooks up unspecified scientific experiments assisted by his (as it were) splendidly disfigured slave Jake, a thankless but vivid role played by Wilfred Walter. Jake bears a friendly name yet his sightless upward-staring eyes, gruesome fanged underbite and heavy eyebrows denote a barely-controlled bestial weapon in the service of, you guessed it, Lugosi and Dearborn - one and the same.
The intrepid detectives banter their way around the city, trying to stem the unsettling volume of drowned bodies dumped in the Thames, gradually making the connection between the deceased and large-scale policies taken out with Lugosi of London. Along the way, they save Stuart’s daughter Diana (the beguiling Norwegian Greta Gynt) from a home intrusion by Jake, only to be trussed up in Orloff’s institute back-room for a second go at stifling her suspicions. Orloff has already taken his work home with him by undertaking some personal loss-adjustment on his former gopher Dumb Lou (Arthur E Owen) courtesy of a forebidding wall of levers, gauges and near-fatal electricity doses. It comes as no surprise that his past conceals a medical degree hampered by a wide streak of embittered megalomania. His current experiments in the loft other than barbecuing his benefactors though are anyone’s guess.
No matter, for Orloff’s space houses a drowning tank and huge warehouse doors that open handily onto the Thames for disposing of his human paperwork. Foolishly he reckons without the tender relationship Jake had built up with Lou. On discovering his boss had tortured then killed his only friend, Jake turns on his master, literally, in an illogical climactic moment just in front of the open doors. Orloff pauses after spinning him to come face-to-face when surely his wisest self-preservation would be to push his homicidal henchman out of the window. Still. Jake manages to spare us any more of the awkward dubbing by O.B. Clarence of Lugosi’s voice as Dearborn which continues sloppily even after Lugosi’s true identity has been revealed. He survives a gun-shot wound from Orloff long enough to dump his employer into the quicksand-like Thames mud-flats, leaving the tardy ‘tecs to arrive at the scene only in time for the clean-up.
For all its clumsiness, The Human Monster did at least offer a ripple of historic interest; it was the first British horror film to be fully attributed with the new British ‘H’ for horror certificate. (The H label given to 1934’s The Ghoul was purely advisable rather than legally enforceable – see my earlier review). This categorisation wasn’t likely to restrict its dubious box-office potential though. America’s later X and NC-17 ratings would limit some release’s chances due to a blanket ban by some theatres and video outlets of controversial adult content, but this type of low-budget horror flick in 1939 would only be presented by the less discerning ‘fleapits’ anyway.
Monday, 14 November 2016
“There he stands – condemned by the hand of his last victim!”
In 1939 Britain’s maestro of horror melodrama Tod Slaughter re-teamed with director George King to bring us The Face at the Window, another generous slice of Grand Guignol horror echoing Slaughter’s stage equivalent of this style with his Elephant Repertory Company – (see my earlier review of 1936’s Sweeney Todd). It had already been filmed a number of times and here was adapted from F. Brooke Warren’s 1897 detective melodrama play with significant changes to both the central character and the importance of the investigating policeman. The dialogue was by A.R. Rawlinson whose previous suspense thrillers had included Hitchcock’s The Man Who knew Too Much (1934) and the screenplay was by Ronald Fayre.
Set in 1880 Paris, the prologue text indicates we are to treat the film as something of a romp rather than a heavyweight horror. As we explore the tale of Le Loup, a Wolf Man terrorising the city. we are invited to: "a shudder or a laugh at the heights of villainy”
Slaughter aims to give us both in his very best hissable villain as the Chevalier del Gardo, a dastardly nobleman of means who is a desperately sought-after client of the banker M. De Brisson (Aubrey Mallalieu – Trader Paterson in Sweeney Todd). De Brisson is terrified that a just-discovered bank robbery will damage Chevalier’s confidence in investing with him. He needn’t worry; Chevalier is pointed of beard and agenda, putting the squeeze on de Brisson for the hand of his lovely daughter Cecile in return for his much-needed partnership. Cecile is played by Marjorie Taylor who’d already braved the partnership of Slaughter and King in The Ticket of Leave Man and It’s Never Too Late To Mend (both 1937).
Unfortunately for Chevalier, Cecile is secretly in love with her father’s down-trodden employee Lucien Cortier, (John Warwick) and in case we don’t pick up on their troubled situation it is rammed home like all of their scenes with a sledge-hammer of over-wrought melodramatic impact. Their clumsy duologues of exposition are so breathlessly intense I half-expected them to break into a Les Miserables duet. “What chance have I, a penniless bank clerk, of obtaining his permission to marry you?” emotes Cortier, practically throwing himself upon the barricades. Taylor in particular delivers all of her lines irritatingly as though the stakes are never less than life-or-death at any moment.
Slaughter meanwhile simmers his stew of dark ingredients with surprising subtlety, only bubbling over with a thick cackle when required to relish his next plotting move. His suave King Rat does everything except tie Cecile to the railway tracks and cover his face with his opera cloak in a quest to make us love to hate him. He grabs an illicit kiss from Cecile, frames Cortier as the thief behind the robbery and sows seeds of suspicion in the mind of Robert Adair’s Inspector Gouffert as to the poor Cortier’s possible financial motive for the crime. This leads to Cortier reusing a plot device from Sweeney Todd where he bungles a bid to impersonate a coin-forger to meet Chevalier, who rumbles him immediately.
So we don’t think the fun is all Slaughter’s - and to remind us that the film does qualify as a horror - we have Wallace Evennett’s entertainingly cuckoo and sadly minor cameo appearance as Professor LeBlanc who channels the customary mad scientist mind-set: “And they call me mad!” He believes he can harness the power of electricity to help catch the infamous Loup. Sporting a set of mutton-chop sideburns, he has more in common with a lycanthrope than he realises. He also becomes a lot more personally involved in his experiment than he’d bargained for after he views Harry Terry’s mangled-toothed Face at the titular window. Chevalier stabs him but not enough to kill. LeBlanc valiantly attempts to write his killer’s name with his dying vestiges of energy yet the name is incomplete, leaving Cortier to suddenly demonstrate hidden scientific expertise in administering a high-voltage temporary wake-up call enough to allow LeBlanc to finish implicating Chevalier.
Leaving aside the dubious premise that a freshly-zapped corpse would first of all finish a note on being revived, Chevalier high-tails it to his underground lair where we find that the disfigured Face is his foster brother. The police and Cortier turn up in time to witness a fraternal goodbye as the brothers end up literally in Seine.
The Face at The Window is entertainingly tongue-in-cheek. Slaughter’s evident fun in his performance makes up for the over-ripe lovers and the total reliance on indoor sets which lends the film a TV drama feel instead of a more suitable cinematic quality.
Friday, 11 November 2016
The Ghost Train (1941) is a quaint reminiscence of Agatha Christie’s plays - assembling a cast of strangers in a murder-mystery location (here a spooky British village railway station) and then allowing tension and suspicion to heat up under them till the truth comes out. It was based on a play of the same name by Arnold Ridley best known as Private Godfrey in that most enduring of British war TV sitcoms Dad’s Army. Ironically, his famous role as a dithering conscientious objector was the opposite of his real-life service heroism in both World Wars, sustaining shell-shock in the harrowing trench warfare of the Somme and returning to France in 1939 as a Major in the British Expeditionary Forces.
Ridley wrote the play whilst struggling as an actor between the wars in 1923, inspired by an evening he spent stranded at a train station in Macclesfield where the sound of trains on a nearby line gave him supernatural ideas. He blended a ghost story with espionage intrigue and suddenly found himself a celebrated and rich West End playwright as a result. However, he later lost all his money in a bad film investment and according to his son Nicolas in a 2010 Daily Mail online article: “He made the final mistake of selling the amateur rights of The Ghost Train for £200”, which otherwise would have netted him huge earnings from the countless am-dram productions since.
By the time director Walter Forde shot The Ghost Train in 1941 for British studio Gainsborough Pictures, there were already three versions preceding it: a 1927 German-British version a (currently lost) 1931 remake and one filmed in 1937. The play was retooled for war-time audiences - its original Soviet arms smugglers behind the ghost plot were now modernised to fit topical paranoia about treacherous fifth columnists gun-running for the Nazis. It still plays as something of a time-capsule adding war-time pragmatism yet harking back to subtle pre-war class distinctions in the enforced intimacy of the players thrown together for the night.
The screenplay re-vamping was done by J.O.C. Orton along with dialogue by Marriott Edgar who went on to write films for this chapter’s stable-mate Will Hay, and Val Guest (well-known to horror fans as later director of the first two Quatermass films and The Abominable Snowman for Hammer).
Script-tweaking was done to provide a vehicle for the much-loved comedy team of Arthur Askey (1900-1982) and Richard ‘Stinker’ Murdoch (1907-1990). Askey was born in Liverpool and after learning the variety skills of British music hall he developed his act in shows during his army service in World War One. Years spent on the concert party circuit led to his famous BBC radio series Band Waggon from 1938 to 1940 partnering him with Murdoch who acquired the nickname ‘stinker’ as a parody of his upper-crust public school and Cambridge education. The show was an anarchic smash hit for the pair, and listeners’ enjoyment of their contrasting voices was augmented when audiences saw them in the flesh for the live London Palladium show and the film released a few weeks before The Ghost Train. Murdoch had a privileged leading man’s tall, clean-cut physique opposite Askey’s diminutive, plain but effervescent cheeky chappy, an irrepressible schoolboy wit in Harold Lloyd round-rimmed spectacles.
Ridley’s spooky play benefits from the twosome straight away. By pulling the communication cord on their train to retrieve his hat from the track – “I lost me titfer!”- Askey establishes himself as an insouciant rule-breaker. The duo meet and good-naturedly duel over Carol Lynne’s comely Joyce Winthrop in her compartment, totally ignoring the chagrin of Richard (Peter Murray-Hill) a posh professional cricketer who may or may not be her protective brother. Askey pulls a marvellous lip-pursing fish impression against the glass to infuriate him and sets about winding Murdoch up into similar snobbish condescension: “I wasn’t talking to you, little man”.
Askey’s part was rewritten as touring variety comedian Tommy Gander (a clear nod to his famous friend Tommy Trinder who’d appeared with Askey and Murdoch in the Palladium show), a perfect showcase for his endlessly chattering repartee and one-liners. He made sure his catch-phrases ‘Hello playmates’ and the immortal ‘Ay thang yew’ were in evidence throughout as well. When the wider group of passengers are stranded overnight at the fog-bound Fal Vale station instead of their Truro destination, it is he who valiantly tries to keep their spirits up and dispel stories of the one that supposedly haunts the location.
The rest of the forced ensemble are made up of a brow-beaten young couple Edna (Betty Jardine) and her soon-to-be husband and gormless drip Herbert (Stuart Latham), the strictly teetotal cockney sparrow Miss Bourne (Kathleen Harrison) complete with parrot straight out of a music hall ditty and a mild-mannered G.P. Dr Sterling played by Morland Graham. They are treated to the gruff non-compliance of the Station Master Saul Hodgkin (Herbert Lomas) who has no choice but to let them wait overnight for a morning train but warns them of the legend of the ghost train that crashed due to a Station Master taken ill just as the bridge needed opening. The hideous tragedy that followed has been marked ever since by a spectral train that no living person should ever witness on pain of sudden death.
For the first half, the group battle on with the business of making tea and trying to get comfortable while Gander entertains them with fate-tempting mockery of the ghost and bad puns: “Why should I catch oldmonia? I’ve had pneumonia”. Then events take a more sinister turn when Hodgkin returns to collapse dead into the waiting room.
To lighten the mounting excitement for 1940s cinemagoers, comedy soon returns to the foreground; in fact the humour has a naughty censor-baiting dash of the risqué to it, courtesy of Miss Bourne. She goes from life-long temperance to tipsy from a revivifying slug or seven of brandy and injects a welcome sauciness into the ensuing dialogue. “I was not neglected in my youth” she hints to the menfolk in her cups, a gradual slide into sloshed smut headed-off by the delighted Tommy and prompting this priceless banter when he aims to get her innocently into bed:
“Young man, you forget yourself”.
“Young woman, you flatter yourself”.
Two more involuntary guests appear. One is the literally haunted beauty Julia Price (Linden Travers) emotionally scarred into former sanatorium convalescence by an obsession with the ghost myth, In tow is her frosty brother John (Raymond Huntley). In real-life Huntley became somewhat preoccupied with the ghoulish figure of Dracula as he reputedly played the stage role more times than anyone else - from London’s West End to tours of the USA between 1927 and 1930. Only by turning down the Broadway run did he make room for what became a star-making replacement for one Bela Lugosi.
Julia’s appearance is a magnifying glass for a well-handled scene of claustrophobic tension as she believes she can hear the ghost train approaching. The apparition is merely suggested by off-screen sound effects and lighting but creates an intense expectation as it finally roars past. She tears herself way from safety and by smashing a window witnesses the ectoplasmic choo-choo which overcomes her senses in horror.
The release of post-phantom pressure seems to relax everyone’s inhibitions a little further. Askey mischievously skirts the blue-pencil boys with his reference to an Auntie’s flatulence: “Her doors were always blowing open” and even the funereal Herbert lights up his libido at the thought that Edna and he will have to spend a night together without her nightdress: “That’s right” he grins for the first time.
After a second sequence of the tastefully macabre, a wide shot showing Ben Isaacs, apparition of one of the victims, singing ‘Rock of Ages’ as he exits the tunnel, the criminal element is revealed with a judicious bit of gun-play and amateur sleuthing and Blighty is rendered safe once more for the decent little Englander.
The Ghost Train is a restrained, mostly gentle piece of comic spookiness at a time when British audiences were still being protected - from too much horror as a result of strict film censoring dating back to 1934 as well as of course the stark realities of war-time fears. One of its pluses is the way the plot’s siege situation works as a metaphor for the plucky Blitz spirit of WWII, the conflict and rubbing along together across social boundaries in the face of imminent danger. Allowing rich possibilities for character byplay amongst the ensemble, it’s easy to see also why the play is so popular with amateur companies. Although Arnold Ridley missed out on those rewards, he had the comfort of a flickering cathode-ray after-life in the perennial Dad’s Army.