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Wednesday, 15 February 2017

THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU (1942)

1942 was a good year for Boris Karloff. He was invigorated by the huge success and profits he made from investing and starring in the Broadway play Arsenic and Old Lace with its farcical, macabre-edged black humour. On hiatus from the production that summer, he filmed The Boogie Man Will Get You, a deft and deft comedy to complete his contract for Columbia Pictures. The studio wanted to capitalise on his theatre hit, which explains why the film’s tone and content is so clearly reminiscent of it: a screwball comedy of concealed bodies in a house full of blithely innocent-seeming murderers and fruitcakes played at an increasingly fast pace.

Direction was by Lew Landers who had previously partnered Karloff with Bela Lugosi in the controversial 1935 chiller The Raven, (reviewed here on 4/7/2016), from a script rushed out in four weeks by Edwin Blum based on a Hal Fimberg and Robert B. Hunt adaptation of Paul Gangelin’s story.

Karloff portrays another in his gallery of mad scientists, Professor Nathaniel Billings, but with the refreshing variance of being a dotty and whimsical buffer instead of the slow, portentous medics that audiences usually saw him play in straight horror titles. He is keen to sell his dilapidated old tavern, presumed to be a historically valuable property from the eighteenth century. A young lady, Whinnie played by (Jean Marie) ‘Jeff’ Donnell falls in love with the place and buys it on sight, intending to make of it a boarding house. She agrees to keep on the Professor so he can continue his shady basement medical experiments that so far have caused five men to vanish without a trace. Also retained are Billings’ cuckoo housekeeper Amelia - Maude Eburne who appeared in 1930s The Bat Whispers and The Vampire Bat in 1933 (see my review of 21/4/2016) – and crotchety farmer Ebeneezer (George McKay).

Whinnie is unconcerned, indeed charmed, by the evident dry rot and run-down conditions. So too is her first guest, the prissy, coke-bottle bespectacled J. Gilbert Brampton (Don Beddoe), a most unlikely ballet choreographer. Whinnie is less enamoured at the sudden reappearance of her ex-husband Bill who’s come to save her from what he feels is a poor business decision on his way to begin army training. As Bill, Larry Parks is a winningly energetic pest, prat-falling and gamely suffering the emerging nuttiness around him. He would go on to be Oscar-nominated for the first of his famous roles as Al Jolson in 1946’s The Jolson Story (followed by Jolson Sings Again in 1949) before his confessed Communist Party membership, in front of the HUAC committee, led to him testifying on others and still being ruinously blacklisted regardless.

The perceived villain of this piece is none other than Peter Lorre having fun as Dr Lorenz. Being the holder of the crippling mortgage on Billings’ property is just one of his murky skills. Apparently he is also a scientist who scorns the other’s work – what Billings defends as “Shaking the unshakeable laws of existence” - yet whose own achievements are restricted to inventing a dubious hair-restorer. Somehow coming from Lorre this background seems entirely believable. Lorenz is also the town’s Health Officer and Sheriff, leading us to surmise he is a low-level kingpin with his fingers in many local pies. His garb of black broad-brimmed hat, black suit and short tie has the exact look of Robert Mitchum’s dangerous preacher in 1955’s The Night of the Hunter), though Lorenz is more buffoon than serious threat.  

Lorre and Karloff soon team up again to our pleasure as quasi-crime partners like they did in their previous comedy double-act in You’ll Find Out (1940), once Lorenz realises there may be more depth than he thought to Billings’ scientific ‘quackeries’. Enjoy Lorre’s comic timing when he almost deflects any implied impugning that his motives would “cheat millions of people all over the world? Profane my profession? Suppose I make a few doll-“

Billings confides in Lorenz his batty proposition that with his cellar’s cabinet of wires and a skullcap he can induce the power of flight in a victim as a weapon in the war effort: “He would destroy Berlin. He would throttle Tokyo…” By the time we see Amelia on the landing clucking like a hen and telling Whinnie “I just laid my 214th egg!” we are hard-pressed to figure out who the real lunatics are.

Visiting this madhouse is ‘Slapsie’ Maxie Rosenbloom, the real-life former World Light Heavyweight boxing champion who became a much-loved character actor and owner of the famous Slapsie Maxie’s comedy club. He is perfectly cast as an amusingly incongruous powder-puff salesman who is promptly knocked out as a fresh subject for Billings’ and Lorenz’s experiments: “This one will fly. I can feel it”, enthuses Karloff as they carry him away.

Gradually, the crazy freight train of the plot builds a head of steam with Mr Johnson, Billings’ opening test subject in the film, presumed dead and olfactorily-challenged Maxie inviting the scientists and the two ex-lovers to smell the chloroform that he can’t, crumpling them to the floor. Following the body count of seeming-dead and apparently unconscious is muddied in the exposition but the lively farce speeds amiably glosses over such details.

One last whack-job character joins the parade in the shape of Frank Puglia as Silvio, an escaped aviator POW from a Canadian camp who demands a safe haven and transport to blow up a munitions plant. He’s so insane that he could pass for an anarchist revolutionary rather than part of any organised Axis power plot - “I’m a human bomb!” Puglia made some notable minor film appearances as an actor and, but for illness, would have been immortalised in The Godfather (1972) as undertaker Bonasera - an irony considering that in that film he believed in America with an immigrant’s passion, whereas here he is hell-bent on its destruction. “We are on the brink of annilihilation!” he crows, lighting his own fuse in more ways than one.

The humour in The Boogie Man Will Get You is of various types and mostly works well prformed by an integrated cast fully in on the joke. There are physical action sight-gags both concrete and surreal (such as the actual sound effect thump when Amelia mimes the baby Billings’ being dropped on his head) and whimsical one-liners. “He seems quite well done”, observes Brampton coolly as Maxie falls out of the cabinet after being experimented upon.

It turns out that the implausible choreographer’s peculiar snooping around during events is due to his true identity as Curator of the Historical Society of America. He happily certifies that the erstwhile couple’s going concern is now approved as a genuine piece of history. Meanwhile the group as a whole are looking at certification of a different sort by the arriving police – as crackpots headed for Idlewild Sanitorium. This fazes Lorenz no more than the bumping off of their victims for the cause of science (all of whom have inexplicably revived). Added to his fulsome résumé he reveals: “I am the chairman of the Board of Directors”.

The Boogie Man Will Get You is fun candyfloss fluff, sinister goings-on without heavy consequences and a nice change of gear for Karloff in the midst of his run of lugubrious medical madmen.

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