|(L-R) Robert Wise, Mark Robson and Val Lewton|
Wednesday, 29 March 2017
In 1942 RKO studios was in trouble. They were losing money every month, and on the edge of receivership by June their president George J. Schaefer was forced to resign. His replacement, Charles Koerner, would be a saviour who managed a truly remarkable turnaround in the company’s fortunes. His famous mission statement declared: ‘Showmanship in place of genius’, signing the death certificate for worthy, artistic ventures that were not geared directly to commercial success. A drastic swathe was cut through existing staff such as long-serving studio manager Sid Rogell and many producers. Even Orson Welles, the golden boy auteur behind 1941’s Citizen Kane, was dropped. Despite enormous critical praise, Welles’s masterpiece had failed at the box office due to distribution problems caused by the all-powerful media baron it clearly satirised, William Randolph Hearst. The last straw for his employers was the young writer-director’s follow-up, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), which was deemed so uncommercial that RKO took it away from Welles and re-edited it, not even permitting him to strike a print of his cut for posterity.
Future decades would triumphantly resurrect Citizen Kane and mourn for his lost Ambersons vision, but in 1942 there was no room in the tough new regime for anything that could not translate into profitable mass entertainment. To stave off the studio’s imminent demise, Koerner needed a talented producer who could create no-nonsense packages of sure-fire commercial hits. He was about to get a lot more than he bargained for…
Val Lewton was born Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon in Yalta, Russia on May 7th 1904. Along with his sister, they emigrated with their mother Nina after her failed marriage firstly to Berlin, and then America in 1909, settling in New York. Vladimir’s name was Americanised to Val Lewton as part of the family’s assimilation into their new homeland. They were fortunate to already have a Hollywood connection. Val’s aunt was silent screen star Alla Nazimova, who found Nina a story reader’s job at major studio M-G-M. Already the young Val was enjoying the powerful influence of strong women in his life. This would be reflected in the female protagonists around which he would base many of his best films.
Val inherited his mother’s literary streak, though as a sixteen-year old he lost his reporter job at the Darien-Stamford Review over a fabricated story involving kosher chickens in the city. This error of judgement didn’t stop his writing ambitions, nor his taste for fantasy which would crucially gain him much more positive attention. After journalism studies at Columbia University, he had eighteen books published, many in the disparagingly-named ‘pulp’ field. The most notable was No Bed of Her Own (1932) which Paramount bought and partly adapted for that year’s Clark Gable and Carole Lombard movie No Man of Her Own.
Lewton was already working in the film business when his novel struck gold. Like his mother, he was employed by M-G-M, in his case to convert their hit films into novelisations intended for newspaper serialisation. No Bed of Her Own’s success gave him the confidence to quit his job and turn full-time novelist, but his next three books flopped in comparison. Once again though, luck and family connection rescued him when Nina was asked by her boss, renowned producer David O. Selznick, to urgently source writers of genuine Russian extraction to work on the script of his abortive Taras Bulba. Selznick was famous not only for his extreme demands, but for an unbending pursuit of authenticity in any project he undertook. His meeting with Lewton would lead to a hugely inspirational apprenticeship for the young writer, learning much from his mentor aside from a passion for veracity that would be reflected in his later choices as a filmmaker.
Across eight years Lewton served under Selznick in multiple roles, gaining industry experience as his assistant, studio publicist and story editor. It was while working on A Tale of Two Cities (1935) that Lewton’s other key relationship was forged with second-unit director Jacques Tourneur. Together, from page to screen, they realised the critically-acclaimed revolutionary scenes of the storming of the Bastille. Typically, Selznick had hired Tourneur for his French ancestry to direct these sequences, but it was the Frenchman’s real talent that went on to make his name as a director in partnership with Val Lewton.
Jacques Tourneur was born in the same year as Lewton, and similarly emigrated to America with his father Maurice Tourneur in 1913. They headed straight to what was the original Hollywood in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Maurice was an established film director for the Éclair company of Paris. Keen to expand into the lucrative American market, his bosses sent him to manage their U.S. studio after its original state-of-the-art complex burned down in 1914, taking all their stored film negatives with it. Éclair American struck a deal to distribute their short films and then features with Carl Laemmle’s Universal Film Manufacturing Company. By 1915, Tourneur Senior had allied himself with World Film on the same lot, a move that linked up the family with that of Lewis J. Selznick, father to David, who began his feature-producing dynasty here.
Maurice Tourneur passed on to his son a strong belief that the star system in Hollywood was wrong-headed, and that it limited a story’s focus unrealistically. This expansive view would influence the films that Jacques would make, where often the most interesting characters are to be found as small supporting parts. Before his own employment by David O. Selznick on A Tale of Two Cities, Jacques worked his way up the business for his father through script editing onto short film direction, developing his talents behind the camera.
Before Lewton and Tourneur collaborated again, Lewton was involved in the gargantuan labour of love that became Selznick’s Gone With the Wind (1939). He famously tried to persuade his boss that
Margaret Mitchell’s book was unfilmable, yet he himself shot the memorable pre-intermission scene, a stupendous single take where the camera gradually pulls back to reveal Scarlett among literally hundreds of wounded soldiers at Atlanta Depot.
As for how Lewton came to RKO, one story told by film historian Steve Haberman in the TCM documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows (2007) dealt with potential carnage of a different kind. Allegedly, newly-installed president Koerner saw him at a party and, enquiring about him, was told that Lewton was the writer of those ‘horrible’ pulp novels. Koerner misinterpreted this as a pipeline to the horror genre he thought could save the studio and immediately suggested recruiting him.
Even if the anecdote is fiction, Koerner was actually gunning for a slice of the money-spinning horror renaissance enjoyed by Universal. The only problem was that, unlike their rival, RKO did not own the copyright on any recognisable creatures for their features. They would have to invent their own, and this is where the studio needed to bring in a unique visionary to create new crowd-pleasing terror for war-time audiences with all the quality of their wealthier competitors, but at a low cost.
Val Lewton signed to RKO to undertake the opportunity of a lifetime in 1942. It was to be his first ever position as a film producer, a powerful, creative role whose pressures might have been daunting enough without the imminent creditors at the door. There was no time for being gently eased in to the new role. Lewton however had spent eight years learning from a master. Selznick not only taught him well, he had the generosity to broker the deal with the studio that had tempted away his young protégé, an act that only increased Lewton’s gratitude to him.
Lewton was far from the stereotypical image we have of a Hollywood producer. He was neither brash nor crude in manner, or loudly overconfident in his opinions. Instead, he was meticulous, tasteful and exuded a quiet power much like his films, concealing his intense ambition behind modesty just as the roaming Irena in Cat People (1942) hid her desires in the shadows. Lewton was also no simple packager of other people’s talent. He was supremely hands-on, overseeing every detail of his department’s scripts and often rewrote them, which is why the nine remarkable horror films he produced between 1942 and 1946 bear the stamp of his personality as much as their own directors.
This is not to downplay the achievements of the superb team Lewton assembled around him. There was cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, composer Roy Webb and two editors who gained their first film directing assignments thanks to him. Robert Wise, the Oscar-nominated editor of Citizen Kane, as well as The Magnificent Ambersons, was given 1944’s Curse of the Cat People to direct by him. Secondly, Mark Robson, Wise’s assistant editor on the Welles films, began working for Lewton as his own production assistant and editor before earning his directorial debut on The Seventh Victim (1943) and going on to four others including Lewton’s non-horror teen feature Youth Runs Wild (1944). Robson was Academy Award-nominated himself for Peyton Place in 1958.
In the meantime, Lewton needed a stylish director whose taste was sympatico with his own to take charge of the all-important opening movie of his tenure: the audacious Cat People. Recalling his time on A Tale of Two Cities, he knew the perfect collaborator…
Monday, 27 March 2017
A few months after Warner Brothers released The Strange Case of Dr Rx, they gave audiences a better murder-mystery programmer with The Hidden Hand (1942), aided by dense Agatha Christie-style plotting and an elaborate game being played by its protagonist that lets the viewer in on the fun from the start. The 1934 stage play source Invitation to a Murder by Rufus King hints at the playful tone intended, and under director Benjamin Stoloff the workmanlike cast facilitate the step-by-step machinations without any distractingly bad performances cluttering its path.
Indeed, the film creates a good showcase for the eerie screen persona of Milton Parsons, a busy character actor of cadaverous build, eccentric manner and a beguilingly soothing voice reminiscent of Boris Karloff. Here, he plays escaped convict John Channing who returns to the family home assisted in his break-out by his sister Lorinda (Cecil Cunningham) who wants him to help her in a ruthless plan to test her avaricious relatives. She knows the unfeeling bunch are circling for her inheritance, so she has John pose as her butler while setting off a chain of events designed to have them cross and double-cross each other under her remote puppetry.
The two greedy couples are Walter and Rita (Roland Drew and Julie Bishop) plus Horace and Estelle (Tom Stevenson and Ruth Ford). Coincidentally, Ford was herself embroiled in a real-life familial inheritance squabble over the estate of her wealthy mother-in-law. By the time of her own death at 98 in 2009, Ford had amassed a personal wealth of ten million dollars and bequeathed the whole estate to her butler, snubbing her daughter and grand-children.
To balance the unapologetic avarice within her family, there is the goodness of Mary Winfield, Lorinda’s secretary, whom she intends to make her beneficiary, owing to her selfless loyalty and being the daughter of a past almost-husband of Lorinda. Mary’s similarly virtuous fiancé is also Lorinda’s attorney Peter Thorne played by Craig Stevens who later achieved TV fame as private eye Peter Gunn. Together they embody almost the only wholesome characters in the film, other than Willie Best’s chauffeur Eustis, another in his dispiriting gallery of cowardly comic relief subservient black employees, last seen in my review of The Strange Case of Dr Rx. Eustis may also be on hand to represent an everyman fear reaction to the murders and menace since the grasping family members are too greedy to ever be scared by the unfolding horror.
To crank up the greed incentive amongst her clan, Lorinda drops in various clues and temptations. John leaves a paper on the stairs to be found by their Chinese cook Mallo (Kam Tong) describing the combination of the clock hands needed to release the key to a treasure chest Lorinda has secreted in the house. She also enlists her corrupt doctor nephew Lawrence (Frank Wilcox) to drug her with a suspended animation serum and provide a full burial ceremony before reviving her with an antidote, in return for a quarter of her estate. Having wound up the mechanism, Lorinda’s macabre mind relishes the impending feeding frenzy: “You know, it gives me a thrill to know I’m going to die tonight”. The thread of Channing insanity clearly doesn’t just run through the male line.
Along the way to Lorinda’s staged death, she fakes nearly becoming victim to a falling plant-pot and has her beloved raven Mr Poe poisoned (a little name-check for writer Edgar Allen Poe’s titular haunting bird). After she is apparently killed the same way, Lawrence opts to let his aunt stay dead since he benefits anyway, not realising she was testing him as well. The crafty matriarch seems to have considered every eventuality – except for John’s coveting of Mary. “So lovely, so delicate, so dainty” he drools.
A recorded disc of Lorinda reading out her will allocation then causes the relatives to form an uneasy alliance in pursuit of the remaining quarter of her inheritance. The pacing increases and a body count is entertainingly racked up: the nurse is strangled by John and Mallo becomes the first victim of a trap-door activated by the clock combination that sends each one plummeting into the flowing river under the house. The bulldog-faced cops arrive as Lorinda emerges not only as a frighteningly effective planner but also a capable murderess in person, shooting her traitorous nephew in cold blood. She is undone though by the weakness of her genuine care for Mary, which forces her to reveal she is still alive when Mary almost triggers the trap-door to her own doom. It’s hard to argue with her defence to the cops that “…all I did was rid the world of a few abnormals”, even though she is evidently a pretty lethal one herself.
The Hidden Hand is a spirited B-movie of undemanding fun that wears its scheming silliness with confidence.
Monday, 20 March 2017
Haunted house, spook-the-inheritor comedies following the plot of The Cat and the Canary (1927) were ten-a-penny in the Thirties and Forties. Warner Brothers’ B-movie The Smiling Ghost was no exception but is amiable enough within the formula. It was directed by Lewis Sellers, a veteran of the studio’s house style of crime thrillers including Crime School (1938) starring Humphrey Bogart who was billed below his rambunctious co-stars, the Dead End Kids. Bogart was also connected to one of The Smiling Ghost’s writers Vincent Sherman whose screenplay of The Return of Doctor X (1939) gave the actor his only horror genre part. Co-writer Crane Wilbur went on to pen House of Wax (1953) for Vincent Price. Though the storyline doesn’t fully make sense, the duo craft some sassy one-liners.
The plot centres around tall, gauche, chemical engineer ‘Lucky’ Downing, who is offered a much-needed $1000 to pose as the boyfriend of an eligible society heiress for one month, unaware that her eligibility is due to her previous three husbands falling victim to a ghoulish figure nicknamed the Smiling Ghost. To his credit, Downing sticks around even after uncovering the real back-story to try and solve the mystery.
In the light leading-man role Wayne Morris has a gangly, aw-shucks persona that fits well and convinces when called upon to use his fists. As comic relief back-up to strengthen Morris’s character, Willy Best is drafted in and endures the poison chalice of being Clarence, the resident ‘negro comic’ of lily-livered buffoonery. We last see him doing the same as the butt of Bob Hope’s gags in 1940’s The Ghost Breakers and here the only benefit is the decent chunk of screen time he gets. This is just as well when for example he is admonished by the butler, Norton for hiding in the coal-cellar: “How do you expect anyone to see you in there?” Actually, Alan Hale’s Norton is one of the few original touches in the film. He plays the butler without any of the supercilious formality normally assumed, instead being a blunt, blue-collar type who could just as easily be a plumber or a street cop. Film buffs may recognise Hale from his memorable Little John in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) among other humorous roles.
Downing is indeed lucky since he is caught between two women subtly cat-fighting over him. There is the aforementioned Elinor Bentley Fairchild (Alexis Smith), a self-possessed blonde siren of means, and the down-to-earth brunette reporter Lil Barstow, an equally beautiful yet honest Brenda Marshall. At one point, Elinor skewers her rival with the delicious: “Every look you give him, you could pour on a waffle”.
The family home also encompasses a gaggle of dinner-suited sybarites such as Elinor’s permanently sozzled cousin Tennant (Richard Ainley) and a vivid crackpot turn by Charles Halton as Great Uncle Ames who has a disconcerting passion for manufacturing shrunken heads out of suitable subjects he meets. Seeking a final piece for his collection - “the perfect negroid type” - Ames takes a special interest in Clarence: “How would you like to stay with us for a looong, looong time?”
Introductions over, Downing’s luck holds long enough to dodge the blade of the killer after Tennant asks to be given back his own room. The inhospitable drunk is unwittingly mistaken for Downing by the titular, fedora-wearing menace baring a toothy grin and mad, staring eyes. Tennant is later found, alive and unconscious as the tenant of a cellar trunk. For some reason, the Ghost does lack that all-important killer instinct. We learn that although his first victim John Eggleston drowned, and number three died of a snake-bite, the second, Paul Myron (David Bruce) also survived, albeit placed in a permanent iron lung. When Downing and Barstow visit him, he shows them a photo of Eggleston, insisting he is the Ghost – back from the dead to haunt all future suitors.
Downing later finds himself attacked by the grinning ghoul and dumped unharmed in a coffin, making the Ghost’s half-hearted advances even more perplexing. Eventually the family decide to lure the Ghost out by staging a phoney wedding for Lucky and Elinor at midnight. There’s an amusing exchange during the nervy wait when Lucky makes awkward small-talk about the cruel treatment of Mary, Queen of Scots. Lee Patrick’s Aunt Rose fires off the zinger comeback: “Yes, isn’t it? I didn’t think the news had got around”.
For extra harshness, the Ghost appears and abducts Barstow. Lucky grapples with him manfully until the killer is crushed by a disused boat. Barstow remarks that their assailant doesn’t look or sound like Eggleston somehow, a hunch borne out when he is unmasked as assumed iron lung occupant Paul in another of those denouments that Scooby Doo would almost parody later. His vendetta is explained as the insane jealousy of a man rejected by his wife for being a cripple, but not how he can free himself from the confines of his seemingly necessary apparatus – a clanging error by the writers. Even more inexplicably, Downing bursts in too late to save Clarence from Ames reducing him to a presented shrunken head - and yet his valet appears safe and sound as well. (?)
America’s impending entry into World War Two (courtesy of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour that December) gets a sobering look-in at the end after Downing realises that Barstow is the one for him. Pessimist Aunt Rose clouds the rosy prospect with the sour: “Why worry? He’ll probably be drafted right in the middle of the honeymoon”. Ironically, in real life Morris would soon leave Hollywood to enlist. He found that his size initially ruled him out of cockpit flying until an air-force relative pulled strings enabling him to spend the rest of the war becoming a decorated Hellcat fighter pilot.
Friday, 17 March 2017
In April 1942, Universal presented the public with a curate’s egg in the cracked shape of The Strange Case of Dr RX. It was a sleuthy, light-hearted horror film whose comedy doesn’t always sit comfortably, and saves any scant horror flavour till the last few minutes where it is shoe-horned in as if from a different film. The most disappointing aspect though is the fooling of the public using posters that promised another mad scientist role from Lionel Atwill - the original Dr X in Warner Brothers’ 1932 feature. In that film, his part was a red herring that distracted us from the real murderer but his was a lead role. Here, he only sporadically pops in and out to unsubtly suggest his involvement before the laughably rushed denouement. (This under-utilization of his talent by the studio also occurred later in the year with The Night Monster (see review 13/3/2017).
Clarence Upson Young wrote both screenplays and here introduces his signature style of lazy and preposterous exposition, only squeaking by due to the facetious comedy tone. It didn’t help that Dr Rx went into production with an unfinished script, so the actors improvised much of their dialogue to augment the non-sense on offer. Director William Nigh had established he could steer a ship of awfulness with Boris Karloff in 1940’s The Ape and later with Bela Lugosi in Black Dragons (see 9/1/2017 and 1/3/2017 respectively).
The wastage in Dr Rx isn’t just restricted to Atwill – the cast on the whole are better than the material offered here, something we can struggle to claim with Poverty Row efforts. Patric Knowles who we last saw as the fiancé in The Wolf Man (1941) is here given more elbow room as a light leading man, private eye Jerry Church returning from a year in South America to a murder mystery. He’s clearly good at his job as he can somehow afford the type of ritzy, well-appointed apartment normally only seen in high society movies.
Even more improbably, Church has his own valet, Horatio B. Fitz Washington. On the plus side, he is played by Manton Moreland, the black actor who would single-handedly enliven King of the Zombies (1941) the following month. The bad news is that despite the grand character name, he’s required to demean himself to being a saucer-eyed, dim-witted submissive. This is an enduring shame as his comic timing is excellent. Here, what passes for an added dimension is that he has a terrible memory which he tries to compensate for by a system of linked images that merely side-track him. When he gets a message to pick Church up from the airport, he processes it as “Church – airport – airplanes – clouds – birds – nest –eggs – breakfast”. On being woken up by his long-suffering boss having to make his own way home, he apologises: “I was slightly negligee”.
The other exponent of comic chops who labours in the salt mines here is former Stooge Shemp Howard, he of the lovable pugilist mug who resembled his brother Moe so closely. He is the cop sidekick to the rakishly-moustached Det. Capt. Bill Hurd (Edmund MacDonald, an uncredited anarchic miner in 1940’s The Invisible Man Returns). As Church’s old partner on the force, Hurd is desperate for Church to postpone his planned Boston retirement and solve the case of Dr Rx, a vigilante murderer who has so far killed five hardened criminals that were acquitted by the justice system. The case-readjuster leaves a card teasing the police with his surname and the victim number.
Judge Crispin also implores Church to help him. He fears being on the list as the presiding judge forced to let three of these reprobates go free. Crispin is another in Harvard alumni Samuel S. Hinds’s gallery of erudite portrayals of gravity following his kindly Dr Lawrence in Man Made Monster (1941), He would dispense the law again in Son of Dracula (1943) before achieving screen immortality as Pa Bailey in 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life. His offer of $10,000 initially makes no difference to Church (well it wouldn’t considering the Art Deco splendour in which he lives).
For love interest there is Kit (the stunning Anne Gwynne) who appears to be Church’s girlfriend for a large chunk of the film and then is revealed to have been married to him while abroad. This is one of the many shoddy story details that Young blithely drives past us on his way over the cliff of quality. Her horror roles took in The Black Cat (1940) and Black Friday (1940) and later 1944’s House of Frankenstein. She does her own investigation into the case that increasingly embroils her husband, and wishes she hadn’t when she sees the white-haired catatonic that fear of Dr Rx has made of a previous private dick.
It seems that no-one is safe from the tendrils of Dr Rx. Even in the court-room he still causes the death of his next target, gangster Tony Zarini (Matty Fain) just after he is acquitted. He is not allowed to enjoy his freedom; just after taking a medicinal powder, he keels over dead from apparent poisoning. Atwill, wearing inscrutable coke-bottle glasses, looks on impassively. He may as well shroud his face with a cloak and chuckle “Mwaw hah ha ha” for all the attempted ambiguity on display.
What qualifies as a strange case indeed is the sudden temporary shift in tone in the last ten minutes. Church and Horatio are forced at gunpoint to drive the Elephant Man- hooded, sinisterly rasping Dr Rx to a secret location. After evading their cop pals in a car chase, the plot makes a sharp left turn toward serious horror whereby Church is strapped to a gurney in a laboratory and told introduced to the Dr’s gorilla who is imprisoned behind bars: “He is very stupid but he will be very smart…and you will be…not so smart” ad-libs the Doctor badly with Atwill’s voice. There is a stark image of genuine unpleasantness to end the scene in how the Dr. forces Horatio’s eyelids to remain open as he watches the impending operational terror, albeit involving a man in a monkey suit. The inhabitant of said suit was Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan, the enterprising athlete who went from fitness trainer to the stars to science-fiction roles, most famously as It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), helped by being the owner of his own gorilla costume.
Just as perplexingly we are then thrust back into the relative safety of the real world where we learn that poor Church was found wandering down by the waterfront and is now a white-haired hospital convalescent. The police bring in Atwill, now named Dr Fish, to give his medical opinion. As he takes out his notebook, surely now he will incriminate himself by making witnessed notes in the same handwriting as the killer? But no, it was all a ruse to unmask the real murderer – Judge Crispin! By comparison with this denouement, Scooby Doo’s revelations seem sophisticated as the unfortunate Atwill, in on the plan, has to administer us the foul-tasting medicine pill of Crispin’s motivation. He was an egomaniac who wanted to mesmerise the jury with the brilliance of securing each gangsters’ freedom just so he could then single-handedly bump them off. There is a laughable irony in a man having persuasive brilliance in a court-room yet leaving none to explain his own loopy logic. As for what happened to Church in Crispin’s basement dungeon, he is at a loss: “Suddenly the lights went out”. We share his confusion – not helped by the bizarre epilogue of Horatio answering the door to the happy couple with his own white hair and insane giggle for no reason.
Sadly for Lionel Atwill, he could not escape the ruinous odour of a real-life court case he was implicated in. Soon after the release of the film, on July 1st , he was indicted for perjury in the unsavoury Sylvia Hamalaine scandal (see my Lionel Atwill article), and from here onwards he would be ill-served by a hypocritical industry who would exploit some measure from his name value while he spiralled downward to an untimely death.
Tuesday, 14 March 2017
Thought its title suggests a link with the 1940s Bowery Boys films, Bowery at Midnight (1942) is not part of that series, but does connect to them through the studio and its two leads actors. In fact Bela Lugosi and Dave O’Brien had already appeared twice together in Poverty Row productions: for PRC in The Devil Bat (1940) and in 1941’s Spooks Run Wild, a Bowery Boys film distributed by Monogram.
Bowery was no more befitting a showcase for them than the two previous entries, yet at least for Lugosi it was a return to a lead role, having just been relegated to a cameo by Universal in Night Monster. On the downside it was the fifth in his woeful Monogram Nine contract for producer Sam Katzman, and a re-teaming with his director from The Corpse Vanishes Wallace Fox (see my review 7/3) and its writer Gerald Schnitzer. For O’Brien, the part of hero cop Pete Crawford was just another in his happy-go-lucky, hugely prolific rack-up of B-picture credits before he found fame in the Pete Smith Specialities comedy shorts. The finished film is rather good fun partly because of its flaws.
Lugosi actually has a dual role in Bowery for good measure, and one of the movie’s endearing elements of crapness is the wafer-thin disguise separating the two, a hide-in-plain-sight implausibility worthy of Clark Kent. His main persona is that of the seemingly kindly Karl Wagner who runs the Friendly Mission soup kitchen in the Bowery. We come to him by way of the weaselly escaped convict ‘Fingers’ Dolan (John Berkes) who goes over the prison wall and gets more than a hot bowl of soup when he shows up. Wagner’s solicitious concern for him extends to an invite into his secret cellar lair. When Lugosi smiles with such bonhomie, fans know that you’re better off looking for the exit. Instead, Dolan discovers that Wagner is well aware of his safe-cracker form since the mission is really Wagner’s front for his gang of jewel thieves.
Dolan goes out on a break-in job with Wagner and his closest henchman Stratton - a typecast role for Wheeler Oakman. “I like to bring old friends together” beams Wagner with a dubious glint. No sooner does Dolan open the safe for them than Wagner proves there really is no honour among thieves by ordering Stratton to shoot him dead. Stratton does as he’s told but is smart enough to know that he is just as expendable an asset to his boss and considers tailing him. He confides this to the resident janitor Doc Brooks (Lew Kelly, who impressively amassed over 200 screen credits in 17 years), a moth-eaten junkie and former doctor who cautions him bluntly: “A couple of men tried that before you – and now they’re buried”.
Meanwhile, Lugosi’s not-much-altered ego is Brenner, esteemed university professor of criminology, He has an idyllic home life with a devoted wife (Anna Hope) and a canary, and wears spectacles by way of character difference. The couple’s only source of tension is that Brenner spends every night away, allegedly researching his next book. Although he’s not fooling us, Mrs Brenner is grateful for his constant gifts of jewellery and appears pacified that his writing affords bird-seed and bling.
Where tension is cranked up however is down at the police precinct where Police Chief Martin is taking heat for his force’s lack of progress after Dolan’s body is found in the burgled company’s safe. He puts a rocket under his squad or rather a damp squib as Eddie Kane is truncheon-stiff here. This doesn’t stop O’Brien’s Crawford forging ahead, eager for promotion to detective. His experienced partner Charlie (Vince Barnett) tells him this case could be the springboard.
Back in the cloistered halls of academia, Professor Brenner engages in a debate on paranoia with rich playboy student Richard Dennison (King of the Zombies’ John Archer) who correctly surmises that the classic paranoid case is someone who exhibits delusions of grandeur, persecution mania, a superiority complex and will use force to cover their tracks. “They might even enjoy a life of crime?” adds Lugosi with a secretive grin, the old tease.
Brenner knows all about profiling the criminally unstable; back at the Mission in Wagner guise he replaces Dolan with the more psychotic Frankie Mills. Tom Neal is very convincing in the role - even more so when one reads about his appalling real-life track record of violence. His first wife Vicky Lane divorced him in 1949 on grounds of ‘mental and physical cruelty’. Four years later Neal gave actor Franchot Tone a horrifically injurious beating after his girlfriend Barbara Payton left him for the latter. For continuing her relationship with Neal, femme fatale Payton and the toxic Neal were both effectively blacklisted by the industry. This turned out to be an awful presentiment though: Neal was later convicted of the involuntary manslaughter of his third wife Gale Bennett in 1965 after shooting her at point-blank with a .45 calibre handgun.
By comparison, the film’s plot seems almost prosaic. Here the bad guys mainly bump each other off. Wagner fires Stratton by having Mills fire at him, yet not before Stratton can warn his replacement: “He’ll cross you like he does everyone else!” Wagner then lets Mills into his confidence by showing him his “Dormitory of the Dead”, a cellar room housing three dug graves, all with name plaques denoting each short-lived henchman. “This is the difference between my intelligence and the dull minds of my fellow men” he crows. I’m guessing this display is intended as a threat because it certainly doesn’t represent much superior intelligence of evidence-covering if the cops ever raid him.
Another example of Bowery’s entertainment value is the unexpected twist to the scene where Richie Rich the student proposes to his girlfriend, Mission helper Judy (Wanda McKay). Rather than stopping the homicidal hi-jinks for a lame romantic sub-plot, she gives great streetwise sass and a slightly cruel edge to letting him down with a thump. It turns out she has a kinky soft spot for her employer: “You’ve no idea what a mysterious fondness I have for that man”. She wasn’t alone – this echoed a powerful attraction Lugosi seemed to exert on many female fans in real-life.
The next thud we hear is the script collapsing into perplexing dumbness; spurned Richard redoubles his flaky studiousness by asking Professor Brenner to let him change term papers to one about “What a man thinks before he dies”. Not only does this sound like an unsubtle excuse for foreshadowing, but Brenner’s initial sensible reaction of “It’s very unscientific” quickly turns to inexplicable acceptance.
At least Crawford has a credible drive. He also now has a detective’s shield as his old partner was injured in a shoot-out with the Wagner mob. He’ll need all the courage he can muster as Wagner dispatches another temporary stooge off a building just to provide a distraction while Mills robs another store dressed as a blind man. Do these men have no decency?
Fans of inappropriately funny lines will savour Richard’s visit to a tailor in his bid for method authenticity. “Can you make me a look like a tramp?” he asks the owner in earnest. Possibly as a payback, he is equipped with what looks like a bent, old-ladies cloche hat to go with a plain suit. To be fair, any sartorial transformation would be brilliantly worthless considering that, bless him, his face is pure, clean-cut money. Unfazed, he heads for the Mission determined to undergo full De Niro research mode, by way of Wagner letting him interview the dark, satanic Mills:
RICHARD: “You enjoy…killing people?”
MILLS: “Sure”, (Ripples his cards menacingly) “…If they get in my way”.
Mills illustrates this by apparently blowing away master-of-disguise Richard when Wagner reveals his double-identity.
There’s a nice cameo as a thuggish insolent tramp by Pat Costello who resembles his brother Lou in looks and comic chops. He and another transient posture as high-rollers in front of Richard as they read the Debutante’s Ball in the society pages:
“Comin’ out? Comin’ outta what?”
“I guess they keep their kids locked up”.
Reassuringly, more unwittingly bad dialogue is ladelled in like the soup as the police close in on the Wagner gang. It suddenly dawns on Brenner’s wife that a criminal double-life may explain: “his nightly absences from home - expensive jewellery - and those horrible nightmares”. Well, when you put it like that, things do start to add up.
Judy also draws similar conclusions as the scales fall from her eyes about her boss’s enlightened self-interest. She is helped to snoop around the basement by the Jonesing janitor until Wagner catches her in the act. Mystifyingly, instead of trying to rush out the back into the main hall, she opts to go back downstairs into the confined cellar space. As the police burst in for the inevitable raid, there is an even less explicable plot development. Somehow, the whacked-out Brooks has been able to marshall his resources into reviving all of Wagner’s henchmen into a vengeful zombie army that besiege him as he is tricked into a ‘safe’ room. Only a Lugosi or Karloff of clarity could accomplish that in any normal horror film.
Like all the Monogram Nine titles, Bowery at Midnight’s logic is water-logged rather than water-tight, and gloriously critic-proof. How else can we explain Richard also surviving to marry Judy in the epilogue?
This entry certainly slums it in quality and hilariously slapdash execution, yet manages to entertain probably because of that. Although it’s essentially a crime thriller, it just about slips into the category of horror by virtue of its amusing underpinning of faux- psychological quackery.
Monday, 13 March 2017
October 1942 saw Universal release a horror B-features without the energy and marquee value of their horror monsters. Night Monster is professionally assembled but dumb, and possibly in awareness of this the studio bolstered it with two of its name genre actors: Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill. The result somewhat backfires as their wasted presence compounds its unremarkability.
Low-budget stalwart producer and director Ford Beebe had already done both serials and features and had already worked with Lugosi directing the hapharzard 12-part The Phantom Creeps (1939). Before going on to better reflect himself with The Invisible Man’s Revenge in 1944, his only other horror direction was this original script by Clarence Upson Young.
The premise is based around Curt Ingston, (Ralph Morgan) a wealthy man rendered wheelchair-bound after the ministrations of three doctors failed to stem his bodily paralysis. He has invited all three to a presentation of a revolutionary new cure he believes he has undergone. Meanwhile his palatial home is also occupied by a colourful collection of staff and family. There is his sister Margaret (Fay Helm) who is constantly badgered by concerns of insanity, unhelped by the claustrophobic cossetting of her frosty housekeeper Miss Judd (Doris Lloyd).
Running the home is their swaggering, inappropriately lecherous chauffeur Lawrie played by familiar western actor Leif Erickson (later to find fame as Big John Cannon in TV’s The High Chaparral) - and Lugosi as Ralf the butler, whose role is relegated to providing furtive reaction shots from the side as each sinister event unfolds. This suggests some murky involvement in the plot and yet he has none; in fact he is no longer even used in the climactic build-up and pay-off, a criminal oversight for his last top billing role for Universal.
Further evidence of wastage arrives in the form of Lionel Atwill as Dr King, along with Drs Phipps and Timmons (Francis Pierlot and Fran Reicher respectively). The three of them are not painted as greatly sympathetic. They attempt some gallows banter about the lucrative financial support of Ingston whilst they has tinkered with them until they remind themselves that “We left him a misshapen thing that must hide even from the servants in the house”. This prepares us for an awful creature and yet when Ingston comes down, he is an invalid of relatively normal appearance, albeit with a genial surface covering a fierce command used to being obeyed coupled with veiled intent towards his reunited doctors: “I don’t think you’ve ever been properly rewarded – but you will be”
Ingston shows the trio that he has firstly used local mechanics to supply him with mechanical arms and then stuns them far more with a demonstration by his yogi, the exotic turbaned Agar Singh (Sweden’s Nils Asther). Swami Singh aims to convince the sceptical men that it is possible to grow restorative tissue by the power of the mind alone. Even the composed Ralf cannot resist a smirk at the preposterousness. Singh materialises a kneeling skeleton holding a box leaking blood, inside of which is a ruby. Just as the medicos try to process this miraculous apparition, it vanishes leaving nothing but a pool of blood.
This souvenir mark then becomes relevant over the course of the film as each of the doctors is systematically murdered. Atwill is actually the first one to die, making his brevity of role as ignominious a waste as Lugosi’s, Opposing the forces of evil are Dick Baldwin (a strong, heroic Don Porter who would later tangle with monsters for Universal in 1946’s She-Wolf of London), Dr Harper (Irene Hervey), who’s been brought in by Margaret to prove her sanity, and an enjoyably irascible turn by Robert Homans as the squinting and cynical Constable Captain Beggs. He is eternally on the verge of blowing his top at the unlikely possibility that their host is somehow equipped with magic legs. When Ingston proves his incapacity by revealing his stumps under the bed-clothes to he and Dick, Beggs is apologetic for the insensitivity of their accusation. Gradually though, after all three doctors, Millie the housemaid) and now Lawrie are bumped off, they’re running out of other suspects. Observing the dead chauffeur slung on a closet coat-hook, he growls: “Well, there’s one thing certain. He ain’t guilty”.
Mercifully, what we have been suspecting for the entire film is true, that Ingston had harnessed his mental powers enough to give himself strangely lycanthropic legs for nocturnal murderous walkabouts. These hairy specimens come to light briefly as they disappear in death after a fatal gunshot by Singh. No explanation is given for why he settled for such weird limbs to be projected. The only overall one that is offered is more genuinely lame than the man himself – he left blood trails because he hadn’t quite mastered his ability. This is the same conclusion reached by a discerning audience – other than ‘Bring back the real monsters'
A similar glaring omission of not providing decent parts befitting their trumpeted stars was not so easy to rectify for a publicity-conscious studio.
A similar glaring omission of not providing decent parts befitting their trumpeted stars was not so easy to rectify for a publicity-conscious studio.
A few days before the opening of Night Monster on October 15th 1942, Atwill pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years probation instead of jail time for his perjury in the Sylvia Hamalaine case (see my Lionel Atwill entry) . His attorney later read out his defence in court: “I lied like a gentleman to protect my friends”. In retrospect it has the grim finality of an epitaph – and signalled the death-knell for his illustrious career, knocking him off the pedestal of prestigious leading man into a downward slide of diminishing quality projects. The catastrophic shut-out he was subjected to by the hypocritical movie industry was such that by the following April he appealed in court to have the conviction terminated. Since he was now a pariah in the town, he was suffering enough punishment for his error of judgement. The Production Code could continue to have him ostracized while ever he was legally branded a ‘felon’ that brought the studios into perceived disrepute. A kindly judge allowed him to reverse his plea and he walked out of court exonerated. The stain of scandal would dog him and drag him down professionally and privately for the rest of his short life till his death in 1946.
Friday, 10 March 2017
Lon Chaney (now permanently marketed without the ‘Jr’) continued his rising name status in Universal horror films through 1942. Having established himself as the only actor to ultimately inhabit The Wolf Man role the year before, the studio had already transferred him to one existing franchise in The Ghost of Frankenstein. Now they wrapped him up in a second sequel of The Mummy series as the bandaged behemoth Kharis in The Mummy’s Tomb. The extreme physical demands of Jack Pierce’s make-up wound him up in more ways than one in a part which almost totally obscured his features, yet it positioned Chaney once again for maximum marquee value, a compromise that would not be lost on him.
Another new factor that Ghost ushered in was the demotion of their horror output to B-movie status which meant that less money was spent on the budgets. Corner-cutting was evident from the beginning of Tomb. The plot takes place thirty years after The Mummy’s Hand (1940), allowing the producers an excuse to pad out the first eleven minutes of its brief sixty to be dominated by highlight scenes from the former.
The principal players are back including the welcome return of Dick Foran’s hero Steve Banning, now gracefully aging hero with glasses and a more careful movement. Foran still has the relaxed charm of his previous horror roles without falling into the trap of forgettable blandness. The same cannot be said for John Hubbard as his son Dr John, another in the classic horror movie ‘double-breasted suit and moustache’ mannequin romantic leads who are required to look like Ronald Colman and hopefully not get in the way. Since Steve is now the elder statesman, the mantle of hero passes to him and Hubbard fumbles it with some distractingly weak physicality as we shall see.
More promising is the wholesome, perky Elyse Knox as his girlfriend Isobel for whom this was a first lead role. Her looks made her a pin-up girl during WWII and then the steady girl in Monogram’s Joe Palooka series. Strong Scots motherly warmth is provided by Mary Gordon as Steve’s sister Jane, a type she specialised in most notably as Mrs Hudson in the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series.
In the villains’ corner there is formidable opposition top-lined initially by the surprise revival of George Zucco’s Andoheb. We thought he was shot dead by Steve’s sidekick Babe (Wallace Ford) outside the Princess’s temple in the climax of Hand - however “The bullet he fired into me only crushed my arm. The fire that consumed Kharis only seared and twisted and maimed”. I would say you can’t keep a bad man down but actually one of the strengths of this sequel is that we shall find no character is assured of survival.
Like Steve, Andoheb has his own protégé, a beguilingly tranquil 20 year-old Turhan Bey as Mehemet Bey. In a long Hollywood career stretching from the Forties through to TV’s Babylon 5 in the Nineties, this Austrian-born Turkish actor supplied an ethnic exoticism that fits here like a silk glove. He has an eerie poise and a feline inscrutability to his machinations. A wizened old Andoheb has just enough puff to bestow on Mehemet the sacred duty of the new High Priest before he sinks back, seemingly expired. In keeping with the curse of Amon-Ra, Kharis must be re-activated to kill every member of the Banning blood-line, fuelled by the miraculous Tana leaves as before.
As the titular mummy, fuller-faced than Karloff or Tom Tyler, Lon Chaney would have found the eight-hour make-up sessions less gruelling if there was a gratifying chance of being recognised in the role. Instead, Kharis is a thankless pursuit as he could be anyone under the linen shambling along like the Bandaged Strangler bereft of any real personality. Karloff had the benefit of a dual role that permitted his face to be seen clearly as the High Priest. He and Tyler were also mummified in a way that crucially emphasised their eyes. Admittedly Tyler’s were augmented with a partly-successful inky blackness in post-production, whereas the English actor knew that his own beamed out a genuine and unforgettable haunted soulfulness. Chaney was hamstrung by being obscured in the left eye and in long-shots by a time-saving rubber face-mask.
Kharis is shipped over to America with Bey to begin their tea-stoked rampage, setting himself up as the new caretaker of the cemetery in Mapleton, Massachusetts where the Bannings live. From this base Bey sends out the mummy to gradually snap off each branch of the family tree, starting with Steve. “One who would dare defy our ancient gods”. This is a shame as it would have been satisfying to position him as a Van Helsing-like mentor during the ensuing carnage. Instead, Kharis throttles the better hero out of the franchise - (See what I mean about the 24-style unpredictability of cast life-spans?) - leaving the action man status to Hubbard who runs with an odd campness and looks awkward throwing a punch.
Kharis clocks up the second victim of a targeted four by strangling Jane. This brings me to an endearing feature of Golden Age Hollywood movies, that of the fictional newspaper headlines that assumes their readership is always familiar with even the minor players in a story. “Jane Benning second victim” trumpets one such edition here.
Cliff Clark’s pipe-toking Sheriff now takes an interest in the unsolved murders. To be fair, his office is hardly used to supernatural shenanigans. His deputy observes: “This is the first time I’ve ever had a shadow for a suspect”. Over the course of the film, more influential guns are recruited, necessary reinforcements since Dr John refuses to stretch his mind either: “I’m a doctor. I just can’t believe in a live mummy”. One pleasing addition is to call back Wallace Ford’s Babe for whom time has dulled his swagger somewhat and replaced it with a sober concern over his partner’s sudden death. He identifies mummy mould on Jane’s neck and realises their old nemesis Kharis is on the loose, backed up by a Professor who pinpoints from a linen scrap that he matches the same period as the explorers’ original objective, Princess Ananka.
Actors Ford and Chaney would have been glad to see each other on set - it was Ford that cast Chaney in Of Mice and Men in the Broadway run that brought him to Hollywood’s attention. On screen they meet under deadlier circumstances with Kharis strangling him in an alleyway not long after he enters the story. By now the film has pulled off the rare feat of appearing to erase all the returning cast from the first sequel (although Zucco the indestructible would come back for The Mummy’s Ghost in 1944).
Bey is now presented with only the happy about-to-be-wed couple of Dr John and Isobel to bump off, and here is where the plot takes an interesting turn. He goes rogue, shunning the obligatory chastity of the High Priest in favour of claiming the future Mrs Banning for himself. Kharis is dispatched to kidnap her and only here does a glimmer of real character sparkle within the mummy. George Robinson’s excellent facility for shadow shrouding captures an evil glint in his working eye like a tiny diamond in a coal-face – a fanciful flash of sorrow too perhaps for his lost beloved Princess.
A less sentimental sight is the mixed gathering of Mapleton locals and national reporters in front of the Sheriff, spoiling for some thoughtless applied violence and a hot lead respectively. His rousing speech sums up the situation: “A creature that’s been alive for over three thousand years is in this town and it’s brought death with it. We’ve got to run it down!” The hardened newshounds must have infected the townsfolk with their city cynicism as this astounding statement creates only subdued murmurs – until he starts dishing out the clubs and flaming torches. Now they’re engaged and ready to march on the cemetery.
Beset by rampaging folk, Kharis pulls off the remarkable move of climbing up the ivy outside the Banning mansion whilst carrying Isobel – all with a lame right arm miraculously restored. Speaking of lame, he tangles with limp noodle Dr John in a paltry fight scene before once again the building around him consumes him in fire. Kharis manages one last bravura touch of raising a defiant left arm as he goes down. He knows something more about longevity than these mere mortals.
The aftermath prompts a uniquely funny version of the spinning newspaper front page cliché. Below the expected shrieking headline: ‘MAPLETON ‘MONSTER’ DIES IN FLAMES’ (which begs the question as to why the use of quote marks when the assailant clearly was a monster), just below and to the right in smaller type there is the equally promising ‘Greek island reported sunk. Engulfing 200’. Far be it from me to play into the stereotyped view of insular American media, but the sudden sinking of an inhabited landmass surely qualifies for competitive sensationalism?
The Mummy’s Hand very much betrays its second feature status, but with its courageous deck-clearing it created a second reboot for the franchise that would shamble on for two more sequels giving Lon Chaney top billing. The hieroglyphics were on the wall though for Universal who were now clearly taking each of their monster icons’ series into a downward spiral of quality.
Wednesday, 8 March 2017
It was inevitable that the success of Universal’s new horror franchise The Wolf Man (1941) would spawn imitators. The most blatant rip-off was brought out by Poverty Row studio PRC a year later, sneakily copying the monster’s appearance (albeit lower in budget) and even that of the lead actor to leave no doubt as to its inspiration.
The Mad Monster is by no means the worst film ever made but the evident slaphappy construction and dialogue we shall see is understandable when we learn it is the work of director Sam Newfield, reputedly the world’s most prolific director of talking motion pictures. Estimates range in the 250-300 region (IMDb lists 276). His output makes William ‘one-take’ Beaudine look like Michael Cimino by comparison. Born Samuel Neufeld, he was the brother of Sigmund Neufeld, a creditor of PRC who ended up rescuing the company and heading up their picture division. Sigmund created a roster of fast-paced simple fare, (heavily relying on westerns) at a very low cost and stacking the deck with previously unknown talent and, if he could get them, name actors like Lugosi and Lionel Atwill whose private lives were scandalous enough to make them willing to slum it for his studio.
Sam Newfield shat out so many feature films for PRC that he had to use the pseudonyms of Peter Stewart and Sherman Scott so audiences wouldn’t realise he was helming so many of their releases. His staggering work-rate makes sense when one considers he was paid just $500 per film – it was the only way to make a living.
For this horror vehicle, the studio was able to use the elegant George Zucco who was taking every genre part he was offered and was happy enough to do this in between his sequels in The Mummy series. He is Dr Lorenzo Cameron, a scientist who is as howlingly insane as the wolf he keeps caged up in his laboratory. He is experimenting with a serum derived from its blood which he injects into the body of his hulking, slow-witted handyman Pedro.
This introduces us to Glenn Strange whom horror fans will know went on to inhabit Frankenstein’s Monster in three later sequels for Universal. He progressed to working with Lon Chaney in House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), which almost seems fated as his role here is to be an echo of two of Chaney’s characters in one. He resembles Chaney facially, is dressed in dungarees and imitates the same child-like, low intelligence speech pattern as Lenny, Chaney’s break-out part in Of Mice and Men (1939). Chaney would later kid Strange about the take-off, the latter claiming never to have seen the stage or film version. To compound the recognition value, Zucco’s experiment transforms him by dissolve photography into a crude version of the Wolf Man – the bare-faced, fuzz-faced gall of it. PRC did not have the benefit of Jack Pierce’s talent in the make-up department. Artist Harry Ross does his best to suggest the vulpine with a thick wig and fangs.
Zucco acquits himself to playing Cameron with his customary intense focus and controlled severity. To be fair to Newfield, he does support the actor in a slightly more interesting version of the mad doctor’s usual messianic rave about his misunderstood genius. Instead of the ham soliloquy or gloating to a victim, Cameron imagines lecturing a ghostly collection of his former colleagues who refused to accept his ideas and dared to fire him from his faculty. “He’s a wolf – snarling, ferocious. Lusting for the kill!” he crows jubilantly about his human guinea-pig, the first of a weaponised werewolf army he proposes for warfare. If his real ex-associates heard this, they’d be reassured as to their original decision. He vows to kill them one by one – no prizes for guessing how.
Cameron’s rare glimpses of humanity are courtesy of his lovely daughter Lenore, Black Friday and The Mad Doctor or Market Street’s Anne Nagel – (see my earlier reviews). She has no idea of his lycanthropic plans but wants to get away from being isolated in the swamps into the arms of her reporter boyfriend Tom, a cheery Johnny Downs. The mad medic soon returns to his default setting of clinical imperiousness though after loopy lupine Pedro kills a farm family’s little girl in her own bedroom. (Yes, that’s Laurel and Hardy’s favourite battle-axe Mae Busch as the mother). Rather than commiserate publicly at the awful evidence detected of a wild animal responsible, he observes: “That would be very interesting to science, wouldn’t it?”
Fred Myton, who wrote many B-picture scripts for PRC, seems determined to keep reminding us that talents often rise as high as they are meant to. His perplexing dialogue masterfully contradicts and confuses sense. For example, Cameron visits his old associate Dr Blaine (Robert Strange) who predictably will not condone his work: “Mingling the blood of man and beast is downright sacrilege”- yet when Cameron reflects back his rejection, Blaine replies “Not at all. I will co-operate in any way possible”. Strange was known for playing eminently corruptible types; here the screenplay certainly offers him flexible principles. He will soon regret his help though when he agrees to inject Pedro while Cameron is out. The now-hirsute handyman runs amok and kills him as well.
The only character who seems to have a grasp of the monstrosity at large is the craggy, pipe-smoking old grandmother of the grieving family, memorably etched by English actress Sarah Padden. She knows the culprit is a cursed werewolf, but who would believe her? “You can’t kill him no way - except by a silver bullet!”.
Meanwhile, one more of the gullibles on the menu is another nemesis of Cameron’s, Dr Fitzgerald (Gordon De Main) who is smart enough not to allow himself to be a test subject for injection by the man he helped to fire – “I’ve discovered the source of life!” - yet dumb enough to give his giant labourer a lift on an errand. He comes to a fanged end from his suddenly-transformed passenger.
Unlike the writing, Fred Preble’s swamp set has some depth and is a more fitting place for atmospheric fog than the text. When murky Cameron matches wits with the sunny newshound Tom, he resents the young man’s insinuations of a motive for Fitzgerald’s murder: “Your newspaper training seems to have bred a suspicious nature”. Does he mean that trusting everything at face value makes better journalism?
Such fiendish unreasonability is fortunately shared though by the forces of good. The family of the murdered child plus Tom pursue Pedro as a vigilante mob through the undergrowth back to Cameron’s house. It is here that the admirably Spartan lay-out of his lab becomes glaringly noticeable. There is literally no apparatus in the foreground – just the bed where poor Pedro was strapped during his werewolf birthing pains. Any equipment of Cameron’s appears to be always stacked on the shelves at the back. Similar tidiness applies itself to the climax during which a freak burst of lightning sets the house on fire and the hairy freak does a retributory laying-on of hands to his cruel master in the shadows till flames consume them both.
Laughable as the film is to modern audiences, there were enough furry frissons to earn it a ban by the UK censors until the 1950s. For his sterling work in The Mad Monster, George Zucco became a reliable go-to in numerous future horror roles for PRC alongside his Universal castings. Stay tuned…
Tuesday, 7 March 2017
Two months after Bela Lugosi appeared in Black Dragons, Monogram released the fourth of his contracted films for producer Sam Katzman’s Banner Pictures. They gradually took on the appearance of a protracted form of community service for an unspecified crime, which reminds us of the hazy nature of many of the films’ plots. The Corpse Vanishes was no exception; in fact it’s unremarkable nature overall is something of a relief compared to some of the other outlandish scripts he was required to undergo. It was directed by Wallace Fox in between two of the East Side Kids gang series he made for the studio (Bowery Blitzkrieg and Let’s Get Tough) and had a less sensationalist screenplay by Harvey Gates than the ‘yellow peril’ machinations he’d concocted for Black Dragons.
The premise is still reassuringly ludicrous, I hasten to add. An American town is struck by a wave of apparent killings whose victims are all brides at the altar. “CORPSE THIEF BELIEVED CRANK” shrieks a swirling newspaper headline correcting those who suspected otherwise. The happiest day of their life turns out to be their last as they all collapse seemingly dead during the service. A lurking Lugosi manning a hearse is a certain recipe for dirty work afoot. When society dame Alice Wentworth (Black Dragons’ Joan Barclay) is the latest to die, all we can guess as a connection is that all the brides are given an orchid for which none of the guests claim responsibility.
On the scent as it were of the mysterious flower comes hotshot female reporter Pat Hunter played by Luana Walters. She bears a probably deliberate resemblance in costume and role to the female lead in the 1940 screwball comedy classic His Girl Friday, but Walters is regrettably no Rosalind Russell. Her spotting by a movie scout whilst winning a rodeo contest in Palm Springs certainly bucks the trend of the Schwab’s Drugstore discovery cliché but also reveals how non-lustrous her talent is.
Lugosi plays Dr Lorenz, who is more of a hyphenate than the usual humdrum scientific tinkerings. Apart from being a professor, he is also described as a hypnotist and an expert botanist. But wait, we haven’t been introduced to his folks at home yet. “My family. You’re all so very faithful”, he coos. And what a grouping they are, a marvellous collection of oddballs to rival the Addams Family. His bitter, suffering wife has the ice-cold beauty of Cruella de Ville and a constant need for the blood of virgins. Called the Countess, she is clearly modelled on the similar legend of the infamous sixteenth century Hungarian Countess Bathory who reputedly bathed in the blood of over six hundred maidens. In the part Elizabeth Russell shows the creepy persona (once dubbed ‘the female Bela Lugosi’) that upgraded her to better-appointed roles with producer Val Lewton including Cat People (1942), The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and Bedlam (1946).
Serving this macabre couple is Frank Moran as Angel, a shambling mute manservant with an institution haircut and a fetish for women’s long hair, whose pugilist face and hulking form would earn him the dubious honour of the title role in Monogram’s Return of the Ape Man (1944). Lorenz’s severe old trout of a housekeeper is his mother Fagah (Minerva Urecal, coincidentally later playing Agatha Brewster in 1943 prequel The Ape Man). She is forced to watch her son being lashed by Lorenz for pawing Alice’s hair. “My poor son. Why was he ever born?” she laments, drearily. As Lorenz’s sidekick is the 2’ 11” Angelo Rossitto, most famous for his work in Freaks (1932) and for three Monogram roles supporting Lugosi, the others being Spooks Run Wild (see my review of 14/12/2016) and 1947’s Scared to Death.
This circus sideshow bunch have been drugging the brides and then keeping them in a cataleptic trance while Lorenz siphons off their blood for his wife. We uncover this courtesy of Pat’s pursuit of the rare Stanhopia orchid, which supposedly Lorenz had hybridised himself. Intrepid as she is, her reporter’s instincts are strangely obtuse about the doctor, not initially suspecting him of any foul play involvement even when the locals are clearly too scared to give her a lift anywhere near his home. Fortunately she is picked up the designated hero Dr Foster. This is Tristram Coffin whom British kids of the ‘70s like myself will remember from retro TV showings as Republic’s air-parping King of the Rocket Men. Here however his acting is earthbound enough to be one of Lorenz’s victims.
When Pat and the good doctor accept Lorenz’s hospitality for the night, she observes he is at the very least a morbid eccentric. There is his peculiar staff and the penchant he shares with his wife for preferring to sleep in a coffin: “Many people do so” he assures her. It is to Lugosi’s credit that he at least maintains greater dignity than in some of his cheapjack contractual obligation albums. The actor’s solid composure is strong enough to withstand the silliness of much of his dialogue; it’s just a shame that it forces him to coast on a level of auto-pilot urbanity that is the least interesting aspect of his range.
“We often find it difficult to explain the peculiarities of some people” offers Foster when Pat recounts Lorenz’s coffin-bed kink. With two-watt light shedding like this, no wonder Pat seeks help from her hard-boiled editor Keenan (Kenneth Harlan channelling a more spirited white-collar boss than his doltish FBI chief in Black Dragons). When Foster shows up, they all pool their evidence and conclude that Lorenz is now a nutbar of interest. To expose him Keenan’s newspaper funds a fake wedding using Pat’s cigarette-girl friend Peggy (Gwen Kenyon) as a decoy June bride. “I certainly hope somebody shows up beside these ham actors I’m paying” bellyaches Keenan. He should be so lucky. At least ham histrionics have energy; most of this cast have the familiar Monogram monotone of delivery.
Peggy doesn’t get the fatal main part she is being fitted for as Lorenz is smart enough to target Pat by posing as the minister. In the climax, as Lorenz prepares Pat for blood extraction, he reckons without Fagah gaining revenge for his strangling of her son earlier by literally stabbing him in the back. The bad doctor keeps fatality in the family by throttling her as well but mortally collapses before he can drain the strapped-down Pat.
Tom Weaver points out that the British release of the film went under the name The Case of the Missing Brides, yet this orchid by any other name is still a stinker. The Corpse Vanishes misses more than wedding bells but rings out with some top unintentional laughs.