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Wednesday, 4 October 2017

CRAZY KNIGHTS (1944)

Horror films directed by William Beaudine were like buses - if you missed one, another would be along in a few minutes, such was the speed of this fastest shooter in the West. Monogram’s Crazy Knights released in December 1944 was his tenth credited gig that year and is well down to his usual standard. The working title had been Murder in the Family then later changed to Ghost Crazy, but no matter what nonsensical name it goes under, this is a rose that makes no scents.

The plot concerns a trio of carnival folk who become embroiled in the murky skulduggery of a family they give a lift to back to their haunted house. Our heroes include comedy actors Billy Gilbert and Shemp Howard whose energetic personas are welcome and at least known among the usual cardboard crowd of Poverty Row players. Gilbert could be a marvellous 280 lb foil of rotund apoplectic explosions, most famously going off in the faces of Laurel and Hardy in their 1932 masterpiece The Music Box. More recently in a darker comedy influenced by real world horror we saw him give fulsome support to Chaplin’s own crowning achievement The Great Dictator (1940). Howard was of course one of the original Three Stooges, several of whose shorts were in the spooky horror comedy vein we’ve already nuttily alleviating the darkest days of WWII . He had left the group in 1933 to embark as a solo screen actor for hire, but within two years of Crazy Knights was roped back in to provide long-term cover for his stroke-afflicted brother Curly.

As this film develops it’s clear that producers Sam Katzmann and Jack Dietz (of Lugosi’s ‘Monogram Nine’ infamy) were aiming to create their own mirthsome threesome - starting with Billy and Shemp trading increasingly desperate sub-vaudeville banter. Their travelling sideshow attraction is a scam - ‘Barney of Borneo: The Gorilla with a Human Mind’ substitutes Art Miles’s man-in-an-ape-suit for Shemp’s so he can fool the crowd with his miraculous numeracy. (if you believe grunting to a count of four is impressive).

The circus troupe’s financial situation is as threadbare as Tim Ryan’s dialogue (which he would later forge for several Bowery Boys vehicles as well as 1952’s non-glittering Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla). Filling out the trio is Bernard Sell as Dave Hammon, an actor whose CV according to IMDb is almost entirely composed of uncredited parts. It’s easy to see why as he is a dead ringer for how James Dean would have looked if he’d escaped his Porsche crash, made it to middle-age but had his talent surgically removed.

The fairground folk, with Barney in tow, stop to pick up the passengers of a broken-down car who we immediately discern have secrets among them. There is the wealthy, gruff Mr Gardner (John Hamilton – Perry White in TV’s Adventures of Superman Fifties show) and his nervous niece Joan (Jayne Hazard) protected by the family’s overbearing Mrs Benson played by Minerva Urcal, who by now had cornered the market in hatchet-faced housekeepers. “You remember what happened to your mother?” she warns timid Joan enigmatically in advance of their return to Casa Gardner.

Despite their wealth, the family have a precarious taste in employees. Behind the wheel is none other than the much-loved lunk ‘Slapsie’ Maxie Rosenbloom, the former boxer whom we last came across selling powder-puffs door to door in The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942). Greater potential risk is Gardner’s secretary Ralph (Tay Dunn) who incurs suspicion through his uncanny gift for being absent whenever jeopardy strikes. He retrieves his hat from the ground just as their smoky engine almost threatens to explode. Could this be the work of saboteurs he is in league with who intend to get their hands on Gardner’s money? Frankly we care so little we’d rather have more of the z-grade stripper fill-in schtick provided by Billy and Shemp – and our dubious luck is in.

The Gardner home becomes the location for a series of frenetic and ludicrous set-pieces that only work if one can imagine grown adults during World War Two being traumatised by a figure wearing a white bed sheet. There are a couple of daffy high-spots if like me you enjoy a little surrealism; there is a painting that revolves between varying facial-hair incarnations of the same person, and look out for the moment where Billy tosses his bowler hat away only for it to boomerang back to him like Robert Hays’ sailor cap in Airplane.

By the last act, the script contrives to partner Maxie with Billy and Shemp in the aforementioned hope of comedy team hi-jinks. This backfires due to wearisome scaredy-cat huffing and puffing instead of actual wit – and when a story resorts to the moth-eaten fallback of gorilla-suit identity mix-ups to pad out its running time it really is game over. Ultimately, after having dispatched the shady Williams, the killer is revealed to be Gardner himself; illogical enough as there is no motive. This is compounded by his unexplained earlier ability to transparently hover and vanish over the graveyard. Moreover, who is the bald microphone-wielding commentator revealed at the end as the disembodied voice continually taunting the guests to leave?

In the end, the entertainment value of Crazy Knights is as unfathomable as its release title. 

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