Wednesday, October 26, 2016

B-Western Wednesdays: The Omaha Trail

“In the days before the railroad, it was the ox train that moved our mighty empire to the fabled gold coast,” reads the title credits of the 1942 western movie The Omaha Trail.  “Some men saw in the new era of the railroad the end of their own ox train regime.  They fought a stubborn, bloody battle of resistance. This is a story of those times, of those trains, of those men.”  Yes, indeed.  Our starting point in this cinematic journey is Habersford, Missouri—where “Pipestone” Ross (Dean Jagger) operates a successful ox train bidness, assisted by his partner Ben Santley (Howard Da Silva).  Ben’s sister Julie (Pamela Blake) is Ross’ fiancée, his proposal sealed by a diamond engagement ring with more karats than Bugs Bunny.
Ross is going to have to slow his roll…because Patrick Candel (James Craig), a drifter Ben picked up on his return trip to Habersford, has also developed an interest in the fair Julie.   After a donnybrook with one of Ross’ henchmen (Morris Ankrum) in the town saloon, Pat attracts the attention of a man named Vane (Edward Ellis)—who has a business proposition for the scrappy young man, liking the cut of his jib.  Vane wants Candel to transport a locomotive engine to Omaha by oxen, and is prepared to pony up 15 large for his services…and knowing that a fat bankroll like that will put him in excellent stead where courtship with Julie is concerned, he accepts the deal.  There’s just one snag: Candel soon discovers there’s not a stray ox to be had in town; Ross has bought up every available steer…but being a reasonable man, he agrees to sell Pat and Vane a team for—wait for it—$15,000.

So why has Ross demonstrated such agreeability—particularly when his ox team business would be jeopardized by competition from the railroad?  Hard as it is to believe, “Pipestone” is all for progress and is convinced that there’s plenty of room for both the ox train and the choo-choo train.  Okay, I’m just jinkin’ ya—Ross is most displeased with this turn of events, and informs Ben that they will accompany Pat and Vane to Omaha while scheming for a way to (bad pun ahead) derail Vane’s burgeoning venture.

To be honest—I’m never entirely comfortable tackling an M-G-M programmer because the gloss of that studio always makes their B-pictures look like A-minus pictures.  As such, that’s what The Omaha Trail has going for it; sure, it’s a routine shoot-‘em-up with Indians on the warpath and the like, but it has one hell of an impressive cast—who nevertheless treat the humdrum material as if it were Stagecoach (1939).

Future Academy Award-winner Dean Jagger is in fine fettle as the iniquitous Ross, who shows his cowardly colors at the end during the eventual showdown with Craig’s Candel.  Personally, I thought Da Silva ran circles around him in the thespic department; his villainy isn’t in black-and-white and despite recognizing the threat that is Vane’s locomotive to his future business model, he’s squeamish at the thought of people being killed (chiefly his sister, who’s accompanying Ross to Omaha) in the process.  Pamela Blake, whom we last visited in Kid Dynamite (1943), makes for a most beguiling ingénue (I enjoy watching her in serials like The Mysterious Mr. M [1946] and Ghost of Zorro [1949]).  It’s just a shame that her marriage choices are between the oleaginous Jagger and the cardboard Craig.

Yeah, I said it.  I’m not a fan of James Craig’s…and to be even more brutal, I’m perplexed as to how he ever had a movie career in the first place.  Most of his gigs at M-G-M in the 1940s were obtained due to his resemblance to studio “King” Clark Gable, who was “doing his bit” in the U.S. Army Air Force.  This is not to say the actor stunk up every movie he appeared in; he’s surprisingly first-rate in The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), mildly tol’able in Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945) …oh, yeah—he’s also in While the City Sleeps (1956)—though I obviously adore watching that movie for other reasons (Howard Duff, Ida Lupino, Vincent Price, George Sanders, etc., etc., etc.).  When Clark was demobbed, Craig went back to B-picture city and later did quite a bit of TV before calling it a wrap, eventually become successful in real estate.

Chill Wills and Donald Meek provide Omaha Trail with the comic relief; the future voice of Francis, the Talking Mule sings an infectious little ditty entitled ‘Taters and Corn (that’s later reprised by Craig’s character on a pump organ, accompanied by the cast) while Meek effectively plays against type as a cantankerous Scottish engineer in the employ of Ellis’ Vane.  Harry Morgan (still being billed as Henry) also channels his inner goon as Nat, a stooge who works for Ross (and who carelessly causes an incident that brings down the wrath of a Sioux tribe the party meets on the trail).  Iron Eyes Cody and his brother J.W. are the two Native Americans befriended by Candel (before Nat goes on to demonstrate why we can’t have nice things), and there are bits from familiar Western vets like Bud Geary and Ethan Laidlaw.

The Omaha Trail was directed by actor-songwriter Edward Buzzell—who’s a bit out of his wheelhouse with this Western (the only other oater I could find on his resume was 1940’s Go West…and that Marx Brothers romp is stretching the definition of “Western” a bit); he’s better known for M-G-M musicals like Best Foot Forward (1943) and Neptune’s Daughter (1949).  I was more intrigued by the producer credit; I know Jack Chertok mostly for his small screen contributions like The Lone Ranger, Private Secretary, and My Favorite Martian.  Short and sweet (it’s over and done with at 61 minutes), try and catch it the next time it airs on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ (it’s not on DVD).

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Grey Market Cinema: The Undead (1957)

In my formative movie nut years, one of the activities that I looked forward to the most was when the ‘rents did a little stepping out at Saturday night dances at the country club (yes, we belonged to a country club—believe me, it wasn’t as hoity-toity as it sounds since there wasn’t anything else going on in that one-horse town) …because that meant I could stay up late and watch—Chiller Theater!  I’ve talked about this television showcase on the blog in the past, and suffice it to say it’s where I received my formal education in Horror Movies 101.  Chiller was a Saturday night staple of WOWK-TV (Huntington, WV) for many years, and a long procession of babysitters and I loved watching everything from Frankenstein (1931) to Tarantula (1955).  (Ma and Pa Shreve hired babysitters because I was not to be trusted with keeping an eye on my younger sisters.  The “long procession” part refers to the fact that sister Kat tended to try the patience of many of them.)

Memories of those halcyon horror movies on TV days came flooding back to me the other day when I sat down with The Undead (1957), which I purchased from Finders Keepers Classics sometime back.  Directed and produced by TDOY idol Roger Corman, Undead is a low-budget programmer inspired by Morey Bernstein’s The Search for Bridey Murphy, which was brought to the silver screen by Paramount in 1956.  In the Corman film, a streetwalker named Diana Love (Pamela Duncan) attracts the attention of psychic-scientist Quintus Ratcliff (Val Dufour)—who wants to conduct an unorthodox experiment in hypnosis despite the objections of Quintus’ mentor, Professor Ulbrecht Olinger (Maurice Manson).  Ratcliff puts Diana in such a deep trance that she regresses back to the Middle Ages and a past life she lived as Helene, a woman convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to die with a swing of the executioner’s axe.

There’s a slight complication: somehow, the modern-day Diana can communicate with Helene, and she helps Helene escape from the tower where she’s been imprisoned.  If we’ve learned anything from the classic Ray Bradbury short story “A Sound of Thunder,” it’s that mucking around in the past can alter future events and make everyone very unhappy.  As Helene runs to safety in the arms of her love Pendragon (Richard Garland), Quintus must devise a way to ensure she meets that appointment with death…and the individuals who have a vested interest in Helene’s demise include sultry sorceress Livia (Allison Hayes)—whose romantic interest in Pendragon is the reason why Helene was accused of being a witch—and Livia’s master, old Beelzebub (Richard Devon) himself.

This is Satan (Richard Devon).  Try to hide your disappointment.

Director Corman asked writer Charles B. Griffith (who would later pen the director’s A Bucket of Blood [1959] and The Little Shop of Horrors [1960], to name just a few) to work up “a Bridey Murphy story” at the same time Paramount was working on their adaptation of the Bernstein book.  (American International Pictures would also tackle reincarnation in their 1956 vehicle The She-Creature.)  Though Griffith was convinced that the Corman project was doomed to failure because of rumors at the time that the big-screen Bridey was experiencing problems, he rose to the challenge and with co-writer Mark Hanna produced a screenplay that was originally written in iambic pentameter.  (Corman was delighted by this…but then got cold feet when several people he asked to read the script didn’t understand it, and he asked Griffith to translate it into English.)

“The script was ruined,” Griffith later recalled in an interview, “but The Undead was a fun picture to shoot, because it was done in ten days at the Sunset Stage, which was a supermarket on Sunset Boulevard.  We filled it with palm trees and fog, and it was the first time Roger had used any of that stuff. He didn't like to rent anything.”   Other sources, by the way, assert the movie was knocked out in six days.  You know the old joke about “The Pope of Pop Cinema”: “Corman could negotiate the production of a film on a pay phone, shoot the film in the booth, and finance it with the money in the change slot.”  I think, however, you’ll be surprised by how good Undead is despite its budgetary limitations (deliberately filmed on the cheap and later released on a double bill with Voodoo Woman); the special effects are primitive but effective, and the acting quite solid for a picture of its type.

Everybody dance now!

Granted, The Undead has problems that go beyond its budget—particularly in the characterization of Quintus.  Concerned about the course of history should Helene not fulfill her destiny of losing her head, the scientist does a little time traveling himself by matching his brainwaves with hers (science!), and he’s soon physically walking around in the same period.  (For some odd reason, he leaves his clothes behind—necessitating in his mugging a knight for new duds—but later produces a wristwatch that he shows to Livia as proof of his “sorcery.”)  Once Quintus is in the middle ages, however, he’s one of the voices urging Helene not to submit to her fate…so why did he bother traveling back in time in the first place?  (Hint: it’s so the movie can conclude with an admittedly nifty twist ending.)

Pamela Duncan is a standout as Diana/Helene (I liked her tearful scene where she contemplates the difficult decision between life and death), and Allison Hayes delightfully wicked as Livia—when her character is first introduced, it’s via a slow pan from her legs upward…and I kind of snickered, saying to myself: “She’s not fifty-feet tall in this one!”  (Interestingly, the “bad” witch is presented as a fabulous babe while the “good” witch [played by Dorothy Neumann] is the typical “hag” caricature, complete with pointy nose and chin.)  Cult favorite Mel Welles (best remembered as florist Gravis Mushnik in Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors) provides a little comic relief as gravedigger Smolkin (who’s been ‘bewitched” by Livia) and you’ll also see familiar faces like Billy Barty (as an imp!) and Bruno Ve Sota (from Dementia).

Hey!  It's That Guy Dick Miller!  Billed as "Richard Miller" (classy!) The Man Who Would Be Paisley has a nice bit as a leper who's cured by simply signing his name in Old Scratch's autograph book.

The Los Angeles Times declared The Undead to be “a rather imaginative yarn,” and I’m sure that’s the reason why the movie has remained in the memory mist all these years…though I’ll admit I was a little nervous about revisiting it (I honestly had not seen Undead since those Chiller Theater days—I purposely avoided watching the Mystery Science Theater 3000 send-up because I refused to believe it’s all that terrible), because mist and fog are often interchangeable.  My Facebook compadre Roderick Heath has a splendid write-up on the film at This Island Rod, summing things up nicely by noting: “It’s hardly Day of Wrath, but The Undead is a minor gem of its own peculiar species, the sort of off-hand pleasure that makes trawling old B-movies worthwhile.”  The Finders Keepers DVD is first-rate (though it appears to be “liberated” from another source, possibly a Region 2 disc), and well worth a flutter.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Book Review: 11 Pre-Code Hollywood Movie Histories

I have heard your pleas, members of the TDOY faithful.  You have been clamoring for more reviews of books dealing with pre-Code motion pictures, and I am here to acquiesce to your demands.  The spotlight in the TDOY Book Club (motto: Oprah who?) today will be on Cliff Aliperti’s 11 Pre-Code Hollywood Movie Histories: Early Depression-Era Melodramas, Adaptations, and Headline Stories.

What’s that?  You say you made no such request?  Well…this is awkward.  Also a case of “tough toenails,” because I took time to read this Kindle selection, dadgummit, and…I guess we’ll just have to make the best of it.

My fellow Classic Movie Blog Association compadre Cliff Aliperti is a Lawn Guyland-based writer who trims the hedges at Immortal Ephemera, celebrating the best in 1930s cinema since 2002 (in addition to offering up nifty vintage memorabilia and collectibles).  The Immortal Ephemera brand is emblazoned on two e-books—Classic Movies Monthly #1 and #2 (a Halloween special!)—and his other published works include Helen Twelvetrees: Perfect Ingenue and Freddie Bartholomew: An Informal Biography.  However, a spending spree at the Kindle Store brought me into contact with 11 Pre-Code Hollywood Movie Histories, which I purchased at the same time as a previous tome spotlighted in this space, Sin and Vice in Black & White.

Mind you, I’m a little uncomfortable comparing both books…but I will say this: both of them would make splendid additions to your movie book library, for the simple reason that there’s no duplication in the content.  I don’t know if this was by design (“Rupe?  Cliff Aliperti here…you aren’t writing an essay on Only Yesterday, are you…?”) or just plain happenstance, but I think it’s dan-dan-dandy that it turned out that way.  Aliperti reviews a number of titles that tend to limbo underneath the pre-Code radar, notably For the Defense (1930) and Washington Merry-Go-Round (1932); on the whole, Cliff’s selections bypass better-known feature films from that era and concentrate on vehicles that are most worthy of rediscovery.

What surprised me most about 11 Pre-Code Hollywood Movie Histories is that Cliff included only one selection from his favorite performer (and beloved pre-Code cad), Warren William.  Aliperti started the first Warren William fan site in 2007, and I’m not going to lie to you—I gambled that Histories would be a little top-heavy with the Warren.  But there’s only one W.W. vehicle reviewed in the book, and it is a goody—1933’s Employees’ Entrance.  It’s an excellent essay—it might be my favorite of all the entries in the book—and despite my disagreement with Cliff’s analysis of William’s character (he sees Warren’s ruthless department store manager as a hero; my lifelong skepticism of capitalism/corporations just won’t let me embrace this) it will persuade you to see the movie in a new and challenging light.

Cliff also has novel takes on a number of movies that have been discussed here at TDOY, including Call Her Savage (1932), City Streets (1931), and The Sin of Nora Moran (1933).  He supplements the essays with colorful background material to put the films in their proper historical context, while offering up tidbits on the film’s stars and other people behind-the-scenes.  Good reviewers tantalize you into wanting to seek out those films you haven’t crossed off your “Must See Movies” list, and Aliperti’s entries on Merry-Go-Round and Only Yesterday (1933—I’ve read the book that inspired this one, but haven’t seen the silver screen version) succeed admirably in that mission.

I’m probably a bigger fan of Hell’s Highway (1932) than Cliff (though I do like how he contrasts it and the better-known I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang [1932]), mostly because I’m fascinated by the small oeuvre of Rowland Brown, who directed my favorite of all the pre-Codes, Blood Money (1933).  11 Pre-Code Hollywood Histories rounds out with essays on Show Girl in Hollywood (1930—which aired on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ recently), Gentleman’s Fate (1931—I’ll have to see this one the next time it makes the rounds), and Jimmy the Gent (1934—this one I did see…meh).  Cliff is also generous enough to inform the reader as to the availability of the movies on home video (the e-book was published in 2014, so there have been a few new developments on that score: City Streets is coming to MOD the first of November, which means I’ll have to retire my old Vintage Film Buff copy).

“My name is Cliff Aliperti and I write about old movies when I’m not watching them,” the author declares in a passage at the end of 11 Pre-Code Hollywood Movie Histories; an all-too-familiar mission statement of those of us who blog about classic films because it keeps us out of strip clubs.  (Okay…maybe not all of us.)  “I grew up in a house where black and white movies were every bit as good as color.”  While I wasn’t as fortunate to be raised in similar circumstances (though I don’t have time to get into that right now), it won’t escape your notice that Cliff clearly loves the movies he writes about, and his background in historical research helps immeasurably in making Movie Histories a sensational read and worthy purchase.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Tough Assignment (1949)

The honeymoon of L.A. newspaper reporter Dan Reilly (Don “Red” Barry) and his wife Margie (Marjorie Steele) is apparently in full sway…because Marg is stoked about preparing their first home-cooked meal in their new home.  She needs to get a few things at Schultz’s (Leander De Cordova) butcher shop, and she insists that Dan snap a photo of her outside the entrance for one reason or another.  As Dan trips the shutter, three men walk out of the jernt…and are notably perturbed that they had to smile for the camera.  The Reillys soon learn the reason why—old man Schultz was beaten up by the three goons, much to the dismay of Mrs. Schultz (Edit Angold).

Later, at Casa del Reilly, two of the thugs (Marc Lawrence, Ben Welden) rudely interrupt the couple’s domestic bliss by administering a pummeling to Dan and snatching the undeveloped film from Margie.  What gives?  Well, Dan does a little investigative reporting (I know, it was like this movie from another era or something) and learns from Patterson (Stanley Andrews) at the Bureau of Livestock Investigation that there’s a “bootleg beef” racket in full force—unsavory criminals are selling meat without state or federal inspection (this is why it’s good to have regulations, kids).  Reilly decides—with the approval of his editor Hutch (Michael Whalen)—that this would provide the grist for a good story, and it soon makes front page headlines.

The “boss” of the racket, Morgan (Steve Brodie), is not particularly jazzed about the publicity—so Vince (Lawrence) and Sniffy (Welden) are instructed to collect Reporter Dan and bring him in for a chinwag about dropping the story.  The tenacious Reilly isn’t so easily scared off, and after he and Margie conduct surveillance on a delivery truck outside of Schultz’s they soon find themselves on a ranch that’s the center of operations for the bootleggers…so they pose as a impoverished couple (they go by “Jim and Amy Hill”) in need of work in order to blow the racket wide open.  (That’s reporter talk.)

With an uncredited turn as a student in a Cecil B. DeMille oddity entitled This Day and Age (1933), Donald Barry officially launched his movie career.  Barry appeared in small roles and bits in films like Dead End (1937), The Last Gangster (1937), and Young Dr. Kildare (1938) before going to work for Republic Pictures and receiving featured parts in films like Wyoming Outlaw (1939—with John Wayne and the Three Mesquiteers) and Days of Jesse James (1939—with Roy Rogers).  It was at Republic that Barry would get the film role that made him a household name (and inspired him to add to his own); he starred in that studio’s 1940 serial, The Adventures of Red Ryder, and soon started being billed as Don “Red” Barry.

Barry is often described as “the poor man’s James Cagney,” and his onscreen persona resembled Jimmy’s in that he may have been short in stature but his cockiness/pugnaciousness more than made up for it.  Barry’s B-Westerns at Republic were very popular with theatergoers, with titles like Ghost Valley Raiders (1940), Wyoming Wildcat (1941), Two-Gun Sheriff (1941), Death Valley Outlaws (1941), and Outlaws of Pine Ridge (1942).  Unfortunately for “Red,” he took himself a little too seriously as a Cagney wannabe and alienated a lot of the directors with whom he worked at the studio.  (Red Ryder co-director William Witney derisively called him “the midget” and the other director on that serial, John English, vowed never to work with the star again after 1943’s Black Hills Express.)

Barry’s career was dealt an ace of spades as the 1940s came to a close, since B-Westerns were slowly dying off (they would be resurrected on the small screen soon after…since television could make them even cheaper).  Determined not to go gently into that good night, Don signed a contract with Lippert Pictures, and made some fairly decent oaters like Red Desert (1949) and Border Rangers (1950).  At Lippert, Barry also got the opportunity to don a producer’s hat—one of those pictures was today’s “Forgotten Noir,” Tough Assignment (1949).

Tough Assignment really isn’t much of a noir to me…but I did like the modern-day Western aspect of the picture, which takes hold about twenty-three minutes into the film. (It’s not a great movie, but it kept me entertained for its sixty-four-minute running time.)  The supporting cast in this one is Assignment’s most valuable asset, with noir icons like Steve Brodie and Marc Lawrence present…and as always, Lippert’s “good luck charm” Sid Melton is on hand for comic relief.  (Suffice it to say, I am somewhat more tolerant of Mr. Melton’s shtick than my good friend Scott C. at World O’Crap.)  Lawrence and Melton have an amusing scene where Sid finds out that Marc has been making time with Sid’s girlfriend (played by TDOY fave Iris Adrian in an all-too-brief appearance), and Sid’s response to Marjorie Steele’s news that she’s going to cook a meal “just like Mother made” is a riot: “Nuh-uh…that’s why I left home in the first place!”

Sadly, Lawrence doesn’t really come off as too menacing in Tough Assignment—which might be because he’s paired off with Ben Welden (who was the go-to guy for comic gangsters).  There are also contributions from familiar faces like Stanley “The Old Ranger” Andrews, Stanley Price, Fred Kohler, Jr., and Frank Richards—with Dewey Robinson providing Assignment with an amusing closing bit.  The film was directed by the indefatigable William Beaudine, and at the American Film Noir website there’s a section on “Bad Film Noirs” where the authors comment: “Beaudine, one of the most prolific directors in Hollywood history, was known for delivering cheap films with a fast shooting pace.  He certainly didn’t disappoint us with this effort.”  (Ouch!)

I didn’t think Tough Assignment was too terrible (the site also lists Fingerprints Don’t Lie [1951] …which definitely is) but discriminating viewers may not take to it…which is kind of a sad commentary on my existence if you think about it.  I chuckled at the cover of VCI’s Forgotten Noir Vol. 5 because Assignment receives the appellation “Co-Hit” alongside what appears to be the DVD’s “main” feature, FBI Girl (1951).  As for Don “Red” Barry, he became one of the busiest actors on the small screen (he had a regular role as “Lt. Snedigar” on TV’s Surfside 6) yet continued to experience difficulty with his personal life and he committed suicide in 1980.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

On the Grapevine – Lane closure

Okay, apologies for the lame title of this post.  I couldn’t come up with anything nearly as clever as some of the two-reelers that comprise Lupino Lane Comedy Shorts, a Grapevine Video release that came out last month.  I got wind of this DVD a while back at the Silent Comedy Mafia website, where capo di tutti capi Richard M. Roberts mentioned that a few of the items on Grapevine’s Lane menu would originate from his voluminous movie library.  (I would have ordered my copy the second the announcement hit my e-mailbox…but I was without funds at the time.)

The comedian who often draws strong comparisons to silent comedy legends Buster Keaton (for his athleticism and inventive physical gags) and Harry Langdon (for his vacant stare and innocent child-like persona) was born to a famous theatrical family (Ida Lupino is a second cousin) on June 16, 1892 in London—sources are occasionally contradictory about his birth name (given as Henry William George Lupino); proprietor David B. Pearson writes here that the Lupino family named the future film star “Lupino Lane” because a maiden aunt had planned to will her future heir £200,000 if the Lane clan complied.  To family and friends, Lupino was known as “Nipper” (though Lane himself preferred “Nip”—“nipper” is English slang for a pickpocket.)

Lane was a talented circus acrobat and tumbler who had appeared in British movie comedies since 1915, and he made his first U.S. film in 1922.  After spending two years at Fox (Lane also has a role in D.W. Griffith’s Isn’t Life Wonderful? [1924], which I’ll be covering in this space in a few weeks), Lupino signed with Educational Films (“The Spice of the Program”) where he hit his stride with some very entertaining two-reel comedies, produced by Jack White.  Five of them are featured on this Grapevine set.

The collection kicks off with the best of the bunch, Maid in Morocco (1925); Lupino is a groom whose bride (Helen Foster) has attracted the roving eye of Ben Hammered (Wallace Lupino—the star’s younger brother, who appeared in most of the Lane comedies but also did some solo work [his 1928 comedy The Lost Laugh is on Accidentally Preserved, Volume 1]), the Caliph of Ginfez.  Even though Ben already has a harem numbering 200 wives, he figures one more won’t make that much difference…so The Groom is forced to infiltrate the palace and rescue his love.  Morocco features one of the comedian’s best-remembered gags: during a frantic chase with the Caliph’s guards, Lane does a gravity-defying run up one side and down the other of an archway (he does this twice in the short!).  Morocco is a true comedy gem, with Lane constantly in motion (Steve Massa describes him in Lame Brains & Lunatics as “the diminutive dervish who sets all the other elements spinning”)—there’s even a spirited chase at the end that requires him to do some Keatonesque sprinting to evade his adversaries.

Movie Land (1926), the second short on the DVD, is also most enjoyable…with Lupino as a gazillionaire (the appropriately-titled “Lester Limberleg”) who’s fallen for actress Kathryn McGuire.  After a mishap involving his dress clothes (you kind of have to see this to believe it), he unintentionally slights Kathryn and when he visits her at the movie studio the next morning to make amends she informs studio security that he’s to escort Mr. Limberleg off the lot by any means necessary.  This is an invitation for some hilarious physical comedy (the mattress gag is sidesplitting), which culminates with Lester impersonating a stunt dummy that nevertheless allows him to experience a few blissful moments of romance in the arms of his lady love. 

Movie Land was written and directed by future Oscar winner Norman Taurog, while Morocco and Naughty Boy (1927), another entertaining comedy, were helmed by the prolific Charles Lamont (he directed a lot of Abbott & Costello’s vehicles in the 1950s).  Boy has a bit of a farfetched premise—Lupino has to impersonate a child (here’s where the Langdon influence is most noticeable) because his father has told his bride-to-be he’s thirty—but it’s got funny gags aplenty and an energetic performance from the star.  Fandango (1928) stars Lane as “The Lonesomest Man in Town”; a caballero who competes with Wallace Lupino for the attentions of a fetching senorita (Marjorie Moore).  It’s not one of the strongest Lupino shorts I’ve seen, but it’s redeemed by the presence of TDOY fave Anita Garvin, who plays Lane’s seductive dance partner in the two-reeler’s highlight.  Rounding out the disc is Battling Sisters (1929), which really doesn’t go anywhere once its one-joke premise has been established (in the future [1980!], women fight in the wars while men “keep the home fires burning”).  (Hey—you can’t hit one out of the park every time you’re up to bat.)

Fandango and Sisters allowed Lupino Lane to embrace his inner auteur; he directed these shorts under the nom de cinema “Henry W. George.”  Lane’s work behind the camera would reach its apex with Only Me (1929), a two-reeler that features him playing all twenty-four roles in the short!  (Influenced by Buster Keaton’s The Play House [1921], no doubt; Only Me is available on the Slapstick Encyclopedia DVD collection.)  Massa observes: “Lane also benefited from the direction of Keaton mentor Roscoe Arbuckle in his early comedies The Fighting Dude (1925), Fool’s Luck (1926), and His Private Life (1926).”  (Fool’s Luck turns up on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ from time to time, so keep an eye peeled for it.)

Of the five shorts on Grapevine’s Lane collection, I was already familiar with three of them (Morocco, Boy, and Fandango) as a result of a previous purchase of Alpha Video’s Lupino Lane Silent Comedy Collection, Volume 1; that set also features one of the comedian’s best shorts (I just wish Alpha’s print was better) in Roaming Romeo (1928—a.k.a. Bending Her), Who’s Afraid? (1927), and a sound effort from Lupino, Purely Circumstantial (1929).  Alpha put out a second collection in January of 2014 that features four additional shorts including 1928’s Sword Points (with a memorable sequence of Lane leaping in and out of trapdoors hidden in a wall).  (Ask Andrew “Grover” Leal how he happened to acquire a copy of this DVD sometime—hint: it involves me not remembering I previously purchased the disc.)

My lifelong love for Buster Keaton might explain why I enjoy the Lupino Lane comedies so much; the gags are really imaginative and Lane executes some stunts that even surpass The Great Stone Face—including his trademark routine, where he does a “split” and then jack-knifes back to a standing position without putting a hand on the ground.  Leonard Maltin writes in The Great Movie Comedians: “But Lane suffered from the same problem that plagued so many of his colleagues: there was nothing tangible or human underneath the surface gags.  Even those acrobatics became familiar after a couple of films and started to lose their fresh appeal…”  Pearson muses that if Lane had been employed at Hal Roach, where the writers were able to develop meatier stories, his prominence in the Kingdom of Comedy might be markedly different.  (And let’s not overlook the fact that Lane became an even bigger name on the other side of the pond as the originator of “The Lambeth Walk” in the hit stage musical Me and My Gal.)

But that’s all frog dissection: when the Lupino Lane comedies are good, they’re very, very good.  I highly recommend a purchase of Grapevine’s collection, and perhaps in future we’ll see a release with better prints of Roaming Romeo and Sword Points.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

B-Western Wednesdays: Treachery Rides the Range (1936)

For Native Americans, the buffalo was of vital importance in the Old West.  It was a source of food, clothing, shelter, and weapons—and the relentless hunting of that wild range bovid by the white man put it perilously close to extinction.  In an effort to foment peace, the U.S. government signs a treaty with the Comanche to make it illegal for buffalo hunters to shoot the beasts on Indian lands.  Negotiating the peace is U.S. Cavalry Captain Red Colton (Dick Foran), who shares a kinship with the tribe (he’s an honorary “blood brother”) presided over by Chief Red Smoke (Jim Thorpe…All-American).  Red Smoke agrees to meet with Colonel Drummond (Monte Blue), Colton’s superior, by “the next moon,” and promises to bring both of his sons—Little Big Wolf (Carlyle Moore, Jr.) and Little Big Fox (Frank Bruno)—along for the powwow.

Back at the fort, Drummond and Colton get a visit from buffalo hunter Wade Carter (Craig Reynolds), who requests permission to hunt buffalo on Comanche lands to meet the demand for buffalo meat and pelts.  Drummond says “No dice, Chicago”; he’s determined to make sure the treaty is enforced—which doesn’t set at all well with Wade.  (When Colton tells him the last of the buffalo are on Native American land—and once the buffalo are gone, so goes the tribe—Carter whips out the familiar western film excuse that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”  He seems nice.)  So Carter, in tandem with bidness partner Burley Barton (Henry Otho), orders his henchmen—headed up by Monte Montague as “Nebraska Bill”—to disguise themselves as Cavalry soldiers and pay Chief Red Smoke a friendly visit.  They convince the Chief that Drummond wants a chinwag earlier than scheduled, and so the Chief’s sons journey back with the “soldiers” where they are killed along the trail.  Well, one of them is—Little Big Wolf, though wounded, manages to make his way back to the tribe and report the treachery riding the range.

Dick Foran’s (billed as “The Singing Cowboy”) third Warner Brothers western is short and sweet (it calls it a wrap after 56 minutes), and therefore it’s painless to take…but although it’s a fast-paced oater this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good one.  (I was kind of critical of Trailin’ West [1936] when I covered that movie earlier on the blog—Treachery Rides the Range [1936] makes West look like Citizen Kane.)  Paula Stone, who also played the love interest in West, doesn’t get a lot to do in this one other than damsel-in-distress (her character of Ruth Drummond is on her way to the fort when the Indians start putting on the war paint…and though Colton is able to stop her stagecoach from getting her to the fort, she winds up in the clutches of Carter and Barton).  Foran’s musical numbers—Ridin’ Home and Leather and Steel—are also pretty uninspiring…though director Frank McDonald does attempt to make Leather interesting by having the star perform as he rides with his fellow Cavalry soldiers.  (I kept hearing Stout Hearted Men in my head the entire time.)

One bright moment in Treachery—and I realize this will only amuse those of us who are fans of the Hal Roach comedies…so I’m guessing everyone, right?—is seeing Don “Thank you gigantically!” Barclay as one of Foran’s men, Corporal Bunce.  Colton and Bunce have to rescue Ruth Drummond from the Comanche…because Chief Red Smoke has decreed that Ruth must die to avenge the death of Little Big Wolf.  Colton gets an idea: he’ll leave Ruth and Bunce with Red Smoke while he and several members of the tribe ride off in search of the Colonel so everything can be ironed out.  Bunce reluctantly agrees to this, but tells his superior officer to be careful in that trademark fruity manner of his: “I have no desire to be parboiled by these Indians...”  (It is indeed a shame that no one thought to bring Barclay back for additional Foran oaters—though the two did work on 1937’s Black Legion.)

With a story and screenplay by future producer William Jacobs (he would also script the first and second entries in the Foran Western series, Moonlight on the Prairie [1935] and Song of the Saddle [1936]), Treachery Rides the Range is pleasant enough but doesn’t really have the “oomph” needed to be a first-rate programmer (even the villains in this one are ho-hum).  It’s available on the Warner Archive MOD DVD set Dick Foran Western Collection (though I DVR’d this one from The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™).

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Guilty Pleasures: Ghost Catchers (1944)

In a review of Murder in the Blue Room (1944) that I wrote for the blog a while back, I slipped in a casual mention of how Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas, and John Brunas—authors of the amazing reference tome Universal Horrors—were not particularly enamored of the Ole Olsen-Chic Johnson comedy Ghost Catchers (1944).  Here’s what they have to say:

It’s hard to knock a comedy duo that collaborated that long and that successfully, and starred in one of Broadway’s longest-running shows (“Hellzapoppin”)—but we’re sure gonna try.  To the innocent, uninitiated viewer who stumbles upon Ghost Catchers, the Olsen and Johnson shtick can be a painful thing to behold.  Their forte was wild sight gags, hoary jokes and puns and what film historian Leonard Maltin lovingly calls “a flair for the ridiculous that has never been duplicated.”  Time, however, has passed them by: There’s no longer any humor in seeing these loudmouths cavorting in women’s clothes or zoot suits, no pleasure left in the dreamworld plots left over from the vaudeville pastiches.

I realize that comedy is subjective to many folks.  I know that what makes me laugh might leave you completely stone-faced.  But Leonard Maltin is the reason why I was initially curious about Olsen & Johnson (they receive a chapter in his book Movie Comedy Teams), and I’m going to be completely honest: I think the duo are funny.  I maintain both Hellzapoppin’ (1941) and Crazy House (1943) are first-rate movie comedies, even though they’re a bit top-heavy with the musical numbers (a Universal trademark).  “Fans of Olsen and Johnson complain about the big band musical numbers and romantic subplots which bog down some of their pictures, but others may find these added elements a welcome respite from O&J.”  Your mileage may vary, I guess.

That having been said, I’ll admit that Ghost Catchers is not one of Chic and Ole’s strongest vehicles.  But there’s still a lot to like in the movie.  Here’s the bare bones plot: Southern colonel Breckinridge Marshall (Walter Catlett)—he’s not a legitimate colonel, but is what we used to say in my neck of the swamp “puttin’ up a front”—and his daughters Susanna (Martha O’Driscoll) and Melinda (Gloria Jean) arrange to rent a New York brownstone in anticipation of the success from Melinda’s singing career (she’s to give a performance at Carnegie Hall).  The lawyer (Walter Kingsford) who made them such a sweet deal on their new digs has neglected to tell them, however, that the joint is haunted; as the family Marshall settles in for a good night’s sleep, they hear strange noises in their new domicile—a horse whinnying and someone…tap dancing.  Susanna rushes next door to obtain help from the neighbors.

The neighbors are Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson (playing themselves); they operate a nightclub next door and when Susanna bursts onto the scene, pleading for help, the duo “give her the business” in typical Hellzapoppin’ style as they and their employees—including Virginia Bennett (Ella Mae Morse) and bandleader Clay Edwards (Kirby “Sky King” Grant)—entertain Susanna and the nightclub patrons with Three Cheers for the Customers.  Misunderstanding that the funnymen rarely take anything seriously, an angry Susanna returns to Casa del Marshall…and are soon joined by Chic and Ole, who are persuaded to spend the night in order to investigate the goings-on.

After experiencing supernatural events that seemingly have no explanation, Ole and Chic go with Susanna to the lawyer’s office the next day to break the lease…but no soap—attorney Chambers refuses to believe in “ghost stories.”  Chambers then tells the trio the tale of Wilbur Duffington (Jack Norton), a millionaire who died on New Year’s Eve in 1900 after taking a tumble out a window—apparently he was having a miserable time at his own affair.  That gives Olsen and Johnson an idea:  why not throw a party in Wilbur’s honor in an effort to exorcise his spirit?

Wilbur is reluctant to leave Rancho Marshall despite the swell bash—he only agrees to vacate after Ole & Chic give the order to ramp up some loud jazz music as a cast of thousands jitterbug their hearts out.  Wilbur waves a white flag as he departs the brownstone…but the Marshall family’s troubles are just beginning when it’s discovered that a criminal gang are operating in the basement!

Leonard Maltin wrote in Movie Comedy Teams that Ghost Catchers came closer to Olsen and Johnson’s zany brand of humor than any of their other vehicles—I’m going to have to dissent from this opinion, because I think Crazy House is a much better representation of their “anything-for-a-laugh” approach to movie comedy.  There are some fitfully amusing sequences in Catchers that often remind me of The Goon Show (where the plot stops dead in its tracks for a wheezy gag or two); I like the craziness that permeates the team’s nightclub (when Susanna is ejected from the joint she disappears via a trap door that opens up under the floor of the place and deposits her out on the street), particularly in the wind-up scene where Ole, Chic, and the Marshalls are tangling with the bad guys…and their pleas for help are ignored by the patrons (they assume they’re just clowning around).  I also enjoy the fact that there’s an actual ghost in Catchers (most of the time in these haunted house films weird events are usually explained away Scooby-Doo-style); in fact, it’s Wilbur who comes to the rescue (despite having been evicted) by summoning the cops—police sergeant Edgar Dearing explains to Ole and Chic that someone just walked through a wall at the precinct to let them know they were in trouble.  Dearing then takes a beat, and repeats “Walked through a wall?

In Crazy House, Olsen & Johnson in-joked that they were not Universal’s star mirthmakers with a gag in which studio president Thomas Gomez, informed by his secretary that “Universal’s most sensational comedy team [is] outside!”  “Oh,” cracks Gomez, “Abbott and Costello!  Send them right in!”  Ole and Chic reference Bud and Lou in Ghost Catchers, too—most memorably in a funny scene where the two of them are undressed for bed by unseen forces while they discuss among themselves how unrealistic Hold That Ghost (1941) was (including the “moving candle” bit).  (The duo don’t realize that something supernatural has taken place until after they’ve hit the hay…then both of them awake with a sudden start.)  The animated opening credits of Catchers—with a tall man and short man running away from a ghost—was cribbed from Hold That Ghost’s titles, too.  The authors of Universal Horrors argue: “The scene isn’t good, and isn’t funny, but hearing Olsen and Johnson discussing Abbott and Costello and Hold That Ghost makes for an unusual moment that sticks in the mind after everything else about Ghost Catchers has faded.  (Hold That Ghost is one of my favorite A&C vehicles…but believe me, it’s not difficult to enjoy both movies.)

I still argue that Universal’s shoehorning of specialty acts into their comedy features (you not only get the Apache dancing of Armando & Lila…but Morton Downey warbling These Foolish Things [Remind Me of You]) makes for some glancing-at-your-watch viewing…but Ghost Catchers does make an effort to work the musical performers into the plot with Ella Mae Morse (singer of hits like Cow Cow Boogie and Blacksmith Blues) and Kirby Grant (billed here as “Kirby Grant and His Orchestra”) as actual characters.  (You’ll also notice how Gloria Jean is a big girl now…and in all the right places, to quote one of my favorite movies.)  In addition, Catchers features some fabulous character veterans like Tom “Heil myself!” Dugan (as the guy who bricks up our heroes “Cask of Amontillado”-style), Leo Carrillo, Andy Devine (his character is identified in the closing credits as “Horsehead”), Henry Armetta, Tor Johnson, and Wee Willie Davis.  (Lon Chaney, Jr. is also in this one, and manages to keep his dignity despite wearing a bear costume.  Hey—if he was able to shamble around in dirty bandages for three Mummy films, the bear suit is a walk in the park.)

Weaver and the Brunases (Bruni?) conclude: “In the twenty-first century, Ghost Catchers is the kind of movie that you’d be embarrassed to have someone walk in and catch you watching—but watch it we Universal devotees must, at least once, because it’s a Universal ‘haunted house’ movie and because it features Lon Chaney, Jr.”  (You guys are really sitting on the fence about this one, aren’t you?)  Pish and tosh, says I; the movie makes me laugh, and if I have a nitpick (and this is a major one) it’s that the film is not available on legitimate DVD (it was released on VHS in the 1990s, which is when I first saw it).  Amazon offers a bootleg copy for twenty bucks from the now out-of-business Nostalgia Home Video…but it’s a terrible print (I have a copy), and missing the opening Universal titles.  You can probably wait until this one makes it to legitimate DVD.