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Saturday, December 31, 2011

In Memoriam - 2011

I'm never quite satisfied with any of the "in memoriam" lists, so I've decided to start my own. So these are the notable people we lost in 2011 whose time on this planet left some impression, big or small, on me. Of course, like all the other lists, it doesn't include everybody, so feel free to remark on anyone you'll miss in the comments.

Pete Postlethwaite, actor
February 7, 1946 - January 2, 2011

Anne Francis, actor
September 16, 1930 - January 2, 2011

Gerry Rafferty, singer-songwriter
April 16-1947 - January 4, 2011

Peter Yates, film director
July 24, 1929 - January 9, 2011

Susannah York, actor
January 9, 1939 - January 15, 2011

Charlie Callas, comedian / actor
December 20, 1924 - January 27, 2011

John Barry, film composer
November 3, 1933 - January 30, 2011

Bill Justice, animator
February 9, 1914 - February 10, 2011

Kenneth Mars, actor
April 4, 1935 - February 12, 2011

Dwayne McDuffie, comic book writer / animator
ary 20, 1962 - February 21, 2011

Nicholas Courtney, actor
December 16, 1929 - February 22, 2011

Michael Gough, actor
r 23, 1916 - March 17, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor, actor
February 27, 1932 - March 23, 2011

Sidney Lumet, film director
June 25, 1924 - April 9, 2011

Arthur Marx, writer
July 21, 1921 - April 14, 2011

Elisabeth Sladen, actor
February 1, 1946 - April 19, 2011

Jackie Cooper, actor
September 15, 1922 - May 3, 2011

Arthur Laurents, stage and screen writer / stage director
July 14, 1917 - May 5, 2011

Dolores Fuller, actor / songwriter
March 10, 1923 - May 9, 2011

Jeff Conaway, actor
October 5, 1950 - May 27, 2011

Wally Boag, performer
September 13, 1920 - June 3, 2011

James Arness, actor
May 26, 1923
- June 3, 2011

Roy Skelton, actor
July 20, 1931 - June 8, 2011

Clarence Clemons, musician
January 11, 1942 - June 18, 2011

Fred Steiner, film and television composer
February 24, 1923 - June 23, 2011

Peter Falk, actor
September 16, 192
7 - June 23, 2011

Gene Colan, comic book artist
September 1, 1926 - June 23,

Würzel, musician

October 23, 1949 - July 9, 2011

Sherwood Schwartz, television producer
November 14, 1916 - July 12, 2011

Tom Aldredge, actor
February 28, 1928 - J
uly 22, 2011

John Howard Davies, television producer
March 9, 1939 - August 22, 2011

Charles S. Dubin, television director
February 1, 1919 -
September 5, 2011

Cliff Robertson, actor
September 9, 1923 - September 10, 2011

Tom Wilson, cartoonist
August 1, 1931 - Septem
ber 16, 2011

Earl Kress, animation writer
August 22, 1951 - September 19, 2011

Charles Napier, actor
April 12, 1936 -
October 5, 2011

Steve Jobs, businessman / inventor
February 24, 1955 - October 5, 2011

Leonard Stone, actor
November 3, 1923 - November 2, 2011

Sid Melton, actor
May 22, 1917- November 2, 2011

Bil Keane, cartoonist
October 5, 1922 - November 8, 2011

John Neville, actor
May 2, 1925 - N
ovember 19, 2011

Ken Russell, film director
July 3, 1927
- November 27, 2011

Alan Sues, actor
March 7, 1926 - December 1, 2011

Jerry Robinson, comic book artist
January 1, 1922 - December 7, 2011

Harry Morgan, actor
April 1
0, 1915 - December 7, 2011

Bert Schneider, film and television producer
May 5, 1933 - December 12, 2011

Joe Simon, comic book writer
October 11, 1913
- December 14, 2011

Eduardo Barreto, comic book artist
1954 - December 15, 2011

Nicol Williamson, actor
14, 1936 - December 16, 2011

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- BLACK FRIDAY (1940)

Yes, I confess. I watched this on Black Friday. I couldn’t resist, but I think it’s a much better way to spend the day after Thanksgiving than braving the stores.

Yet again, this is a film that gets lumped in with the many horror films to star Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, but in this case it’s more of a crime thriller with some Jekyll-and-Hyde-type science-fiction elements. In fact, even though those giants of the horror genre get top billing, the standout performance is really that of Stanley Ridges.

Karloff plays Dr. Ernest Sovac, who, when his friend Professor George Kingsley (Ridges), receives a deadly brain injury in an accident, saves his life by transplanting part of the brain of gangster Red Cannon, another victim in the accident, into Kingsley’s skull. Sovac’s intentions are good initially, but when he learns that Red had a hidden fortune, greed sets in, and he begins tampering with Kingsley’s mind to bring the Cannon personality to the forefront, hoping he can learn the whereabouts of the missing loot.

Karloff turns in another good performance, as a much more subdued and benign mad scientist than we’ve been seeing. Lugosi’s role, I’m afraid, is little more than a glorified cameo, and here’s where things get a little odd behind the scenes. Apparently, Karloff was originally tapped to play Kingsley and Cannon, while Lugosi would have played Dr. Sovac. Rumor has it that Karloff didn’t feel he was up to the duality of the role, so he took on Sovac and Lugosi ended up in the much smaller part of Eric Marnay, the second in command of Cannon’s gang. In comes Ridges who plays the duality so completely I admit it took some time for me to realize the two very different personalities were not played by separate actors. Costume and make-up helped accent the difference, but a lot of the credit goes to Ridges’ vocal work and the way he carried himself physically. This could have ended up a entirely different film had the original casting remained intact. I have to wonder about if the rumor is true about Karloff’s decision. I’ve seen him play quite a diverse range of characters, yet similarly in Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Karloff plays only Jekyll while another actor plays Hyde. Ridges holds his own with Karloff quite well. Perhaps if he’d lived longer he would have achieved notoriety on par with that of his costars.

One other interesting thing that went on behind the scenes: in what was probably a publicity stunt, Bela Lugosi supposedly underwent hypnosis for a scene in which he appears to suffocate. This may have been a ploy to make up for the fact that his role was so small despite his billing. You can see how it was used to promote the film in the trailer from my last entry.

Overall, I enjoyed it, though the brain transplant plot device did severely challenged my suspension of disbelief, but as such pseudo-science is common in these movies, it was easy to forgive.

This week’s supporting features:

Goofy in Tennis Racquet (1944)

The Our Gang short Readin’ and Writin’ (1932)

I’m taking a break for the holidays. I should be back on track by mid-January, returning with:

Revenge of the Creature (1955) starring John Agar, Lori Nelson, Ricou Browning, and Tom Hennesy

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- THE BLACK CASTLE (1952)

This is the third film I’ve watched from The Boris Karloff Collection box set that doesn’t really qualify as horror, not that I’m complaining, just a little memo to the people over at Universal’s home video department who promised it would contain Karloff’s “most frightening roles”. The Black Castle is more of an adventure film, belonging more with the likes of The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask than Frankenstein and Dracula. I think, though, the producers wanted to convince audiences they were coming to a horror film. Apart from casting two horror icons and opening music that seems to suggest that spooky things are on the way, there’s a number of horror clichés scattered throughout. There’s an alligator pit, the threat of being buried alive, and even an opening graveyard scene serenaded by a howling wolf.

But once the opening framing sequence in the cemetery ends, the adventure plot quickly unfolds. Sir Ronald Burton (Richard Greene) disguised as Richard Beckett investigates the disappearance of two friends, last seen in the castle of the sinister Count von Bruno (Stephen McNally). Matters become complicated when Burton falls in love with the Count’s wife (Rita Corday) and has to add a rescue from a loveless marriage to his mission. It’s a simple plot, and probably not the most original, but it’s well executed and has a pretty solid cast that also includes character actor Henry Corden who would go on to be the second actor to voice Fred Flintstone.

I am somewhat puzzled as to how Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr. were reduced to supporting roles at this stage in their careers, but they are good performances. Karloff plays the Count’s good-hearted personal physician. It’s always nice to see Karloff as one the good guys, and the role has some dimensions, as his sense of self-preservation is greater than his sense of justice. Chaney’s role is downright mystifying. He’s convincing as a hulking mute servant, but it’s a role that could have been played by almost any beefy actor, it’s as if he’s only there to add one more name actor to the cast.

So, not horror, but still an enjoyable ride. Two more movies to go in the box set, I’m not sure what they’ll turn out to be, but I look forward to finding out.
This week’s supporting features:
Bugs Bunny in Buckaroo Bugs (1944)

The Our Gang short Dogs Is Dogs (1931)
Next week:
Black Friday (1940) starring Boris Karloff, Stanley Ridges, Bela Lugosi, and Anne Nagel

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- THE MUMMY’S HAND (1940)

Is this Hollywood’s first attempt at rebooting a franchise? I’m sure many who haven’t seen The Mummy’s Hand and the three Mummy films that followed it assume they are sequels to the 1932 Boris Karloff vehicle, when it is, in fact, its own series. Yet, it’s clearly conceived to build on people’s memories of the first film. The origin of Kharis, the mummy of the latter films is virtually identical to that of Karloff’s Imhotep, so much so that his origin flashback is presented with the same footage from the earlier film.

The Mummy’s Hand is enjoyable enough, even if it is a bit uneven. (Which so far seems to be a consistent characteristic of the Mummy films.) It can’t seem to make up its mind on whether it wants to be a horror, comedy, or adventure film, but at least it has a capable cast of character actors. Dick Foran and Peggy Moran establish the chemistry they will carry over into Horror Island the following year, while Wallace Ford and Cecil Kellaway make for entertaining comic foils. George Zucco is a formidable villain, and Tom Tyler is creepy enough as Kharis the mummy, even if I question the decision to black out his eyes. I’ve seen photographs of him in full mummy make-up and his own gaze is formidable enough without special effects.

The plot is rather simple, and probably launches the cliché we’ve come to associate with mummy movies: Desecrating an ancient Egyptian tomb leads to becoming the victim of that tomb’s mummified guardian. Though I never realized that a catalyst in the form of a fanatical religious cult was needed in order to restore life to the guardian, for the mummy cannot walk unless disciples of the cult give him a dose of serum derived from tanna leaves. It seems to me the cult’s value of ancient tombs over human life requires a high level of devotion, but I suppose such fanaticism can be found in modern religions to this very day.

The Mummy’s Hand reliance on comic relief can be rather jarring at times. I found it particularly odd for Ford and Kellaway to be amusing themselves with card tricks mere moments after the death of a colleague, but sometimes that’s just the way of Hollywood. It’s going to be a while before I get to Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, but I’ll be certain to draw on memories of this film when I write my entry for it, because I could easily see the script for Hand working as a piece for Bud and Lou with only the slightest of tweaking.

This week’s supporting features:

The Silly Symphony The Skeleton Dance (1929)

The Our Gang short Shiver My Timbers (1931)

In two weeks:

The Black Castle (1952) starring Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., Richard Greene, Stephen McNally and Rita Corday

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- DRÁCULA (1931)

I’m afraid I didn’t like it. Sorry to start this entry off so bluntly, but I know I’m going to take some flack for my opinion, so I thought it best to get it out in the open early. I know a great many people hold Universal’s Spanish language version of Dracula, shot on the same sets with a translation of the same script, in high regard, some even find it superior to the Lugosi version. It just turns out I’m not among them. I made an effort; I really went in wanting to like it, but it just wasn’t to be. Have my love of Lugosi and the higher profile of the other version become so elevated in my psyche that this one couldn’t possibly eclipse it? Perhaps, to a degree. After all, when we hear a new version of a popular song we tend to favor the original version that we fell in love with, but I think it was more than that.

Let me start by going over what I did like about the film. There were some good performances. Pablo Álvarez Rubio certainly made a good Renfield, although he took the character in a much more extravagant direction than Dwight Frye. Lupita Tovar made for an enjoyable Eva (this film’s version of Mina). And Carlos Villarías makes an adequate Count, even if I did think he looked like the son of Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee with a dash of Nicholas Cage thrown in, still I found him lacking in the Lugosi charm. But casting-wise I felt most of the good performances were made by the tourists and villagers at the beginning of the film, and I particularly liked the wide-eyed frightened helmsman, who becomes the last victim on the cargo ship.

Production-wise, I appreciated some of the script elements retained in this version that were cut from the Lugosi version. It was nice to see exactly how the housekeeper escaped a possible attack from Renfield, and I was glad to see closure brought to the Woman in White subplot, even if it did come at an awkward time dramatically.

I did find it strange that there is footage of the brides of Dracula used from the English version that doesn’t match at all the brides we see a few minutes later, but I can forgive that. We’ll just say the Count has six brides in this version.

No, my biggest problem with Drácula was the pacing. This version is thirty minutes longer than the English version, and it feels like it. One might argue that it’s due to the aforementioned script elements that they kept, but no, it’s mostly due to the director’s slow pans and his need to show every single step as someone crosses a room. This is the same way the Ed Woods of the world pad out a film. Couple that with Eduardo Arozamena’s very stilted way of delivering his lines, and this makes for one very slow moving film. There were also some strange choices made when it came to the composition of some shots, particularly one where several of the actors are obscured by a sofa. On the whole, I found it very hard to remain engaged.

So, let the dissension begin. I was looking for discussion and debate when I decided to take this project to the Internet, so I’m looking forward to hearing what others have to say. I may not have liked it, but I look forward to hearing why others do.

To end on a high note though, there’s a nice anecdote connected with the film in Michael Mallory’s book that I can’t resist repeating here: Apparently, Lupita Tovar got the role of Eva because Universal executive Paul Kohner had fallen madly in love with her and she was to return to Mexico. Creating projects for young Spanish-speaking actors was apparently his ploy to keep her in Hollywood. Apparently, it worked. They were married in 1932 and remained so until his death in 1988. Incidentally, she’s still with us today at age 101, and the DVD I watched, features an interview with her from five years ago, still looking rather lively for a lady in her upper 90s.

This week’s supporting features:

Porky Pig in Paying the Piper (1949)

The Our Gang short Big Ears (1931)

Next week’s film:

The Mummy’s Hand (1940) starring Dick Foran, Peggy Moran, Wallace Ford, and Tom Tyler

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)

Did anyone else ever read the monster books by Ian Thorne? They were a very accessible series on the classic movie monsters that were available in my elementary school library that I read long before I saw any of the actual movies. One of Thorne’s comments that always stayed with me stated that of all the Frankenstein films, Bride of Frankenstein most closely follows Mary Shelley’s book. Today having read the book and seen the movie, I’d say yes and no. Certainly, there are many elements from the book there, most notably the Bride herself (though she’s never completed in the book) and the scene where the Monster befriends a blind man, but the film goes in so many different directions from Shelley, I’m very reluctant to say that it closely follows anything she ever wrote. In fact, I’m rather amused by Lord Byron’s (Gavin Gordon) synopsis of the first film in Bride’s prologue to Shelley (Elsa Lanchester). He describes a series of events she never wrote. Perhaps Thorne took that prologue a little too seriously.

None of this is meant to sound like criticism. Today, I often see films that are based on books that I’ve read, and I take them on a case-by-case basis. I understand, accept, and even embrace some differences while I outright reject others. In the case if the classic movie monsters with literary origins, I’ve learned to accept them as works in their own right, more drawing inspiration from their respective books than being accurate representations of them.

Besides, there’s just so much to love about Bride of Frankenstein. I think if I had to pick one film to represent the whole of the Universal horror catalogue, this would probably be it. First, we have yet another solid performance by Boris Karloff. Many more people die at the monster’s hands in this sequel, but he still manages to remain sympathetic. His brief friendship with the blind man (O. P. Heggie) is very moving, and there’s a particularly touching moment where he looks longingly at the carving of a woman atop a sarcophagus and mutters “Friend”. The Monster is a bit more savage here, especially as his anger towards his creator mounts, but he never loses that pitiable edge.

Next we have the hilarity of Una O’Connor as Minnie, James Whale must have felt he underused her in The Invisible Man because she’s practically everywhere here. She’s part comic relief and part Greek chorus commenting on and running in and out of nearly every scene prior to the climactic sequence. It’s almost a surprise to find she’s a servant in the Frankenstein household considering her presence throughout the village.

Elsa Lanchester’s turn as the Bride is brief, but stunning. She’s not unlike a frightened feral kitten, savage yet vulnerable. I must confess, when I was a kid reading those Thorne books, I always found her a bit sexy. Her male counterparts, Dracula, the Monster and the Wolf Man easily comprise the big three when it comes to Universal’s iconic creatures, but I would place her solidly at number four.

Rounding out the standout performances we have Ernest Thesiger as Doctor Pretorius, possibly the maddest of all mad scientists and definitely one of the most entertaining. He certainly outshines Colin Clive’s crazy cackling from the first film, and makes him look quite sane when placed next to him in this one. With his campy demeanor as he introduces his collection of tiny people or his merriment as he dines in a crypt with a pile of bones as his lone party guest, they just don’t come much more eccentric. I could almost see someone giving him his own movie today, but I could not envision anyone but Thesiger in the role.

Finally, all of this comes together nicely under James Whale’s direction. His dark sense of humor reaches a pinnacle in this picture. Note how he takes one of the saddest moments of the first film, the death of little Maria, and gives it a dark punchline in the sequel by sending her parents to join her. Add Pretorius, his little people, and ditzy Minnie and there’s really a lot to laugh at in the film, yet Whale maintains a balance that keeps the film from slipping too far into silliness. The end result is a sublime and enjoyable ride.

This week’s supporting features:

Mickey Mouse in The Chain Gang (1930)

The Our Gang short Fly My Kite (1931)

Next week’s film:

Drácula (1931) starring Carlos Villarías, Lupita Tovar, Pablo Álvarez Rubio, and Eduardo Arozamena

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- DRACULA (1931)

I wish I could see more of the classic horror films on the big screen. Watching Dracula, (or Bride of Frankenstein or Creature from the Black Lagoon or even Psycho, other classic horror films I’ve had the opportunity to view theatrically) you can see how these movies were always intended to be larger than life. In the Thirties, filmmakers like Tod Browning and James Whale probably had no idea their movies would one day primarily be viewed on a little box yet they seem to have crafted them specifically for these giant canvases. Today, I’m grateful I’m able to watch them on my 52 incher, but that still doesn’t compare to the enormity of the silver screen.

I’ve read that Dracula was a troubled production, with a drunken Tod Browning deferring much of the actual directing to cinematographer Karl Freund, fortunately with a strong cast and some beautiful art direction, the film suffers little for it.

First and foremost, we have Bela Lugosi; poor Bela may have been low on the list of candidates for the title role, but today it’s hard to imagine it having gone to anyone else. It’s with good reason that Lugosi as Dracula has influenced the image of vampires in our collective subconscious, and I’m certain he will continue to do so long after the Cullen brood has faded into obscurity. When he’s acting on his vampiric nature, he’s frightening and imposing, yet he’s perfectly charming when he’s the seductive Count. I know I’m saying this with some bias, but I really can’t see any other actor (not even Lon Chaney) pulling off such an iconic performance. The same day as this screening, I felt compelled to watch Tim Burton’s excellent Ed Wood which is as much a film about Lugosi to me as it is about Wood, and although it’s sad to see how far Lugosi fell from the Studios’ graces, it’s nice to think he achieved an immortality much like that of the character that made him famous.

A bit must also be said about Dwight Frye, who played the deranged Renfield. Frye is mostly forgotten today except among horror aficionados, but many of them will tell you his performance is one to be celebrated as well. His maniacal laughter, piercing stare and appetite for spiders and insects make him almost as frightening as the Count himself. Frye also turns up as Fritz and Karl respectively in the first two Frankenstein films and has a cameo in The Invisible Man, unfortunately the size of his roles continued to diminish until his untimely death in 1943. Dracula was truly his time to shine.

I’m glad to say that 80 years later, Dracula still possesses some truly chilling moments: Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) nearly succumbing to Dracula’s hypnotic influence, the undead Lucy (Frances Dade) walking the night as the Woman in White, or the enthralled Mena’s (Helen Chandler) attempted attack on her beloved John Harker. I found it particularly gratifying to hear many in the audience gasp as Renfield advances on all fours toward an unconscious housekeeper. (I hope that somewhere Mr. Frye was feeling some gratification as well.) I might also add, as this is the first time I’ve seen the film since reading Bram Stoker’s book, that it has more elements from the novel than I remembered.

I won’t say the film is without its weak points. David Manners as John Harker is yet another bland do-nothing leading man, and Dracula’s final moments are a bit anti-climatic, although that has been said about Stoker’s novel as well. And I do wonder about some of the filmmakers’ choices. For example, why is castle Dracula infested with opossums and armadillos? I suspect the opossums are meant to be giant rats, and maybe Hollywood thought armadillos would look downright alien to middle America. There’s also something annoying about a scene where Dracula escapes off-screen in the form of the wolf, I would guess the wolf’s no-show was a budgetary problem, but having Harker watch it runaway off-screen only seems to call attention to that fact.

A few more words on seeing it in a theatre in the present day: watching it on the big screen may be great, but sometimes sharing that experience with a modern audience may be a bit annoying. Yes, as a fan of the likes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, I’m guilty of laughing at old bad movies, but the operative word there is “bad”. Usually, when I watch old movies, I like to throw my mindset back in time and watch the movie on its own terms. For example, there’s a sequence set underwater in the 1924 version of The Thief of Bagdad. This was, of course, a time when you could not take a camera underwater, so instead the actors are on wires and all of the sea creatures are puppets, on the surface to today’s viewer it may look ludicrous, but I preferred to marvel at it for the accomplishment it was, considering the limitations of the day. As I sat watching Dracula there was much laughter at the expense of the limitations of 1930s filmmaking, and I found that rather disappointing. I could understand a chuckle or two, but at some point, I wish my fellow audience members could just accept that yes, it’s just a bat on a string, but it’s time to move on and enjoy the film for what it is.

Next week’s film:

Bride of Frankenstein (1935) starring Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger and Valerie Hobson

Friday, September 30, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)

I never participated in that line at The Rocky Horror Picture Show when the lips would sing “Claude Rains was the Invisible Man” and the audience would shout, “Who’s Claude Rains?” Ignoring th
at the answer was right there in the song, of course I knew damn well who Claude Rains was. The Invisible Man was, of course, just the tip of the iceberg for Rains, who appeared in many classics over his career, but this was his first major role, and the one that made him famous, which is interesting considering his face is only seen for about twenty seconds.

Jack Griffin is quite a contrast from Rains’ other roles too. There’s usually a level of charm in a Claude Rains character, just look at the often unscrupulous yet always likable Captain Renault in Casablanca, arguably his other most famous role, but there’s little to like about this self-serving invisible man with an inflated sense of importance. But it’s a memorable performance for such an unlikable character. He lashes out at people with little provocation and embarks on a reign of terror with an air of pure glee.

At least in
the film, his madness can be blamed on the ingredient monocane in his invisibility formula; in the novel, his egotism is a constant that the formula merely intensifies. Yet, The Invisible Man is a far more accurate reflection of its literary source than Frankenstein or Dracula. Yes, it has a romantic subplot injected into it, some of the novel’s characters are absent, and it has a very different climax, but a lot of the elements of the book are still there.

In the end however, I’d say this film is more Whale than Wells. One of director James Whale’s trademarks was his dark sense of humor. There’s plenty of humor simply in the casting of the wonderful Una O’Connor who plays the landlady at the inn where Griffin takes up residence, (and who gets an even bigger and funnier role later on in Bride of Frankenstein), and more humor can be found as Griffin dispatches one-liners when he victimizes innocent villagers, but it’s Whale’s juxtaposition of slapstick and horror that really struck a chord with me. Take for example Griffin’s murder of a policeman that is preceded by his throwing ink in the man’s face resulting in an Oliver Hardy-esque take to the camera.

There are many great performances by character actors in small roles too numerous to mention, though I must give props to E. E. Clive as Constable Jaffers. Henry Travers, who is probably best known as the angel Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life is enjoyable as Dr. Cranley, but William Harrigan is rather dull as Dr. Kemp. And I’m afraid even Gloria Stuart’s role as Griffin’s love interest, Flora, leaves something to be desired. It may not be her fault, as I said, the romantic subplot seems like it’s only there to fill an obligatory niche, and I feel the need to go easy on Miss Stuart, as I was somewhat irritated last year when she passed away and headlines could only refer to her as the “Titanic actress” as if the rest of her 72 year career was non-existent.

Rounding out the things that make this movie special are John P. Fulton’s special effects. Even today those scenes where Griffin removes his bandages to reveal nothing underneath are pretty startling. I’m sure they incited many gasps in the 1930s.

Something else that sets the Invisible Man series apart from the Frankenstein and Dracula films is that the author of the source material was around to see it. I’m not sure if H. G. Wells’ reaction to the movies is documented, but I’d be very interested in what he thought of seeing his late 19th Century story, brought into the age of automobiles and radios.

This week’s supporting features:

Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck in Ali Baba Bunny (1957)

The Our Gang short Bargain Day (1931) featuring the final appearance of Jackie Cooper in the series.

Next week I go to a theatrical screening of Dracula (1931), I’ll post my entry on that sometime the following weekend. If you’re going to be in Central Florida on October 8, stop by the Enzian in Maitland and join me.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Study in Classic Horror- MAN MADE MONSTER (1941)

In Man Made Monster, Lon Chaney Jr. is instantly likeable as carny Dan McCormick, the soul-survivor of a tragic bus accident. He’s a happy, go-lucky and trusting sort, if a bit on the dim side, and that what’s makes the film’s turn of events all the more sad.

Let me start by saying Chaney’s performance is a refreshing change from the sad protagonists of The Wolf Man and Calling Dr. Death. I like his performances in those films, but I must confess I was beginning to wonder how much of a range he had, which is a bit unfair. I was forgetting that he’d already won a lot of people over on stage and screen as Lennie in Of Mice and Men, a performance that would be emulated in cartoons and other comedies for decades to come. In fact there are shades of Lennie in Dan.

I suppose the very things that make us like Dan are what lead to his downfall, most of all the fact that he’s so trusting. Surviving an accident that electrocutes all of his fellow passengers and his carnival job as Dynamo Dan the Electric Man, leads benign scientist Dr. Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds) to believe Dan may have an immunity to electricity and wants to conduct some experiments on him. Trusting Dan is more than willing. Unfortunately, Lawrence’s duplicitous partner Dr. Rigas (Lionel Atwell) wants to use electricity to alter the brains of what he considers lesser men, to turn them into an army of mindless thugs, and Carl is the perfect guinea pig.

It’s heartbreaking watching what Rigas’s secret experiments do to Dan. The cheerful guy we liked at the beginning of the film becomes a morose parody of his former self, and eventually a zombified drone that murders Dr. Lawrence on Rigas’s command and finds himself on death row unable to defend himself with anything but the hypnotic confession that Rigas has planted in his mind.

It’s a very well made film, if you can handle the sad stuff, but then, most of the classic horror films have some kind of tragic element. Though I think the romantic subplot between a reporter and Dr. Lawrence’s niece / assistant June (Frank Albertson and Anne Nagel) could have been done differently. Albertson’s Mark Adams seems a bit wedged in to the story. Dan is clearly flirting with June early in the movie; I think some seeds of romance between those two might have better served the overall story.

Last but not least, I must mention Corky. This may be the earliest film I’ve seen to use an animal, particularly a dog, to elicit sympathy from the audience. There have been some canine casualties in The Mummy and The Invisible Ray, not that Corky dies, but the dogs in those stories were peripheral characters at best. Corky, the family dog in the Lawrence household, is very much a full-blown characters. Corky romps playfully with Dan, he sits waiting sadly outside the laboratory door as Dan receives the detrimental doses of electricity, and their last moment together… I’ll leave that for you to experience yourself. Corky was quite the little furry actor.

This week’s supporting features:

Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse in The Birthday Party (1931)

The Our Gang short Little Daddy (1931)

Next week’s film:

The Invisible Man (1933) starring Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, William Harrigan and Henry Travers

Saturday, September 17, 2011


I’m going to cut to the chase with a SPOILER ALERT. The title is a red herring. Of course, you don’t have much of a mystery if you reveal the killer in the opening credits, but then Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff isn’t much of a mystery to begin with. Oh, it’s fun, but I can’t help but think there was so much more that could have been done with it.
According to what I’ve read, it was originally conceived as a vehicle for Bob Hope, but following the success of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (which I’ll get to in a future entry) Universal was eager to team the duo up with another horror legend.
With Boris Karloff’s talents and a tighter script, it could have been great; instead it’s merely good. A whodunit, set in a hotel with a gaggle of suspects, all of whom hope to pin the crime on Lou Costello, but the script doesn’t feel the need for any logical connections, and it introduces plot devices, like a procured confession signed by Costello, that are quickly abandoned. Finally, when the killer is revealed (SPOILER) it’s someone with no discernible motive whatsoever. I realize this film is primarily a comedy, but I think tightening up the mystery elements could have made the film work better as a whole.
Worst of all, Karloff is woefully underused. His best scene comes somewhere around the middle of film, when he tries to hypnotize Costello into committing suicide, so the aforementioned confession can be left with the body. A lot of laughs come from failed suicide attempts, but perhaps more mileage could have been gained had they let the motif run through the rest of the film.

More laughs result as the body count increases, and Bud and Lou find themselves hiding body after body. I think my favorite gag is where they hide a pair of corpses in plain sight by engaging them in a game of bridge. (It’s interesting to note, that the presence of onscreen corpses made the movie somewhat controversial overseas. Many such scenes were cut, which would have deprived the film of some of its funniest moments.)

So overall, funny, but not as funny as it could have been. I hope to find improvements were made when the three reteamed for Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

This week’s supporting features:

Daffy Duck and Conrad Cat in Conrad the Sailor (1942)

The Our Gang short Love Business (1931)

Next week’s film:
Man Made Monster (1941) starring Lon Chaney Jr., Lionel Atwill and Samuel S. Hinds

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Hand for Marcella

You might recall an earlier blog entry where I extolled the virtues of The Puppini Sisters. Well, the group's founder Marcella Puppini has another group on the side called Marcella and The Forget Me Nots, and their new album comes out at the end of the month, and I can't resist giving them a shout out. (May seem like this entry's a big ad, but what can I say? I'm a big fan.) Here's a player where you can sample their work: