Tag Archives: Monogram Pictures

Dragonfly Squadron

3-D Blu-ray Review: “Dragonfly Squadron” (1954)

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Well this is a treat! As a movie, Dragonfly Squadron (1954) is fairly ordinary, a war movie with a familiar story and genre stereotypes: hardline, humorless commanding officer; sly second-in-command; subordinate with a personal grudge against his commanding officer; a woman emotionally torn between the dedicated, self-sacrificing doctor she married and the commanding officer she loves, etc.

Conversely, Olive Films’ release of this 3-D Film Archive restoration is one of significant historical importance. Dragonfly Squadron was photographed but never released in 3-D. By the time it opened in March 1954, the new widescreen and stereophonic sound format pushed by 20th Century-Fox, CinemaScope, had won the technological dissemination battle. The original 3-D negative film elements managed to survive, but a 3-D Blu-ray release of a movie as obscure as Dragonfly Squadron, a movie produced not by one of the major Hollywood studios but rather by lowly Monogram/Allied Artists, a Poverty Row company, was practically nonexistent until Bob Furmanek and Greg Kintz of the 3-D Film Archive came along and pushed for its stereoscopic restoration.

For fans and admirers of older 3-D movies, Furmanek and Kintz are providing an invaluable service, preserving, restoring, and making available 3-D features and shorts that might otherwise be lost forever. Classic 3-D movies are rarely theatrically revived, and when they are almost invariably what gets shown is either House of Wax (1953) or Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954), with a few scattered other titles (Creature from the Black Lagoon, for instance) exhibited less frequently. I’m reminded of a press conference Jackie Gleason gave announcing the redistribution of “Lost” Honeymooners episodes. Asked why he chose to make them available, Gleason slyly replied, “I’m sick of watching those other Honeymooners,” referring to the “Classic 39,” episodes rerun ad infinitum. The same holds true for classic 3-D, turning even a movie as  minor as Dragonfly Squadron into a major viewing event.

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Though set just before and during the outbreak of the Korean War in May 1950, Dragonfly Squadron’s story harkens back to World War II movies like Flying Tigers, They Were Expendable, and Back to Bataan, with maybe a dash of Go for Broke! (1951). John Hodiak stars as Maj. Mathew “Matt” Brady, a celebrated but grounded-for-medical reasons Air Force instructor tasked with training green American and South Korean pilots at Kongku Air Base, with little more than three weeks to whip them into shape. (Among the young pilots is James Hong, uncredited.)

He discovers that his ex-fiancée, Donna Cottrell (Barbara Britton) is also stationed there. They planned to marry until she learned that her supposedly dead husband, Stephen (Bruce Bennett), a prisoner tortured in Indo-China was, in fact, alive. He loves her and as he’s a saintly, dedicated physician (despite mutilated hands) she remains devoted to him, despite her feelings for Brady.

More familiar plot points emerge: Capt. Veddors (Harry Lauter) resents Brady, blaming him for the death of their mutual best friend in a plane crash. Other genre stereotypes: Capt. Woody Taylor (John Lupton) and Anne (Pamela Duncan) are a young married couple anxious to return to the States after being stationed in Korea for two years without a break. Matt’s best friend is Capt. MacIntyre (Gerald Mohr), whose genial wisecracks contrast by-the-book Brady’s stiffness. Also in the squadron are the requisite southern hick (Fess Parker), an elfish flyer (Eddie Firestone, uncredited) always hiding a mutt under his leather jacket, and a soft-spoken, efficient junior officer (Adam Williams) who all but has “Doomed” painted across his helmet.

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Dragonfly Squadron’s plot may be familiar but its execution, under the sure hand of efficient B-movie director Lesley Selander, is nonetheless involving and well-paced for a picture of this type and budget. Reportedly the film’s cost was around $300,000, dirt-cheap by major studio standards but a bit more expensive than the usual Monogram/Allied Artists programmer from this period. Air Force and Marine Corps. hardware helped make the film look a bit more expensive than it actually was, but Selander’s good direction adds to the film’s modest polish.

The film also makes use of stock shots, some in regular 2-D, and there are few opticals. A battle and evacuation near the end of the picture offer the best 3-D effects, with everything done full-scale with on-set special effects. Much of this material looks great.

It also helps that good actors populate the story. John Hodiak was a bona fide star, albeit a fading one, Hodiak one of dozens leading men who established themselves during the early ‘40s, when many established stars had abandoned Hollywood temporarily to fight the war, only to leave actors like Hodiak struggling once they returned.

There are a few up-and-comers in the cast, notably Fess Parker and, much later in the story, Chuck Connors, both oozing charisma and obviously on the ascent. Decent actors who regularly toiled away in cheap films dominate: Bruce Bennett, Gerald Mohr, Adam Williams, Frank Ferguson, etc. Pretty Barbara Britton’s career was, like Hodiak’s, in gradual decline; she co-starred in the first 3-D feature of the 1950s, the one that launched the craze, Bwana Devil (1952).

Dragonfly Squadron lacks the kind of in-your-face 3-D effects many wrongly assume all ‘50s 3-D movies overdid, the Western Charge at Feather River being an obvious example. Despite a dearth of eye-popping effects, Selander subtly and intelligently stages many scenes to bring out multiple planes of depth. In a bar, for instance, all the chairs are stacked up on tables while on the bar itself are various half-empty glasses, to emphasize the depth of the bar a bit more, while many of the sets have doorways leading to back rooms and whatnot. It’s a far cry from the drab art direction of a typical Monogram movie, e.g., Louie’s Sweet Shop in the Bowery Boys pictures. It’s not a great showcase for 3-D, but what’s there is well executed. Several scenes are also staged in darkened rooms, and the perception of depth is quite interesting.

Dragonfly Squadron is presented in its original 1.66:1 widescreen format. The black-and-white film has its share of speckling and, surprisingly, little bits of faint, barely perceptible color (on the tip of an actor’s nose, for instance) I would guess was somehow used to align the image during postproduction. Mostly though the picture looks very good, and the 3-D is spot-on perfect throughout. Cheap as Dragonfly Squadron may have been, in some ways the use and ultimate look even of ordinary 3-D scenes here is somehow more impressive compared to how unimaginatively most new 3-D films use the process today. (The same proved true on another cheap 3-D title now on Blu-ray, Man in the Dark.) The presentation includes the film’s original intermission card, a nice touch. While some of the bigger 3-D movies were exhibited with stereophonic sound, Dragonfly Squadron was always mono, and thus presented that way here. It’s fine, on par with other mid-‘50s mono releases. It’s also worth noting that the film’s original 3-D title cards, heretofore presumed lost, have  been reinstated.

The Blu-ray comes with a standard 2-D version of the film, along with a lively (2-D) trailer.

Dragonfly Squadron might not rank alongside the great Hollywood war movies, but its release, finally, in 3-D deserves all the accolades Bob Furmanek and Greg Kintz are receiving. Also with this title they’ve clearly demonstrated how desirable titles like this one can be restored and presented in flawless 3-D for a reasonable amount of money. And that, in turn, will hopefully prompt more 3-D Blu-ray releases like this one in the future.

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DVD Review: “Strangler of the Swamp” (1946)

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If you were looking for independent cinema during the Golden Age of Hollywood, the closest remnant was an occasional “B” feature from a low-rent studio — notably Monogram Pictures or Producers Releasing Corporation (affectionately known as PRC).

Once in a while, a filmmaker of remarkable talent languished briefly on Hollywood’s Poverty Row and made the most of a meager budget. Perhaps the best-known “independent” directors from that period were Joseph H. Lewis and Edgar G. Ulmer, who transformed their ultra-cheap productions into cult classics such as Invisible Ghost (1941) and Detour (1945).

Largely overlooked was the contribution of German writer-director Frank Wisbar, the individual responsible for the finest low-budget horror film of the 1940s, Strangler of the Swamp. Produced by PRC, this little-known “B” movie was a 58-minute remake of Wisbar’s 1936 classic Fahrmann Maria. Amazingly, Wisbar duplicated the dark, misty atmosphere of his earlier film with a paltry $20,000 and a one-week shooting schedule.

Though ignored upon its 1946 release, Strangler of the Swamp managed to rise from the cinematic dead — thanks to a detailed chapter in historian William K. Everson’s 1974 book, Classics of the Horror Film. Since then, Wisbar’s thriller has maintained a loyal following and is available on DVD through Image Entertainment.

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Rather than create a traditional horror movie, Wisbar emphasized mood and expressionistic style in this gothic tale. The plot centered on a ghostly ferryman (played by Charles Middleton, best known as Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials) who swore his vengeance upon the swampland villagers responsible for his wrongful hanging — including their descendants, one of whom must sacrifice their life to end the shadowy curse. This becomes a problem for young lovers Rosemary LaPlanche (the 1941 Miss America) and Blake Edwards (in one of his few screen roles before he switched to directing) as they confront the deadly legacy of the strangler’s wrath.

PRC’s shoddy production values work to Wisbar’s advantage. Except for a few brief exterior shots, Strangler of the Swamp exists in a claustrophobic, studio-bound world. The visuals remain appropriately eerie thanks to Wisbar’s inventive use of the primary set, which encompasses a deserted ferry and the murky swampland. “The twisted trees, the lack of sunlight or moonlight, the constant ground mist, all contrive to hide the boundaries of what must have been a very small set indeed,” Everson wrote in Classics of the Horror Film. “It is an example of how genuine feeling and style can be extracted from even the cheapest film if the director cares.” Little did PRC realize that Strangler of the Swamp would prove to be one of the studio’s finest hours.

The performances are surprisingly restrained, with Middleton making the most of his limited spectral presence. Though romantic leads appear to be a necessary evil in horror films, the portrayals of LaPlanche and Edwards have a darker, more humanistic quality than the traditional Hollywood product. Unfortunately, the romantic subplot is overlong and dissipates some of the tension that Wisbar built in the first half. However, the director regains his footing with an effective climax that incorporates some unexpected religious overtones.

Along with Strangler of the Swamp, Wisbar helmed another low-budget chiller during his brief stay at PRC: the less-successful Devil Bat’s Daughter (1946), a belated sequel to Bela Lugosi’s The Devil Bat (1941) which didn’t even feature the bloodsucking horror icon. He later formed his own production company and entered the realm of television before returning to his native Germany in 1956. Wisbar died in 1967 at age 68, his work mostly forgotten except for rare appraisals from cinema historians.

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Strangler of the Swamp is not the rediscovered masterpiece some have claimed, yet it remains a textbook example of Poverty Row filmmaking. In terms of mood and atmosphere, Wisbar’s imaginative vision evokes the subtle terror of RKO producer Val Lewton, who revolutionized the horror genre with “B” classics such as Cat People (1942) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943). The fact that Strangler of the Swamp was produced at a small fraction of Lewton’s $150,000 budget makes Wisbar’s accomplishment all the more remarkable.

Regrettably, the pictorial quality of Wisbar’s film has deteriorated since its initial release. With the negative presumably lost, Image has done its best to restore Strangler of the Swamp for DVD, but the overall print lacks the sharpness of a 35mm master. Still, horror buffs should be grateful that the movie exists after decades of obscurity.