Tag Archives: Warner Brothers


The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of (Special Halloween Edition): “The Walking Dead” (1936)


At this point in time, I suppose it’s virtually obligatory to point out that Michael Curtiz’s 1936 Warner Brothers horror picture The Walking Dead starring Boris Karloff has nothing whatsoever to do with the AMC television series about the zombie apocalypse that premiered in 2010 and recently began its seventh season. Rather, it’s a low-key mood piece greatly admired by connoisseurs of the horror genre.

The Walking Dead is also an example of a movie that was actually improved by the Hays Office, the arbitrator of the newly strengthened Production Code. (The Hays Office had always looked down on the horror genre, but in the mid-1930s, there was even stronger pressure coming from the British censors who were also cracking down on the genre. Since Britain had always been one of Hollywood’s biggest markets, the studios took any objections from the British censors very seriously.) There was one other major influence that saved the picture from being the unsubtle penny dreadful shocker that the writers originally envisioned, the movie’s star, Boris Karloff. (Most of the information I have about the differences between the original script and the finished film come from The Walking Dead DVD commentary track recorded by horror film historian Greg Mank, who had access to Karloff’s personal copy of the script with the actor’s in-the-margins notations and suggestions.)

The Walking Dead was Karloff’s first picture for Warner Brothers after becoming a major Hollywood star with his tour-de-force as the monster in James Whale’s 1931 Universal film version of Frankenstein. Karloff had been briefly under contract at Warners in 1931, appearing in four pictures before making the film that would change his life and career forever. The first one was a gangster comedy-drama directed by Alfred E. Green called Smart Money, best remembered as the only time Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney appeared in the same picture together. Karloff had a bit part as a coke-headed gambler.

Mervyn LeRoy’s Five Star Final, Karloff’s next film for Warners, was not only a great movie in itself (it was the first in WB’s series of social protest melodramas[1]), but it provided Karloff with his best pre-Frankenstein role. (Karloff always credited his friend George E. Stone, who also had a supporting role in the film, as influencing LeRoy to cast Karloff in the picture.) In Five Star Final, a blistering expose of yellow journalism, Karloff played a particularly slimy newspaper reporter with the Dickensian name of Isopod. A lecherous, alcoholic, and malignantly unctuous scandalmonger (who was drummed out of divinity school for sexual degeneracy), Isopod specializes in dressing up as a minister to gain the trust of the victims he plans to ruin in print. It was not only a splendidly meaty role for Karloff, but it gave him a rare opportunity to demonstrate his flair for comedy. That was followed by a bit part as a butler in William McGann’s breezy Douglas Fairbanks Jr. comedy I Like Your Nerve.

The Mad Genius, Karloff’s last film during his 1931 sojourn at Warners, was rather prophetic in that it was the studio’s second attempt at making a horror picture to compete with Universal’s sensational box office smash, Tod Browning’s Dracula starring Bela Lugosi. The first one was Archie Mayo’s Svengali, based on George Du Maurier’s novel Trilby, starring the great actor John Barrymore as the sinister music coach and hypnotist. Warners assigned the direction of The Mad Genius, which was also to star Barrymore in the title role, to their best all-around contract filmmaker Michael Curtiz. (As film historian Carlos Clarens explained in his seminal 1967 book An Illustrated History of the Horror Film[2], “The studio heads probably regarded Curtiz as another Browning or new Whale, for they entrusted him with two ambitious horror projects.” The two films Clarens was referring to were Doctor X (1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), the first two horror pictures made in Technicolor.)

Karloff often told the story about how Curtiz had summoned him to his office after seeing his name on a list of contract players. Curtiz had assumed from Karloff’s name that he was an actual Russian (Karloff was the mother’s maiden name of the young actor born as William Henry Pratt), and was surprised to see this mild-mannered soft-spoken Englishman show up instead. Nevertheless, Karloff’s eagerness for the job convinced Curtiz to cast him as Frankie Darro’s abusive Russian father anyway. The Mad Genius was Barrymore’s last horror movie (unless you count the abysmally unfunny 1940 Universal “comedy” The Invisible Woman) and his last film for Warner Brothers. After that, he followed his brother Lionel’s advice and went over to MGM. (It’s not unreasonable to assume that the idea of becoming Warners’ answer to Bela Lugosi played a major role in Barrymore’s decision to change studios.) Ironically, Karloff, whose role in The Mad Genius was just a one-scene bit part, soon became Hollywood’s biggest horror star.

Speaking of which, another story Karloff loved to relate in interviews was the time during the silent era, when his career was still confined to minor bit parts, he was hitchhiking his way home and the person who stopped to give him that lift was none other than Lon Chaney Sr. (best remembered for the title roles in Universal’s silent versions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera). After spending a few minutes conversing with Karloff, Chaney gave him a piece of advise he never forgot: Find something you can do that nobody else in Hollywood can do, and you’ll be a star. And it was as Dr. Frankenstein’s inarticulate monster that Karloff found that “something nobody else in Hollywood could do,” the ability to simultaneously scare audiences and make them sympathize with him. With the exception of Whale’s first two Frankenstein films, Karloff’s unique ability to cause audiences to be both sorry for and frightened by him was never better demonstrated than it was in Curtiz’s The Walking Dead.


The Walking Dead pulls one of the movies’ cleverest turnarounds in that the first half of the 65-minute film is pretty much a typical Warners gangster picture. The opening scene is the last day of a trial taking place in a major American city (presumably New York). The defendant is Stephan Martin (Kenneth Harlen), a city official caught embezzling from the treasury. Martin’s defense lawyer is Nolan (Ricardo Cortez), who is actually the head of a major crime syndicate. Despite Nolan’s considerable skill as an attorney, it looks as though incorruptible Judge Shaw (Joseph King) is going to throw the book at his client. When Shaw hits Martin with a ten-year sentence, Nolan and his partner-in-crime Loder (Barton MacLane) decide it’s time to rub Shaw out. But they need a fall guy to take the suspicion off of them.

Enter Karloff as John Ellman, a gentle unemployed musician who’s unable to find work after serving a prison term for manslaughter he was sentenced to by Judge Shaw. (It seems that Ellman had struck another man while defending his wife from the other man’s harassment, accidentally killing the man.) Loder has invited Ellman over to his house one evening by holding out the hope of possible employment. When Ellman arrives, Loder and Nolan are enjoying a game of pool with two other gang associates Blackstone (Paul Harvey) and Merritt (Robert Strange) as well as a torpedo nicknamed “Trigger” (Joseph Sawyer), who has been imported from out-of-town to carry out the hit on Shaw. Loder callously dashes Ellman’s hope of a job and then, as prearranged, sends Trigger out to follow Ellman and make his acquaintance.


Boris Karloff, Joseph Sawyer

Trigger pretends to recognize Ellman on the street and offers to buy him a cup of coffee, which Ellman gratefully accepts. Trigger tells Ellman that he’s a private detective and asks Ellman if he’d like a little sidework keeping taps on the man he’s been hired to investigate. Ellman initially balks when he learns that the man whose house he’ll be spying on is none other than Judge Shaw, but his desperate need for money (his wife is ill) finally convinces him to reluctantly take the job.

The next night, while Ellman’s car is parked near Shaw’s house, Trigger kills the judge and, after Ellman wanders away from the car to get a closer look at the house, ditches the corpse in the back seat. But as fate would have it, a young couple, Jimmy (Warren Hull) and Nancy (Marguerite Churchill), whose car was clipped by Trigger’s car on his way to the job, have followed him and become eyewitnesses to Trigger placing the body in Ellman’s car. The couple is warned not to say a word about what they’ve seen or else. As a result of Trigger’s threat, Jimmy and Nancy are too scared to come to Ellman’s defense when he goes on trial for Shaw’s murder. (In the original script, the couple was kidnapped by the gang to prevent them from talking, which, as Mank opined, would’ve made them a lot more sympathetic than they come off as in the film.)


Boris Karloff

At the trial, Nolan, Ellman’s defense counsel, deliberately provides such a lame defense for his client that even DA Werner (Henry O’Neill), who is prosecuting the case, recognizes that he seems to be doing his damndest to shove Ellman into the electric chair. And, sure enough, Ellman is convicted of Shaw’s murder and sentenced to death. At this point, Curtiz cuts back and forth between Ellman’s last days on death row and Jimmy and Nancy’s agonizing over whether to speak up and save Ellman from execution. (As film historian William K. Everson pointed out in his program notes for a 1970 screening of Lloyd Bacon’s 1933 black comedy Picture Snatcher, “Warners always had a morbid obsession with death house themes and sequences (always electrocution for some reason!), and used the motif for comedy in Blessed Event, Front Page Woman and others, and for raw melodrama in Two Seconds, The Mouthpiece, Angels with Dirty Faces and countless others.”) Of course, when the couple does find the courage to tell what really happened, the governor’s phone call to the prison is answered just as Ellman is being given the fatal jolt.


Boris Karloff, Addison Richards

And here’s where The Walking Dead flips from one genre to another. As it just so happens, both Jimmy and Nancy work for Dr. Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn, best remembered for his Best Supporting Actor Oscar-winning performance as Kris Kringle in George Seaton’s Miracle on 34th Street), a distinguished scientist who’s been experimenting with the Lindbergh heart.[3] Upon being informed that Ellman has already been executed, Beaumont demands that he have access to Ellman’s body ASAP in the hopes of resurrecting him. (It should be noted that, deviating from the genre cliché, Beaumont is no “mad scientist.” Rather, he is a kindly, charitable soul who, at worse, could be accused of being slightly overenthusiastic.)

THE WALKING DEAD, Boris Karloff, Marguerite Churchill, Edmund Gwenn, 1936

Boris Karloff, Edmund Gwenn

The next scene, the resurrection, is when The Walking Dead officially becomes an out-and-out horror movie. It’s obvious that Curtiz deliberately designed the scene to have more than a passing resemblance to Whale’s creation scenes in his two Frankenstein films, with the aid of much of the same electronic equipment. Bernhard Kaun’s background music for the scene even has overtones of Franz Waxman’s score for the creation of the female monster in Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein. Taking the resemblance even further, when Ellman is successfully brought back to life, Beaumont says, “He’s alive. He will live.” (Although, as Mank points out, Gwenn’s reading of the line is far more underplayed than Colin Clive’s hysterical over-the-top rendition of “It’s alive!” in Frankenstein.)

In the original script, the resurrection was supposed to transform Ellman into a seven-foot-tall half-man half-animal monstrosity who could climb buildings a la King Kong and break the backs of his enemies. The Hays Office objected to this idea and Karloff was downright—shall we say?—horrified by it. He made it clear in his notes that he did not want to be transformed into such a creature[4] and was particularly dismayed by climbing buildings like an ape. In one of his notes, the actor asked of the writers, “Couldn’t I play a sympathetic character for a change?” Karloff’s contract with Warners gave them the option of picking him up for four more pictures and, from publicity releases, it was obvious that the studio hoped to add Karloff to their already impressive stock company of character actors. So it’s possible that the desire to please both Karloff and the censors played a part in convincing the writers[5] to change the script accordingly.


Edmund Gwenn, Boris Karloff

In the finished film, the newly resurrected Ellman simply looks rather emaciated with a white streak through his hair.[6] (Strangely, there are no further references to Ellman’s wife. Perhaps she passed away from her illness while her husband was on death row?) He also has no memory of his previous life, but he has developed a psychic instinct allowing him to distinguish between those who mean him well and those who intend to harm him. When Beaumont tries to revive Ellman’s memory by reintroducing him to Nolan, Ellman immediately recognizes the lawyer as an enemy. (Thus throwing a monkey wrench into Nolan’s plans to cash in on Ellman’s newly proved innocence by suing the state and pocketing the settlement. But that doesn’t stop him from successfully filing the suit anyway.)


Boris Karloff, Marguerite Churchill

The only thing Ellman can remember of his previous existence is his love of music. When he overhears Nancy playing Anton Rubinstein’s piano composition “Kamminiy-Ostrov,” he recognizes the tune as the one he played a few bars of at Loder’s house. When it becomes clear to Beaumont that music seems to be the only thing that brings Ellman any comfort, he decides that the perfect way to introduce his patient to society is to hold a piano recital. The invitations are sent out, with Nolan, Loder, Blackstone, and Merritt being on the guest list. (Nolan is supposed to be a high-profile attorney, but why those other hoods were invited to the affair is anybody’s guess.) And so, before a selection of distinguished and influential guests, Ellman performs the same Rubinstein piece. But as Ellman plays, his gaze becomes fixed on the four men present who sent him to his death. (Per horror movie tradition, this is the moment when the audience realizes which characters are officially dead meat.)


Boris Karloff

As mentioned before, the original script had Ellman getting his revenge on his tormentors by breaking their backs. Thankfully, the writers came up with an alternate idea that elevated The Walking Dead from being just a good horror picture to becoming a great horror picture. After the recital, Ellman appears before the men who wronged him, one by one, and asks them questions like, “Why did you kill me?” The result is that the gangsters’ fear and guilt spook them into bringing about their own self-destruction without Ellman even laying a finger on them. (Example: Ellman confronts Blackstone at a train depot as the crook prepares to leave town. Blackstone is so frightened by Ellman that he runs away… and straight into the path of an oncoming train.)


Barton MacLane, Ricardo Cortez, Boris Karloff

There are several possible explanations what is causing these poetic justice deaths. One is that fate has doomed the evildoers. But given the film’s heavy emphasis on religion (among Ellman’s last words before his second—and final—death are, ”Leave the dead to their maker. The Lord, thy God, is a jealous God.”), the more logical explanation is that the Lord Himself (or Herself) is bumping off the bad guys in this picture. And this sure isn’t the I’m OK, you’re OK, peace and love and crunchy Granola God of the New Testament. No siree, Bob, this is the angry, vengeful, fire and thunder, plagues and locusts, “Thou Dasn’t Mess with Me” God of the Old Testament!

Happily, The Walking Dead did well enough at the box office to justify Warner Brothers picking up Karloff’s option. (And, strangely enough, as Everson pointed out in his 1974 book Classics of the Horror Film, The Walking Dead was the only horror picture among the five films he did for Warners in that 1936-1940 period.) Of the subsequent four movies Karloff did for the studio, the only real stand out was the next one, John Farrow’s West of Shanghai (1937). A notorious cheapskate, Jack L. Warner firmly believed that the piece of source material that couldn’t yield at least two or three movies hadn’t been written, so the studio was constantly remaking its own pictures over and over again. (George S. Kaufman’s play The Butter-and-Egg Man became a record for Warners when they made six movies based on it!) West of Shanghai was based on Porter Emerson Browne’s comedy western The Bad Man, in which the play’s Mexican bandit protagonist was a caricature of Poncho Villa. Warners had already filmed Browne’s play in 1930 with Walter Huston in the lead. In an attempt to emulate Paramount’s hit Chinese espionage thrillers, Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1933) and Lewis Milestone’s The General Died at Dawn (1936), Warners reset the story in modern day China and changed the leading character from a Mexican bandit to a Chinese warlord. West of Shanghai wasn’t a great film, but the brief 64-minute ‘B’ picture was a lot of fun, and Karloff gave what is probably his funniest film performance as the murderous but lovably egotistical General Fu Wen Fang.[7] (Fang’s perennial catch phrase whenever he is told he can’t cross the lines of morality is a defensive “I am Fang!” as if that excuses any and all wrongs.)

His next Warners film, The Invisible Menace (1938, also directed by Farrow), was an ordinary murder mystery set on an army base featuring Karloff as a red herring, with some references to voodoo and a deliberately misleading title to fool Karloff’s fans into thinking it was a horror flick. William Clemens’ Devil Island (1939), in which Karloff had a rare heroic role, might have been a hard-hitting social protest film in the tradition of Five Star Final and I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, but any real criticism of the French penal colony was nipped in the bud when the Warners suits caved in to the demands of the French government. Karloff’s final WB picture, Terry Morse’s British Intelligence (1940) was a remake of the studio’s 1930 World War I thriller Three Faces East, with Karloff cast in the villainous leading role that Erich von Stroheim played in the original.

Thankfully for film buffs, all of the Warner Brothers films mentioned in this article (with the exception of I Like Your Nerve) are currently available on DVD. The good news is The Walking Dead is included on a DVD set called Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics. The bad news is that the other three films in the set, Howard W. Koch’s Frankenstein 1970 (1958), David Butler’s You’ll Find Out (1940), and Gordon Douglas’ Zombies on Broadway (1945) are all time-wasting turkeys, which is so often the problem with DVD movie sets. But for dyed-in-the-wool horror fans, it’s still worth the $15 to own The Walking Dead, one of Boris Karloff’s finest pictures.


[1] The next year, LeRoy would helm what turned out to be Hollywood’s greatest social protest expose I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, based on Robert E. Burns’ autobiographical book, which was actually titled I am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang. The film, which was a surprising box office sensation despite the downbeat story, was so shocking and effective that it virtually shamed the state of Georgia into abolishing its chain gang system.

[2] An Illustrated History of the Horror Film was the first (but, Lord knows, not the last) serious study of the genre.

[3] The “Lindbergh heart” was an actual device co-invented by the famed aviator that was designed to keep tissues and organs alive outside the body. Unfortunately, the device ultimately proved to be impractical.

[4] After playing the Frankenstein monster and the Mummy, Karloff could be understandably forgiven if he was fed up with sitting through three-to-five hour sessions in the make-up chair.

[5] The final screenplay was credited to five writers, Ewart Adamson, Peter Milne, Robert Hardy Andrews, Lillie Hayward, and Joseph Fields.

[6] Warner Brothers recycled the living-corpse-with-a-white-streak-in-his-hair motif three years later for Humphrey Bogart in his only horror picture, Vincent Sherman’s The Return of Doctor X, a low-budget potboiler than had nothing whatsoever to do with Curtiz’s Doctor X.

[7] Alas, filmgoers were robbed of an opportunity to see Karloff in his greatest comedy stage role when Frank Capra made the monumental blunder of casting Raymond Massey in Karloff’s part in his 1944 Warner Brothers film version of Joseph Kesselring’s hit Broadway black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace.


R.I.P., Stan Freberg: An Appreciation


“I once read on the album notes of another recording artist, famous for musical tin-pandemonium, that the successful satirist must love what he burlesques. Nothing could be further from the fact. From Voltaire to Swift to Al Capp, the most successful satire has been born of sheer outrage. Of course, outrage in its natural state is not too saleable. The hard part comes in covering the social message with a candy-coating of humor.”
– Stan Freberg, from the liner notes of his comedy LP “Stan Freberg With the Original Cast”

Stan Freberg, who passed away last Tuesday, was a national treasure. A prodigiously talented comic actor, writer, director, producer, lyricist, and composer, Freberg was the Orson Welles of Satire. Real, genuine, take no prisoners satire as described above, not the toothless, pointless, sophomoric “spoofs” that Saturday Night Live specializes in.

Like any accomplished satirist, Freberg used words like a scalpel to eviscerate the absurdities and obscenities peddled to the public by craven, conscienceless politicians, advertising flacks, network executives, and military hardliners. For example, Freberg wasn’t shy about expressing his contempt for the Vietnam War and the Nixon cronies determined to prolong the conflict. And he expressed that contempt the best way he knew how in a series of anti-Vietnam War radio ads, such as the one where he played a member of the Nixon administration telling an incredulous reporter that they were “winding down the war.” We then heard the volume of the battle sounds in the background being turned down… slightly. The reporter complained that he could still hear the war going on. The administration spokesman finally admitted that the war was just “winding down,” not stopping altogether.


But when it came to political satire, Freberg was a bipartisan, equal-opportunity offender. In the late 1950s, there was a well-intentioned but clumsy and patronizing attempt at promoting the civil rights movement called—believe it or not—“Take a Negro to Lunch Day.” For Freberg, this was too good a target to pass up. On his 1961 comedy LP Stan Freberg presents the United States of America[1], he turned this into a song-and-dance number called “Pilgrim’s Progress (Take An Indian to Lunch),“ in which a pilgrim politician tries to pander to the Indian vote.

Take an Indian to lunch this week
Show him we’re a regular bunch this week
Show him we’re as liberal as can be
Let him know he’s almost as good as we

Sadly, there are entire generations who have never experienced real satire. Certainly not from the type of the unfunny travesties that pass for film comedies nowadays, usually produced by the likes of Judd Apatow, Seth MacFarland, or the Farrelly Brothers, with their emphasis on moronic penis, boobs, and potty jokes. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) is political satire. Apatow’s The Interview (2014) is an adolescent’s idea of political satire. (And a not terribly bright adolescent at that.)

Born in 1926, Freberg grew up in Pasadena, California. He was an avid fan of the radio comedy shows of the 1930s and 40s. “My idols were Jack Benny and Fred Allen,” Freberg once said. Gifted with a flair for mimicry and a variety of funny voices and dialects, it was almost predestined that Freberg’s first major professional gig would be doing voice work for Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes, starting in 1946. The many cartoon characters he voiced there included Bertie, one of two scheming mice (opposite Mel Blanc’s wise-cracking Hubie); Tosh, one half of “the Goofy Gophers” (opposite Blanc’s Mac); and Junyer Bear, one third of the Bear Family (with Billy Bletcher as Papa Bear and Bea Benaderet as Mama Bear). Playing a mad scientist, Freberg did a letter-perfect imitation of Peter Lorre’s voice in the Daffy Duck cartoon Birth of a Notion (1947).


The Looney Tunes character played by Freberg that has remained his most popular among fans is the incredibly dense Pete Puma in the Bugs Bunny cartoon Rabbit’s Kin (1952). In it, Bugs saves a young bunny from the puma’s clutches by constantly inventing excuses to invite Pete to tea. Bugs would gesture towards the sugar bowl and ask, “How many lumps do you want?” Falling for it every time, Pete would invariably answer, “Oh, three or four.” At which point, Bugs would produce a large mallet and deliver a dozen or so knocks to Pete’s nogin, producing said lumps. (Freberg also did the voice of the Beaver in Walt Disney’s 1955 animated feature Lady and the Tramp.)

Freberg eventually branched out to television, starting in 1949 with Time for Beany, a local Los Angeles kids show created by former Warners animator Bob Clampett. Freberg, along with his future cohort Daws Butler, doubled as voice actors and puppeteers. In 1950, the show started being broadcast nationwide until its conclusion in 1955. The show’s fans included none other than Albert Einstein. Around this time, Freberg frequently appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show with another puppet, a moon man named Orville. (While doing a guest shot with Orville on a 1958 episode of The Frank Sinatra Show, Freberg met his wife-to-be Donna, who would also double as his producer until her death  in 2000.) Freberg’s later television work included some one-shot specials, including Stan Freberg presents the Chun King Chow Mein Hour: Salute to the Chinese New Year (1962) for ABC and The Federal Budget Revue (1982) for PBS. He also made occasional guest appearances on TV series like The Monkees (1966) and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. (1967).


Stan Freberg with Orville

In 1951, Freberg started making a series of satirical recordings for Capital Records (initially released in both 45-rpm and 78-rpm formats). The first one was “John and Marsha,” a parody of soap operas in which a couple appropriately named John and Marsha (both played by Freberg) ran the entire gamut of emotions simply by repeating each other’s names over and over again. The record that really put Freberg on the map, however, was the 1951 release “St. George and the Dragonet,” a retelling of the old legend in the form of a parody of Jack Webb’s seminal cop series Dragnet. Rather than trying to describe this sublime classic, I suggest you watch this rendition of it, accompanied by some superb stop-action animation. (No, I don’t know who did the animation.)

Not surprisingly, these recordings led Freberg to a brief career in network radio, which was then in its dying days. His first series was a sitcom for CBS called That’s Rich (1954), starring Freberg as Richard E. Wilk, who was employed by B.B. Hackett’s Consolidated Paper Products Co. Freberg’s scripts often allowed him to find ways of satirizing popular culture of the period. In one episode, Rich took his girlfriend to a drive-in picture. Unfortunately for them, the picture that night was the most pretentious, overrated, excruciatingly boring western in the history of the genre, Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), which Freberg gleefully raked over the coals. In Freberg’s audio version, we hear footsteps that seem to walk endlessly down a town boardwalk. The footsteps stop, followed by a knock on a door. The door opens and the irritated inhabitant asks, “Yeah?” The marshal (Freberg doing a dead-on impression of Gary Cooper) says, “The killers are comin’ to town. Will ya help me?” “No!” The door slams shut. More footsteps on the boardwalk. Another door is knocked on and opened by another irritated inhabitant. “Yeah?” “The killers are comin’ to town. Will ya help me?” “No!” Door slam, more footsteps—well, you get the idea. (Howard Hawks also hated High Noon and went on record as saying that his 1959 western Rio Bravo was a deliberate FU to Zinnemann’s film.)

CBS was impressed enough with Freberg to give him his own comedy sketch series The Stan Freberg Show, a 1957 summer replacement series in the coveted 7:30 pm Sunday time slot normally held by Freberg’s hero Jack Benny. Backed up by a cast of comic actors consisting of June Foray, Peter Leeds, and the aforementioned Daws Butler, and with musical accompaniment by Billy May and His Orchestra, vocalist Peggy Taylor, and the Jud Conlan Singers, Freberg continued his assaults on his usual targets: movies, television, advertising, and politics. (The pilot episode’s finale reimagined the Middle-Eastern Arab/Israeli conflict as a rivalry between Las Vegas casinos.)


(left to right) Stan Freberg, Peggy Taylor, Peter Leeds, June Foray, and Daws Butler

One sketch was a parody of 1935 movie Mutiny on the Bounty, set in the Good Humor Corporation. In “Uninterrupted Melody,” Freberg’s Captain Bligh-like general manager sadistically dooms his ice cream truck drivers/salesmen to be subjected to continual daily repetitions of children’s nursery rhime jingles. (“Not ‘The Farmer in the Dell’!!!”) Finally, the manger pushes the men too far and they revolt, resulting in the manager being “dipped” and trussed up in an ice cream truck, driven mad by the incessant kids jingles. In another movie parody titled “Gray Flannel Hatful of Teenage Werewolves,”  Freberg played Lobo, an otherwise “normal werewolf” who, whenever there’s a full sun, transforms into a Madison Avenue advertising man, cursed to spout inanities like “Let’s roll it all up into one big ball of wax, gentlemen.”

Another of Freberg’s favorite targets was political correctness, decades before it even had a name.[2] One of the recurring bits on the show involved an acrobatic act called the Zazaloph Family. (The gag being, of course, what’s the point of an acrobat act on radio?) Whenever any cast member asked the question, “Zazaloph? What kind of name is that?”, Freberg’s standard answer was, “Swiss…That way we don’t offend no one.” In another classic bit, Freberg attempted to sing Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s iconic song “Old Man River,” only to be constantly interrupted by a censor (Butler), who complained that the lyrics were both offensive (“Old Man River” had to be changed to “Elderly Man River”) and ungrammatical (thus “He don’t plant taters/He don’t plant cottin’” became “He doesn’t plant potatoes/He doesn’t plant cotting”).

The series only lasted 15 weeks, thanks to numerous controversies, created by routines like the Middle-East conflict sketch described above, Freberg’s relentless satirizing of the commercial industry, and his frequent battles with the CBS censors, as well as the inability to find a permanent sponsor for the show. (It didn’t help that Freberg refused to allow commercials for tobacco companies.) In later years, Freberg would describe himself as “the last network radio comedian in America.”

Outside of his cartoon voice work, the one medium that Freberg was unable to conquer was motion pictures. Which is probably just as well. About the only way that Freberg could’ve translated his unique comic vision to the film medium would’ve been to make a series of short satirical movies, not unlike the one-reelers that humorist Robert Benchley made for MGM and Paramount in the 1930s and 40s. But, alas, like network radio shows, movie shorts were also a dying breed when Freberg’s career started to thrive.


Andy Devine and Stan Freberg in
“It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”

Freberg’s only appearance in a major motion picture was a brief “blink and you’ll miss him” cameo in Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). In one shot, while a county sheriff (played by Andy Devine) carries on a phone conversation (with Spencer Tracy on the other end of the line) in the foreground, Freberg (as the deputy) sits silently in the background. A few minutes later, we hear Freberg’s voice on a police car radio. That’s it. Freberg also produced television ads for the film featuring members of the cast. (Some would say that the ads were a lot funnier than the movie itself, but we won’t go there. The ads are available among the extras on the Criterion Collection’s Blu-Ray/DVD combo set of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.)

In what may well have been his most notable contribution to American culture, Freberg, following the old adage “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” started his own advertising agency called “Freberg, Ltd. (but not very)” in 1957. The agency’s motto was “Ars Gratia Pecuniae” (Latin for “Art for Money’s Sake”). Needless to say, Freberg had difficulty persuading perspective clients that making fun of their products would boost sales more than the traditional hardsell approach. But when his initial radio and television spots successfully yielded the promised results, Freberg had far less trouble lining up clients like Contadina Tomato Paste (“Who put eight great tomatoes in that little bitty can?”), Sunkist Pitted Prunes (“Today the pits, tomorrow the wrinkles! Sunkist marches on!”), and Chun King Chinese Food (a magazine ad with the slogan “Nine out of ten doctors recommend Chun King Chow Mein!” and a photo of nine Chinese doctors and one Caucasian doctor, played by Freberg).

Freberg’s television ads were virtually miniature cinematic masterpieces. Two, in particular, proved to be especially memorable. One, for Jeno Pizza Rolls, was a parody of the then current TV campaign for Lark Cigarettes, where a camera crew drove around the streets of LA baring a sign that said “Show us your Lark packs” with obvious actors holding up their Larks, all accompanied by Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” (better known to the general public as the “Theme for the Lone Ranger”).

In an even more impressive 1970 TV spot for Heinz’s short-lived line of Great American Soups, Freberg created a one-minute tribute to the classic Hollywood musicals of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, starring Ann Miller, who had appeared in several of those classic movies. (It was the most expensive TV commercial ever made at that time.)


If, in later years, Freberg wasn’t in demand as much as he had been in the past, he could still take solace in the fact that he’d been an indispensable influence on younger generations of comic artists, including some counterculture performers he would later work with, such as The Firesign Theatre and “Weird Al” Yankovic. And his skewering of intelligence-insulting TV shows, commercials, and movies lived on in spirit on SCTV, the closest a television sketch series ever came to doing the type of sharp, merciless satire that Freberg excelled at. (Could anything be more Frebergian than SCTV’s “Indira,” their classic parody of the Broadway musical Evita?)

Farewell, Stan Freberg. In a day and age when the dreck posing as comedy is deliberately geared to the sensibilities of the most immature cretins in the audience, and genuine wit is virtually non-existent, you will be sorely missed.


[1] Often called Freberg’s masterpiece, United States was a satirical look at American history, from Columbus “discovering” America to the conclusion of the Revolutionary War.

[2] As Freberg revealed in a 1999 interview with Stephen Thompson (The Onion), he had recently taught a class at Young Presidents’ Organization called “Political Correctness: Just Another Form of Censorship?”

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The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of (Special Halloween Double Feature): “Doctor X” (1932) and “Mystery of the Wax Museum” (1933)

“The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of, but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.

It’s doesn’t take a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient to figure out why the horror movie genre first flourished during the Great Depression. When the things that scare the hell out of the average person are life-changing events like losing one’s job or home or, in some extreme cases, life (due to starvation, illness, or suicide), it’s understandable why movie audiences would seek cathartic thrills in the frights provided by supernatural menaces they would never encounter in real life, such as vampires, werewolves, or man-made monsters.

It was Universal Pictures that virtually invented horror pictures with the one-two punch of Tod Browning’s Dracula and James Whale’s Frankenstein (both 1931). However, as film historian Carlos Clerens stated in his seminal 1967 book An Illustrated History of the Horror Film, “Warner Brothers loomed large as Universal’s most serious rival, at least in the first years of the vogue.” Warners’ first two horror pictures (also both 1931) were starring vehicles for the great John Barrymore,[1] Archie Mayo’s Svengali and Michael Curtiz’s The Mad Genius. (Svengali is an especially memorable film with one of Barrymore’s finest film performances.) Both of these pictures were definitely in the European Gothic mode established by Universal.

But for their next two horror movies, Doctor X (1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933, both directed by Curtiz), Warners decided to up the ante, photographing them in Technicolor, which then was still utilizing the original two-strip process (the first instances of using color cinematography for this genre). In addition, these next two efforts would be the first “modern” horror pictures, both set in contemporary New York City and, typical of Warners’ output of the period, reflecting the economic realities of the Depression. (The heroes in both movies, played by Lee Tracy in the former and Glenda Farrell in the latter, are newspaper reporters who are forced to risk their lives pursuing dangerous stories under threat of losing their jobs.)

The cynical wise-cracking newshound would eventually become one of the most oft-repeated clichés of the horror genre, but in these initial instances, the characters were unique and genuinely amusing, thanks mainly to the expert comedy chops of Tracy and Farrell, and the crackling dialogue provided by scenarists Earl Baldwin and Robert Tasker (Doctor X), and Don Mullaly and Carl Erickson (Wax Museum). Lee Tracy practically created the smart-ass reporter archetype when he played the role of Hildy Johnson in the 1928 Broadway premiere of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s iconic newspaper comedy The Front Page. After that triumph, Tracy spent most of his career type-cast as reporters or publicity flacks or other similar fast-talking roles. A few months before Doctor X, Tracy had the best role of his Hollywood career as gossip columnist Alvin Roberts (the movies’ first, but by no means last, caricature of Walter Winchell) in Roy Del Ruth’s screamingly funny black comedy Blessed Event.

Before Wax Museum, Glenda Farrell’s most notable roles at Warners were in two dramatic classics directed by Mervyn LeRoy, in an atypical ingénue role in Little Caesar (1931) and in a much more typical role as the alcoholic floozy who blackmails Paul Muni into a loveless marriage in I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932). Mystery of the Wax Museum was the first movie that revealed Farrell’s considerable gifts as a comedienne and had a major influence on her subsequent film career as well as leading to her own ‘B’ mystery franchise as reporter Torchy Blane. (Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster went on record as saying that Farrell’s performances in the Torchy Blane films were their inspiration for the character of Lois Lane.) Almost forty years later, the smart-assed, monster-hunting reporter archetype would come full circle in the person of burned-out, middle-aged but indefatigable scandal monger Carl Kolchak, thanks to writer Richard Matheson and actor Darren McGavin, in the hit 1971 made-for-TV movie The Night Stalker, which spawned a sequel and its own weekly series.


In place of Barrymore, these next Warners horror flicks featured leading performances by two actors making their debuts in the genre they would be linked with for the rest of their lives, Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. Not surprisingly, Wray played the damsel-in-distress in both films, the type of role she would best remembered for, particularly in King Kong (1933). Atwill’s roles in the films under discussion were quite different. In Doctor X, he played the title part of Dr. Xavier, noted scientist and father of Wray’s character. Despite some sinister dialogue and camera angels, he was an obvious red herring designed to draw attention from the real villain of the piece. However, in Wax Museum, Atwill had the role of his career as the story’s demented fiend, wax sculptor Ivan Igor. As film historian William K. Everson pointed out in his 1974 book Classics of the Horror Film, Ivan Igor was the type of villain role usually played by Boris Karloff, an initially completely sympathetic character “driven to madness and revenge by the greed and stupidity of others.”

Another notable contributor to both films was Anton Grot, the innovative set designer who was head of the Warner Brothers Studio Art Department from 1927 to 1948. Grot’s deliberately stylized sets influenced Warner’s visual style immensely. “I for one do not like extremely realistic sets,” Grot once said, “I am for simplicity and beauty and you can achieve that only be creating an impression.”[2] This approach dovetailed perfectly with Curtiz’s distinctive visual style which was formed from his days in Vienna in the mid-1920s, making films in the German Expressionist tradition of the period. (Curtiz used Grot extensively while they were both at Warners.) Cinematographer Ray Rennehan’s color photography in these two films also enhanced the surrealism of the visuals.

Just as Roland West’s 1930 thriller The Bat Whispers was filmed in two versions, widescreen and normal Academy ratio, Doctor X was likewise filmed twice, in Technicolor and black-and-white. The color version was shown only during opening engagements in major cities, whereas the black-and-white version was the one that most of the country saw. The suits at the Technicolor company weren’t happy with this approach, however, so Mystery of the Wax Museum was only filmed and released in Technicolor. (The use of color was so integral to the film that shooting an alternate version in black-and-white would’ve been pointless anyway.) Eventually, both films were forgotten by the general moviegoing public, replaced in popular memory by the slicker, more elaborate horror pictures that came later. (Wax Museum, of course, became completely overshadowed by its more profitable but inferior 3-D 1953 remake, Andre De Toth’s House of Wax, which became a cult favorite due mainly to Vincent Price’s performance in Atwill’s role.)

For decades, Mystery of the Wax Museum and the Technicolor version of Doctor X were considered irretrievably lost, with just the black-and-white version of Doctor X surviving. But, in 1970, a 35mm nitrate Technicolor print of Mystery of the Wax Museum was discovered in Jack Warner’s personal vault at Warner’s Burbank lot. As well documented by Everson, Wax Museum unfortunately received a rushed restoration job that botched the Technicolor hues and failed to retain the original vibrancy of the colors. (The result looked like a badly colorized version of a black-and-white movie.) After Warner’s death in 1978, a Technicolor print of Doctor X was found in his personal collection and received a far superior restoration job in 1986 by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, providing modern audiences with a better idea of what the movie originally looked like.


In Doctor X, a serial killer, who strangles his victims, then cannibalizes their bodies, is stalking New York, but only during a full moon. (The recurring shots of a full moon glowing through the clouds against the background of an emerald green sky are among the film’s most memorable use of Technicolor.) In the opening scene, reporter Lee Taylor (Tracy) is prowling the city wharfs looking for news—any news—when he stumbles onto a possible scoop. He spots a couple of police officials escorting a renowned scientist into a waterfront morgue. He tries to get past the plainclothesman (Tom Dugan) guarding the door, but with little success.

Cop: “Only stiffs go in there tonight.”

Lee: “No kidding?”

Cop: “No kidding.”

Lee: “What’s keepin’ you out?”

Lee then heads for the nearest pay phone, which, this definitely being a pre-Code picture, is located in a nearby cathouse. After trading some banter with the resident madam (played by none other than Mae Busch, best remembered by Laurel & Hardy fans as various villainesses or the shrewish Mrs. Hardy), Lee calls into his paper’s night editor (Selmer Jackson).

Lee: “Give me the night desk, please… Yeah. Willard Keefe… Yeah, this is Lee Taylor. I’m down at the Mott Street Morgue. Just now they bring in the body of an old scrubwoman murdered under very peculiar circumstances… No, they won’t let me see it. I can’t get any dope. Police—” (ogling an attractive prostitute walking by) “Very good.” (back into phone) “I say very—what? I say I can’t get any dope on it. Police orders. Just now, Stevens, O’Halloran, and a guy named Dr. Xavier arrived. Something’s doing.”

Keefe: “Yeah, I’ve heard that one, too.”

Lee: “Listen, you lunkhead, I’m not clowning. Look out the window, will you?”

Keefe:  “What do you mean, the moon?”

Lee:  “Certainly, I mean the moon. I’m laying 10 bucks to a dime it’s another Moon Killer murder.”

Keefe: “Well, that’s different. Now, listen, Lee, stick right on it.”

Lee: “Fine.”

By impersonating a corpse under a sheet, Lee’s able to learn that the evidence points to the killer being someone associated with Xavier’s Academy of Surgical Research, the prime suspects being one of four scientists: Dr. Wells (Preston Foster), an expert on cannibalism whose lower left arm has been replaced by a cosmetic prosthetic; Dr. Haines (John Wray, no relation to Fay), who was once suspected of cannibalism when he and two other scientists were cast adrift for several weeks in a lifeboat and one of the men disappeared before their rescue; Dr. Rowitz (Arthur Edmund Carewe), an expect on lunar studies researching the effects of moonlight on peoples’ psychology; and Dr. Duke (Harry Baresford), a paraplegic dependent on wheelchair and crutches who was the other surviving scientist in the lifeboat incident. (Even from just these brief descriptions, any dedicated fans of mystery fiction should’ve already figured out who the guilty party is!)

Annex - Wray, Fay (Doctor X)_01S Lee Tracy, Fay Wray

Xavier is granted 48 hours by the police to conduct his own investigation before they give the story to the newspapers, a promise that becomes moot after Lee exposes the deal. Then Lee scams his way past the maid into Xavier’s home where he “meets cute” with Joanne Xavier (Wray) when she catches him red-handed swiping photos of her and her father. Needless to say, Lee’s immediately smitten and makes some clumsy attempts at flirting with Joanne. For the rest of the picture, they carry on the type of light semi-affectionate sparring that would become so prevalent in the screwball comedy genre established just a couple of years later.

Lee: “Are you going swimming with me in the morning?”

Joanne: “No, thanks. Good night.”

Lee: “What will you do if I start to sink and yell for help?”

Joanne: “Throw you an anvil. Good night.”

docteur-x-1932-01-g Harry Beresford, John Wray, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, Lionel Atwill

Running at just 76 minutes, Doctor X is divided into a traditional three-act structure. Act One, the first half-hour, takes place entirely in New York City. Act Two, the second half-hour, moves the action to a remote mansion located at Long Island’s Blackstone Shoals, where Xavier hopes to continue his personal investigation. (In what would become another oft-repeated horror film cliché, this sinister old mansion resides on a cliff overlooking the ocean.) Per theatrical tradition, Act Two concludes with another murder. Finally, in Act Three, the last two-reels, the movie kicks into high gear, particularly when, in the picture’s most justly celebrated sequence, the villain transforms himself into a monster with the aid of electricity and a creepily ghoulish invention he calls “synthetic flesh.”


Providing a plot synopsis for Mystery of the Wax Museum is practically superfluous since most film enthusiasts have already seen House of Wax. Indeed, several scenes from the original were faithfully duplicated in the remake, including the opening scene (the sculptor’s museum being destroyed in a fire started by his corrupt business partner to cash in on the insurance [3]); the theft of a young woman’s corpse from the city morgue (both versions featuring the morgue attendant’s sexist wisecrack about a dead female body moving and moaning under the influence of embalming fluid, “Ain’t that just like a woman, always has to have the last word?”); the grand reopening of the wax museum in New York; the female ingénue beating on the sculptor’s face in self-defense, revealing a horribly mutilated face hiding underneath a wax mask; the cops grilling a suspect who’s a strung-out addict (heroin in pre-Code Wax Museum, alcohol in post-Code House of Wax) until he cracks and reveals that the sculptor, whose hands were injured in the fire, has been repopulating his museum with corpses encased in wax; and the grand finale in which the sculptor tries to turn the ingénue into a recreation of his masterpiece, Marie Antoinette, by strapping her to a gurney and showering her with molten wax. (House of Wax’s sole improvement over the original was David Buttolph’s effectively frightening background music.)

mystery-of-the-wax-museum-production-still_2-1933 Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray

There are some major differences between the two versions, however. The original had a contemporary setting, while the remake was done as a period piece in the 1890s (in keeping with Hollywood’s tiresomely obsessive nostalgia for “the Gay Nineties” that began during World War II). The prologue takes place in London in the earlier version, and is set in Baltimore in the later one. But the biggest difference between the two is the emphasis on humor in Wax Museum, provided mostly by Glenda Farrell’s reporter Florence (no surname)[4] and her cynical editor Jim (Frank McHugh). (There are no characters equivalent to Florence and Jim in House of Wax and the only thing resembling humor in the film is the guy with the paddleballs.) Many of the dialogue exchanges between Farrell and McHugh anticipate the similar verbal skirmishes between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940), such as this one after Florence notices that the new wax museum’s Joan of Arc statue looks suspiciously like the suicidal young socialite whose body was stolen from the morgue.

Florence: “I am right! I know I’m right!”

Jim: “Well, no one would ever suspect it. You don’t sound right.”

Florence: “Listen, Jim—and if you wisecrack while I’m talking, I’ll crown you with the inkwell.”

Jim: ”All right, wise guy. Go ahead. Spill it.”

Florence:  “Jim, there’s a little hokey-pokey wax museum opening up down on 14th Street.”

Jim: (sarcastically) “Now don’t that call for an extra?”

Florence: “I asked you to keep your trap shut!”

Jim: “Well, you can’t blame a guy for getting a little breathless with a scoop like that.”

Florence: “All right, you poor baboon, you can guess the rest of it!”

Jim: “No kiddin’? What’s your idea?”

Florence: “Just this, I got a look at that dump a little while ago and if they haven’t got a wax figure of Joan Gale in that line-up, then I’m crazy.”

Jim: “We’ll grant that.”

Florence: “What?”

Jim: “About the Gale girl, I mean. Where do we go from there? What of it?”

Florence: “Listen, Jo-Jo, does this mean anything to you? Joan Gale’s body was swiped from the morgue! Did you ever hear of such a thing as a death mask?”

Jim: “I used to be married to one.”

Florence: “And it came to life and divorced you. I know all about that. Now my idea is this, somebody swipes the girl’s body, takes an impression, makes a mold, produces a wax figure, and—bingo—peddles it to this old skate down there!”

Jim: “Work that up into a comic strip and we’ll syndicate it.”

Florence: “You go to hel—“

Jim: “What?”

Florence: “Let it go.”

Jim: “Come down to earth. Do you think they would dare do anything like that? Don’t you think they’d know that figure would be recognized? Shake your head real hard, you’ll be all right.”

Florence: “All right, master mind, but there’s something cockeyed about that joint and I’m going to find out what it is.”

mystery-of-the-wax-museum-production-photo_6-19331Glenda Farrell on the set

Mystery of the Wax Museum was arguably the first feminist horror picture. Long before Joss Whedon created that vampire-slaying blonde Buffy, Florence proved to be tougher and superior to any of her male counterparts, completely outwitting the police, exposing the villain’s plot, and rescuing her friend Charlotte Duncan (Wray) from a fate worse than death. (In the remake, the savior was more traditionally a man, a police inspector played by Frank Lovejoy, although, in both versions, it was a male cop’s haymaker that sends the villain plunging into his own vat of bubbling wax.) Florence’s toughness and independence is beautifully accented by Farrell’s comic timing and caustic delivery. (When the playboy Florence is dating wants to chicken out of assisting with her investigation, she responds with, “All right, brother, then you can go to some nice warm place and I don’t mean California!”)

WM-004Fay Wray, Glenda Farrell, Lionel Atwill

The story was remade yet again under the title House of Wax in 2005 (with a dimbulb cast that included Paris Hilton). This time around it was a trashy piece of teenage torture porn so ineptly made that it single-handedly killed off the Dark Castle Productions series that had proven to be a successful annual Halloween attraction for Warner Brothers in the previous four years. Far more enjoyable than either remake was Hy Averback’s Chamber of Horrors (1966), an intended television pilot that was released theatrically instead, in which the House of Wax was reimagined as the headquarters for a trio of amateur criminologists (Cesare Danova, Wilfred Hyde-White, and Tun Tun) in turn of the century Baltimore. The villain in this picture was a demented blueblood (Patrick O’Neal in a creepy, underplayed performance) whose severed right hand had been replaced by an all-purpose prosthetic equipped for such instruments of torture as a hook, scalpel, and meat cleaver. Interestingly, Doctor X was never remade. And, no, despite its title, Vincent Sherman’s The Return of Doctor X (1939) is in no way, shape, or form a sequel. That movie’s sole claim to fame was Humphrey Bogart’s only performance in a horror movie as a resurrected scientist who requires the blood of others to sustain his undead existence. (Bogart, who hated the picture, later quipped that, if only he’d been draining Jack Warner’s blood, he would’ve found the experience more rewarding.)


Mystery of the Wax Museum is available on both DVD and Blu-Ray as an extra for the 1953 version of House of Wax. Doctor X has been released only on DVD as a double-feature with The Return of Doctor X in Warner Home Video’s Legends of Horror set. And both films often turn up on Turner Classic Movies, especially around Halloween.

[1] It’s not inconceivable that the thought of becoming Warners’ answer to Lugosi and Karloff played a major role in John Barrymore’s decision to take his brother Lionel’s advice and jump ship for MGM.

[2] Introduction to Film Studies, Jill Nelmes, editor, Routledge, 2012.

[3] In the remake, the partner was rather blandly played by Roy Roberts, while, in the original, the role was played by one of Hollywood’s most wonderfully malignant heavies, Edwin Maxwell. Significantly, Roberts got killed off early in the proceedings, whereas Maxwell remained a major supporting character throughout the rest of the picture.

[4] For years now, way too many film historians who should know better have repeated the IMDB’s mistake of listing Dempsey as Florence’s last name, a characteristic IMDB gaffe obviously posted by some humor-impaired film nerd unable to grasp the concept of sarcasm when a cop responds to Florence deliberately slapping him hard on the back by calling her “Mrs. Dempsey” (you know, referring to the boxing champ), even though it’s well-established that Florence is single and is roommates with Charlotte.


DVD Review: “The Strange Woman” (1946)


One of the main reasons that truly dedicated cinema aficionados have particular respect and admiration for ‘B’ filmmakers is that not only could they achieve a level of visual style on low budgets that put the work of more respectable (and overrated) directors working with infinitely larger budgets to shame, but also do so with greater speed and efficiency. (This explains why many ‘B’ directors like John Brahm, Robert Florey, Ida Lupino, William Witney, Norman Foster, and William “One-Shot” Beaudine thrived in the television medium; the budgets and schedules required for TV were downright luxurious compared with the conditions they’d made theatrical films under.) One director who epitomized this concept of doing more with less was Edgar G. Ulmer. As part of their series of remastered DVD releases of public domain movies previously available only in cheap, multi-generational knock-offs, Film Chest has just issued a high-definition restored version of Ulmer’s 1946 costume melodrama The Strange Woman.

Coincidentally, as with Hollow Triumph, another 40s ‘B’ film recently remastered and released on DVD by Film Chest, The Strange Woman was a project that was initiated by its star, in this case, Hedy Lamarr. (For years, Lamarr was written off as yet another attractive starlet with a limited acting range, but it’s now well known that she had a genius I.Q. and, with composer George Antheil, invented a frequency-hopping spread-spectrum device that was patented in their names in 1942. The device not only prevented the jamming of radio-controlled torpedoes, but laid the groundwork for today’s Internet as well.)

Lamarr was dissatisfied with her time under contract to MGM, where she was wasted in glamorous but unsubstantial roles. It also didn’t help that MGM refused to loan Lamarr to Warner Bros. when she was the first choice for what would’ve been the most notable role of her career, Ilsa Lund in Casablanca. (Lamarr’s loss, however, was film history’s gain when David O. Selznick gladly loaned out Warners’ second choice, Ingrid Bergman, since Bergman was, frankly, a far more talented and nuanced actress. MGM did loan Lamarr to Warners two years later for The Conspirators, however.)


After leaving MGM in 1945, Lamarr tried freelancing, an option becoming increasingly popular at the time among film stars whose studio contracts had run out and wanted to exercise more control over their careers. Lamarr purchased the film rights to Ben Ames Williams’ novel The Strange Woman, a steamy tale in which Jenny Hager, a young temptress from the wrong side of town (said town being Bangor, Maine, circa the early 1800s), sleeps her way to riches and respectability. Lamarr then teamed with fellow MGM alumni Jack Chertock and Hunt Stromberg to produce. She also selected Ulmer, a childhood friend in her native Vienna, to direct.


Ulmer directing Lamarr and Sanders

Being an independent production, The Strange Woman was made on a limited budget, but it must have seemed have seemed lavish compared to the miniscule budgets Ulmer was used to working with when he was under contract to Producers Releasing Company (or PRC, as it was commonly known), the cheapest of Hollywood’s “Poverty Row” studios. The Strange Woman is what was known as a “bodice ripper” (i.e., “lusty” costume romantic-melodramas populated by male scoundrels and promiscuous female protagonists), a subgenre that proved to be especially popular with movie audiences in the post-war years in such films as Gainsborough Pictures’ The Wicked Lady (UK, 1945), 20th Century Fox’s Forever Amber (1947), and MGM’s That Forsythe Woman (1949). Although The Strange Woman’s budget was a fraction of the ones these movies were made on, Ulmer’s visual creativity belied its modest resources.

Still, the movie’s sense of visual style was not enough for it to transcend its soap opera story and script. (The screenplay is credited to radio writer Herb Meadow, but supposedly Ulmer and Stromberg also did uncredited work on it.) I’d say that The Strange Woman’s story is like a bad Harlequin romance, except that “bad Harlequin romance” is a redundancy. With exceptional directing, writing, and acting, it’s possible to make a quality film out of this type of material as proven by William Wyler’s Jezebel (1938) with its Academy Award-winning star performance by Bette Davis. But, at any rate, Lamarr was no Davis, not by a long shot, and even admitted in her autobiography that she didn’t have the range to pull the role off: “I just wasn’t a tigress. All the talent at my disposal couldn’t make me one.”

A cliché that was overused in that period was showing the main characters as children and how their psychological makeup was already apparent in their personalities. In the opening scene of The Strange Woman (supposedly directed by an uncredited Douglas Sirk), we are introduced to the main characters as adolescents as they play by a river stream. Even at an early age, young Jenny (played by Jo Ann Marlowe), daughter of town drunk Tim Hager (Dennis Hoey), is obviously a bad seed, as evidenced by her bouncing a rock off the head of one boy in a swimming race with another boy (she was rooting for the other boy) and then taunting Ephraim (Christopher Severn), the son of wealthy merchant Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart), who owns the local general store in addition to a lumber camp outside the town. Just to show what a hellcat Jenny is, when Ephraim reveals that he can’t swim, she promptly pushes him into the water. And just to add insult to injury, after another lad pulls Ephraim out of the stream before he drowns, Jenny takes credit for the rescue.

Fast-forward to about a decade later. Jenny (Lamarr) has grown to be an attractive young woman who’s got definite ideas of what she wants and how to get it. While Jenny shows off her new dress to gal pal Lena Tempest (June Storey), a barmaid at the local dive down by the docks, her friend offers her some encouragement.

Lena: “Listen, honey, with your looks, you don’t have to worry. Why, you can get the youngest and best-looking man on the river.”
Jenny: “I don’t want the youngest; I want the richest!”
Lena: “Jenny, that’s a recipe for trouble!”
Jenny: (coquettishly) “Don’t worry about me. I can handle trouble.”
Lena: “I know you can.”

The richest man in the area being the aforementioned Isaiah Poster (conveniently, a widower), Jenny’s already got him in her sights. She gets her chance to reel him in when her father drops dead of a fatal heart attack due to his exertions while taking a whip to her for her wantonness. (Sounds kinky, huh? Well, we’ll get to that later.) Jenny shows up on Isaiah’s doorstep, acting as distraught as her thespian talents will allow. Sure enough, Isaiah offers Jenny protection and a roof over her head in the form of a marriage proposal, which she “gratefully” accepts.

The next step to achieving her goals is provided by Isaiah’s son Ephraim, due back from boarding school. The adult Ephraim is played by Louis Hayward with the usual combination of callowness and moral ambiguity he usually brought to his roles whether he was playing a hero or a heavy. Ephraim turns out to be a spineless weakling, which makes him ideal for the manipulations Jenny has in mind. (Indeed, Ephraim’s such an obvious patsy that he calls to mind the great line that Preston Sturges gave Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve when she’s sizing up Henry Fonda as her mark: “I need him like the ax needs the turkey.”)

Jenny puts the moves on Ephraim and, as they go into a clinch, Isaiah shows up right on cue to witness them in the act and suffers a stroke there on the spot. (Jenny would seem to be the Typhoid Mary of heart disease.) Unexpectedly, and much to Jenny’s disappointment, Isaiah recovers. Time for Plan B. Borrowing a page from the film noir femme fatales’ book, Jenny convinces Ephraim to bump his old man off.

The opportunity presents itself when there’s trouble at the lumber camp and both Posters will be required to make the journey to the camp via canoe in the rapid waters of the river. (Guess who else can’t swim?) As it turns out, before he can commit cold-blooded fratricide, Ephraim has a panic attack as they travel downstream, resulting in the canoe capsizing. It may be an accident, but it achieves the effect desired by Jenny: Isaiah’s demise. Now that Ephraim’s fulfilled his usefulness, Jenny takes chutzpah to a whole new level, denouncing him for killing her husband and barring him from the family home. She needs to get Ephraim out of the picture because she’s already got her next boytoy lined up: John Evered (George Sanders), the fiancé of her childhood friend Meg Saladine (Hillary Brooke).
On the plus side, in addition to Sanders, Hoey, Lockhart, and Hayward, The Strange Woman’s supporting cast also includes such first-rate character actors as Alan Napier, Rhys Williams, and Moroni Olsen. On the debit side of the ledger is the fact that the weak material the cast has to work with doesn’t make much use of their talents. Sanders is particularly wasted in a standard leading man role, rather than playing one of his patented cads who might’ve given Jenny a suitable antagonist to provide her with a well-deserved comeuppance, much like his Addison DeWitt did so satisfyingly with Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington in All About Eve.

There are some fleeting moments when The Strange Woman threatens to become a perverse kitsch classic, such as Jenny’s wicked smile as her father starts whipping her or her seduction of John Evered during a raging thunderstorm where, at the height of their passion, a bolt of lightning causes a tree to burst into flames. But such moments are few and far between, buried under tons of tedious dialogue as the characters talk endlessly about their desires and aspirations. The one interesting aspect of the story is how Jenny uses her newfound wealth to help those townspeople in need, but even this isn’t enough to make up for the screenplay’s defects.

As with Film Chest’s other recent remastered DVD releases, despite some obvious scratching in the first reel, The Strange Woman is consistently good to look at. Whether the film itself is actually worth watching is another matter altogether.