All posts by Doug Krentzlin

Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis: An Appreciation in Three Films

 

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Jerry Lewis in Cracking Up

If you had told me three weeks ago that I’d be devastated by Jerry Lewis’ death, I’d have asked you to give me a drag off that before you throw it away. Just a month ago, it was easy to write Jerry off. The cranky attitude, the hubris, the outrageous statements (like “women aren’t funny”) whether he actually believed them or not, and as far as we were concerned, the ultimate betrayal: the Trump endorsement … Hell, I think we even resented Jerry’s longevity! And it got to the point where we swore that, if he ever told that goddamn parrot joke just one more time, we’d run out of the room screaming.[1]

But Jerry Lewis passing away on Sunday, Aug. 20, was a shock and cause of sorrow for millions of people, myself included. As beaten-to-death as the cliché is, Jerry Lewis’ demise was indeed “the end of an era.” He was one of the very last survivors of a show business tradition that stretched from Vaudeville to movies, radio, and television. I suspect that it was my fellow Baby Boomers that took Jerry’s shuffling off this mortal coil the hardest. After all, he was our comedian! Oh, sure, we also loved Keaton, Fields, Hope, Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang, the Marxes, and the Stooges, but Jerry Lewis was the only one making brand new comedies for us to look forward to. And the fact that our parents vehemently hated Jerry only endeared him to us all the more. (Hey, our parents also hated Elvis Presley and the Beatles!)

And love him or hate him, as even his severest critics had to admit, Jerry was an accomplished and innovative filmmaker with an unmistakable visual style. He was also a master of film technology. It was Jerry Lewis who invented and held the patent on what is now known as “the video assist.” This allows film directors to look at whatever they’d just shot right there on the set, rather than waiting to see “the rushes” the next morning. It is now an established asset used by most modern-day filmmakers.

Most of Jerry’s obits dutifully mentioned the usual film highlights: Artists and Models, The Delicate Delinquent (Jerry’s first solo film after breaking up with Dean Martin), The Bellboy (the first feature film Lewis directed himself), The Patsy, and, of course, Lewis’ The Nutty Professor and Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. But, as fans of World Cinema Paradise probably (or hopefully) know, I write a series of articles titled The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of.  The purpose of that series is to draw film buffs’ attention to great little-known cinematic gems that have escaped from or fallen out of public consciousness. In the spirit of that series, I’ve decided to concentrate this appreciation of his work on three of Jerry’s lesser-known pictures. (Interestingly, all three of these films are black comedies about death, something I hadn’t even considered when selecting them.)

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Poster for Living It Up

Living It Up (Paramount, 1954)

My nomination for the best of the 16 movies starring the team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis is Living It Up, which had the most notable pedigree of all their pictures together. It was the film version of a 1953 Broadway musical titled Hazel Flagg, with songs by composer Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Hilliard. That musical was, in turn, based on William Wellman’s classic 1937 screwball black comedy Nothing Sacred starring Carole Lombard and Fredric March. The source for both previous versions was a short story by James Street titled Letter to the Editor and both scripts were written by the great Ben Hecht. Fortunately, Living It Up’s screenwriters Jack Rose and Melville Shavelson had the good sense to stay as faithful to Hecht’s scripts as possible (albeit with some comedy routines specifically created for Dean and Jerry), and even retained a good percentage of Hecht’s original dialogue.

Most contemporary film scholars usually opt for Artists and Models (1955) as Martin & Lewis’ most notable picture, mainly because it was the first and best of the two of their movies written and directed by former cartoon animator Frank Tashlin. I, however, have major problems with that film, not the least of which that Tashlin endorsed the idiotic theory promoted by quack psychiatrist Dr. Frederick Wertheim in his anti-comic book screed The Seduction of the Innocent that comic books were the main cause of juvenile delinquency. (Wertheim’s book has long since been debunked by scholars.) And while Tashlin’s visual style and use of cartoon-like sight gags undoubtedly influenced Jerry as a director, he was also guilty of encouraging Lewis’ least attractive trait: the maudlin overuse of pathos and sentimentality. (“Chaplin shit,” as Dean once referred to it.)

Dean Martin, Janet Leigh & Jerry Lewis LIVING IT UP

Dean Martin, Janet Leigh & Jerry Lewis in Living It Up

Directed by veteran comedy director Norman Taurog, Living It Up begins with Dean and Jerry stuck in a decrepit shithole out in the Midwestern desert appropriately named Desert Hole. Homer Flagg (Jerry in the Carole Lombard role) dreams of leaving Desert Hole in his dust and seeing the big city, specifically New York. His opportunity presents itself when the town’s only physician Dr. Steve Harris (Dean in the Charles Winninger role) accidentally diagnoses Homer as dying of radiation poisoning. (The glow Steve saw on Homer’s x-ray was his radium watch.) Meanwhile, back in NYC, perpetually scheming newspaper reporter Wally Cook (Janet Leigh, looking particularly gorgeous in eye-popping Technicolor, in the Fredric March role) proposes to her Machiavellian editor Oliver Stone (Fred Clark, far better cast than Walter Connolly who played the role in the original) that they give the dying boy an all-expenses-paid vacation in the Big Apple and exploit the story for publicity purposes. When Wally shows up in Desert Hole to make the paper’s offer, both Steve (who immediately develops a crush on Wally) and Homer (who’ll do anything to see Manhattan) decide to continue the ruse that Homer is living on borrowed time.

The dark humor and Ben Hecht’s caustic dialogue gives Living It Up a bite that is missing from the other Martin & Lewis vehicles. The single best line from Hecht’s Nothing Sacred script is beautifully delivered by Fred Clark to Janet Leigh: “I am sitting here, seriously considering removing your heart and stuffing it… like an olive!”  And when Wally bursts out laughing at the karma of a couple of rubes taking the city slickers for a ride, Oliver smugly responds with a line provided by scenarists Rose and Shavelson that might be the most suggestive line ever to be heard in a Jerry Lewis picture: “You were going to marry [Homer]. He would’ve done to you what he did to this paper.” Apart from Clark’s performance, one of the reasons that the role of Oliver Stone is funnier in this film than in the original is that Rose and Shavelson made the character more ghoulish, constantly looking for ways to hasten Homer’s demise. When Homer passes out in a nightclub (he’s just surreptitiously downed a quart of vodka), Oliver, looking like he’s about to burst out in crocodile tears, says to Steve, “Doctor, I want to know the worst… We go to press in fifteen minutes!” (At one point, Living It Up becomes relevant to today’s political climate when Oliver assures Steve that his newspaper will reward him with a series of editorials denouncing “socialized medicine.”)

Fred clark, janet leigh, jerry lewis & Dean Martin LIVING IT UP

Fred Clark, Janet Leigh, Jerry Lewis & Dean Martin in Living It Up

Another reason Living It Up outshines most other Martin & Lewis pictures is that, at long last, Dean was given several opportunities to show off his comedy chops. Most of the screenwriters assigned to the team’s movies treated Dean like a necessary evil: let him sing a few songs and just give him straight lines to feed to Jerry. Impersonating an accomplished member of the medical profession, Dean as Steve has a running gag where, whenever he wants to sound scientific, he puts on a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and drops his voice a couple of octaves. Jerry has his own solo comic highlight when he’s scheduled to be examined by an international trio of renowned experts, Dr. Emile Egelhofer (Sig Ruman, the only holdover from the cast of Nothing Sacred [2]) from Germany, Dr. Lee (Richard Loo) from China, and Dr. Nassau (Eduard Franz) from France. Homer confounds the three doctors by taking turns impersonating each of them, spouting gibberish to approximate their native languages. (And, yes, when Jerry impersonates Lee, he does his traditional cringe-inducing Oriental stereotype complete with big buck teeth.)

Although Jule Styne and Bob Hilliard wrote two new songs for Dean, most notably “Money Burns a Hole in My Pocket,” which became a minor hit for him, the film’s best musical moments are the three songs retained from the stage version. In the aforementioned nightclub scene, Dean gets to serenade Janet Leigh with one of Styne’s loveliest romantic ballads “How Do You Talk to an Angel?” In the same scene, Jerry gives the best demonstration of his gift for eccentric dancing ever when he joins Sheree North (the only holdover from the stage cast in her film debut) in the rollicking jitterbug number “You’re Gonna Dance with Me, Baby.” (Biographer Shawn Levy in his book King of Comedy: the Life and Art of Jerry Lewis described Jerry’s dancing in this scene as looking like “a chimpanzee on amphetamines.”) And, last but not least, Dean and Jerry have their shining moment on film when they do the song-and-dance number “Every Street’s a Boulevard in Old New York” as they stroll through those same streets.

 

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Spanish poster for Cracking Up with the title Jerry’s Crazy World

Cracking Up (Warner Brothers, 1983)

Most of Jerry Lewis’ obits covered his filmmaking downfall in the late 60s when Paramount unceremoniously dumped him just as the studio had done to the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields in the 1930s. He tried working at other studios (20th Century Fox, Columbia, and Warner Brothers), but those efforts only accelerated his decline. And then in 1972, Jerry disastrously attempted to make a stark Holocaust drama called The Day the Clown Cried. Concerning a circus clown imprisoned in Dachau who forced to entertain the child prisoners and eventually lead them a la the Pied Piper into the gas ovens, the never-finished The Day the Crown Cried has since become the butt of a thousand snide putdowns from Lewis’ detractors.

But then in 1980, Jerry made a directorial comeback with Hardly Working, a box office hit that nevertheless remains sheer torture to sit through thanks to Lewis smothering the humor underneath a nauseating level of pathos. The bright side of the renewed interest in Jerry Lewis was not only his acting triumph as late night talk show host Jerry Langford in Martin Scorsese’s black comedy The King of Comedy (1982), basically a comic variation on Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, with Langford being stalked by unfunny comedian wannabe Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), but Jerry also had the opportunity to take a final bite of the filmmaking apple in 1983 when Warner Brothers gave him the green light to co-write (with Bill Richmond, his collaborator on The Ladies Man, The Errand Boy, The Nutty Professor, and The Patsy), direct, and star in Cracking Up. This time around, Lewis avoided pathos altogether and proved that he had one last comic gem up his sleeve.

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Jerry Lewis as Warren Nefron in Cracking Up

Cracking Up (filmed under the title Smorgasbord) was Lewis’ return to the episodic approach of The Bellboy and The Ladies Man with a series of unrelated self-contained comedy routines and skits. The frame on which these sketches were hung was Warren Nefron (Lewis) consulting Dr. Jonas Pletchick (Herb Edelman), a psychiatrist, after a series of bungled suicide attempts, the flashbacks and family genealogy stories he relates to Dr. Pletchick being the basis for the various comic episodes. Unlike Hardly Working, Cracking Up didn’t even have the chance to either succeed or fail financially because Warner Brothers, the studio which had similarly botched the release of Lewis’ 1970 World War II comedy Which Way to the Front?, gave it just a limited release in France before dumping it on basic cable TV in the US. Which was a shame because Cracking Up demonstrated that Jerry Lewis’ comic instinct and timing was just as impeccable as ever.

Jerry Lewis CRACKING UP

Jerry Lewis’ credit title in Cracking Up

This becomes apparent in the film’s opening scene when Warren attempts to make his way to a chair in Pletchick’s office while doing pratfall after pratfall on the floor’s over-polished surface, with the credits superimposed over the footage. (In a nod to audiences’ familiarity with the veteran comic, his name is billed before the title as “Jerry—Who Else?”) All the expected tropes are there: the stylized use of Technicolor, the physical adroitness, the perfect timing, the swinging big band music playing underneath the credits.

Herb Edelman, Jerry Lewis CRACKING UP

Herb Edelman & Jerry Lewis in Cracking Up

The film’s most hilarious skits involve Warren trying to order breakfast in a restaurant and encountering The Waitress From Hell (comedienne Zane Busby) who, in an annoyingly nasal and grating voice, recites a never-ending list of choices on the menu (e.g., when Warren asks for juice, she proceeds in a monotone to name three or four dozen different types of juice the establishment offers); Jerry playing a caricature of a redneck Southern cop who accidentally destroys both the car of the driver he’s just pulled over and his own patrol car; Warren flying overseas on the world’s cheapest, least competent airline, with perennially soused Foster Brooks (the spiritual heir of cinematic drunks Arthur Houseman and Jack Norton) as the pilot and Lewis regular Buddy Lester as a sinister, heavily-armed passenger. (When going through inspection, the officials not only ignore Lester’s dual bandoliers, but they even offer Warren his choice of weaponry.) Not all of the skits work, but enough of them do to justify checking out Lewis’ little-known farewell as a director.

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Poster for Funny Bones

Funny Bones (Hollywood Pictures, 1995)

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Jerry Lewis as George Fawkes in Funny Bones

Most of Jerry Lewis’ obits mentioned Scorsese’s The King of Comedy as an example of latter-day filmmakers’ admiration for him, but very few of them mentioned Peter Chelsom’s Funny Bones (1995). Not only is Funny Bones by far the better picture, but Lewis’ role is more central and critical. Several actors might have played Jerry Langford (albeit not as well as Lewis), but nobody else could have brought as much to Funny Bones as Lewis did playing the supporting role of world-famous, much-beloved veteran comedian George Fawkes. (And, no, the role is not an autobiographical one.) In fact, Chelsom, who produced, directed, and co-wrote (with Peter Flannery) Funny Bones went on record as saying that he expressly designed the role with Jerry Lewis in mind. (Scorsese has admitted that his first choice to play Langford was Johnny Carson, and that he decided to offer it to Lewis only after Carson turned him down.)

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George Carl & Freddie Davies as the Parker Brothers & Lee Evans as Jack Parker in Funny Bones

A very, very dark comedy, Funny Bones is the best movie ever made on the subject of comedy. Comedian George Fawkes is the father of two sons, one of them illegitimate, the result of an extramarital affair. The bastard son is Jack Parker (UK comedian Lee Evans making his film debut), who was raised in Blackpool, England by the Parkers, a family of music hall artists that include his mother Katie (Leslie Caron, looking as lovely as ever), his adoptive father Bruno (Freddie Davies), his uncle Thomas (George Carl), and his dog Toast. (When, during a half-hearted suicide attempt, Jack is asked by a police psychiatrist what he wants, he answers “Toast,” and the cops, of course, think he’s requesting breakfast.) Jack is an instinctive comic genius with a gift for pantomime and physical comedy. Jack has funny bones.

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Oliver Platt as Tommy Fawkes in Funny Bones

George’s acknowledged son is Tommy Fawkes (excellently played by Oliver Platt in a rare star turn). Whereas Rupert Pupkin’s main goal was fame for fame’s sake, Tommy desperately wants to follow in his father’s footsteps because he wants to be funny, needs to be funny. But there’s one problem. Tommy isn’t funny. Not in the least. In fact, Tommy is so clueless when it comes to humor that he can’t even recognize the incongruity of a spoiled, pampered rich kid adopting an angry young man persona on stage. Making his big Las Vegas debut, Tommy only succeeds in alienating the audience by resorting to what he’s thinks is cutting edge material, but is actually an ancient blue joke that’s been as pummeled to death over the years as Jerry’s parrot joke. (It would seem that Tommy wants to emulate Lenny Bruce, but he can’t even achieve the level of Andrew Dice Clay.) At one point, George accurately diagnoses why Tommy isn’t funny: “God damn it, it’s like you’re too educated to be funny!” In other words, Tommy doesn’t have funny bones.

Unfortunately, the suits at Hollywood Pictures (a subsidiary of Disney Corp.) had no idea how to market the picture, so they made the monumental mistake of peddling it as a family-friendly comedy, which it most certainly was not. The film was briefly given a limited release in March 1995 and then promptly vanished. I’ve already written about Funny Bones extensively for World Cinema Paradise in my The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of series, so there’s no need to spend much more time describing it when you can read all about it here. I did say earlier in this article that all three of these films are black comedies about death. In the case of Funny Bones, however, I can’t explain when and how the Grim Reaper appears in the picture without spoiling some of the movie’s best plot twists. Suffice it to say that, if you’re a major Jerry Lewis fan, you really need to see Funny Bones.

Before we wish a fond farewell to “the King of Comedy,” it’s worth considering one of those cosmic ironies that so often occur in the world of entertainment. As previously mentioned, most of the movie critics from the 1950s through the 1970s hated Jerry Lewis’ films and never hesitated to criticize his pictures in the harshest terms possible. But most of those comedies that were critical failures became huge financial successes, and almost every single one of those critics had been long gone decades before Jerry left us this year. For the umpteenth time, Jerry Lewis had the last laugh.

 


[1] Jerry Lewis’ parrot joke: “I’m riding on the New York subway and this young guy gets on and sits in the seat across from me. The kid’s wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt, many colors on that shirt, and his hair is all done up in spikes, many different-colored spikes. He sees me staring at him and asks, “What the matter? Didn’t you ever do anything for fun?” So I said to him, “Sorry. The reason I’m staring is because I once fucked a parrot… and I was wondering if you’re my son.” (Needless to say, Jerry cleaned up the joke whenever he told it on television.)

[2] Ruman not only played Dr. Egelhofer in Nothing Sacred, but he repeated the role a third time in Billy Wilder’s 1966 black comedy The Fortune Cookie, which also involved medical fraud. Emile Egelhofer was also the name of the psychiatrist brought in to examine cop killer Earl Williams in Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur’s seminal 1928 newspaper stage comedy The Front Page. Obviously, Hecht liked the name.

 

Buy Living it Up on Amazon
Buy Cracking Up on Amazon
Buy Funny Bones on Amazon

 

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

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.)

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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.)

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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.

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“What a World”: Recreating Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles for “Farewell, My Lovely”

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To date, there have been eight attempts at bringing Raymond Chandler’s iconic private detective Philip Marlowe to the big screen, and only two of them have been keepers, Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946), with Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe, and Dick Richards’ Farewell, My Lovely (1975), with Robert Mitchum in the role. The Big Sleep has been available on home video for decades, but it wasn’t until last month, more than 40 years after its theatrical release, that Farewell, My Lovely was finally given an authorized DVD release (by Shout! Factory). Just in time, too. It’s the perfect stocking stuffer for the film noir fanatic on your holiday gift list.

That’s because Farewell, My Lovely was Richards’ affectionate Valentine to the film noirs of the 1940s. A serious, faithful Valentine, not a spoof (like those unfunny 70s “comedies” The Black Bird and Neil Simon’s The Cheap Detective) nor a post-modern deconstruction of the genre (like Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, and Arthur Penn’s Night Moves). As he explained it to me, Richards was determined to recreate the feel of the original film noirs from the first decade of the genre. (Albeit with Technicolor prints and relaxed censorship.) Richards was kind enough to allow me to interview him in connection with this article, which was fortunate because my on-line research yielded precious little information about the making of this film. (And what few factoids I found turned out to be false. More about those later.)

If Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes provided the DNA that all subsequent fictional British detectives were descended from, Chandler’s Marlowe was its American equivalent. By his own admission, Chandler wasn’t the first writer to create believable detective fiction for pulp magazines that owed nothing to the British drawing room mysteries popularized by Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers; Dashiell Hammett got there first.[1] As Chandler memorably put it in his celebrated essay The Simple Art of Murder: “Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley… Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for a reason, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare, and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they were, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes.”

Although Philip Marlowe is basically an idealization of what a heroic private detective should be, with his honesty, integrity, and well-defined code of honor (one that Chandler gladly admitted was a fantasy of his own imagination), it doesn’t change the fact that Marlowe is the mold that all subsequent fictional American detectives have been set from. Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee were particularly influenced by Marlowe, even down to the first-person narration peppered with wisecracks and wry observations about modern society.

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Robert Mitchum

It is the character of Marlowe that creates the biggest challenge for filmmakers trying to do justice to Chandler’s stories on the screen. While some of the other actors who attempted the role, such as Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery, James Garner, and Elliott Gould, had considerable acting chops, they still fell short of the standard set by Bogart and Mitchum. It’s not enough for an actor to be able to be convincing as a tough guy with a flair for flippancy to play Marlowe; most importantly, the actor has to exude an unmistakable sense of melancholy as Marlowe, one based on a longing for a better world without greed, fear, or corruption, a world where the rich and powerful aren’t free to ruin the lives of others who are defenseless against them. More than any of the other would-be Marlowes, Bogart and Mitchum embodied that tarnished idealism. Richards put it this way: “I’ve always said that Chandler had somebody like Mitchum in mind when he wrote Farewell. Tough guys at that time in film noir weren’t defined by muscles. They had ways of being tough and muscles wasn’t one of them… There was a certain melancholy they endured that gave them a reason for being a tough guy.”

The other main difficulty in adapting Chandler’s books for the screen is the incredible complexity of his plots. His convoluted plotting owed no little thanks to the fact that his first four novels were mash-ups of elements from the short stories he wrote at the start of his pulp career. (The reason that Hawks’ film version of The Big Sleep is so notorious for its confusing storyline is due mainly to a combination of plot elements changed or eliminated in accordance with the censorship code, Hawks’ own disregard for story exposition, and one infamous mistake on Chandler’s part.[2]) Once again, by his own admission, Chandler simply didn’t care about story construction or who did what to whom. As he expressed it, “I don’t care whether the mystery is fairly obvious but I do care about the people, about this strange, corrupt world we live in, and how any man who tries to be honest looks in the end either sentimental or just plain foolish.”[3]

But whatever shortcomings Chandler may have had in constructing his plots, he more than made up for them with his genius for writing dialogue. As an American with a classical education from Dulwich College in London, Chandler was a frustrated would-be poet who was drawn to pulp mystery fiction by the creative uses of slang he found in them. In a 1949 letter to Canadian journalist Alex Barris, Chandler explained his fascination with the language of the pulps: “[W]hen I use slang, colloquialisms, snide talk, or any kind of off-beat language, I do it deliberately. The literary use of slang is a study in itself. I’ve found that there are only two kinds that are any good: slang that has established itself in the language, and slang that you make up yourself.” [4]

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Robert Mitchum

Even filmmaker Billy Wilder, who was certainly no slouch when it came to writing dialogue himself, credited Chandler with coming up with the best lines in their screenplay for Wilder’s 1944 film adaptation of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. Example: After the film’s protagonist takes a sip of iced tea, he mutters, “I wonder if a little rum would get this up on its feet.” Or in the novel Farewell, My Lovely, when Marlowe interrogates a quack doctor who runs a sleazy sanitarium, he says, “Remarks want you to make them. They have their tongues hanging out waiting to be said.” [5]

Farewell, My Lovely (1940), which followed Chandler’s first novel The Big Sleep (1939), is arguably Chandler’s best work,[6] because it has his most straightforward plot, in which Marlowe is hired by a hulking ex-con to find his long-lost girlfriend. Although Marlowe’s investigation leads to the usual detours and false leads, the entire mystery revolves around a single question: Where is Velma Valento? Once the answer is provided at the end of the story, all of the other pieces of the puzzle fall neatly into place. (Or as Mitchum’s Marlowe puts it at the end of the film, “Now it all makes sense, everything.”)

Richards’ Farewell, My Lovely was the third time Chandler’s novel had been filmed. The first version, made in 1942, titled The Falcon Takes Over, dropped the character of Marlowe altogether. It was the third entry in RKO’s low-budget series of programmers based on Michael Arlen’s debonair sleuth The Falcon, with George Sanders’ Falcon filling in for Marlowe, and the setting changed from Los Angeles to New York City.

Since they already owned the film rights to Chandler’s novel, RKO agreed to remake the story two years later at the urging of actor Dick Powell, who was desperate to shed his baby-faced male ingénue image and thought that Marlowe was the perfect role to achieve that goal.[7] (Powell had tried to escape his typecasting earlier that year when he campaigned for the lead in Double Indemnity, but Wilder had an even more unlikely male ingénue in mind, Fred MacMurray.) Since Powell was so associated with musicals and light comedies, the RKO suits decided to rename the film Murder, My Sweet for the US market. (In the UK, where, thanks to the Brits’ devotion to the mystery genre, Chandler’s name was a bigger draw than Powell’s, the film retained the original title Farewell, My Lovely.)

The wheels were set into motion for Richards’ version when Hollywood producer Elliott Kastner obtained the film rights to three of Chandler’s novels from his estate in the early 1970s.[8] The first one Kastner produced was Robert Altman’s 1973 film version of The Long Goodbye. This was set in modern Los Angeles rather than the novel’s original setting 20 years earlier, mainly because it was cheaper than shelling out for period costumes, props, and sets. In fact, Altman decided to turn a possible liability into an asset by building the entire film around the concept of Marlowe being an anachronism in 70s LA.

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Robert Mitchum

Kastner decided to make Farewell, My Lovely his second Chandler adaptation, and that’s where Richards, a former photographer turned filmmaker, came in. “A version of Farewell was presented to me by Elliot Kastner with a contemporary script,” Richards told me. “I turned it down, giving Kastner the option of my doing it if he would let me make it a film noir movie and keep it in that period.” Kastner gave in to that provision and Richards agreed to direct the film mainly because, as he put it, “the motivation really was working with Robert Mitchum.” (By the way, many sources claim that Richard Burton was the first choice to play Marlowe, including the usual suspects Wikipedia and the IMDB, but Richards shot that down. “I have never heard about Richard Burton being thought of, but that may have happened during the period of the contemporary script that I turned down. When presented, Mitchum was a yes by everybody, even though some commented that he wasn’t box office anymore.”)

Richards’ next step was bringing in David Zelag Goodman to write the screenplay. Goodman’s previous credits had included Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), and he would go on to script two of Richards’ subsequent films, March or Die (1977) and Man, Woman and Child (1983). They set their version of Farewell, My Lovely in 1941, so that they could reinforce the period setting by making Marlowe a baseball fan following Joe DiMaggio’s famous hitting streak of that year. “David Goodman and I had worked on various scripts and I had felt that I wanted to have this version of Farewell stamped with a time-mark,” Richards said. “Goodman, not me, came up with the Joe DiMaggio hitting streak. By the way, he was a crazy New York Yankees fan and could recite the complete Yankee rosters from 1927 on.” 

The early 40s setting required a top-rate team of designers to recreate the look of the period and Richards’ commissioned two of the best in the business, production designer Dean Tavoularis (who’d already worked on Chinatown, another period detective mystery set in LA) and art director Angelo Graham. “Tavoularis and Graham were my heroes. They understood the period and they found every location, and since we never went into a studio, that was a great asset… [They] had a team of Los Angelinos help find the locations. We even went as far as Long Beach to shoot, and we were lucky enough at the time to find enough areas that were still in the style of the period. Both Tavoularis and Graham were born and raised, I believe, in Los Angeles and they knew the areas to send the scouts to.”

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Robert Mitchum

For a cinematographer to capture his vision of the story, Richards brought in another alumnus from Polanski’s Chinatown, John Alonzo. One of the distinctions of the picture’s cinematography was its use of a film stock known as Fujifilm to give the picture’s neon-soaked hues a faded, stylized look, kind of like a color equivalent of black and white photography. “Having been a photographer before a director, I experimented with different films, trying to find a film that would offer a bit of grain that I felt would achieve the period look. I believe Farewell was the first feature film ever shot with Fujifilm in America. At that time, Fujifilm had been used to make prints to send to theaters. The film stock helped, but the tones were really brought out by Dean Tavoularis, who chose the colors to imitate the feel of black and white.” The combined efforts of Tavoularis, Graham, and Alonzo more than succeeded in establishing the period look. More than any other film adaptation of Chandler’s work, even more than Hawks’ The Big Sleep (which was filmed entirely on studio sets even though the actual locations were just outside the Warner Brothers lot), Richards’ picture looks just like the Los Angeles invoked by its author.

Another invaluable member of the creative team was composer David Shire, whose haunting and evocative jazz score was one of the film’s greatest assets. Like Bernard Herrmann, Shire’s best work was done in the thriller and fantasy genres. Shire’s two most notable credits before Farewell, My Lovely were both thrillers, his minimalist solo piano jazz score for Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) and his throbbing, pulse-pounding jazz/rock fusion score for Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (also 1974). Shire’s masterpiece would come a decade after Farewell, his gorgeous symphonic score for Walter Murch’s underrated fantasy Return to Oz (1985).

Shire’s music perfectly enhanced Tavoularis and Graham’s period recreation. Shire also got into the spirit of the mystery genre by providing a major clue to the solution of the puzzle in his score. (And, no, I won’t spoil the mystery by pointing out that clue. You’ll have the see—and hear—the movie for yourself.) In addition, Shire complimented Richards’ homage to the classic film noirs by providing his own homage to their composers. “Mrs. Grayle’s Theme,” a sultry romantic melody for strings and horns, was Shire’s tribute to David Raksin’s iconic theme for Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944). The music accompanying the climatic sequence where Marlowe and his client take a nocturnal speedboat ride to an off-limits gambling yacht (cheekily titled “Take Me to Your Lido” on the soundtrack LP), with its emphasis of aggressive, militaristic percussion and blaring horns, was Shire’s homage to Miklos Rozsa, whose scores graced many of the classic film noirs, such as Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), and Jules Dassin’s Brute Force (1947). And best of all was Shire’s “Marlowe’s Theme,” a sad, melancholy blues lament utilizing a background for strings with solos for Dick Nash’s trombone and Ronny Lang’s saxophone, the perfect accompaniment for Robert Mitchum’s Marlowe.

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Robert Mitchum

Mitchum was born to play Philip Marlowe. The suits might’ve been skeptical about Mitchum’s box office appeal at the time, but 1973-75 had been banner years for him. Farewell, My Lovely was the third of three superlative crime thrillers he’d made during that period, following Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) and Sydney Pollock’s The Yakuza (1974). (Talk about a winning streak….) As riveting as the young feral Mitchum of the 1940s and 50s had been, the older, sadder-but-wiser Mitchum of the 1970s was even more fascinating. He rivaled another iconic Hollywood star, Spencer Tracy, when it came to the art of underacting. Mitchum’s casual, laidback approach also extended to his attitude on the set as well. In a 1971 interview with film historian Stuart M. Kaminsky for his book Don Siegel: Director (Curtis Books, 1974), justly celebrated filmmaker Siegel described his experience of working with Mitchum on their 1949 collaboration, a RKO low-budget semi-comic crime thriller called The Big Steal. “I discovered that [Mitchum] was a personality actor. He gave out very little in his performance so that when people acted with him, they seemed to be overdoing it. He also put on an act, like Peter Lorre, pretending that he never studied his lines. He’d mumble that he never saw the scene before, stumble through it once, and then do it perfectly… I think he’s much more serious about his work than he lets on. It’s an affectation on his part that he just doesn’t care.”

When I told Richards about Siegel’s description of Mitchum, he laughed and said, “Yeah, that’s Mitchum exactly.” He then added his own recollections of working with Mitchum. “Mitchum was well-read with a sensational sense of humor. He would pick up on any little peccadillo and make fun of it. Sometimes it was difficult to take, but when you thought carefully about it, it became funny. One day we were running two hours late, and I asked Mitchum to help out and stay late because we had a large group of extras and it would be really expensive to bring them back. He asked me to get one of the ‘Magnificent Seven,’ which is what he called the producers since so many were given credit on the film, to find out if it was okay with the crew to work late. This one producer, not Jerry Bruckheimer, came back five minutes later and said that it would be no problem with the crew. When Mitchum came on the set, he told the crew, ‘Haven’t you guys got homes? Working late? Is that the way you get to stay away from your old lady?’ Everyone in the crew laughed, but one of the grips said, ‘We never said we wanted to work late.’ Mitchum then went up to the producer and said, ‘Get some coffee for me. Make it a little milk, two sugars.’ It was his way of reducing the producer to a messenger in front of the crew.”

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Robert Mitchum

The overall tone of Farewell, My Lovely is set immediately with Shire’s main theme accompanying the opening credits, which are superimposed over actual footage of 1940s Los Angeles tinted in soft jukebox colors. The atmosphere evoked continues with the film’s opening shot: Marlowe looking regretfully through the window of a seedy hotel with a drink in his hand and the hotel’s neon sign reflected in the window pane. (The same image was adapted for the publicity artwork.) The script’s first lines are the beginning of Marlowe’s voiceover narration.

“This past spring was the first that I’d felt tired and realized I was growing old. Maybe it was the rotten weather we’d had in LA. Maybe it was the rotten cases I’d had, mostly chasing a few missing husbands and then chasing their wives once I’d found them, in order to get paid. Or maybe it was just the plain fact that I am tired and growing old. The only real pleasure I’d had at all was following Joe DiMaggio, belting the apple at an incredible clip for the New York Yankees. Well, it’s the middle of July now and things are worse than they were in the spring. In the spring, I wasn’t stuck in a dingy hotel ducking the police.”

Marlowe decides the time is right to call in some law, specifically his old friend Lieutenant Detective Nulty of the LA Homicide Squad, played by another familiar film noir actor, John Ireland. (Richards: “A real veteran. I never had to say much to Ireland. He completely understood what I was going for.”) As instructed, Nulty comes to the hotel room alone to listen to Marlowe’s story, signaling the start of the extended flashback that comprises the bulk of the film’s 95-minute running time.

“I was working on a twenty-five dollar-a-day breeze trying to locate a fifteen-year-old runaway from Carmel. An honor student, majoring in men. She had all ‘A’s, but none of them on her report card. She had only one other interest, dancing.”

The film fades to a dime-a-dance joint where the customers crowd the floor accompanied by a band and singer performing Jule Styne and Sammy Kahn’s 40s hit “I’ve Heard That Song Before.” Marlowe finds the bratty teenager (Noelle North) there and threatens to take her out of there, “Look, would you like to dance your way out, you wanna walk out, or would you rather be carried out? It makes no difference to me.” She opts for exiting the place without putting up a fuss.

As he takes her to the limo where her wealthy parents await her after missing “a marvelous dinner party” to come get her, they are followed out of the dance hall by Moose Malloy (Jack O’Halloran), the enormous hulk of a man who will soon be Marlowe’s next client. (According to Richards, O’Halloran was “a natural to play Moose. An ex-boxer and defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles. Being 6 foot 7 and weighing 250 pounds, Moose was a good name for him. He was a natural actor. This was his first movie and Mitchum helped me give him the confidence he needed.” Richards also told me that the rumors that O’Halloran’s lines had been dubbed by another actor were unfounded.)

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Jack O’Halloran & Robert Mitchum

The Moose starts to introduce himself to Marlowe, but a car rides past and a punk in a cowboy hat (Burton Gilliam) inside takes pot shots at them while they duck down behind a bus stop bench. The car speeds away, but the Moose isn’t the least bit fazed. As Marlowe’s narration puts it, “He didn’t bat an eye. Fear wasn’t built into his giant frame.” Moose tells Marlowe that he wants to hire him. He just got out of the stir after a seven-year stretch for armed robbery. (“The Great Bend Bank robbery. Eighty grand. I did it solo. Ain’t that something?”) His first priority is finding his old girlfriend Velma Valento. “I ain’t seen her in seven years, She ain’t wrote in six,” Moose explains. Marlowe decides to play along and accompanies the Moose to the last place Moose knew where Velma worked, a seedy dive called Florian’s on Central Avenue.

Marlowe: “Hey, this is a colored neighborhood, man. It’s been that way for a long time.”[9]

Moose: “Let’s you and me go on up and maybe nibble a couple. They might know something about my Velma.”

Marlowe: “Now how the hell would they know anything? It’s a colored joint.”

Moose: (grabbing Marlowe by the arm, insisting) “Let’s you and me go on up, huh?”

Marlowe: “Okay, but leave off carrying me, will you? I can walk by myself. I’m all grown up now. I go to the bathroom by myself and everything.”

The two of men head into Florian’s to the stares of the exclusively black patrons there. (The wonderfully dingy barroom is one of Tavoularis and Graham’s best touches.) The bar’s bouncer (Dino Washington) tries to chase them out of there (“No white boys here, fellas. Just for the coloreds.”), but when he plants a right cross on the Moose’s chin, it doesn’t register, and the Moose picks him up and flings him across the room onto a table top, completely incapacitating him. The bartender (Harry Caesar) tells the Moose that the bar’s owner Mr. Montgomery, who’s over at the pool table, would be the one to question about his girl. As the Moose saunters over to back section of the bar, Marlowe asks the bartender if he’s armed.

Bartender: “Got me a sawed-off.”

Marlowe: (sarcastic tone) “That’s illegal. Besides, I don’t think that would stop him anyway—“

A shot rings out. Marlowe runs to the back section to find the Moose with his hands wrapped around the neck of the late Mr. Montgomery, kicking away the gun Montgomery had tried to shoot him with. Seeing as it’s a clear case of self-defense, Marlowe advises the Moose to take a powder. Before taking off, the Moose gives Marlowe a retainer fee.

“The fifty bucks felt snug against my ribs. The joint had emptied out, so I called you, Nulty, and had a few drinks. Mr. Montgomery didn’t seem to mind.”

This entire sequence in Florian’s was taken almost verbatim from the opening two chapters of Chandler’s book. The scene had been seriously botched in the previous two film versions. In The Falcon Takes Over, the seedy bar became a swanky nightclub, and in Murder, My Sweet, the seedy bar was still a seedy bar, but, in both cases, the clientele was exclusively white, making the scene a lot less memorable.

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Sylvia Miles & Robert Mitchum

The next step of Marlowe’s investigation is to locate the former owner of Florian’s. At the fleabag across the street from the bar, Marlowe finds Tommy Ray (Walter McGinn), a white jazz musician, with a black wife and child, who’d played at Florian’s before his marriage had gotten him driven out of his profession. Ray gives Marlowe the address to the decrepit old house where Florian’s widow, Jessie (Sylvia Miles), lives. (Richards: “Everybody agreed on Sylvia Miles without question.” Miles was the recipient of the film’s only Academy Award nomination, for Best Supporting Actress.) Jesse Florian is an over-the-hill ex-showgirl who usually spends her dreary days listening to the obviously new and expensive radio in her living room, but she gladly accepts the pint of whisky Marlowe brought with him and tries to flirt with him over drinks while he tries to pump her for information.

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Robert Mitchum, John Ireland & Harry Dean Stanton

From there, the trail Marlowe follows in search of Velma leads him to several other people who have connections, either close or marginal, to his quest. Among them are Detective Billy Rolfe (Harry Dean Stanton), Nulty’s corrupt weasel of an assistant (Richards: “Stanton is by far one of the best actors Hollywood has ever produced. He got along great with Mitchum, even though they were adversaries in the film.”); Lindsay Marriott (John O’Leary), a fey gigolo who hires Marlowe to help him ransom a jade necklace stolen from a lady friend, and winds up battered to death with a sap after Marlowe is knocked out by the assailants; Laird Brunette (Anthony Zerbe), a smooth gangster who has lots of political muscle due to the cops and city officials on his payroll (Richards: “A deservedly well thought of actor who didn’t need me to say very much. He too understood what I was going for.”); Frances Amthor (Kate Murtagh), the tough lesbian madam of one of LA’s most frequented whorehouses[10] (Richards: “She was a person I had once interviewed for a commercial I was shooting and I never forgot her. Kate was a real trooper. I never really thought she was happy to have played a madam, but at the end of the shoot she came up to me and thanked me.”); Judge Baxter Wilson Grayle (played by famous pulp novelist and screenwriter Jim Thompson), a wealthy ex-jurist who’s also one of LA’s major players and is noted for his priceless jade collection (Richards: “Thompson was, of course, one of the fathers of film noir, and he was gracious enough to become Judge Grayle for me. Of course I was honored.”); and, most importantly, Helen Grayle (Charlotte Rampling), the Judge’s promiscuous young wife (Richards: “Rampling was Elliot Kastner’s great idea.”).[11]

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Charlotte Rampling

When it was first released, it seemed as though Farewell, My Lovely was going to be a box office disappointment. “It was opened in mid-August,” Richards told me, “possibly one of the worst times to bring out a film. Then it opened in New York to great reviews and business.” “It is, indeed, the most evocative of all the private detective movies we have had in the last few years,” Roger Ebert raved. “Farewell, My Lovely is a great entertainment and a celebration of Robert Mitchum’s absolute originality.” Richards is still particularly proud of Rex Reed’s review, where he said, “Farewell, My Lovely is the kind of movie Bogart would stand in line to see.”[12]

In the end, Farewell, My Lovely did good enough overall business to allow Richards to get approval to make March or Die, an excellent attempt to revive the Foreign Legion adventure genre that failed to repeat Farewell, My Lovely’s success at the box office. After three more pictures, the last being Heat (1986), a disastrous collaboration between Richards and star Burt Reynolds that left both men regretting the experience, and an equally disastrous encounter with Dustin Hoffman over a script Richards hoped to direct, Richards decided to retire from the film industry and moved to New York. [13] 

Another result of Farewell, My Lovely being a surprise hit was Elliott Kastner’s decision to make a third Chandler film with Mitchum repeating his role as Marlowe, the first and only time that an actor has played Marlowe twice for the big screen. This next film would also be a remake, a second filming of The Big Sleep. Unfortunately, Kastner failed to learn the lesson of Richards’ approach and opted once again to give the story a contemporary setting. To add injury to insult, Kastner also decided to save even more money by moving the story from Los Angeles to London and assigned notorious hack Michael Winner to write and direct the picture. Not surprisingly, Winner’s The Big Sleep (1978) opened to universally negative reviews and sank without a trace. To say this turkey came nowhere near the quality of Hawks’ original or Richards’ take on Chandler would be, to quote Joss Whedon’s script for the pilot of his Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series, “an understatement of epic proportions.”

The long-awaited DVD of Farewell, My Lovely, produced by Timeless Media Group and released by Shout! Factory, features a pristine widescreen transfer. The only extras, however, are two original theatrical trailers.

When I first began work on this article, I reached out to my friends in the film historian community for any info they could provide me with. (Special thanks to Dwayne Epstein, author of Lee Marvin: Point Blank, for pointing me to Dick Richards’ personal website.) I’m happy to report that Richards has been extremely gratified to hear about how many people are still interested in his work and his best film. 

 

[1] I suppose it can be argued that Jonathan Latimer “got there first” with his cynical detective character Bill Crane, but, as entertaining as it is, Latimer’s writing is crude with virtually none of Hammett or Chandler’s nuance and artistry and, therefore, wasn’t even close to matching their influence on future writers.

[2] In tying up The Big Sleep’s loose ends, Chandler had forgotten to provide the solution to one of the murders. He wasn’t aware of his mistake until Hawks sent him a telegram asking who’d committed the murder. Chandler admitted that he didn’t know. A hack filmmaker probably would’ve “corrected” the mistake, but it’s a testament to Hawks’ genius that he decided that, if the murder wasn’t solved in the book, it wouldn’t be solved in his film version.

[3]Raymond Chandler Speaking, ed. by Dorothy Gardiner and Katherine Sorley Walker, Houghton Mifflin, 1962.

[4] Also collected in Raymond Chandler Speaking.

[5] Unfortunately, this wonderful line is missing from Richards’ film version. In the movie, the sanitarium became a brothel, and, frankly, the equivalent line was pretty lame: “What’s the matter? Cat house got your tongue?”

[6] Although The Long Goodbye (1953) is widely considered to be Chandler’s masterpiece (it’s certainly his most ambitious work), for many others it falls short of Farewell, My Lovely’s succinctness and stronger story. 

[7] While Chandler liked Powell’s Marlowe and thought he looked pretty much as he imagined the character, he never said that he thought that Powell was the screen’s best Marlowe, despite Pauline Kael’s false assertions. Chandler’s personal favorite among the films based on his work in his lifetime was Hawks’ The Big Sleep. As he said in a 1946 letter to his publisher Hamish Hamilton (also collected in Raymond Chandler Speaking), “When and if you see the film of The Big Sleep… you will realize what can be done with this sort of story by a director with the gift of atmosphere and the requisite touch of hidden sadism. Bogart, of course, is also so much better than any other tough-guy actor. As we say here, Bogart can be tough without a gun. Also he has a sense of humour [note the British spelling] that contains that grating undertone of contempt. [Alan] Ladd is hard, bitter, and occasionally charming, but he is after all a small boy’s idea of a tough guy. Bogart is the genuine article.”

[8] As a producer, Kastner was a notoriously ruthless bully who alienated many of the people he worked with. The story goes that a British film director was talking to a friend and said, “You’ll never believe who I just saw walking down the street. I saw—pardon my language—Elliott Kastner.”

[9] Modern adherents of political correctness might object to the terms used in the film for blacks and gays, but the language is faithful to the period. Terms more acceptable these days would’ve been incongruous in that 40s setting.

[10] One of Amthor’s henchmen was played by a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone. Richards cast him because “I needed a tough guy and Stallone had the looks and ability.”

[11] The scene introducing Rampling in the film (Helen Grayle descending a circular staircase as she shoots a seductive look at Marlowe) was recreated as a shot-for-shot parody in The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988), the first entry in the cop genre satires by the team of Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrams, and David Zucker.

[12] There were some pans, of course. But Jay Cocks’ negative review for Time Magazine is particularly notable for its sheer pettiness. One of Cocks’ complaints was that the Grayle mansion, which Chandler described as “rather gray for California”, was red brick in the movie. He also objected to Marlowe’s line “What a world,” asserting that Chandler would have never used “such a hackneyed phrase.” However, the line “What a world” was in the novel, only it isn’t spoken by Marlowe, but by Marlowe’s semi-girlfriend Anne Riordan, a character who was cut from the movie.

[13] Please pardon the extraordinary length of this endnote, but in answer to my questions about his withdrawal from the Hollywood scene, Richards explained the circumstances to me in detail: “I found a script titled Would I Lie to You? It was optioned, and brought to my attention by Bob Kauffman, a comedy writer; one of his films was Love at First Bite. He felt I should develop the script, which later became Tootsie. I watched myself immerse into the project. I had heard stories from Ulu Grosbard, a director who had a major dispute with Dustin; friends from England, who told me hair-raising stories about the making of Agatha; and Phil Feldman, who was in charge of First Artists/Warner Brothers. Phil, who produced The Wild Bunch and was somebody I highly respected, had lunch with me and told me about the litigation that Dustin brought about and felt that, as a friend, he had to warn me. I told him “Thanks, but quite honestly Dustin would never let me direct Tootsie since he would probably want an Academy Award-winning director to deal with.” I stayed on and did as much as I could as producer of Tootsie. I then realized, unlike the 70s, it was getting tougher to get a film done, even though I had an original script that Bob Kauffman and I felt was going to be easy to get made. It was called Daniel of New York, about a hairdresser from Queens. At the time, we felt John Travolta was our first choice for the lead. We floundered when he didn’t commit immediately. Having four kids who were born in New York that I somehow kept out of the drug culture that invaded the high schools in Hollywood, I didn’t mind having more time with my family. I got a more than generous multi-year contract to direct Wilford Brimley in commercials for Quaker Oats. What was to be a two-year period turned out to be five. I watched my kids grow up in New York and was able to send them to Ivy League schools. I became part of a group of New York film people that included Sydney Lumet, Bob Fosse, Budd Schulberg, Sam Cohn, Peter Maas and Arthur Penn. We all had a certain feeling that didn’t include the idea of living in Hollywood. I have been living in New York and have continued to work steadily. I still enjoy being called upon to fill in for directors when needed. I have also continued to write and, at this time, I hope to bring to Broadway a play I have written about Hollywood called Turnaround.

Annex - Hope, Bob (Cat and the Canary, The)_02

The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of (Special Halloween Edition): “The Cat and the Canary” (1939) or “How Horror Movies Saved Bob Hope’s Hollywood Career”

 

1. Catcanaryposter

“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.

Betcha didn’t know that Bob Hope was in a horror movie, didja? And unlike its companion piece The Ghost Breakers, which was a comedy with horror content, The Cat and the Canary was a serious horror picture with Hope playing the comedy relief. Yes, it was made before Hope was a big enough name to be able to pick and choose which films he would make, but he was glad to do the picture because it was a major step up that convinced the Paramount suits that he had the makings of a star. In fact, Paramount’s decision to make The Cat and the Canary happened only because Universal Pictures defiantly ignored the demands of the Hays Office, the censors charged with enforcing the Production Code. But, first, a little backstory…

One of the main goals of the 1934 Production Code was to eliminate two popular genres the professional scolds found particularly objectionable: horror movies and gangster pictures. To the bluenoses, both genres lacked any redeeming values because they “glorified” protagonists who specialized in killing people. Leave it to Warner Brothers, the studio that didn’t invent the gangster genre but was responsible for making it box office gold, to find a way to do an end run around the Hays Office by making pictures where former gangster stars like James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson played officers of the law who fought the mob in pictures like “G” Men and Bullets or Ballots. (The joke was that these more “respectable” gangster pictures were far more violent than their earlier counterparts. Seems the censors didn’t mind the bad guys being blown away graphically.)

A few horror pictures managed to get past the Hays Office, such as Universal’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935), which had been in the pipeline too long (under the title The Return of Frankenstein) to be canceled. But Universal’s plans for an elaborate sequel to Dracula (1931) were revised, and the resulting film Dracula’s Daughter (1936) was done on a much smaller scale than originally planned. (Although it was still a first-rate atmospheric little horror tale.) Warner Brothers’ The Walking Dead (1936) was a rare case of a horror film benefiting from the Code’s restraints, resulting in a much more subtle and haunting mood piece than had been previously planned and featuring one of Boris Karloff’s finest performances.

In the two-year period of 1937-38, however, Hollywood made no horror pictures whatsoever. (Unless you count Warner Brothers’ 1937 comedy-mystery Sh! The Octopus as a horror picture.) As film historian William K. Everson pointed out in his 1986 book More Classics of the Horror Film, the censors in the UK, one of Hollywood’s most profitable foreign markets, were also demanding a crackdown on American horror movies, yet another inducement to curtail the genre. The ban on horror films might’ve lasted even longer but for the fact that, in 1938, Universal Pictures was on the verge of bankruptcy. They desperately needed a surefire hit in order to stay in business, and seeing as the two biggest box office successes in their history were Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, it was a no-brainer to make a third Frankenstein picture, the Hays Office and British censors be damned. Released in mid-January 1939, Son of Frankenstein proved to be (pardon the expression) a monster hit. Predictably, all of the Hollywood studios started scrambling to cash in on the horror “revival.”

Which brings us back to Paramount Pictures, who’d had Bob Hope[1] under contract since 1937. Why they signed Hope isn’t clear because the Paramount suits didn’t have much faith in Hope’s box office potential. To them, he was a just second-string version of a radio comedian they already had under contract, Jack Benny. In fact, it was Benny turning down a role in the all-star musical extravaganza The Big Broadcast of 1938 that led to Hope being cast in his first Paramount film. Despite Hope and Shirley Ross’ rendition of the Leo Robin-Ralph Rainger number “Thanks for the Memory” (soon to become Hope’s theme song) getting the best reviews in the picture, the front office still didn’t see a future for Hope. They demoted Hope to producer Harold Hurvey’s low-budget unit at Paramount (“Hurley’s B-hive,” Hope called it), where he made two more pictures with Ross and three pictures where he played second-banana to Martha Raye, who was the one the suits were convinced would be the next big comedy star. The only reason the studio didn’t drop Hope’s option altogether was his increasing popularity on radio.

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When Son of Frankenstein revived the horror genre, Paramount decided to produce a new remake of John Willard’s 1922 stage thriller The Cat and the Canary, which had been filmed twice before, first as a visually stylish and highly-acclaimed 1927 silent picture directed by German emigrate Paul Leni and then as a 1930 early talkie (retitled The Cat Creeps) which was less well-received.[2] (Both of these versions were produced by Universal Pictures.) The hero of the play is a comic coward named Paul Jones, a “horse doctor” who’d had a crush on the story’s damsel in distress since childhood. He appoints himself her protector even though he’s scared stiff of the mysterious going-ons in the play’s creepy old mansion setting. (Unlikely as it seems, Henry Hull, perhaps best remembered for his dramatic performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, played the role in the Broadway premiere.) In Leni’s silent version, the character was played by Creighton Hale, but as Everson put it, “Leni was hardly a comedy director, nor was Hale much of a comedian.”

Someone at Paramount, probably producer Arthur Hornblow Jr., had the inspiration of casting Hope in the film’s equivalent of the Paul Jones role. Renamed Wally Campbell (coincidentally Paul Jones was also the name of a Paramount producer who worked on several of Hope’s pictures), the character became a radio actor who’s done his share of mystery plays on the air. Thus, anticipating Scream and The Cabin in the Woods, Wally is well aware of the clichés of the mystery and horror genres and is able to anticipate or comment on the tropes as they unfold in the film’s course. Hope remained grateful for the opportunity for the rest of his life and referred to The Cat and the Canary as “the turning point for my movie career.” Significantly, although he was given top billing, Hope’s name doesn’t appear in the credits until after the title, making it clear that this was an ensemble effort, not a starring vehicle for Hope. Although he had ample opportunities to take center stage, the entire picture doesn’t completely revolve around his character. (Richard Zoglin, author of last year’s biography Hope: Entertainer of the Century, described The Cat and the Canary as having “a mise-en-scene and narrative coherence that sets it apart from any of Hope’s previous films.”)

The direction was assigned to writer, director, and sometimes actor Elliott Nugent and the screenplay to Walter DeLeon and Lynn Starling. (Nugent’s most notable credit was starring in and co-writing with celebrated humorist James Thurber the 1940 play The Male Animal, a satire on red-baiting in American academia.) Nugent had previously directed Hope in two of the pictures he did with Martha Raye, Give Me a Sailor (1938) and Never Say Die (1939), and would go on to direct two more Hope vehicles Nothing But the Truth (1941) and My Favorite Blonde (1947). Nugent was a good if not terribly inspired director so undoubtedly the credit for the movie’s considerable visual creativity belongs far more to Charles Lang’s chiaroscuro black and white cinematography (with some uncredited assistance from Ted Tetzlaff) and the atmospheric sets by Hans Dreier (Paramount’s foremost art director) and Robert Usher. (Some of the sets, like the exterior and grounds of the decrepit old estate and the dark foreboding labyrinth that runs through and under the house, were obviously influenced by the German Expressionist silent films of the 1920s.) Dr. Ernst Toch’s haunting music score, with its ghostly chorus in key scenes, also counted as a major contribution to the movie’s spooky feel.

After the main credits (which are superimposed over a pair of shutters eerily opening and closing in the wind), we are given our first glimpse of the movie’s gloomy setting with the following introduction text: 

“… not far from New Orleans there still exist in strange solitude the bayous of Louisiana…”

(The play was set in a remote area of upstate New York.) In separate parties, guests are being transported via either canoe or motorboat to an old dark dilapidated mansion isolated on an island in the swamp that once belonged to the late Cyrus Normand. The deserted estate has been entrusted to the care of a mysterious Creole housekeeper named Miss Lu (Gale Sondergaard, who would soon be typed in mysteries and horror films). (In the play, the housekeeper was Mammy Pleasant, described by Willard as an “old negress.”) The occasion is the midnight reading of Normand’s will ten years after his demise.

Cat and the Canary, Hope, Goddard, and cast

The first to arrive is Normand’s lawyer and executor Mr. Crosby[3] (George Zucco, who would also become a mainstay in horror pictures). After he extracts the will from the wall safe, Crosby notices that the envelope has been obviously been opened and resealed, indicating that one of the potential heirs has already seen the contents of the will, the first indication that foul play is in the works. The next group to arrive include Aunt Susan (Elizabeth Patterson, who’d played the same role in The Cat Creeps), a caustic shrewish spinster; Aunt Cicily (Nydia Westman), a rather flighty, scatterbrained type; Charlie Wilder (Douglass Montgomery), a charismatic scoundrel who’s the “black sheep” of the family; and Fred Blythe (John Beal), a sour, sullen young cynic who’s the antithesis of Charlie’s carefree playboy. Finally, about eight minutes into the movie, as the film cuts back to the swamp, Wally appears in a canoe rowed by an Indian native (Chief Thundercloud). Wally tries to strike up a conversation with his guide, but to no avail. Then he tosses the cigar he’s smoking out of the canoe, only to do a double-take when an alligator snatches up the stogie in its jaws. He again attempts to lighten the mood.

Wally: (nervously) “You seem like the jolly type, Clarence. Do you like jokes?” (no answer) “You don’t mind if I ramble on, do you? It keeps my mind off the malaria germs.” (gulps) “Anyway, here’s one. A farmer had a cow. He couldn’t afford to feed it alfalfa, so he fed it sawdust. He saved a lot of money all right, but he sure wasted a lot of time getting the splinters out of the milk!” (laughs) “Doesn’t that just—“ (no response) “—uh, splinters, milk, don’t you get it?”

Indian: (deadpan, taciturn) “Heard it last year. Jack Benny program.”

After reaching the mansion and going through the introductions to the others, Wally looks around.

Wally: “Well, where’s the leading lady?”

Crosby: “Leading lady?”

Susan: “Young man, did you inherit the streak of insanity that’s runs through this family?”

Fred: (sourly) “What was that ‘leading lady’ crack?”

Wally: “Oh, nothing really, but all this, midnight, the alligators—I mean, the heirs—and the family lawyer all gathered to hear the reading of the will. It reminds me of a lot of melodramas and mysteries I’ve played in.”

Cicily: (giggles nervously)

Wally: “Uh… thanks. And in every one of those plays there was a leading lady, young, beautiful… a modern, charming—“

Joyce: (off-stage) “Thanks. Will you take this for me please?”

Right on cue, Joyce Normand (Paulette Goddard, looking most fetching) makes her entrance. (“Well, I got here. Oh, I’m terribly sorry to be so late.”) The party now complete and the stroke of midnight chiming on a grandfather clock, the reading of the will commences. As Crosby takes the document out of its envelope, a mysterious gong sounds seven times. Eyes closed and hands folded as in prayer, Miss Lu begs her “master” to tell her “the name.” Questioned by Crosby what those sounds mean, she explains, “They mean seven will live. There are eight people in this room. One will die before morning.” As Crosby tries to resume reading the will, Wally snaps his fingers and says to Charlie, “I’ll bet you two to one Joyce is the heir.”

Crosby: “What’s that?”

Wally: “Oh, did I speak out of turn?”

Crosby: “What was back of your remark?”

Wally: “Oh, nothing.”

Fred: (accusingly) “Come on, you meant something!”

Wally: “Oh, nothing, really. Well, it’s just that in practically every mystery play I’ve been in the leading lady turns out to be the heir.”

Miss Lu: (reverently) “You have the power.”

Wally: “Yeah, uh… me?!”

Miss Lu: “There’s spirits all around you.”

Wally: (nervously) “Well, could you put some in a glass with a little ice? I need it badly.”

Fred: (threateningly) “Don’t you ever stop babbling?!”

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Douglass Montgomery, Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, John Beal

As indicated by the dialogue exchanges quoted above, Hope had already started what would become a career-long habit of letting his personal gag writers see his movie scripts in advance to provide him with additional one-liners. The two most memorable (and oft-quoted) of these lines find Cicily playing straight man to Wally.

Cicily: “Don’t big empty houses scare you?”

Wally: “Not me. I used to be in Vaudeville.”

And later in the film when Wally and Cicily explore the house’s basement:

Cicily “It’s awfully spooky down here. Do you believe in reincarnation?”

Wally: “Huh?”

Cicily “You know, that dead people come back?”

Wally: “You mean like the Republicans?”

And then there’s Wally’s line that would be stolen by just about every comedian in Hollywood: “I’m so scared even my goose pimples have goose pimples.”

the-cat-and-the-canary-bob-hope-paulette-goddard-1939Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard

As it turns out, once the will is finally read, Wally’s prediction was accurate; Joyce is indeed the sole heir to Cyrus’ fortune and estate. But there’s a codicil: if the heir should die or be proven to be insane within one month of the will being read, an alternate heir named in a second will receives the inheritance. Fred is particularly outraged and rightly points out that the will “is practically an invitation to commit murder!” Miss Lu also presents Joyce with a letter that proves to be a clue to the story’s second MacGuffin, a priceless diamond necklace secreted somewhere on the estate. And there’s one more joker in the deck: an armed guard named Hendricks (John Wray) from an asylum for the criminally insane is prowling the island in search of an escaped homicidal maniac known as “The Cat.”  

6a00e5523026f58834013480b8a4f3970cPaulette Goddard

At this point, sinister events begin happening within the house. Crosby is seized and kidnapped by a grotesque hand that emerges from a hidden panel in the library. Wally and Joyce figure out where the necklace is hidden, but while Joyce lies in bed, the same hand reaches out from a panel above her and takes the necklace, leaving her in hysterics. When Wally ties to find the tripwire that opens the panel, yet another secret panel opens and the body of the first murder victim tumbles out from it. (Leni filmed this moment in the silent version from a low angel so that the corpse fell toward the camera. In addition to becoming one of the movies’ most oft-repeated clichés, it also became obligatory to use this low angle for the exact same scene in all the subsequent film versions of The Cat and the Canary.) And then there’s another particularly frightening moment in the library when Joyce thinks she’s alone, but I’m not about to spoil that one. (The moment in question was taken directly from the stage version.)

cat9Paulette Goddard in the film’s climax

It’s in the last ten of the movie’s brief 75-minute running time that the terror quotient gets kicked up to full blast. Wally makes his way into the house’s series of hidden corridors through the panel in the bedroom. Joyce, once again seemingly alone in the library, sees the panel that Crosby disappeared into opening. She steps up to the entrance as Wally calls her name from the bedroom. Thinking that Wally’s voice is coming from inside the hidden passage, she enters and is locked in by the killer. A chase begins through a series of dark underground tunnels with the maniac in close pursuit of Joyce. Yet two more people will be violently killed before the film’s end. (You’ll have to watch the movie for yourself to learn the outcome, including the final reveal of the story’s villain.)

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JS983ISUqxM&w=420&h=315]

Released in early November of 1939, The Cat and the Canary was a resounding success at the box office. Hope’s stardom was cemented in his next film when he co-starred with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour in the first entry of what would become Hollywood’s most successful film franchise to date, Road to Singapore (1940). The popularity of The Cat and the Canary made a follow-up effort with Hope and Goddard a foregone conclusion. Paramount dusted off another old stage thriller, Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard’s The Ghost Breaker (1914), and retitled it The Ghost Breakers. This time Hope got first-billing above the title for the first time in his film career, indicating that this was a star vehicle designed especially for Hope. The Ghost Breakers was more of an out-and-out comedy than a horror picture, with comedian Willie Best added to the mix as Hope’s houseboy.[4] Although it had some spooky moments to rival the best of serious horror movies, The Ghost Breakers fell short of the overall quality of The Cat and the Canary. It didn’t help that the film was clumsily constructed and that the characters didn’t arrive at the story’s haunted Cuban castle setting until the movie was two-thirds over. Also, frankly, the director George Marshall was a pedestrian filmmaker. (Acclaimed mystery author Raymond Chandler, whose original screenplay The Blue Dahlia was filmed by Marshall, described the director as “a stale old hack who had been directing for thirty years without once having achieved any real distinction.”) 

In 1978, The Cat and the Canary was filmed for a fourth (and, so far, last) time in Britain, with Americans Michael Callan and Carol Lynley in the leading roles. Director Radley Metzger (who got his start in softcore porno films) added some kinky touches to the story, but, despite a stellar cast (including Edward Fox, Wendy Hiller, and Wilfred Hyde-White), this remake had absolutely none of the haunting atmosphere of the 1927 and 1939 versions.

For decades, the 1939 version of The Cat and the Canary was unavailable due to being one of the films excluded from the Paramount library when it was purchased by MCA (Universal Pictures’ parent company) in the 1950s because of being tied up in copyright conflicts. W.C. Fields’ You’re Telling Me (1934) and the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers (1930) were also among the films stuck in this copyright limbo. You’re Telling Me was bailed out by Universal in the early 70s after William K. Everson made a big deal out of its unavailability in his 1967 book The Art of W.C. Fields. It wasn’t until 1974, when UCLA student (and future television writer) Steve Stoliar collected several thousand signatures on a petition, that the Universal suits finally gave in to settling the pending copyright issues and rereleased Animal Crackers to the theaters.[5] Amazingly, it wasn’t until 2010, over 70 years after its release, that Universal finally made The Cat and the Canary available to the public on DVD. At least now, it can be appreciated as the superlative thriller it is as well as a real treat for Bob Hope fans.

 

[1] Hope’s only previous film appearances had been in a single two-reeler for Educational Films and handful of short subjects made at Warner Brothers’ Vitaphone studios in New York.

[2] In the 1920s, stage thrillers set in creepy old houses were especially popular on Broadway. In addition to Willard’s The Cat and the Canary, other examples include Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood’s The Bat and Ralph Spense’s The Gorilla. All of these plays were filmed as silent pictures and remade as early talkies. I covered this subgenre extensively in my article about Roland West’s 1930 remake of The Bat, The Bat Whispers.

[3] Crosby was the lawyer’s name in the original play and the previous film versions, so it’s not an in-joke reference to the Road pictures series Hope would go on to do with Bing Crosby.

[4] An extremely talented black comedian who was invariably cast in stereotyped roles, Willie Best (earlier known as Sleep ‘n’ Eat) has been a problem for modern-day (usually white) film critics who feel obligated to disparage or apologize for Best’s scared “feets don’t fail me now” shtick. (Hope, however, went on record as saying that Best had the best comic timing he’d ever seen.) Another equally talented black comedian Mantan Moreland who also played perpetually scared stereotypes has also been the target of this same patronizing attitude, leaving it to the genuine movie connoisseurs to enjoy their comic mastery. (Moreland went on to enjoy a newfound popularity in supporting roles on 1970s and 80s television sitcoms.)

[5] Stoliar was rewarded for his efforts with a job as Groucho Marx’s secretary and archivist in the last three years of the comedian’s life, an experience documented in Stoliar’s excellent book Raised Eyebrows: My Years in Groucho’s House.

Never-Say-Never-Again-James-Bond-Sean-Connery-Kim-Basinger-007

Bond is Back! Sean Connery’s Farewell to 007

  NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN [BR / US / GER 1983]     

With the recent on-line release of the trailer for Spectre, Eon Productions’ 24th James Bond thriller, the Bond franchise is once again in the news. (Eon Productions is the producing company established in 1961 by producers Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman expressly for the Bond pictures. “Eon” is an acronym for “everything or nothing.”) The trailer indicates that Spectre will be yet another two-hour plus cinematic marathon of gunfights, car chases, and lots and lots of stuff that gets, in the immortal words of SCTV’s Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok, “blow’d up good, blow’d up real good!” It is yet another attempt to outdo Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale, which is by far not only the best blockbuster of the James Bond series with an authentic feel of a live casino. It is also the first Eon’s Bond film in 44 years to use SPECTRE (acronym for Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion), the sinister top secret international organization that served as Bond’s nemesis in the first seven Bond films from Dr. No (1962) to Diamonds Are Forever (1971). And therein lies a tale. Casino player community is incresing as they are watching movies and getting inspired for playing casino games. Well y8 Game are getting more popular in the casino players.

bond_2312061b Sean Connery as James Bond

In 1961, Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, based his latest Bond novel Thunderball on an unproduced screenplay he’d co-written with Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham without their permission. The two men sued Fleming for plagiarism and, as part of the court’s judgment, the film rights to Thunderball went to McClory. When Broccoli and Saltzman licensed the rights to Thunderball in 1965 for the fourth entry in their franchise, they agreed to McClory’s condition that the remake rights revert back to him after a decade.

Never-Say-Never-Again-1983-James-Bond-007-Sean-Connery-brbara-carrera-3Barbara Carrera as Fatima Blush

When McClory started seeking to take advantage of reacquiring those rights by producing a rival Bond film franchise, a series of protracted court battles with Broccoli and Saltzman began that would stretch on for almost a decade. One of the upshots of these legal proceedings was Eon losing the rights to use SPECTRE or its diabolical leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld in their Bond pictures, necessitating a last-minute rewrite of the script for the 1977 Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me to remove references to both. (In 2013, the Broccoli family finally settled with McClory’s estate, giving them the right to bring SPECTRE back into the franchise.) McClory’s bid to remake Thunderball probably wouldn’t have seen fruition if Sean Connery, who first played Bond for Eon Productions, hadn’t become a major participant in the project.

nsna02Sean Connery as James Bond

Even to this day, Connery is still considered by many fans of the movies and novels to be the only real James Bond. Although the Bond series deservedly made a major box office star out of Connery, it’s well known that he grew to despise the franchise that he owed his success to. But unlike the way that Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett became sick of playing (and being identified as) Sherlock Holmes, Connery’s distaste wasn’t directed at the character of Bond himself. Rather, he became tired of being under the thumbs of Broccoli and Saltzman. Indeed, Connery retained enough affection for Bond that he wanted to bid farewell to the role on his own terms. That opportunity came his way in 1983 when Warner Brothers and producer Jack Schwartzman joined forces with McClory to produce Never Say Never Again, as the long-planned remake of Thunderball was retitled to avoid confusion with the original. (The title was suggested by Connery’s wife, inspired by his oft-quoted declaration to never play Bond again.) The result was the first serious James Bond movie not made by Eon Productions, (The less said about the other non-Eon Bond film, Charles K. Feldman’s disastrous 1967 spoof Casino Royale, the better.)

NSNA-Dinner-SuitKim Basinger as Domino & Sean Connery as Bond

That Never Say Never Again was made at all was a testament to the tenaciousness of McClory and then-novice Schwartzman, who produced the film for Warner Brothers. (Warners had become interested in the project after marketing research for their own Clint Eastwood/Dirty Harry series indicated that audiences tired of the increasingly campy Roger Moore Bond films would gladly pay to see Connery return to the role.) Despite the ongoing court conflicts with Eon Productions that continued all the way through the making of the movie, Schwartzman managed to put together an outstanding filmmaking team that included director Irvin Kershner (fresh off of the first Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back), screenwriters Lorenzo Semple Jr. (TV’s Batman), Dick Clement (TV’s The Avengers), and Ian La Frenais, cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, and composer Michel Legrand, who also collaborated with lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman on the catchy title song sung by former Brazil ’66 chanteuse and current Mrs. Herb Alpert, Lani Hall.

24d220cdff16433ea1b43b8569c1eeeaKlaus Maria Brandauer as Largo & Kim Basinger as Domino

From the mid-80s and mid-90s, while it was still being distributed by Warner Brothers, Never Say Never Again was the most accessible of the Bond pictures, frequently turning up on local television stations’ weekend matinees. But then, after being bought from Warners by MGM and licensed by Sony as leverage for their own alternate Bond franchise, the rights to Never Say Never Again ended up belonging to the Broccoli family and Eon Productions, who wished the film had never been made in the first place. A “Collector’s Edition” was issued on DVD and Blu-Ray in 2009, but it is now much more expensive to purchase than any of the other Bond pictures. (It can, however, be rented on-line at Amazon as an “Instant Video” for between $9.99 and $12.99.) It is not inconceivable that the availability of Never Say Never Again will become increasingly scarce as Eon Productions tries to minimize the film’s existence with all the determination of those in the USSR who supervised the revisionism of Russia’s post-revolution history.

x4jb88Edward Fox as M

Which is a shame because, despite the plot being a rehash of Thunderball (SPECTRE hijacks a couple of nuclear missiles from NATO and blackmails the world with them), Never Say Never Again has many qualities unique to this particular Bond film, not the least of which is Connery’s dry performance. His relaxed, laid-back attitude reflected that he was obviously enjoying himself far more than when he was working for Broccoli and Saltzman. Connery’s good spirits were especially evident in his willingness to indulge in some depreciating humor about his age. And, at 52, he looked much better than when he gave his last performance for Eon Production twelve years earlier in Diamonds Are Forever. (The 70s-style sideburns he was forced to wear in Diamonds didn’t help.) Speaking of Connery’s age, it was Never Say Never Again that first introduced the concept of Bond being looked down upon by his superiors as a politically incorrect anachronism. (While this became de rigueur in the later Bond films with Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig, Connery’s maturity made the idea far more credible than it did with Brosnan and Craig at ages 42 and 38, respectively, when they made their Bond debuts.)

gratuitousAlec McCowen as Q

Although Never Say Never Again had a limited budget that was only a fraction of what Eon spent on their Bond pictures,[1] the filmmakers, particularly Kershner (who actually bragged about the tiny budget in his DVD commentary), made the proverbial lemonade out of the situation. Instead of making the film a wall-to-wall series of spectacular action set-pieces, the emphasis was more on characterization and suspense, not unlike the original Fleming novels. The scriptwriters also had the wit to milk some humor from the miniscule budget, most notably in the character of MI-6 weapons master Q, played here by that superb British character actor, Alec McCowen. Unlike Desmond Llewelyn’s Q in the Eon films, McCowen’s Q, nicknamed “Algy” (short for Algernon), not only doesn’t have a state-of-the-art workshop capable of manufacturing all manner of futuristic weapons and gizmos, but the weapons he’s barely able to cobble together in his spartan, underheated basement (a joke on Thatcher’s austerity measures) aren’t even foolproof. In fact, the most reliable weapon he arms 007 with, a watch that doubles as a laser beam, is actually a Russian-made device provided by a defecting agent. (McCowen also has the movie’s single best line when he welcomes Bond back into action: “Good to see you, Mr. Bond. Things have been awfully dull around here. Bureaucrats running the old place, everything done by the book. Now you’re on this, I hope we’re going to have some gratuitous sex and violence.”)

max_von_sydow2Max von Sydow as Blofeld 

The movie’s impressive trio of villains are portrayed by celebrated performers representing three different nationalities. The great Swedish actor Max von Sydow excels as the movies’ best Blofeld, head of SPECTRE. (With his three-piece suit and natty bow tie, von Sydow’s Blofeld has a definite sartorial advantage over the previous Blofelds, thanks to Broccoli and Saltzman’s inexplicable preference for dressing their head villains in Nehru jackets.) Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer plays psychotic billionaire philanthropist Maximilian Largo with a neurotic vulnerability reminiscent of Peter Lorre[2] that makes the character both scary and poignant. And Nicaraguan actress Barbara Carrera practically steals the show with her over-the-top take on the role of ruthless assassin Fatima Blush, which she plays like a cross between a film noir femme fatale and Disney’s Cruella De Vil.

basinger-never-say-neverBernie Casey as Felix Leiter, Sean Connery as Bond & Kim Basinger as Domino

Other notable performances include Bernie Casey as Bond’s American CIA counterpart Felix Leiter (the first time a black actor had been cast in the part), Edward Fox as Bond’s prissy, aristocratic snob of a boss M, and comedian Rowan Atkinson making his film debut as bumbling British consulate Nigel Small-Fawcett. Only 29-year-old Kim Basinger, playing Largo’s naïve mistress Domino, was out of her league among these veterans, but in all fairness, it should be pointed out that her performance is no better or worse than the average acting by a “Bond girl.”[3]

Ultimately, watching Never Say Never Again is an entirely different experience than with the “official” Bond films. Rather than Eon Productions’ seemingly Red Bull-induced primal adrenalin rush of non-stop thrills, Never Say Never Again is more like kicking back and enjoying an affectionate reunion sharing drinks (vodka martinis, of course, shaken not stirred) with an old and treasured friend.

 


[1] By most reports, Spectre went seriously over-budget to the tune of $350 million, making it by far the most expensive Bond picture ever.

[2] Technically, Peter Lorre was the very first Bond villain, having played the role of La Chiffre in a 1954 adaptation of Casino Royale which was the pilot episode of an American live television anthology called Climax!, the first dramatization of a Fleming novel. Today, the broadcast is regarded as a rather campy historical curio, especially since Bond (played by Barry Nelson) was rewritten as an American intelligence agent known to his colleagues as “Card Sense Jimmy Bond.”

[3] Of course, the most talented actress to play a “Bond girl” was Diana Rigg, formerly Mrs. Emma Peel on The Avengers, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Unfortunately, cast opposite George Lazenby, the least talented actor ever cast as Bond, the now Dame Rigg was virtually acting in a vacuum.

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The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of: “The Dark Horse” (1932)

 dark_horse-1932-300x228“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.

At a time when the current presidential primary season just keeps getting more and more ridiculous and the lines between reality and satire are becoming increasingly blurred, the folks at Warner Archives have shown some considerable prescience timing by releasing Warner Brothers’ blistering 1932 political satire The Dark Horse on DVD. The film is just 17 years short of being a century old, but with the way the current GOP presidential candidates seem to be competing to see who can utter the most self-destructive verbal gaffes, it couldn’t be more timely or relevant.

This particular paradox isn’t unusual for the Warner Brothers movies of the 1930s and 40s, that two-decade period often referred to as “The Golden Age of Hollywood.” Warners’ movies had a uniquely dynamic vitality combined with a cynical insouciance that most of the other studios generally avoided (especially MGM). Warners was also the only studio where the films’ protagonists could be unrepentant iconoclasts, making it the perfect home for the likes of James Cagney, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, and John Garfield. As a result, the Warners policy of depicting particularly topical subjects resulted in lasting classics that, ironically, have dated very little, such as the 1942 wartime romance Casablanca and the hard-hitting 1932 expose I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (which created such a furor that the state of Georgia was shamed into reluctantly dismantling their chain gang incarceration system). Although a comedy (albeit a very dark and caustic one), The Dark Horse is firmly in the Warners tradition of topical entertainment. Not surprisingly, with the Depression getting worse and no immediate relief in sight, the American public’s regard for politicians and the government was at an all-time low and The Dark Horse gleefully exploited this distrust. (Also, not surprisingly, the film was a box office success.) You can check the website https://real-123movies.best/all-movies for more information.

For a film that was largely forgotten within a few decades of its release, The Dark Horse remained a favorite of film historians. William K. Everson in his 1961 program notes for the Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society described The Dark Horse as “a pungent and fast-moving political satire in the typical no-holds-barred Warner tradition of the thirties—the more notable because it was made in an election year, and doesn’t hesitate to kid politics for being corrupt and the public for being saps… Certainly, for a comparatively minor production, it carries quite a wallop and doesn’t concern itself with whose nose it tweaks—and like all good satire, it is frighteningly near the truth, as a casual perusal of any daily newspaper will show.”  And, in his 1971 book We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films, Andrew Bergman (whose greatest contribution to the cinema was his breathtakingly funny screenplay for the original 1979 version of The In-Laws) called The Dark Horse “an extremely funny and bitter film about electoral politics.”

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Originally conceived by Warners‘ head of production Darryl F. Zanuck (writing under one of his pseudonyms, Melville Crossman)  as a sequel to High Pressure, a satirical comedy starring William Powell as a conniving “promoter” released earlier that year, The Dark Horse was revised as a vehicle for up-and-coming leading man Warren William when the author of the play High Pressure was based on held out for too much money. (Bergman rated William as “one of the thirties’ most endearing and valuable comic actors.”) The script was assigned to staff writers Joseph Jackson and renowned wit Wilson Mizner and the direction to Alfred E. Green, one of those unexceptional craftsmen (like Archie Mayo, William Beaudine, and D. Ross Lederman) who, given the right material, could turn out first-rate entertainment. 

014-kibbee-williamGuy Kibbee, Warren William

In the rapid-paced opening scene, a series of behind-the-scenes machinations at a brokered, deadlocked gubernatorial primary inadvertently leads to the “dark horse” nomination of an unknown hack appropriately named Zachary Hicks (Guy Kibbee). To say that Hicks is lacking in street smarts, savvy, or any practical political experience would be putting it mercifully. As his campaign manager, Hal S. Blake (William), puts it after a few minutes of conversation with Hicks: “He’s the dumbest human being I ever saw. Every time he opens his mouth, he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

Miraculously, Hicks has two things in his favor. The first is Blake himself, recruited from jail (he was behind in his alimony) on the recommendation of “gal Friday” Kay Russell (Bette Davis) to the heads of the “Progressive Party.” (The fact that Kay is Blake’s current girlfriend is hardly a coincidence.) Blake represents a familiar figure in Warners’ repertoire of archetypes, the amoral, fast-talking, razor-witted hustler, forever on the lookout for rubes to peddle gold bricks to, a part made to order for several of Warners’ stock players, including Warren William, James Cagney, Lee Tracy, William Powell, Glenda Farrell, and Pat O’Brien.

darkhorse1932_72295_678x380_10092014123712Warren William, Bette Davis, and (far right) Frank McHugh

After sizing up the candidate, Blake shrewdly decides to turn Hicks’ inexperience and naivety from a liability to an asset by emphasizing his lack of connections to the established political forces, the ultimate “outsider.” “We’re going to capitalize on his dumbness,” Blake tells the party bosses. “Sure, he’s dumb. But he’s honest.” The first thing Blake does is convince Hicks to parrot an invariable “one-size-fits-all” answer to any question put to him: “Yes, and then again, no.”

The other thing in Hicks’ favor is that his opponent, the “Conservative Party” candidate, is a pompous windbag named William A. Underwood (Burton Churchill). The very casting of Churchill was a form of shorthand for 30s audiences as he spent most of his film career typed as corrupt politicos or ruthless capitalists. (Churchill is best known to filmgoers for his role in John Ford’s seminal western Stagecoach as the hypocritical, absconding banker, who never hesitates to criticize the moral failings of others.)

downloadGuy Kibbee, Warren William

After spending weeks bullying Hicks into memorizing one of Abraham Lincoln’s early speeches in order to pass it off as his own thoughts, Blake is astounded when, at a town hall debate, Underwood’s opening remarks are that exact same speech. (Shades of Joe Biden’s notorious appropriation of Neil Kinnock’s speech!) Without missing a beat, Blake unhesitatingly takes to the stage and denounces Underwood as a plagiarist. Amid a chorus of boos and catcalls, Churchill shamefully flees from the debate.

The movie loses some of its momentum with the introduction of Maybelle (Vivienne Osbourne), Blake’s gold-digging ex-wife who holds the threat of imprisonment over his head like the Sword of Damocles if he doesn’t fork over the back alimony she demands. Correctly assessing Hicks as a lamb just waiting for the slaughter, Maybelle sinks her meathooks into him and, in collusion with the competing party, lures him to a mountain cabin getaway across the state line, setting him up to be arrested on a Mann Act violation. The movie’s grand finale consists of a cross-country chase, cutting back-and-forth between the rival party bosses with the local sheriff in their car and Blake and his assistant Joe (Frank McHugh) in a chartered airplane, both racing to the scene of the “crime,” while, in the meantime, Hicks is currently losing that new card game that Maybelle just introduced him to called “strip poker.” (Yes, he’s that clueless.)

the-dark-horseWarren William, Bette Davis

The bulk of the film’s comedy is in the capable hands of William, Kibbee, and McHugh (who made a career of playing comic sidekicks). Although her subsequent film stardom would eclipse those of everyone else in the cast, Davis’ bland, underwritten role pretty much makes her the Zeppo of the team. But The Dark Horse was never intended to be a Bette Davis vehicle; it was conceived and executed as a cinematic Bronx cheer directed at all the politicians who had made such a mess of the country’s affairs and, as such, succeeded wonderfully.

As usual, outside of the original trailer, the Warner Archives release of The Dark Horse contains no extras. For many of us, however, that’s an acceptable trade-off for finally getting a DVD release of a little-known gem that probably wouldn’t have been given home video status otherwise.

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

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“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.

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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).

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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).

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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.)

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(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.

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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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Top 10 Movies I Saw For the First Time in 2014

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An admission: I haven’t seen enough newly-released films this year to make a traditional Top 10 list (an admission I never would’ve needed to make a couple of decades ago). Instead, I’m offering a Top 10 list of movies I watched in 2014 that I’d never seen before, for this I got a big TV and a 55 inch tv stand with mount to enjoy more. A couple of these films I saw in their theatrical first-runs (it will be obvious which two those are), but the rest I saw via https://best-putlocker.com/watch-last-added-online.  So here, in chronological order of when they were made, are my personal choices for the ten best films I was pleased to encounter in 2014.You can visit https://freecouchtuner.com/couchtuner to watch best movies and web series. For the best assassin movie go through the link.

Love is a Racket (1932)loveisaracket6Lee Tracy, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Ann Dvorak

William Wellman was on something of a roll at Warner Brothers in the pre-Code era. The year before, he’d directed the iconic gangster picture The Public Enemy (which put James Cagney on the map) and the even more brutal thriller Night Nurse (with a young Barbara Stanwyck at her gutsiest and Clark Gable at his scariest). Love is a Racket is a wickedly funny comedy-thriller starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Jimmy Russell, a New York gossip columnist (patterned after Walter Winchell) who hobnobs with all strata of Manhattan society, from the upper crust to the underworld. Jimmy has become so smitten with a would-be actress (Frances Dee) that he’s willing to put everything on the line (including covering up a murder) to rescue her from a slimy mobster (Lyle Talbot) who’s trying to blackmail her into letting him, well, shall we say, have his way with her. The picture’s scene-stealing honors go to Lee Tracy and Ann Dvorak as Jimmy’s best buds. You can visit Lorraine Music to check more awesome movies.

Northern Pursuit (1943)Errol-Flynn-Helmut-Dantine-Northern-PursuitErrol Flynn, Helmut Dantine

One of the most endearing things about Warner Brothers was that the box office hit hadn’t been made that they couldn’t copy and often improve upon. (Maybe you’ve seen their knock-off of Algiers, a little film called Casablanca?) Northern Pursuit, the fourth collaboration between director Raoul Walsh and star Errol Flynn, was Warners’ answer to British filmmaker Michael Powell’s 49th Parallel, an anti-Nazi propaganda action-adventure set in Canada. Flynn’s plays a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who pretends to be a German sympathizer to infiltrate a group of Nazis who were delivered via submarine to carry out a sabotage mission at the Canadian-American border. As with Walsh and Flynn’s previous World War II adventure Desperate Journey, the action moves at a lightning-fast pace. And speaking of anti-Nazi propaganda…

Cloak and Dagger (1946)cloak-and-daggerGary Cooper, Lilli Palmer

When, in 1933, the German Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels offered pioneering filmmaker Fritz Lang an opportunity to make pictures for the Third Reich, Lang did what any sensible Jew in that time and place would do; he hopped the next ocean liner out of Germany. Lang’s hatred for the Nazis resulted in a quartet of anti-Nazi espionage melodramas, Man Hunt (1941), Hangmen Also Die! (1943), Ministry of Fear (1944), and arguably the best of the bunch Cloak and Dagger. Cloak and Dagger stars Gary Cooper as a nuclear scientist who offers to go to behind enemy lines to rescue a colleague before the Gestapo obtains the info necessary to build an atomic bomb. (Despite the predictable criticisms about miscasting, college educated Cooper is absolutely credible as a nuclear scientist.)  The film’s most justifiably celebrated sequence is the hand-to-hand mano a mano between Cooper and Marc Lawrence (as an Italian Nazi agent), a brutal fight to the death involving real pain and sadism (i.e., fighting dirty) rather than Hollywood’s usual exchange of roundhouse punches. The dialogue in the opening scene, in which Cooper expresses misgivings about any world power having the bomb, undoubtedly contributed to the movie’s screenwriters, Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner Jr., being persecuted by HUAC.

Crime Wave (1954)dt.main.ce.Stream.clsGene Evans, Phyllis Kirk, Sterling Hayden

Filmed by director Andre De Toth with a meager budget almost entirely on actual Los Angeles locations in just 13 days, Crime Wave is everything a film noir should be and more, swift, nasty, and hard-hitting. (This is the type of crime picture where characters literally burst through doors.) Song-and-dance man Gene Evans is cast against type as an ex-con newlywed whose attempts to go straight with the help his wife (Phyllis Kirk) are endangered by a gang of former partners-in-crime, two of whom have just escaped from prison. (You can’t ask for better noir villains than Ted de Corsia, Charles Bronson, and Timothy Carey.) Sterling Hayden owns the picture as an obsessive hardass of a homicide cop who plays Javert to Evens’ Jean Valjean.

The Lone Ranger (1956)07_1956 Lone_Ranger_and_TontoJay Silverheels, Clayton Moore

In the last 33 years, there have been two misguided attempts to bring the Lone Ranger, that iconic western hero of radio and television, to the big screen, the laughable The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981) and the even more disastrous Disney travesty The Lone Ranger (2013). Unlike those mega-budget turkeys, this more modestly-budgeted 1956 cinematic spin-off of the television series, with the definitive Lone Ranger and Tonto (Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels), got it right. Well-directed by Stuart Heisler, from a script by Herb Meadow, and with gorgeous Warnercolor cinematography by Edwin DuPar and a rousing music score by David Buttolph, The Lone Ranger is the perfect  Saturday matinee feature for “kids of all ages,” as the old advertising cliché goes. In her last screen appearance, former child and teenage star Bonita Granville (wife of the movie’s producer Jack Wrather) plays the wife of the picture’s head bad guy Lyle Bettger. (The equally loathsome “dog villain,” as in “a guy who’s so evil that he’ll kick a dog,” is played by Robert Wilke.) Both Moore and Silverheels are given opportunities to take center stage; on his own, Tonto narrowly escapes a lynch mob, and periodically the Lone Ranger goes undercover as a grizzled old geezer. (It’s obvious that Moore was having a ball playing this comic relief persona.)

The Hanged Man (1964)origNorman Fell, Robert Culp

Directed by Don Siegel for Universal, this remake of Ride the Pink Horse (1947) became the first made-for-TV movie by default after NBC rejected Siegel’s previous film The Killers (1964), which was also a remake of a 40s Universal picture intended for television, for being too violent and was released by the studio theatrically instead. (The fact that the Kennedy assassination took place before The Killers was finished didn’t help its chances of premiering on national television.) Based on Dorothy B. Hughes’ novel Ride the Pink Horse, The Hanged Man stars Robert Culp as a burned-out gunman seeking revenge for the murder of a friend by blackmailing his former employer (Edmund O’Brien), who’s currently under congressional investigation on racketeering charges. With a supporting cast that includes J. Carroll Naish, Norman Fell, and Vera Miles (as the obligatory noir femme fetale), The Hanged Man is a testimony to Siegel’s expertise at coping with extraordinary challenges on a tiny budget. Universal decided that the remake should be set in New Orleans during Marti Gras, a requirement that Siegel achieved without any location shooting by using just one street on Universal’s backlot and lots of stock footage. The film’s also a must-see for jazz aficionados, with a score by Benny Carter and on-screen appearances by Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto.

The Yakuza (1974)vlcsnap-9280052Ken Takakura, Robert Mitchum

As riveting as the young, feral Robert Mitchum of the 1940s and 50s was, the older, sadder-but-wiser Mitchum of the 70s and 80s was even more fascinating and nuanced. In The Yakuza, directed by Sydney Pollock from a script by Robert Towne and brothers Paul and Leonard Schrader, Mitchum gives what may well be the finest performance of his career as an ex-cop turned private investigator who returns to Japan for the first time since the aftermath of World War II at the request of an old friend (Brian Keith) whose daughter is being held captive by a crime family. Once there, Mitchum finds himself betrayed by those he trusts and discovers an unlikely ally in a former enemy (Ken Takakura making his American film debut and perfectly matching Mitchum as a commanding screen presence). According to World Cinema Paradise founder and long-time resident of Japan Stuart Galbraith IV, The Yakuza is “one of the best films in terms of a Hollywood-based production accurately depicting how Japan is and how the Japanese behave and react,” and still remains “highly regarded” in Japan.

Much Ado About Nothing (2013)much-ado-about-nothing-nathan-fillion-600x315Tom Lenk, Nathan Fillion

Just like Alfred Hitchcock decided to follow his most expensive picture ever, North by Northwest (1959), with his lowest-budgeted American film, Psycho (1960), Joss Whedon followed his most expensive movie to date, The Avengers (2012), with this self-financed adaptation of one of William Shakespeare’s best comedies. Shot in black & white on the grounds of his own manor in just 12 days during a brief vacation in between the principle photography and post-production of The Avengers, Whedon’s modern-day take on the Bard is a veritable love letter to classic cinema. Amy Acker and Alexis Deniof are wonderful as Beatrice and Benedict, Shakespeare’s urbane they-fight-so-much-that-they-must-be-in-love sophisticates, which became the archetypes for so many latter-day Hollywood screwball comedies. And sheer, out-loud belly laughs are provided by Nathan Fillion (as Dogberry) and Tom Lenk (as Varges), who manage to lampoon CSI-style TV cops shows while simultaneously channeling Laurel and Hardy’s physical schtick. (Fillion’s underplayed rendition of Dogberry’s “I am an ass” speech is the movie’s most sublime moment.)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)captain-america-winter-soldier-sliceChris Evans, Anthony Mackie

This sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) proved that Marvel/Disney superhero movies could tackle serious issues without the overbearing pretentiousness and all-too-serious approach of DC/Warners’ equivalent pictures. In this case, the issue is America’s increasingly militarism in response to post-9/11 paranoia. As Cap (Chris Evans), the ultimate patriot, states about an elaborate preliminary-strike anti-terrorist weapons program advocated by a reactionary right-wing senator (an ironically cast Robert Redford), “This isn’t freedom, this is fear.” (The film is a deliberate homage to the political thrillers of the post-Watergate era.) Of course, more than anything else, this is an adrenalin-pumping action-adventure flick, with Cap getting solid support from fellow superheroes the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), as well as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill (Colbie Smulders) and head honcho Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), in his fight against the Hydra moles who have infiltrated both S.H.I.E.L.D. and the highest echelons of the US military and government. (Yeah, there’s some Manchurian Candidate in this flick, too.) Directors (and siblings) Anthony and Joe Russo keep the action moving at bullet-train speed, eschewing CGI in favor of practical effects (or, at least, until the finale, which is the standard CGI-fest).

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)new GOTG header 3-10Zoe Saldana, Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper (voice), Dave Bastista, Vin Diesel (voice)

This was the one that the critics who’d long had their knives out for the Marvel/Disney blockbusters predicted would be Marvel Films’ first box-office disaster, mainly because it was based on an obscure comic book series that only the most dedicated fans of the genre were even familiar with. In an example of poetic justice, Guardians of the Galaxy not only wasn’t a financial flop, it also became the highest-grossing film of 2014. The lion’s share of the credit for the success of Marvel’s first out-and-out comedy film belongs to director-writer James Gunn’s quirky sense of humor. (The story goes that Marvel Films creative overseer Joss Whedon, who obviously considered Gunn to be a kindred spirit, handed the first-draft script back to him, requesting “more James Gunn.”) The goofy collection of mismatched, self-appointed “guardians” (who are actually a gang of intergalactic crooks and scam artists) are played appropriately with tongues-in-cheek by an inspired ensemble consisting of Chris Pratt (as Peter Quill aka “Star-Lord”), Zoe Saldana (as Gamora), Dave Bautista (as Drax the Destroyer), Vin Diesel (as the voice of anthropomorphic tree Groot), and Bradley Cooper (as the voice of talking raccoon Rocket). Gunn establishes the movie’s off-beat tone during the opening credits sequence, as Pratt, on his way to a heist, dances around a desolate, rain-soaked planet to the tune of Redbone’s 1974 hit “Come and Get Your Love,” a “Singin’ in the Rain” moment for the New Millennium.

assassin movie

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A Legal “Miracle” or How US Law Saved Kris Kringle

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20th Century Fox’s 1947 Academy Award-winning comedy Miracle on 34th Street (directed and written by George Seaton from an original story by Valentine Davies) is justifiably regarded by film connoisseurs as one of the two most beloved of Hollywood Christmas classics. (The other one is, of course, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. In fact, Miracle on 34th Street is often referred to as “the best Capra picture Capra never made.”)

As just about everybody knows thanks to the numerous obligatory television presentations this time of year, Miracle on 34th Street tells the story of Kris Kringle (character actor Edmund Gwenn in the performance that won him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor), a kindly old man who’s hired to play Santa Claus at Macy’s Department Store for the holiday season. Kris turns out to not only be an outstandingly convincing Santa, he also insists that he’s the real article. As a result, he eventually winds up in court for a hearing to determine if he’s mentally unsound and should be committed to the mental ward of New York’s Bellevue Hospital. Representing Kris is idealistic young lawyer, Fred Gailey, played by John Payne. (More about Fred and the other characters later.)

Over the years, Miracle on 34th Street has received much well-deserved praise for its colorful characters, iconic performances, witty script, and the heartwarming sentimentality that delicately avoids becoming maudlin or treacly. But there’s one unlikely aspect of Miracle on 34th Street that has yet to receive much attention: the accuracy of its depiction of the use and interpretation of law in legal proceedings. Fred, the romantic lead, is, after all, an attorney, but given Hollywood’s track record on courtroom movies, that in itself was hardly a guarantee of authenticity. Indeed, the laughable amount of inaccuracies in Hollywood’s depictions of lawyers and their work makes it seem as though screenwriters consider it a badge of honor to avoid any research on the subject whatsoever and just make up their own approaches to interpreting the law out of whole cloth. (And don’t even get me started on David Mamet’s courtroom scenes in The Verdict and The Untouchables!)

Miracle-On-34th-Street-1947-6John Payne, Edmund Gwenn

The climatic courtroom sequences of Miracle on 34th Street were undoubtedly inspired and patterned after the equivalent scenes in Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1935). In both films, a beloved saintly character winds up in a New York court proceeding in order to determine his mental competency. (Longfellow Deeds wants to give his vast fortune away to the poor, much to the dismay of his relatives, lawyers, financial advisors, and various other “moochers.”) But Capra and his screenwriter Robert Riskin eschewed the mechanics of the law in allowing their hero to avoid commitment and relied more on crowd-pleasing sentimentality. Deeds, who’s rejected legal advice and represents himself, simply makes a speech explaining his reasoning for wanting to give his riches away, which is convincing enough for the judge to declare him “the sanest man who ever walked into this courtroom.”

jamesseaymiracleon34ststJames Seay

Seaton, on the other hand, opted for a legally valid way for Fred to get a judgment in favor of his client. Interestingly, Fred initially attempts to make an argument on sentimental grounds that reflect Capra’s approach. He calls Dr. Pierce (James Seay), who works at the nursing home Kris resides at, to the stand to testify that Kris is no threat to himself or others, and that his insistence of being Santa Claus is a harmless delusion not unlike the case of a well-known Hollywood restaurateur. (For the edification of those less than half a century old, this was an obvious reference to “Prince” Michael Romanoff, celebrated owner of Romanoff’s in Los Angeles, who had a running joke with his friends and customers in which he claimed to be a member of the Royal Family of Russia.)

genelockhartmiracleon34thstGene Lockhart

This line of questioning is quickly shot down by District Attorney Thomas Mara (Jerome Cowan as a caricature of real-life New York DA Thomas Dewey) who points out that there’s a difference between pretending to be someone you’re not and pretending to be someone who’s an imaginary figure. He then asks Judge Henry X. Harper (Gene Lockhart) for an immediate ruling as to the existence of Santa Claus. Of course, the judge (who also has gubernatorial ambitions) can’t possibly rule there’s a Santa Claus without becoming a national laughing stock, but before he can even address the issue, he’s called into conference by his political advisor, NY Democratic Party boss Charlie Halloran (William Frawley). Halloran tells Harper with clear, unsentimental logic why he can’t rule against the existence of Santa Claus in a speech beautifully delivered with withering sarcasm by Frawley in his greatest pre-I Love Lucy moment of glory:

“All right, you go back and tell them that the New York State Supreme Court rules there’s no Santa Claus. It’s all over the papers. The kids read it and they don’t hang up their stockings. Now what happens to all the toys that are supposed to be in those stockings? Nobody buys them. The toy manufacturers are going to like that; so they have to lay off a lot of their employees, union employees. Now, you got the CIO and the AF of L against you and they’re going to adore you for it and they’re going to say it with votes. Oh, and the department stores are going to love you, too, and the Christmas card makers and the candy companies. Henry, you’re going to be an awful popular fella’. And what about the Salvation Army? Why, they got a Santa Claus on every corner, and they’re taking a fortune. But you go ahead, Henry, you do it your way. You go on back in there and tell them that you rule there is no Santy Claus. Go on. But if you do, remember this: you can count on getting just two votes, your own and that district attorney’s out there!”

williamfrawleymiracleon34stWilliam Frawley

As a punch line, the judge responds by meekly pointing out that the DA’s a Republican. Returning to the courtroom, Harper sidesteps the issue by declaring that whether Santa Claus actually exists is irrelevant; the defense’s obligation to affirm his client’s sanity is to prove that Kris is “the one and only Santa Claus.” This seemingly raises the bar to an impossible level for Fred, but Seaton has cleverly set the stage for a solution to Fred’s winning Kris’ case that adheres to legal procedure.

A slight digression now as we turn our attention to the two major characters I have yet to mention: the Macy’s employee who first hired Kris, single mother Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), and her daughter Susan (wonderfully played by an eight-year-old Natalie Wood). Disillusioned by the failure of her marriage, Doris has forbidden Susan from believing in “fairy-tale” characters, including Santa Claus. Which is why, despite her considerable affection for Kris, Susan tells him that, to her, he’s “just a kind old man with whiskers.” After Judge Harper’s ruling, Susan comes to a crucial decision to cheer up Kris by writing him a letter stating that she’s changed her mind and now is willing to believe he’s Santa Claus, after all. (Unbeknownst to Susan, Doris adds a post-script telling Kris that she believes in him, too.) Then, Susan addresses the envelope to “Kris Kringle, New York County Courthouse.” Which brings us to…

Susan-Letter-to-Santa-Miracle-on-34th-St

The “miracle” of the title. That night (past midnight, so it’s now officially Christmas Eve), a post office mail sorter on the graveyard shift (an unbilled Jack Albertson) notices the letter’s address and has an inspiration. If “Santa Claus” can be found at the courthouse, why not get rid of all those thousands of “Dear Santa” missives taking up space in the dead letter department by sending them to the courthouse as well? Management agrees and this unnamed postal worker’s practical joke unwittingly turns out to be the miracle that makes it possible for Fred to have Kris recognized as Santa Claus in a way that holds water legally.

jackalbertsonmiracleon34thstreetJack Albertson

Upon receiving notice that there are several bags of mail awaiting delivery to his client, Fred does some quick research on postal law. As Fred recites to the court when he returns, “United States postal laws and regulations make it a criminal offense to willfully misdirect mail or intentionally deliver it to the wrong party.” (Not surprisingly, the actual wording of the law around that time was much drier and more technical: “For a person employed under the Post Office. To steal, or for any purpose whatever embezzle, secrete, or destroy a post letter, is a felony, punishable by penal servitude not exceeding seven years, or imprisonment not exceeding two years.” However, I think some artistic license can be granted to Seaton for wording the law in terms that would be more accessible to general audiences. And you have to give him props for making the language sound like authentic legalese.)

johnpayneJohn Payne, Edmund Gwenn

After he finishes reciting the law, Fred produces three letters addressed only “to Santa Claus” that were directly delivered to Kris and asks that they be entered as evidence. When the DA objects that “three letters are hardly proof positive,” Fred responds, “I have further exhibits, but I hesitate to produce them.” At this point, the judge insists that all of the exhibits be produced and placed upon his desk, which is the set-up for the movie’s single most memorable sight gag as a seemingly unending line of court officers parade into the courtroom and dump the contents of several mail bags onto the bench, the enormous pile eventually hiding the judge completely from view. (This bit of visual comedy is perhaps the film’s most Capraesque touch of all.)

case-dismissed-miracle-on-34-st-2John Payne, Gene Lockhart

Having introduced his evidence, Fred delivers his legal coup de grâce: “Your Honor, every one of these letters is addressed to Santa Claus. The Post Office has delivered them. Therefore, the Post Office, a branch of the federal government, recognizes this man, Kris Kringle, to be the one and only Santa Claus!” The judge parts the sea of envelopes before him and, rather than sentimentally declaring Kris to be “the sanest man who ever walked into this courtroom,” simply dismisses the case with, “Since the United States government declares this man to be Santa Claus, this court will not dispute it.” Thus, the judge has been given a legally acceptable way of getting out of a case he never wanted to preside over in the first place without alienating the voters or his grandchildren (who have been snubbing him for being mean to Santa Claus).

1964_4-cropEdmund Gwenn

With the case dismissed and Kris granted his freedom, there are still some important (and poignant) plot threads to be tied up, but this finishes things as far as the subject of this article is concerned. The point here is not that Miracle on 34th Street is a precisely detailed examination of US law, but rather that the attention to legal detail is pleasantly unexpected for a comedy. (And the fact that it still remains an extraordinarily amusing and entertaining movie that ranks with the best films of Capra and Preston Sturges doesn’t hurt it, either.) Another comedy that shows unusual legal acumen on the part of the filmmaker is Billy Wilder’s 1966 satire on tort law The Fortune Cookie, but that’s gist for another article…

Doug Krentzlin used to be a legal assistant in another existence.

 

 

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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)

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“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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.)

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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.