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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”

 

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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.

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.)

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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.

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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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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of: “Bulldog Jack” (1935)

“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.

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The 1935 Gaumont-British comedy-thriller Bulldog Jack is almost entirely forgotten nowadays, which is ironic seeing as it was subsequently copied to death by the Hollywood studios. The basic premise is simple enough: An ordinary everyman (who’s also something of a well-meaning bumbler) dreams of becoming a heroic tough guy, the type who foils the bad guys and saves the proverbial damsel-in-distress. Fate conspires to place this everyman in real-life danger and, against all odds, he overcomes his fears, exposes the criminals, and successfully rescues the aforementioned damsel-in-distress, winning both the day and the girl. If this scenario sounds familiar, it’s because several of Hollywood’s top comedians appeared in countless variations on the theme, including Bob Hope in My Favorite Brunette, Danny Kaye in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and Jerry Lewis in It’s Only Money.

Bulldog Jack was the brainchild of its star, Jack Hulbert, who is credited for “idea and dialogue.” Hulbert was one of Britain’s top three film comedians of the 1930s, along with George Fromby and Will Hay. Writing about Bulldog Jack in his 1972 book The Detective in Film, British-born film historian William K. Everson stated, “Hulbert was a song-and-dance comic (though wisely keeping musical interludes out of this particular film) who followed the Harold Lloyd technique of combining comedy with thrill. He had a breezy, cheerful personality and good diction which made him far more acceptable to American audiences than many of the regional comics from Britain with their heavy local accents. His films were always solidly produced, with good sets, camerawork, and well-staged action scenes.” (In fact, I would never have even heard of Bulldog Jack if it hadn’t been for Everson’s  enthusiastic recommendation of it.)

Jack Hulbert (left) with Mack Sennett (center), visiting the set, and director Walter Forde

Jack Hulbert (left) with Mack Sennett (center), visiting the set, and director Walter Forde

Clocking in at a breathless 70 minutes, Bulldog Jack was directed by Walter Forde, with a screenplay by J.O.C. Orton, Gerard Fairlie, and Sidney Gilliat, “in collaboration with ‘Sapper’ [the pseudonym of author H.C. McNeile].” (Gilliat’s name is familiar to many movie buffs, not only in connection with the screenplays he co-wrote for Alfred Hitchcock, The Lady Vanishes and Jamaica Inn, but also for the films he wrote and directed himself, most notably the classic whodunit Green For Danger.) Instead of inventing a generic detective hero for the comic to emulate (as was the case in My Favorite Brunette and It’s Only Money), the writers made use of McNeile’s already widely popular fictional sleuth, Bulldog Drummond. So, in addition to being a first-rate comedy in itself, Bulldog Jack also functions as a sharp, incisive parody of the melodramatic excesses of the Bulldog Drummond novels as well. (Indeed, Bulldog Jack has stood the test of time better than any of the official Bulldog Drummond film adaptations.)

Bulldog Jack gets off to a wonderful start, with the credits accompanied by composer Louis Levy’s appropriately dramatic overture, and interrupted briefly by a gunshot and one of co-star Fay Wray’s patented ear-splitting screams. (Wray was still at the height of her loveliness, having recently played the ultimate damsel-in-distress in King Kong, and made a most fetching heroine for Hulbert to rescue.)

The real Bulldog Drummond, played by Atholl Fleming (accurately described by Everson as “rather too mature and stolid an actor for the role”), only appears in the film’s first five minutes. In an introductory sequence worthy of Hitchcock himself, we see two sinister figures out in the British countryside in the dead of night, obviously up to no good as they tap a telephone pole’s lines and listen in on a conversation between Drummond and Ann Manders (Wray) in which she entreats the celebrated amateur sleuth to come to her aid. Unfortunately, Drummond mentions that he’ll need to stop for gas before meeting Miss Manders at his flat in London. So the two villains hightail it to the only gas station in that isolated area, bind and gag the attendant, and one of them takes his place. When Drummond arrives, accompanied by his pet terrier, the bogus attendant waits on him while his accomplice lurks behind Drummond’s car and sabotages the brake line.

Blithely unaware of the danger he’s in, Drummond drives down a steep, winding stretch of road ominously known as “Devil’s Elbow.” As he futilely tries to pump the brakes, the film cross-cuts between his automobile and another car heading up the road from the opposite direction. The two cars collide, completely overturning Drummond’s auto. The driver of the other car, a professional cricket player named Jack Pennington (Hulbert), sticks his head out of the window and casually inquires whether this is “the right way to Gilford.” The only response he receives is Drummond’s terrier sticking its head out of passenger window of the overturned car. Jack politely thanks the pooch and gets out of his car.

Jack accompanies Drummond, who has suffered a broken arm, and his dog on the ambulance ride to the hospital. After exchanging introductions, Jack fawns over the famous detective and expresses his lifelong desire to become a detective himself. Since he’s obviously out of commission for the time being, Drummond asks Jack to impersonate him long enough to interview Miss Manders and determine exactly who and what is threatening her. Needless to say, despite the potential danger, Jack gladly accepts the assignment.

Upon Jack’s arrival at Drummond’s flat, we are introduced to two supporting characters well known to followers of the Drummond novels, the first being Drummond’s faithful, unflappable manservant Denny, played here by Gibb McLaughlin, best remembered for his work in David Lean’s early films. The second familiar character to appear is Drummond’s perennial sidekick, “Algy” (short for Algernon) Longworth, the very embodiment of that archetype affectionately known as “a silly-ass Englishman.” In Bulldog Jack, Algy is played by Hulbert’s brother Claude, an accomplished comedian in his own right. (Few British comics could do “silly-ass” better than Claude Hulbert.) Algy agrees to go along with Pennington’s impersonation of Drummond and the two act as a team for the remainder of the movie. (The dynamic between the Hulbert Brothers is rather reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy, with Jack driven to a perpetual state of exasperation by Claude’s ineffectualness.)

The next person knocking on Drummond’s door, much to Jack’s disappointment, is not Ann, but rather an elderly foreigner (Paul Graetz) who claims that criminals are pressuring him into participating in a crime involving “the Goddess with a Hundred Hands.” (“Do you know what they want me to do?” the old man asks. “Wash them?” Algy guesses.) The man’s pleas are interrupted by the arrival of a couple of strangers who identify themselves as policemen. Convinced they’re imposters, Jack locks them in the kitchen while two other men, also identifying themselves as police, show up. Jack, however, smugly declares these two to be authentic and turns the old man over to them. Not surprisingly, the first set of men are the real cops and the second two are minions of the master criminal behind the sinister goings-on.

At last, Ann herself arrives (Jack is, of course, immediately smitten with her) and the plot finally gets underway. As Ann explains, the old man is Salvini, her grandfather, and he’s an expert jeweler whose professional services are required by the master criminal in question, one Professor Morelle. Played by a young Ralph Richardson (with bushy mustache and gray fright wig) in one of his early film appearances, Morelle is a satirical take-off on such sinister literary masterminds as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty and Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu. (One of the main reasons that Bulldog Jack works so well is that Richardson, Wray, and all the other supporting actors play their roles absolutely straight, and only the Hulberts play it for laughs.)

The caper Morelle is planning is the theft of a priceless set of jewels embedded in the gigantic multi-armed statue of the Indian goddess Kali that is kept at the British Museum. Morelle needs Salvini to create replicas of the jewels that will be indistinguishable from the real thing, so that they can be substituted for the originals. When Savini refuses to give in to Morelle’s threats, Ann is also kidnapped by Morelle’s henchmen, and it’s up to Jack and Algy to track down Morelle’s secret lair and save her and her grandfather from the villain’s evil clutches.

In their quest, Jack and Algy are put through a series of perils typical of the average Bulldog Drummond story. At one point, they’re locked in a basement storeroom. (Algy suggests burning their way out. It isn’t until the fire is blazing out of control that it occurs to them that they might be incinerated as well.) They deduce that Morelle’s hideout must be located somewhere in London’s underground subway tunnels and—you can see this one coming a mile away—they’re forced to outrun a train when they start down a seemingly empty tunnel. (By the way, the film’s special effects are flawlessly done, particularly the miniatures used in the climax.)

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After sending Algy to go alert the police, Jack eventually reaches Morelle’s underground hideout, but his attempt to spirit Ann and her grandfather out of there by impersonating Morelle and hoodwinking his gang is spoiled by the inevitable appearance of Morelle himself. It’s at this point that Morelle demolishes Ann’s trust in Jack (she still thinks he’s Bulldog Drummond) by exposing him as a fraud and imposter (the film’s only touch of pathos). Undeterred, Jack still hopes to prove himself to Ann and give Morelle his well-deserved comeuppance.

There are some highly amusing sight gags in Bulldog Jack, most notably a literal running gag in which the good guys and bad guys are constantly hurrying up or down the London Underground’s circular staircases (an image beautifully punctuated by Levy’s score) and a frenzied nighttime chase through the London Museum after hours when Jack interrupts Morelle and his men in mid-robbery, climaxed by Jack utilizing the museum’s collection of Aboriginal boomerangs against the villains. At first, Jack successfully knocks out several of Morelle’s henchmen (complete with comic sound effects), but, as comedy tradition demands, the last boomerang he flings backfires on him.

The dangers that Jack faces in the last fifteen minutes of the movie would not be out of place in an Indiana Jones film, with an emphasis on suspense rather than comedy. Jack pursues Morelle down to the subway tunnels and the two of them fight it out on the tracks, with the electrified third rail and an oncoming train posing serious threats. Finally, in a last-ditch act of sheer desperation, Morelle hijacks a subway train with Jack, Algy, Ann, and Salvini aboard. Intending to commit murder/suicide by crashing the train when it reaches the end of the line, Morelle locks himself in the lead train’s cab and Jack’s only hope of stopping him is to crawl out over the top of the moving train and get into the cab via the front door.

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Now, alas, for the bad news. The video transfer on the Region 1 DVD release by a company called Firecake Entertainment leaves something to be desired. At first glance, the image seems to be sharp enough, but it soon becomes apparent that there’s some rather annoying fuzziness in the picture. Although, in all fairness, it should be pointed out that this fuzziness is not bad enough to make the DVD unwatchable. (Lord knows, the transfer is nowhere near as bad as those 5th or 6th generation public domain dubs that have plagued unwitting video purchasers for decades.) The soundtrack, however, is clean and the dialogue is quite audible, which isn’t always the case in British films of the period.

On the plus side, Bulldog Jack definitely qualifies as “family friendly” entertainment. As Everson explained in his program notes for a 1963 New York screening of Bulldog Jack: “There was a lot of ‘blue’ comedy in the British films of the 30s, some admittedly very funny. Hulbert’s were always scrupulously clean.” Even if you’ve seen any of the numerous Hollywood knock-offs of Bulldog Jack, I think you’ll agree that the original can’t be topped, in terms of both laughs and thrills.