Sunday, July 22, 2018

DOWN MISSOURI WAY









A few weeks ago I wrote a post on what was my favorite John Carradine monster movie. I narrowed the choices down to the two Universal films that Carradine appeared in as Dracula: HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HOUSE OF DRACULA. I picked HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, but HOUSE OF DRACULA is a very good monster rally as well. In that one Carradine's Dracula takes an interest in a lovely nurse played by starlet Martha O'Driscoll.

Yesterday was a Saturday, and having the day off I was doing some housework and laundry. While going through my on-screen cable guide I noticed that the Encore Western channel was going to show a film called DOWN MISSOURI WAY--a film which stars Martha O'Driscoll and John Carradine. I figured I just had to take the opportunity to see a re-teaming of the stars of HOUSE OF DRACULA.

DOWN MISSOURI WAY is a 1946 comedy-musical made by the Poverty Row studio PRC. As a Universal ingenue Martha O'Driscoll didn't get much of a chance to shine, but her she has the lead role, and she even gets to sing. She plays Jane Colwell, a professor at an agricultural college. Prof. Colwell is having problems with her trained mule, Shirley, so she decides to take the animal back home to her farm in Missouri. Upon arrival she finds out that the farm has been rented out to a Hollywood studio as use for a film location. The Professor wants the company off the land, but she relents when she falls for the movie's producer (William Wright). The movie's director (John Carradine) wants to use Shirley in the film, which leads to various complications, but all works out right in the end. (For all the attention paid to Shirley in this story, she doesn't really live up to her "Wonder Mule" reputation--she spends of the time looking bored.)

DOWN MISSOURI WAY is a lighthearted, low-budget feature that doesn't have anything notable about it other than some of the members of its cast. It's the type of movie where there's a song nearly every five minutes, and nearly every character gets to sing--even Carradine. None of the tunes are particularly memorable, and director Josef Berne stages the singing sequences in a perfunctory manner. If the songs were cut out of the movie, the running time would have been about 40 minutes.

Martha O'Driscoll has a rival for the producer's affections in the form of a haughty actress played by Renee Godfrey. Godfrey was another Universal veteran--she played the femme fatale in the Sherlock Holmes series entry TERROR BY NIGHT. (Godfrey also gets to sing as well.) William Wright is a rather generic leading man, and Mabel Todd plays a comedic hillbilly gal.

As for John Carradine, one would expect him to ham it up in the role of the artsy director, who has the florid name of Thorndike "Thorny" Dunning. Instead Carradine has a casual attitude about him--he seems bemused over the whole sequence of events. Carradine seems to be enjoying himself here...maybe he just appreciated not having to play another horror character. (Did he and O'Driscoll discuss their Universal work?)

There isn't all that much to say about DOWN MISSOURI WAY, other than it is a nice showcase for Martha O'Driscoll. She was extremely photogenic and blessed with a likable on-screen personality, and it's a wonder why she didn't become a big star. DOWN MISSOURI WAY was actually one of O'Driscoll's last screen appearances--not too long after it she married a prominent businessman and retired from acting. You can't blame her for doing so--I'm sure she wasn't all that excited about singing a love song to a mule.






Thursday, July 19, 2018

The Complete Hal Roach Thelma Todd Patsy Kelly Comedy Collection









I've been waiting years for any of the Thelma Todd/Zasu Pitts/Patsy Kelly comedy short subjects to be officially released on home video. Finally there's some light at the end of the tunnel. ClassicFlix has released all 21 of the Thelma Todd/Patsy Kelly shorts as a DVD set, and the Thelma Todd/Zasu Pitts shorts will be coming out in a few months from Sprocket Vault.

Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts were teamed for a series of two-reel comedies at the Hal Roach Studio in 1931. Pitts left the series in 1933 after a salary dispute, and she was replaced by Patsy Kelly. Zasu Pitts and Patsy Kelly were as different stylistically as two performers could be--Pitts was flighty and spinsterish, while Patsy was outspoken and sarcastic. Both ladies worked well together with Thelma Todd, who was the more responsible character in the series (though not by much).

Many have compared the Todd/Pitts/Kelly series to the Laurel & Hardy comedies. Personally I think they don't have very much in common. Laurel & Hardy were more fanciful and childlike--a number of their films were set in different time periods. The Todd/Pitts/Kelly series was definitely a product of the 1930s. The girls were very much contemporary working class Americans who were always in need of a job and/or rent money. The girls' adventures play out very much like sitcom TV episodes (especially so since they are each about 20 minutes long). Future female comedy teams like Lucy & Ethel and Laverne & Shirley owe a great deal to Todd, Pitts, and Kelly.

One thing that must also be pointed out is that Thelma and her partners navigated their way into and out of trouble essentially on their own--whatever male characters they encounter wind up being hindrances.

Thelma Todd is one of my favorite all-time movie actresses, and this set reiterates what a superb comic performer she was, despite her glamorous beauty. Thelma's reactions to the various situations she goes through are usually the funniest part of each short, and her timing is excellent. She was also gifted at physical comedy--did any other actress who looked as gorgeous as Thelma ever take as many pratfalls? What's even more refreshing is that Thelma doesn't act like a dumb blonde. I must admit that while watching that set I was paying way more attention to Thelma than Patsy Kelly, but Kelly is very amusing (there are times when she does go overboard on being abrasive).

The set contains all 21 of the shorts that co-starred Thelma and Patsy, and the three shorts that were made after Thelma's untimely death in 1935. In those three shorts Patsy was teamed with Pert Kelton once and Lyda Roberti twice. The set contains three discs that have eight shorts each.

Among my favorite shorts here are the very first Todd/Kelly short, BEAUTY AND THE BUS, in which the girls win a new car, and OPENED BY MISTAKE, which features Thelma as a hospital nurse and Patsy (as usual) causing her trouble. (This short makes use of slow-motion.) THE TIN MAN is a particularly notable entry, as the girls wind up at an old house and have to fend off a kooky scientist and his robot. For my money, the best Todd/Kelly short is BABES IN THE GOODS, where the duo are display window presenters at a department store. The girls are locked in after closing time, and they wind up putting on a "show" for comic drunk Arthur Housman.

Among the many actors familiar to classic comedy film buffs to be found in this set are Billy Gilbert, Charlie Hall, and Bud Jamison. The short SLIGHTLY STATIC, which is set in a radio studio, has the very first screen appearance by Roy Rogers with the Sons of the Pioneers (it has to be said that Roy doesn't get much to do).

The shorts in this set do not seem to be remastered in any way--the visual quality is okay but not exceptional. The sound quality is very thin on many of the titles. There are no extras, and that's disappointing. A few audio commentaries discussing the history of the Todd/Pitts/Kelly shorts and the ladies involved would have been very welcome, especially on those made after Thelma Todd's death.

The shorts may not be in perfect condition, and they may not have any extras, and they may not be on Blu-ray....but I have to say I'm pleased that this set exists. The shorts here do not rank with the best Laurel & Hardy entries, but they are consistently funny, and they will best be appreciated by those used to this type of classic movie comedy. The best overall aspect of this set is that the viewer gets to spend a lot of time looking at Thelma Todd.


Tuesday, July 17, 2018

SARTANA'S HERE...TRADE YOUR PISTOL FOR A COFFIN









The third entry in the Arrow Sartana Blu-ray box set is the the 1970 film SARTANA'S HERE...TRADE YOUR PISTOL FOR A COFFIN. Uruguayan actor George Hilton plays Sartana in this one instead of Gianni Garko.

This movie is even wilder than the preceding titles in the series, with a number of action gags that will either make you laugh or shake your head in disbelief. The story starts with Sartana observing an attempted robbery of a gold shipment (a well-staged sequence, by the way). The robbery is just one of many that have been happening, and of course nearly everyone in the local community seems to be in on the plot. Sartana starts his own investigation, but this time he has to deal with another mysterious gunslinger--a peculiarly refined fellow who dresses in white and is fond of quoting Tennyson. In the English dub the character is called "Sabbath", but in the Italian dub he's called "Sabata"--despite the fact that he has nothing in common with the man of that name played by Lee Van Cleef in other movies. (Confused? Well, that's Spaghetti Western history for you.)

American actor Charles Southwood (believe it or not, that's his actual name) plays Sabbath/Sabata, and Erika Blanc plays a shifty saloon owner. Both performers worked for Mario Bava in their movie careers. Blanc brings some glamour to the story, and Southwood does make an impression (albeit a strange one).

Giuliano Carnimeo directs once again, and he and cinematographer Stelvio Massi go all out in the use of zoom-ins and tilted camera angles...so much so, one wonders if Jess Franco was involved. It does give the story a certain oomph, though. And you have to love a film which has this line of dialogue: "Raise your hands, and move away from the loaf of bread."

This movie is in 2.35:1 widescreen, and the print looks excellent. A new interview with George Hilton is included, and he discusses his one Sartana film and reveals that he and Gianni Garko are actually good friends. Erika Blanc is also interviewed, and she talks about her career in the Italian film industry. She also reveals that she was pregnant during the filming of SARTANA'S HERE...TRADE YOUR PISTOL FOR A COFFIN. Actor Tony Astin is also interviewed, and there is a stills gallery.

SARTANA'S HERE...TRADE YOUR PISTOL FOR A COFFIN is definitely the zaniest film of the series that I have seen thus far. It is very entertaining, as long as you don't try to compare it to a traditional Western.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

I AM SARTANA, YOUR ANGEL OF DEATH










The second film in the Sartana Blu-ray box set from Arrow is I AM SARTANA, YOUR ANGEL OF DEATH (1969). Gianni Garko returns as the title character, and the director is Giuliano Carnimeo, using the pseudonym "Anthony Ascott". Carnimeo would go on to helm the rest of the official Sartana series.

The movie opens with a spectacular bank robbery, and a character dressed like Sartana is leading the assault. The real Sartana is blamed, and a large bounty is offered for him. Sartana decides to track down the culprits themselves to clear his name, and the result is another convoluted plot in which several people seem to have knowledge of.

Giuliano Carnimeo and his cinematographer Giovanni Bergamini give this entry a bit more pizazz from a visual sense--there's plenty of zoom-ins, tilted camera angels, etc. This movie is also more playful than the first one (this attitude would grow as the series progressed). Sartana has a sidekick here in the character of Buddy Ben, played by Spaghetti Western veteran Frank Wolff. The scruffy Ben is reminiscent of Eli Wallach's Tuco in that even though he's supposedly helping Sartana, you never know what the character has up his sleeve.

Klaus Kinski returns again, this time in a bigger and better role as a bounty hunter trying to collect on the reward for Sartana. Kinski's character is referred to in the English soundtrack as "Hot Head". What makes the character stand out here is that he's so bad at gambling he has to collect bounties to pay off his debts. Whenever Hot Head shows up, he's given a musical cue that sounds like "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town"--I wonder if this is in reference to his lousy gambling habits...in other words, wherever he goes, he's bearing gifts to the other players. Kinski gives the role a Peter Lorre-sad sack kind of quality, and one wishes that the character had his own Spaghetti Western built specifically around him.

Sartana's abilities at sleight-of-hand are more pronounced here, to go along with the more fanciful aspects of the film overall. I felt that the movie was more fun and entertaining that the first film in the series, with plenty of wild action sequences.

Arrow presents I AM SARTANA, YOUR ANGEL OF DEATH in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, and the print is very sharp and colorful. As with all the movies in this set there are Italian and English soundtrack options along with English subtitles. The extras include an audio commentary by Spaghetti Western historians C. Courtney Joyner and Henry Parke. The duo give an enthusiastic talk and they obviously enjoy the Sartana series. There are new interviews with actor Sal Borgese and screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi. Borgese relates a number of anecdotes about his film career (most of them having nothing to do with Sartana). Gastaldi's talk mainly has to do with the subject of Spaghetti Westerns in general. There's an extensive stills gallery and the disc cover sleeve has reversible artwork.


Wednesday, July 11, 2018

IF YOU MEET SARTANA...PRAY FOR YOUR DEATH











In the past few years I've managed to build a considerable Spaghetti Western movie collection on home video. I have movies starring all the famous characters of the genre, such as The Man With No Name, Sabata, Ringo, Trinity, Django, Cuchillo....now Arrow Video has released a box set of films containing the adventures of a man named Sartana. I had never seen any of the five films included in this set, but they were recommended to me by my friend Mark Holmes. Each of the five films is given its own disc & packaging, and there are several extras on each disc. A 56-page booklet which has background information on the films is also with the set.

The character of Sartana has a lot in common with most Euro Western heroes: he doesn't speak much, no background information is revealed about him, and he has deadly proficiency with all sorts of weapons. Sartana (played in most of the films by Italian actor Gianni Garko) does cut an impressive figure in his black suit, black hat, and red-lined black cloak. The man is also a cardsharp and a sleight-of-hand artist, and he has an uncanny ability to appear or disappear depending on the circumstances (in the first Sartana film, one of the characters in the very beginning of the story compares him to a ghost).

The first "official" Sartana film is the 1968 IF YOU MEET SARTANA...PRAY FOR YOUR DEATH. (An outlandish title would be a tradition for a Sartana film.) The convoluted plot deals with a stolen gold shipment that Sartana has an interest in (it's suggested in the film that he might be an insurance agent, but it seems he really just wants it all for himself). The gold shipment comes from a small town bank, and nearly every citizen seems to be in on the plot somehow. Sartana has to deal with numerous foes before he gets his hands on the money.

IF YOU MEET SARTANA...is an okay Spaghetti Western, certainly not in the class of the better ones. The movie was directed by Gianfranco Parolini, under his alias "Frank Kramer" (he would go on to oversee the SABATA series with Lee Van Cleef). There's plenty of shooting (two different groups of bandits are massacred in the first 15 minutes), but almost no blood is shown. Parolini keeps things going along at a rapid clip...maybe too rapid, since (at least for me) it's hard to figure out who is double-dealing who.

There's a number of Spaghetti Western veterans showcased here--William Berger, Fernando Sancho, and the one and only Klaus Kinski. At the start of the film it appears as if Kinski will be Sartana's main adversary, but the cult actor doesn't even make it through the halfway point of the story, and he doesn't get much to do. One of the many folks scheming for the gold is played by Sydney Chaplin, the son of Charlie Chaplin!

Arrow Video does its usual outstanding job with this somewhat obscure title. The movie is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, and despite some wear and tear on the print at times, the visual quality is very good. The original Italian and English soundtracks are included, along with English subtitles.

There's plenty of extras here. The audio commentary is by German film archivist Mike Siegel, and it is rather rambling and confusing. Also rambling is a recent interview with Gianfranco Parolini, who goes from one random subject to another while barely mentioning his Sartana film. The best extra is a video essay by Jonathan Bygraves which showcases the actors who appeared throughout the Sartana series.

IF YOU MEET SARTANA...PRAY FOR YOUR DEATH is a serviceable Euro Western, and fans of the genre will appreciate it more. The next films in the series would get even wilder....and yes, I'll be covering them in this blog.


Saturday, July 7, 2018

KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES!












A few weeks ago, I traveled out to Illinois to visit my brother Robert. We visited a number of Chicago record stores, and on the way back to Robert's house we stopped at a Half Price Books, where I purchased a used copy of KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES!, one of the most famous books ever written on American science fiction films of the 1950s. (The price was only $10.)

The copy of the book that I bought was a 1997 softcover version which combined both volumes of KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES! Volume I covers the years 1950-1957, while Volume II covers 1958-1962. This truly can be called a tome, since its total length is over 1300 pages.

The volumes were originally published by McFarland in 1982 and 1986. The intent of author Bill Warren (1943-2016) was to attempt to survey every science fiction film released in America between 1950-1962.

It was in the mid-1980s as a young teenager that I really started becoming a film buff. At that time KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES! already had developed a mammoth reputation. Most of the movie magazines that I read at the time, such as STARLOG, FILMFAX, and CINEMAFANTASTIQUE, extensively quoted from it, as did just about every book on science fiction films written during the period. At that time I couldn't afford to buy KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES!, what with McFarland products being out of my price range (heck, they're still out of my price range today). I considered finding a decent used copy of the combined volumes at $10 a great deal.

But I had to wonder....how would a book on science fiction films of the 1950s, written in the 1980s, hold up in the 21st Century? Many of the movies covered in it have been restored and remastered recently on home video, and many of them have been reevaluated by several other leading genre historians. Does KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES! still have relevancy today? I have to emphatically report that it certainly does.

Warren's analysis of the many films in the book is consistently cogent and incisive, particularly when he has strong feelings about a particular entry. He can be snarky and sarcastic when he has to be, but he avoids the dopey "Golden Turkey Awards" type of criticism. (I do have to point out that Warren has plenty of non-favorites, such as John Agar, Bert I. Gordon, and Irwin Allen).

What comes across the most from the book is that Warren truly loved the genre of American science fiction films, and he appreciated the best entries of it not as a critic or a scholar, but as a fan. Warren saw many of the films covered in the book during their original theatrical release while he was a young man. I think this fact is very important--there's something to be said about seeing a film when it first came out, on the big screen, instead of watching it for the first time on home video years and years after it was made. The fact that Warren lived during the period when these films were made, and was basically the type of person these films were made for, gave him a huge advantage in analyzing the titles in their proper context.

Warren devotes several more pages to the more famous sci-fi films of the period, such as INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and FORBIDDEN PLANET. On some more obscure productions the author at times reduces his thoughts to a few paragraphs. Warren's insistence to cover all the science fiction films released in America during his chosen time causes him to include a number of titles even I've never heard of. I'm sure a few of the movies in this book have still never been properly discussed anywhere else, even in this internet age.

Thankfully for a book of this length, Warren's writing style is entertaining and and intelligent without being too overwrought. He doesn't dumb down his thoughts to the reader--he correctly assumes that anyone reading the book would probably have the same mindset and interests as himself. Many of Warren's opinions about the various films go against what is generally accepted by film buffs now. I didn't agree with all of Warren's conclusions--but that's fine. I've read so many books, magazines, and articles on classic horror and science fiction movies that by now it's refreshing to come across something on that subject that provides a different perspective.

One of Warren's main themes is that many of the science fiction movies of the 1950s displayed a no-nonsense, black & white style inspired by film noir thrillers and programs such as DRAGNET. Warren believes this was done due to budgetary as well as aesthetic reasons. Warren also points out that a 1952 re-release of KING KONG in America had a major influence on how science fiction cinema turned out over the next few years.

Having finally read my copy of KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES! all the way through, I can say that the book more than lives up to its legendary reputation. It definitely belongs in the "must have" section of every monster movie fan's personal library. The greatest compliment I can give it is that it made me want to see so many of the films it discusses all over again.


Wednesday, July 4, 2018

LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS #40





The latest issue of Richard Klemensen's magnificent LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS is available, and it continues the high standards the magazine has maintained for over forty years. LSOH is the ultimate resource when it comes to everything about Hammer Films.

LSOH #40 has an amazing fold-out cover from artist Mark Maddox, which showcases QUATERMASS AND THE PIT.





QUATERMASS AND THE PIT is the Hammer film that gets the main coverage in this issue, and it is extensively detailed and analysed by writer Bruce Hallenbeck. QUATERMASS AND THE PIT not only is one of the best Hammer films ever made, it is also one of the best science-fiction movies ever made, and every aspect of the production is touched upon. There are also interviews with Rudolph Cartier, the man who directed the Quatermass TV miniseries for the BBC, and director John Carpenter, who reveals how much the Quatermass stories have influenced his own film work.

The other Hammer film which is featured in this issue is NEVER TAKE SWEETS FROM A STRANGER, a chilling drama about child molestation. Constantine Nasr's article on the production examines its problems with the censors and the its controversial reputation. (I wrote a blog post on the film in June 2016.)

Denis Meikle contributes a fascinating look at the real genesis of Hammer Films, and there is a tribute to actress Marie Devereux. As usual with every issue of LSOH, there's impressive and atmospheric artwork throughout the pages, from the likes of Neil Vokes.

It wasn't that long ago that Richard Klemensen was musing about putting an end to LSOH. I honestly don't see how he can--the magazine seems to get better and better. The articles I've mentioned above are some of the best in LSOH history.

There's not too many monster movie magazines left, and the ones that are still around basically try to copy the old FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND. The result is the issues are filled with the same generic stills and the same generic stories about movies that have been covered to death. What I most appreciate about LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS is that every issue goes out of its way to be fresh and informative, bringing new insights into the history of English Gothic cinema.