Thursday, February 28, 2019
Shout Factory gives one of Bela Lugosi's best films of the 1940s the Blu-ray treatment with their release of THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE.
This 1943 movie from Columbia has been categorized by some as nothing more than a copy of the Universal horror style. In many ways, though, it's more notable than much of the typical Universal chillers made during the same period. For one thing, it gives Bela Lugosi a decent role as "depraved Romanian scientist" and vampire Armand Tesla. The budget and sets may have been at a B-movie level, but they were still beyond what Bela had to work with at Poverty Row studios like Monogram. THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE also throws in a werewolf in the form of Matt Willis (a poor man's Lon Chaney Jr.), and a mature, intelligent female as a heroic Van Helsing type, played by Frieda Inescort. (I was so impressed by Inescort's performance I wrote a blog post on it for a Anti-Damsel Blogathon a few years ago.)
The film also features an attractive, nightgown-clad object of Armand Tesla's desires in Nina Foch, supporting actors (and Universal veterans) such as Miles Mander, Gilbert Emery, and Billy Bevan, an impressive cemetery set, and plenty of fog-shrouded atmosphere. The climax of THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE also gives one a much better idea of what really happens to a vampire when it is exposed to the sun than Universal ever did at the time.
Overall, I consider THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE to be one of the better monster movies of the 1940s. It's not perfect--Matt Willis as Andreas the werewolf has a tendency to be somewhat hammy and dopey all at once--but with a 69-minute running time, it doesn't wear out its welcome, and instead of avoiding World War II like most horror films of the time did, it uses the conflict as an important and effective plot point.
THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE has been around on DVD from Sony for a while now. Shout Factory's Blu-ray is a bit better looking....but I wouldn't say it's outstanding. It's a tad sharper, but there's still some wear. The sound quality is much more vibrant.
The Blu-ray includes three audio commentaries. Three might sound too much for this type of movie...but I think Shout Factory realizes that since this is a black & white film that only lasts 69 minutes, they needed to have something notable to get attention from prospective buyers. Troy Howarth's talk gives a general overview of the production, and he focuses on Bela Lugosi's acting career during the 1940s. Lugosi expert Gary Don Rhodes delves deeper into the making of the film and Bela's life during his commentary. The third discussion features Lee Gambin, who spends most of the time reading from an essay he wrote concerning various 1940s werewolf films and how they relate to THE HOWLING. At times Gambin talks so fast it's hard to understand what he is saying. A trailer for the film and an extensive stills gallery is also included.
One thing I do have to mention--the picture on the back of the Blu-ray case is actually from RETURN OF THE APE MAN! Not only that, but the plot description below the picture gets a fact wrong by claiming actor Roland Varno helped stake Armand Tesla in the beginning of the film, when it was Gilbert Emery instead. Am I nitpicking here? Maybe, but I would expect a company like Shout Factory to get such things right.
Monday, February 25, 2019
My latest cheap DVD purchase is a 1955 film called THE PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES, released by American Releasing Corporation (the company that would soon become American International Pictures).
THE PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES is one of those low-budget black & white science fiction films that has a title and advertising art (see above) that's way more exciting than anything in the picture. Somewhere in California, a mysterious creature has been killing people in the water near a beach located by the Pacific College of Oceanography. We get to see the creature right away, even before the main titles. As a matter of fact, we get too good of a look at this shabby sea serpent--it reminds one of a mascot for a minor league baseball team. The creature is guarding a deposit of uranium ore that has somehow been activated into a weapon by a Professor King (Michael Whalen), who works at Pacific College. (Apparently the Professor has also caused the creature's mutation.) Scientist Ted Stevens (Kent Taylor) arrives to investigate the matter for the U.S. government. A few other killings ensue before Professor King decides to take matters into his own hands.
The biggest problem THE PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES has is that not much happens in it, other than characters talking to one another (and those characters are not very interesting). There's a subplot about how an unnamed foreign power is after the uranium deposit (this is a movie made during the Cold War, after all), but it doesn't go anywhere. The subplot does involve a batch of superfluous characters, such as Prof. King's noisy secretary and his even more suspicious-acting assistant, who is working for a slinky female spy. These folks are not developed very well, other than being very obviously shady people.
Kent Taylor is okay as Ted Stevens, but he's no Kenneth Tobey. There's an attempt at establishing a romance between Stevens and Prof. King's daughter (played by Cathy Downs, who portrayed the character referenced in the title of John Ford's classic MY DARLING CLEMENTINE), but it's dull and takes up too much screen time. The role of Professor King really needed to be played by someone like John Carradine.
If the movie does have a "highlight", it is the ending, where the Professor tries to destroy the uranium deposit (which now has the ability to blow up ships that pass over it!) and the creature. The climax is slightly reminiscent of the final sequence in the original GOJIRA (though nowhere near as accomplished from a cinematic viewpoint).
The picture was produced and edited by brothers Jack and Dan Milner; Dan Milner is credited as director. The brothers' style, at least in this production, is flat and generic.
What THE PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES does the most is make one realize how effective Roger Corman was as a filmmaker. Corman was making similar types of films at the same time, but he always found a way to make his stories memorable--through either casting, plot points, outlandish situations, etc. Looking at the poster for THE PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES is better than sitting through the whole film.
Monday, February 18, 2019
My recent post on my favorite silent movies reminded me once again how much I love Buster Keaton's THE GENERAL. I mentioned in that post how the movie is based on a real-life Civil War incident known as the Andrews Raid. In 1862 Union spy James Andrews led a group of Northern soldiers behind enemy lines into Georgia, where they attempted to wreak havoc on a railroad important to the Confederate supply line.
There was another movie based on the Andrews Raid--a 1956 film from the Walt Disney Company called THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE. After writing about THE GENERAL in my favorite silent movies post, I decided to seek out THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE and finally see it.
THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE is a fairly straightforward dramatization of the Andrews Raid. It certainly isn't meant to be a comedy like THE GENERAL, and for the most part it takes the viewpoint of Andrews and his men. Fess Parker plays James Andrews (Parker had recently become a national celebrity due to his playing Davy Crockett for Disney). The movie shows Andrews and his hand-picked men surreptitiously traveling into Georgia and preparing to steal a locomotive engine to cause damage on the Western & Atlantic Railroad between Atlanta and Chatanooga.
The story takes a bit of time before Andrews and his men steal the engine called "The General". When they finally do, they are pursued by train conductor William Fuller, played by Jeffrey Hunter. (The character of Fuller is basically the equivalent of Buster Keaton's role in THE GENERAL.) Fuller uses all the means at his disposal to chase Andrews' group, and the Northern raiders run "The General" completely out of fuel, then abandon the train and scatter. Most of the men are captured, and while some escape, others (such as Andrews himself) are executed.
THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE is very typical of the Disney Company's live action movies during the period of the 1950s. It is very well made and the story is presented quite effectively, in Technicolor and Cinemascope. The movie was filmed in various locations in North Carolina and Georgia, which gives the film an authentic feel, and actual Civil War-era trains were used. Director Francis D. Lyons keeps the story moving, especially during the chase, and notable supporting actors such as Kenneth Tobey and Slim Pickens are part of the cast. It's also rather historically accurate.
It's a good movie...but I wouldn't call it a great one. I think what hurts it the most is Fess Parker as Andrews. His low-key easygoing manner might have suited roles such as Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, but in my mind James Andrews needed to have more intensity. Parker is so mild-mannered here he seems to be taking a train trip as a tourist instead of engaging in a secret mission behind enemy lines. A sub-plot of the film has some of Andrews' men not having confidence in their leader because he'd rather avoid the Confederates instead of openly fight them. In a way you can't blame these men. In my opinion Kenneth Tobey (who plays one of the men who helps William Fuller chase "The General") would have been a much better Andrews. Jeffrey Hunter, by the way, does very well as Fuller--an ordinary man who rises to the occasion under extraordinary circumstances (just like Buster Keaton in THE GENERAL).
THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE tries very hard to be as non-political as possible. Even though the film spends most of its time dealing with Andrews and his men, William Fuller's perspective of events is shown as well, and there no sense of the story taking the side of either group. Slavery isn't even mentioned, and when Andrews does give some insight into why he is attempting this venture, he explains that it is to shorten the war and save lives. At the end of the film, while Andrews is in a Confederate prison awaiting execution, he asks for Fuller to come and see him. The man does, and Andrews tells Fuller that eventually North and South must reconcile. This scene is obviously a message to 1950s audiences about national unity, and it comes off as rather forced.
What's surprising is that the film doesn't try to sugarcoat the fate of Andrews and his men. For all the supposed importance of the raid, the Andrews group doesn't seem to cause all that much damage. The raiders don't even get to have a great climatic moment--when they run out of wood to use as fuel for "The General", they take to the hills when they spot Confederate cavalry bearing down on them. Andrews' execution is not shown, but it is established that he's not going to avoid it. The movie does show that some of Andrews' men who escaped were later awarded the Medal of Honor, but there's a muted feeling at the end of the story. I'm sure when this movie was first shown in theaters, a number of folks (particularly kids) might have considered it too downbeat.
What THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE did for me was reaffirm the brilliance of Buster Keaton. A number of scenes in the Disney film mirrored Keaton's staging very closely (minus the comic touches of course). Keaton was very smart to focus mostly on the chase and stay away from the fate of Andrews and his men. THE GENERAL, despite its humor, remains one of the greatest action-adventure movies of all time, while THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE might be too matter-of-fact for its own good.
Saturday, February 16, 2019
About a week ago, the esteemed Joshua Kennedy (writer, producer, and director of HOUSE OF THE GORGON) asked me to compile a list of my favorite silent movies. I consider this to be a worthy request, and this list will mark my 700th(!) blog post.
If you think being a classic film buff makes you something of a social misfit, that's nothing compared to having an appreciation for silent cinema. When I actually admit to watching silent movies in front of members of the general public, the usual reaction I get is akin to divulging that I've committed some heinous crime. When most folks think of "silent movies" they automatically picture a clownish-looking fellow running around very fast and throwing pies at people. The idea that there's more to silent cinema than that--much, much, more--still doesn't seem to register today...despite the fact that due to the internet and home video it is much easier to have access to silent titles now.
It's sad that so many people think of silent films as being unfashionable, or not as "properly made" as sound movies. Film is a visual medium, and great silent features are about as close to pure cinema as you can get. The term "silent film" is a bit of a misnomer--these movies were always shown with some sort of musical accompaniment. I'm sure many people-even some who consider themselves film buffs--do not watch silent movies for the simple reason that it's not a trendy 21st Century thing to do. I find such thinking ridiculous--if you worry about what other people think instead of following your own passions, you're not going to have much of a life.
I watch silent movies not because I'm trying to prove that I'm sophisticated or smart--I watch them because I truly enjoy them. A great silent film--especially one that has been restored to its proper projection speed, running time, and visual quality--has a timeless beauty and elegance to it. A lot of movie conventions that we assume were developed in the sound era were used by filmmakers 100 years ago. Many of the great silent film sequences still hold up today. To take one example, the siege sequence in the climax of the second part of Fritz Lang's DIE NIBELUNGEN still ranks as one of the greatest battles in movie history--I doubt CGI or even today's sound effects could improve upon it.
I don't want this to be a "eat your vegetables" type of rant--I sincerely believe the best way to gain an appreciation of something is to discover its positive attributes on your own, not because someone told you to like it. I do wish though that more folks who have never seen a silent film would just watch one of the classic examples of the genre and come to their own conclusions. The breadth and variety of silent cinema is astounding--there's much more to the era than just slapstick comedies and tales influenced by German Expressionism.
Now...to the list. Whenever I do one of these "Top Favorites" lists, I always go back to my Top 100 Favorite Films list I wrote a few years ago. That list included eight silent films--I'm sure most people in the world today have never seen, nor ever will see, eight silent movies in their entire lives. So those eight make up the majority of the list. I've added a ninth title, and then I'll give some other personal favorites and recommendations.
1. METROPOLIS Directed by Fritz Lang
I have this movie listed as my fifth favorite film of all time. It's also a film that has a lot of personal meaning for me. I've been fascinated by it since I first saw a very poor version of it on public TV back in the mid-1980s. It's the movie that gave me a proper appreciation for silent film. It also contains what I consider one of the greatest performances of all of cinema history: Brigitte Helm in a dual role as Maria and her artificial twin.
2. THE GENERAL Directed by Buster Keaton
I have this listed as my 8th favorite movie of all time. Buster Keaton was one of the greatest cinematic geniuses ever, and you can find no better proof of his artistry than this. All the gags here flow so smoothly, and they come off so spontaneous and natural, that you feel the story wasn't planned at all--if feels as if it's happening right in front of you. And even though this is a comedy, THE GENERAL is actually one of the most authentic Civil War movies ever made. (I've read articles about the real incident the movie is based on, and Keaton didn't really stray too far from the truth.)
3. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA Directed by Rupert Julian
The movie itself has a lot of issues--it had a very complicated production history, and the most widely known version of it today is very different than what was originally shown in theaters when it premiered--but it rates highly due to Lon Chaney's magnificent (and moving) performance.
4. SEVEN CHANCES Directed by Buster Keaton
Yes, another Keaton film, featuring one of the greatest chase sequences of all time. (I'll take Buster over Tom Cruise any day.)
5. NOSFERATU Directed by F.W. Murnau
The creepiest vampire movie ever made, with Max Schreck as the creepiest movie vampire ever.
6. DIE NIBELUNGEN Directed by Fritz Lang
A stupendous, mammoth four-plus hour-long fantasy tale, the silent movie equivalent of THE LORD OF THE RINGS.
7. SHERLOCK, JR. Directed by Buster Keaton
8. THE NAVIGATOR Directed by Buster Keaton and Donald Crisp
Yes, two more Keaton classics. Buster is definitely my favorite silent film performer of all time, and any film he made in the silent era is worthy of multiple viewings.
My favorite silent movie performer of them all: Buster Keaton
9. THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI Directed by Robert Wiene
An obvious choice, but an important one. There still hasn't been anything quite like it since it was made about 100 years ago.
Usually with a list like this I have at least ten titles. I racked my brain trying to pick a #10, but I couldn't come to a decision. So instead I'll list some personal favorites and recommendations from my home video library. I'm sure a lot of these titles will sound like the Usual Suspects of Silent Film, but I make no claim on being an expert on this genre. There are many, many people out there who know far, far more about silent cinema than I do.
Other favorites and recommendations:
More films directed by Fritz Lang: the stupendous DR. MABUSE, DESTINY, and SPIES.
Films with Louise Brooks: PANDORA'S BOX, IT'S THE OLD ARMY GAME, BEGGARS OF LIFE
World War One Films: THE BIG PARADE, WINGS
Films with Douglas Fairbanks: THE THIEF OF BAGDAD, THE BLACK PIRATE
Films with Harold Lloyd: Most know about SAFETY LAST! and THE FRESHMAN, and those are excellent....but also check out THE KID BROTHER, GRANDMA'S BOY, and SPEEDY.
Films directed by F.W. Murnau: FAUST, THE LAST LAUGH, SUNRISE
Films directed by John Ford: THE IRON HORSE, FOUR SONS
Films with Lon Chaney: Just about all of Chaney's collaborations with Tod Browning are interesting, especially THE UNKNOWN and THE UNHOLY THREE. I also recommend THE PENALTY. The Chaney THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME is worth watching only for his performance--the scenes in which he doesn't appear are rather dull.
Films directed by Paul Leni: THE CAT AND THE CANARY, THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, WAXWORKS
Serials directed by Louis Feuillade: FANTOMAS, LES VAMPIRES
Films directed by Josef von Sternberg: THE LAST COMMAND, UNDERWORLD
Various other fantastic silent films: THE GOLEM, THE MAGICIAN, THE LOST WORLD, HAXAN
Alfred Hitchcock's THE LODGER
Films directed by Abel Gance: J'ACCUSE! and of course the superlative NAPOLEON (unfortunately I have not yet seen the newest restored version of this film that has been released on home video overseas).
The cinematic works of George Melies.
What about Charlie Chaplin? I certainly respect the man and his work...but honestly, I think Buster Keaton, and even Harold Lloyd, were more innovative. My favorite Chaplin film is THE GOLD RUSH.
And what about D.W. Griffith? Yes, he's an important figure in the history of the cinema...but I find his films rather hard to get through. (And no, it has nothing to do with political correctness.) I've also learned over and over again through silent film experts in print and on the internet that many of the innovations that Griffith is credited with having invented had already been established by other filmmakers.
Many of the titles I have just mentioned are in public domain, and can be viewed on YouTube....but if you really want to watch these films the way they were meant to be seen, you need to find their official releases on home video. Kino by far is the best company when it comes to silent movie releases. Flicker Alley and Criterion are noteworthy for the genre as well.
Monday, February 11, 2019
THE FACE OF TERROR (aka LA CARA DEL TERROR) is a 1962 Spanish-American co-production, filmed in Spain, that belongs to the "horribly disfigured woman who undergoes ground-breaking plastic surgery with tragic results" mini-genre. Other films in this grouping include EYES WITHOUT A FACE, ATOM AGE VAMPIRE, and CORRUPTION.
Lisa Gaye, the lookalike younger sister of Debra Paget, plays Norma Worden, a mentally disturbed young woman who suffers from having half her face covered with horrid burn damage. Norma is a patient at a facility called the Institute for Neuro-Science when she overhears a Dr. Charles Taylor (Fernando Rey) ask permission of the Institute's board to use one of the patients as a subject for a brand new plastic surgery procedure. The board turns down Dr. Taylor's request, but Norma stows away in the doctor's car, and during the night enters his home and begs him to operate on her face. Taylor (not knowing that Norma is a mental patient) agrees, and the operation appears to be a success. Taylor finds out about Norma's escape from the Institute and tries to call the authorities, but Norma knocks him out, steals the money in his wallet, and takes off in his car. Norma buys herself some new clothes and makeup and travels to a nearby town, getting a job as a waitress at a swanky hotel and hoping to start a new life. But her new beauty just gets her into more trouble--and the bottle of restorative fluid she must regularly use to prevent the surgery on her face from breaking down won't last forever.
THE FACE OF TERROR is discussed in such books as Jonathan Rigby's EURO GOTHIC and FORGOTTEN HORRORS VOL. 9. Despite this fact the movie seems to me more like a over-the-top soap opera instead of a true horror film. THE FACE OF TERROR is in black & white, and there's no gore, other than the hideous makeup job on Lisa Gaye's face (which is hard to see all that clearly on the very soft print of the movie I viewed on YouTube). We are informed that Norma is a manic depressive with paranoid tendencies, but other than knocking out Dr. Taylor after the surgery, she seems to want to actually try and live a normal life. What drives her over the edge are the unwanted attentions of a randy guest at the hotel she finds work at, a man who happens to be a rich playboy, and the hotel manager, who tries to blackmail her into a relationship when he finds out who she really is. (Norma winds up dispatching both men.) Lisa Gaye gives a very strong performance as Norma--I assume she took on a role like this as a way to prove she was more than just a very, very pretty face.
Lisa Gaye in THE FACE OF TERROR
The rest of the cast appear to be Spanish actors speaking English (some of them are obviously dubbed). Even Lisa Gaye seems to be reciting her lines with a slight Spanish accent. Even with everyone speaking English and having English-sounding names, the movie is no doubt set in Spain, which makes the story a weird hybrid.
The version of the movie I watched had a William J. Hole credited as the director. EURO GOTHIC lists a Isidoro M. Ferry as director, and a American named Monroe Manning as screenwriter. Jonathan Rigby writes that Manning was a veteran television writer, and THE FACE OF TERROR has the style and story structure of a hour-long TV drama. (One has to wonder--was Manning's script rejected for an American TV show?) The movie runs about 80 minutes, but it has a lot of padding to it. There's two different musical numbers set at the hotel that Norma works at, and there's numerous "police procedure" scenes in which bland detectives puzzle over events that we have already seen depicted (police procedure sequences are the bane of 1950s-60s horror and science fiction films). The viewer wants to know what Norma is doing, and how she is going to get out of her predicament--yet the movie constantly cuts away from her.
One expects THE FACE OF TERROR to be a lurid exploitative thriller, but it plays more like a crazy episode of THE OUTER LIMITS. It is worth seeing for Lisa Gaye's performance.
Wednesday, February 6, 2019
In my tribute post to Julie Adams, I mentioned that instead of being known for just one classic monster movie, she should probably be remembered for the many Western films and TV episodes she appeared in. At the very beginning of her screen acting career, she starred in a series of low budget Westerns made by the Lippert production company, and she continued in the genre after signing a contract with Universal in the early Fifties.
Universal made a number of Westerns throughout the decade of the 1950s. The most famous of them starred James Stewart and were directed by Anthony Mann. Other notable directors such as Raoul Walsh and Budd Boetticher worked on the series, and many talented actors appeared in them such as Maureen O'Hara, Audie Murphy, Glenn Ford, Jeff Chandler, Dorothy Malone, Lee Van Cleef, and Lee Marvin. The Universal Fifties Westerns were not big-budget productions, but most of them were colorful, entertaining adventures, and the studio often used them as a chance to showcase new talent.
One of the best Westerns Julie Adams starred in while under contract with Universal is HORIZONS WEST, a 1952 outing directed by Budd Boetticher. The movie stars acclaimed actor Robert Ryan, who brings his trademark dynamic intensity to the role of Dan Hammond, a disgruntled Confederate Army veteran who wants to get rich quick after the end of the Civil War.
The story starts as Dan, his brother Neil (Rock Hudson), and their friend Tiny (James Arness) are riding back home after the end of the war. The three are headed to the Hammond family ranch, and on the way they stop at nearby Austin, Texas, which has become something of a boom town. Dan, disappointed in the outcome of the war, starts thinking about financial opportunities in Austin--especially when he sees a well-dressed beautiful woman ride by in a fancy carriage. Dan finds out that her name is Lorna Hardin (Julie Adams), and that she is the wife of local bigwig Cord Hardin (Raymond Burr).
Dan tries to go back to work on the family ranch along with Neil and Tiny, but his heart isn't in it--he wants more than just peaceful country living. He borrows money to enter a high-stakes poker game fronted by Cord, but he loses and is embarrassed when he cannot cover his losses. This just makes Dan even more ambitious. He organizes a local group of stragglers and deserters from the war and leads them on cattle raids throughout the countryside, then selling the stolen beef south of the border. Dan makes the money he desperately wants, but he also arouses suspicion, particularly from Cord, who has lost several of his stock. Cord tries to browbeat Neil to get to the truth, but Lorna tells Dan in time for him to come to his brother's rescue. (Lorna and Dan have developed feelings for one another.) A scuffle ensues, in which Dan kills Cord in self-defense. Dan avoids being charged for murder, and his quest for power continues to grow. Dan and his personal army become even more vicious than Cord ever was, leading Neil and his father (John McIntire) to try and put a stop to it all.
The Westerns that Budd Boetticher directed for Universal don't get near as much attention as the ones he made with Randolph Scott. HORIZONS WEST deserves a look due to the fact that the main character winds up being the bad guy. If HORIZONS WEST were made today one assumes that the subject of post-traumatic stress disorder would be brought up to explain Dan Hammond's overriding ambition. The movie does hint that Dan's Civil War experience has changed him, but it's not a major factor in the story. Robert Ryan had played several tough guy characters during this period, so maybe the audience was supposed to expect Dan to act in such a bold manner. Ryan doesn't rant and rave, but he makes the viewer well aware of the simmering emotions inside him. A strong, forceful performer like Ryan was perfect for the role of Dan Hammond.
Julie Adams poses next to a magnificent portrait of her character on the set of HORIZONS WEST
Julie Adams doesn't have a very large role as Lorna, but one can say that she is the impetus for the entire plot, since Dan Hammond's desire for the good life stems from seeing her at the beginning of the story. The role of Lorna is a bit of a departure for Julie from her usual nice girl roles of this time. Lorna isn't exactly a bad person, but it's clear she enjoys being a rich, powerful man's wife, even though she doesn't love her screen husband. (Lorna tells Dan that she thought marrying the rich Cord would solve her problems, but she grew to hate her husband's cruelty--the irony is that Dan winds up being a cruel person himself.) Julie looks fantastic in her period finery (of course she would look good in anything), and she's quite seductive when she turns on the charm for Dan.
Another reason HORIZONS WEST is notable is due to the many familiar faces in the supporting cast. Rock Hudson gets the nice guy role as brother Neil (he and Julie Adams had already appeared together in the excellent Universal Western BEND OF THE RIVER). John McIntire (who spent several years playing middle-aged men) and Aunt Bee herself, Frances Bavier, play the Hammond parents, and Dennis Weaver is the top man in Dan's gang. I've already mentioned James Arness and Raymond Burr, and Universal Monster fans will be interested to know that none other than Mae Clarke has a very, very small role (unfortunately she doesn't get to share the screen with Julie).
HORIZONS WEST is a well-made, fast-paced Western tale featuring many impressive actors.
Monday, February 4, 2019
The passing of Julie Adams is a truly sad event for many film buffs. As anyone who met her can attest, she was a gracious individual who went out of her way to treat anyone who approached her feel special.
I met Julie Adams at the 2014 Summer Monster Bash Conference. She was as nice as a person could be. My main regret is that I really didn't get a lot of time to talk to her, because there were so many people gathered around her table and I didn't want to be "that guy" who takes way too much of her time.
Julie Adams will always be remembered for THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, which is a bit unfair. She had a long and very accomplished acting career, in which she worked with the likes of John Wayne, James Stewart, Tyrone Power, Charlton Heston, Rock Hudson, Glenn Ford, and even Elvis Presley. She also guest-starred in most of the more remembered classic TV shows of the period. It was television that gave her a chance to show off her acting range. The majority of her film roles were "nice girl" parts, but TV allowed her to play duplicitous characters on such shows as THE RIFLEMAN, BONANZA, and THE BIG VALLEY.
I've often wondered why Julie Adams never became a major, major star. She certainly had the looks and the dramatic talent to be one (I'd venture to say she was one of the most beautiful American actresses of the 1950s). It may have been due to the fact that after her contract with Universal ended in the late Fifties, she focused on starting a family and spent more time appearing on television. I personally believe that her kind demeanor might have had something to do with it as well--the entertainment industry is a tough business. (In her autobiography THE LUCKY SOUTHERN STAR--REFLECTIONS FROM THE BLACK LAGOON she literally doesn't have a bad word to say about anyone.)
Like so many other people, I first became aware of Julie Adams through THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. It was basically another of her "nice girl" roles, but she made a definite impression. Any one who has seen BLACK LAGOON can fully understand why Richard Carlson, Richard Denning, and the Creature fight over her. It's surprising that Universal didn't put her in more horror/science fiction pictures (if there is any movie genre that Julie should be associated with, it's the Western). Despite BLACK LAGOON being somewhat of an exception in her overall career, she became forever known as a Scream Queen.
Many other performers would have rebelled against that label but Julie Adams wound up accepting it with class and style. It was a privilege to have met her, and I sincerely hope she knew how untold numbers of monster kid fans felt about her.
Sunday, February 3, 2019
The great cult movie character actor Dick Miller passed away earlier this week. If you are reading this blog, I assume you know who he was. Starting with his association with producer-director Roger Corman in the 1950s, Miller appeared in all sorts of low-budget horror, science-fiction, and exploitation films, often only having a few scenes. The thing is, Miller didn't just make an appearance--he always grabbed the viewer's attention, no matter how small the part.
Miller usually played ordinary guys--everyman characters who actually worked for a living, such as store proprietors, policemen, blue collar fellows, etc. His reaction to the situations he encountered in the various wild & wacky movies he was involved in was very much how one would expect regular folks to react. Miller had a definite screen presence, a kind of swagger, that made him stand out.
That screen presence and swagger was something Miller showed a lot of in one of his very few leading roles--a 1957 Roger Corman production called ROCK ALL NIGHT.
According to Corman's autobiography HOW I MADE A HUNDRED MOVIES IN HOLLYWOOD AND NEVER LOST A DIME, American-International Pictures wanted to take advantage of the rock and roll craze, and asked Corman to make a quick movie featuring it. Corman had seen a half-hour TV show set in a bar, and impressed with its story, decided to buy the rights to it and add rock and roll music. Corman hired Charles Griffith (who would later write BUCKET OF BLOOD and THE LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS) to do the screenplay.
The movie begins in a swanky nightclub (well, swanky for a 1950s Roger Corman picture). We see the Platters perform two numbers, and then a somewhat moody fellow (Dick Miller) starts a fight with one of the patrons. The fellow, who is referred to as "Shorty", gets thrown out, so he goes to another, lower-class establishment, where a young would-be singer (Abby Dalton) is having an audition. Various other characters wander into the place--a working class stiff and his smart-aleck dame, a disgruntled boxer and his wife and manager, a not-too-successful newspaper reporter, and a low-level thug who gets protection money from the complaining bartender. A man runs into the place in a panic, having seen a murder--and then he realizes that the murderers (Russell Johnson and Jonathan Haze) are sitting at the bar. A standoff ensues, where Shorty goes out of his way to get on the nerves of the criminals (and everyone else, for that matter).
Roger Corman is quoted as saying that ROCK ALL NIGHT was shot in seven days. The story takes place in only a few sets, and despite the fact that the cinematographer was the esteemed Floyd Crosby, the movie is shot in a very perfunctory manner. Even the musical sequences with the Platters and a Bill Haley-soundalike band called the Blockbusters are nothing special. Ironically for a movie that existed to take advantage of the teenage rock and roll craze, every character in it (except for Abby Dalton) looks over the age of 30.
A few of these characters, however, are quite interesting, mainly because they are given life by many members of Corman's stock company at the time, such as Barboura Morris, Ed Nelson, Bruno Ve Sota, and Beach Dickerson. Long time Corman associate Mel Welles plays a self-proclaimed musical agent/impresario named Sir Bop, and the pseudo-hip dialogue he spouts courtesy of Charles Griffith is a highlight. (Dick Miller's Shorty puts Sir Bop in his place by telling him to act his age.)
Russell Johnson and Jonathan Haze in particular make an impression as the two criminals on the lam. Johnson's Jigger has an almost Cagney-style toughness to him, even though it's a bit disconcerting to see the Professor from GILLIGAN'S ISLAND as a desperate hood. Jonathan Haze's Joey is the junior member of the duo, a nervy, twitchy guy who Shorty automatically sizes up as a weakling.
Dick Miller and Russell Johnson in ROCK ALL NIGHT
It's Dick Miller, though, who carries the film as Shorty. We get absolutely no background on the man--this movie is only an hour long, with several musical numbers--so we don't know why he has such a negative attitude, other than his stature. Has he fallen on hard times? Is he without a job? (He doesn't look too down-and-out, and he seems to have enough money for alcohol.) Whatever the reasons for Shorty's attitude, he manages to psychoanalyze every person in the bar, and force them to face their own inhibitions. (He even solves Abby Dalton's stage fright!) I found Dick Miller's performance (and Charles Griffith's script) fascinating. In a "bigger" picture Shorty would be just a supporting role, a pain-in-the-ass sitting at a bar--but here he becomes the only honest man in the joint, and he becomes the moral conscience of the story. Despite all the other supposed tough guys gathered in the bar, it's Shorty who faces down Jigger and Joey and forces them to surrender. Shorty even gets a bit of a happy ending--he goes off to see KING KONG with Abby Dalton's character!
ROCK ALL NIGHT features one of Dick Miller's best performances. The movie may have been set up to take advantage of a fad, but it becomes a very good slice-of-life drama due to Roger Corman's sense in letting the script and the actors involved carry the load. I have to imagine, though, that teenyboppers who went and saw this movie when it first came out were probably disappointed.
Saturday, February 2, 2019
THE GORILLA, produced in 1939, is actually the third film made by 20th Century Fox with that title. All three versions were based on a stage play by Ralph Spence. The first two cinematic adaptations were made in 1927 and 1930, and they are now considered lost.
The 1939 version is notable for the appearances of Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill, but their roles are rather small. As you can see in the poster above, the duo are billed below the female leads and the Ritz Brothers, who are (unfortunately) the real stars of the film.
Ralph Spence's original play of THE GORILLA was one of the many "old dark house" mystery thrillers of the 1920s such as THE BAT and THE CAT AND THE CANARY. The play had two bumbling detective characters, and for the 1939 film version Fox added another to facilitate the casting of the Ritz Brothers. (Paramount would do something similar the same year when they cast Bob Hope in a new version of THE CAT AND THE CANARY, but of course Hope would wind up being much more successful than the Ritz Brothers.) The studio added more to the comic element of the story by having Patsy Kelly play a frightened wisecracking maid.
The 1939 version of THE GORILLA begins with a rather effective montage of newspaper clippings and quickly edited shots which chart the crimes of a murderous fiend called (what else) "The Gorilla". (This is actually the most exciting sequence in the picture.) The scene then shifts to the obligatory large, old, dark rambling house, the home of financier Walter Stevens (Lionel Atwill). Stevens, who has been involved in some questionable deals, receives a threat in a note from the murderer that he is to be the Gorilla's next victim. Stevens hires three men from the Acme Detective Agency (the Ritz Brothers) as "protection". He also calls for his niece (Anita Louise) and her fiancee (Edward Norris). The typical creepy old house antics ensue, with secret passageways, a hidden safe, stormy & rainy weather, characters acting suspiciously, and a "real" gorilla (actually a guy in a gorilla costume).
Bela Lugosi plays Walter Stevens' butler Peters, and he doesn't get much to do, other than give the rest of the cast the willies whenever he enters a room. Lugosi really doesn't do anything menacing--he spends most of the movie with a benign smile on his face--but because he's Bela, the audience is supposed to suspect he is up to something. Lugosi would spend the next decade playing way too many suspicious servants in movies, to the consternation of his present-day fans. The role enacted in this movie by Joseph Calleia--that of a mysterious stranger who sneaks his way into Stevens' house and winds up having a major impact on the plot--is the part Bela should have played.
Lionel Atwill doesn't get to do much either, mainly because his character winds up missing for most of the film. But because he's Lionel, one assumes that Walter Stevens has some secrets of his own, especially when it is revealed that Stevens and his niece are co-heirs to a family fortune, and if one of them happens to die, the other gets all the money. Anita Louise and Edward Norris thankfully don't take up too much screen time as the bland young romantic couple--their characters have an almost negligible effect on the plot.
As stated before, this is really a Ritz Brothers picture, and your enjoyment of it will depend on how you feel about them. The best way I can describe the Ritz Brothers is that they were a weaker version of the Three Stooges. The main difference is that while the Stooges each had distinct looks and personalities, the Ritz Brothers look and sound almost exactly alike. They act as dopey and silly as possible, but they don't come off as very funny. There's a reason the Ritz Brothers are nowhere near as famous as most of the other movie comic teams of the same period--they're just not very amusing. They spend a lot of time here yelling and screaming, as does Patsy Kelly, who was basically known for her loud behavior. The cumulative voice gyrations tend to get on one's nerves.
THE GORILLA does have some very brief atmospheric scenes, such as the one where the "real" gorilla carries off Anita Louise and climbs to the roof of the house with her (the scene however doesn't last long enough to take advantage of the situation). Director Allan Dwan uses a fair amount of expressionistic close-ups, particularly of the gorilla costume (which was not worn by Charles Gemora--it was worn by a man named Art Miles). Because this was made at a major studio like 20th Century Fox, the sets representing the Stevens home are very impressive, and they are photographed extremely well in black & white by cinematographer Edward Cronjager.
THE GORILLA only runs about 66 minutes, and this means at least the story does not drag. It's not a terrible film, but it's another example of a production that does not make the most effective use of performers such as Lugosi and Atwill. The double-twist ending (which I won't reveal here) might though pleasantly surprise classic horror film star fans.