Sunday, January 31, 2021



This is the paperback edition of Alan K. Rode's much-needed biography of one of the greatest film directors of all time. 

The Hungarian-born Michael Curtiz had a prolific and incredible movie career. His name is attached to some of the most famous movies ever made, and he directed all sorts of stories from all sorts of genres. If one wants an example of his versatility, consider these three films: DOCTOR X, MILDRED PIERCE, and WHITE CHRISTMAS. All three of these pictures are as different from each other as they can possibly be--yet Curtiz directed all of them. 

Alan K. Rode presents a detailed and extensive look at Curtiz and the movies he made. The author details Curtiz's European film career (which included dozens of movies before he even came to America in the late 1920s), the beginning of his long and successful tenure at Warner Bros., and his attempts to form his own production company after WWII. 

Rode examines Curtiz's notorious work effort (before the rise of Hollywood unions, the director would work casts and crews all day and all night), and the myriad tales of the Hungarian's problems with the English language. Curtiz's complex relationships with Jack Warner and producer Hal B. Wallis are analyzed, and Rode reveals that the director had much more impact on the scripts he filmed than is naturally assumed. There's a fact-based investigation into the urban legends that charge Curtiz with mistreatment of actors and animals. 

Rode also covers Curtiz's complicated personal life--despite the man's mammoth work schedule, he still found time to have multiple out-of-wedlock children by multiple women, and he carried on affairs with young starlets up to the end of his long life. 

This is a massive book, which is understandable--the author claims that Curtiz directed 181 films. But it is a fast-paced narrative, due to Rode's straightforward and concise writing style. A complete Curtiz filmography is included, along with a number of behind-the-scenes photos from various films. 

This is an absolutely outstanding biography. Film buffs will certainly devour it, as the book is also a mini-history of the American film industry, covering the transition from silents to sound, the Pre-Code era, the height of Hollywood in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and the breakdown of the studio system in the 1950s. Most importantly it gives Michael Curtiz some major attention. As Rode points out in the book's introduction, Curtiz is nowhere near as well-known as other great Hollywood directors such as Capra, Ford, and Hawks. This book changes that by getting away from the caricature of Curtiz as a hard-driving, English mangling martinet, and presenting him as a talented and creative artist whose work continues to make an impact on popular culture. 

Friday, January 29, 2021



Joshua Kennedy's latest opus, COWGIRLS VS PTERODACTYLS, was officially premiered last week in his hometown of Edinburg, Texas. The movie will soon be available on Blu-ray from Amazon. 

COWGIRLS is set in Texas, 1864, where numerous sightings of large, strange bird-like creatures have been reported. The creatures are actually pterodactyls, and one of them flies off with the husband of a prim schoolteacher (Madelyn Wiley). She enlists the help of a down-and-out gunfighter (Carmen Vienhage) and a bordello madam (Haley Zega) to track down the beasts and bring back her beloved. 

If you are familiar with the work of Joshua Kennedy, you'll probably know what you're in for with COWGIRLS. It's an endearingly goofy story that is fun and entertaining, with plenty of references to various classic films. There's almost a Tarantino-like vibe here, with welcome narration by Josh's eternal muse, Martine Beswicke, and plenty of on-screen text. The excellent stop-motion animation of Ryan Lengyel gives life to the pterodactyls, and a newly-born creature in particular almost does a Grogu in stealing the film. 

The three leading ladies are all Gooey Films veterans, and they come off much better when they are able to interact with one another. The performer who makes the biggest impact is Dani Thompson, who plays a mysterious outlaw (this character should be given her own film). 

Reber Clark, who provided the music for Josh's HOUSE OF THE GORGON, does the honors again here. His rousing score emulates the Hollywood Western themes from the 1950s and 60s, and it elevates the entire production. (The music can be listened to by itself from an isolated score track on the Blu-ray.) 

What really sets this release apart from Josh's other films is that he has provided important extras on this Blu-ray. There's a 50 minute "making of" program that goes into detail on not only how Josh put (and re-put) the film together, it also reveals the many difficulties he went through during a production that literally took years. Josh also provides an audio commentary where he expands upon the making-of feature, and gives insights into his personal film making style and creative techniques. Both extras are fascinating, and show what exactly a young, low budget director like Josh has to go through to achieve his vision. These extras are quite entertaining in themselves, and must be experienced, especially by those who are fans of Josh's work. 

The magnificent cover art for the COWGIRLS Blu-ray is by the award-winning Mark Maddox. 

I personally know what Josh went through to complete this film, and once you see it, and go through the extras on this Blu-ray, you'll be amazed--like I was--that he got it finished at all. Hopefully one day Josh will have the budget--and the time--that matches his mammoth creativity and ingenuity. 

*For more information on when this Blu-ray, and Reber Clark's music score is available, please follow the Joshua Kennedy--Man of the Arts Facebook page. 

Monday, January 25, 2021



I'm currently reading Alan K. Rode's mammoth biography of film director Michael Curtiz. It's a fascinating book, and a long-overdue examination of a filmmaker that never seems to get the attention he deserves. 

One of the revelatory parts of the biography is the coverage of Curtiz's movie career during the silent era in Europe, before he came to the United States. Curtiz started making films in Hungary, but he left during that country's political upheaval right after WWI. He wound up in Austria, where his films became more epic in scope. 

One of the major films Curtiz made during his European period was YOUNG MEDARDUS, a 1923 historical epic that deals with events happening in the city of Vienna in 1809. It is one of the very few silent films Curtiz directed that is available on YouTube with English captions. 

YOUNG MEDARDUS concerns Medardus Klahr (Victor Varconi, here billed as Michael Varkonyi), a young Austrian who wants to resist the forces of Napoleon from taking over his country. Medardus' sister Agathe is in love with the son of the Duke of Valois. The Valois family are aristocratic exiles from France, and the Duke does not believe that Agathe is worthy of his son. Rather than be forced apart, Agathe and the Duke's son commit suicide, and Medardus plots revenge by seducing the Duke's daughter Helene (Agnes Esterhazy). Helene also wants revenge for her brother's death, and she and Medardus wind up having a love-hate relationship. The Valois family believes they have a claim to the French throne, and Helene plots to have Napoleon assassinated. As the French conquer Austria, Medardus and Helene both meet a tragic fate. 

The print of YOUNG MEDARDUS that I viewed on YouTube was mediocre, lacking sharpness and clarity, with background details hard to make out. Nevertheless, it still gave the impression of a very expensive feature, with opulent sets, hundreds of extras, and much location shooting. There was plenty of historical pageantry on display, and numerous well-staged battle scenes. 

There are a number of original running times given for YOUNG MEDARDUS, but all of them are over two hours. The print I saw ran 101 minutes, and while I was able to follow the story for the most part, I did get the sense that some scenes were missing. During the battle sequences near the end, there are almost no intertitles that tell what is going on, and all the various shots of soldiers fighting one another do not have much of an impact without any context to put them in. 

The battle scenes also put Medardus and Helene off to the side--it's as if the movie has forgotten about them. The overall story also has a very stodgy quality to it (the characters seem like figures in a vast painting instead of real people). It has to be stated that a full-length, technically restored version of this film would probably play quite differently. 

This truncated version of YOUNG MEDARDUS did show me that Michael Curtiz (who was using the name Michael Kertesz during this period) was already a very accomplished director at this time. The camera doesn't move here, but in his staging of shot compositions, Curtiz constantly tries to bring some visual flair to the proceedings. The director would return to historical costume drama many times while he worked in Hollywood, most notably with actor Errol Flynn. 

It would be wonderful if Kino or a similar company could release a restored YOUNG MEDARDUS for the American market. I'm going to try and find more silent films Curtiz directed on the internet, and I will be writing a full blog post on the Rode biography once I have finished reading it. 

Sunday, January 17, 2021



This is the very first film adaptation of Curt Siodmak's science-fiction novel DONOVAN'S BRAIN. The movie was made by Republic Pictures and released in 1944. Siodmak was not involved in the production, which was directed by Western veteran George Sherman. 

In a spooky castle-like building (which is called...."The Castle") somewhere in Arizona, a determined man named Professor Mueller (Erich von Stroheim) is experimenting with ways to keep a brain alive and functioning after the death of its body. Luckily for Mueller, a small plane crashes in the area, and he sends his assistant Dr. Patrick Cory (Richard Arlen) to help any survivors. Only one man is still alive, and Cory takes him back to the castle. With the man near death, Mueller takes the opportunity to remove his brain and keep it going. At first Cory is against the procedure, but he soon becomes as obsessed as Mueller in keeping the brain alive. The brain actually belongs to a notorious tycoon named William Donovan, and it soon starts to communicate and take control of Cory. Cory's girlfriend Janice (Vera Hruba Ralston), who is also assisting Mueller, wants the experiment to end, but Mueller refuses. Things come to a head when Cory regains control of himself. 

THE LADY AND THE MONSTER is a title that has very little to do with the plot of the film. It was probably used as a way to give the film a more Gothic flavor, as was the casting of Erich von Stroheim and the use of a dreary castle as the main setting. Professor Mueller's laboratory inside the castle wouldn't be out of place in a Universal chiller, and he has a elderly housekeeper who keeps snooping around.  Cinematographer John Alton gets plenty of chances to indulge in some atmospheric black & white photography, and he also uses harsh lightning on Richard Arlen's face when he is being "possessed" by Donovan's brain.  

The Gothic elements do not mix too well with the second half of the film, where Arlen travels to Los Angeles to engage in some financial misdeeds under the control of the brain. These scenes take place in brightly lit, spacious offices, and Arlen, while under the brain's influence, acts as surly as possible. (I much prefer Lew Ayers' more nuanced performance of the Cory character in the 1953 adaptation of the story, DONOVAN'S BRAIN.) At nearly 90 minutes, the story tends to drag a bit when von Stroheim and the castle location is not involved. 

The Lady of the title is played by Vera Hruba Ralston, a Czech ice-skater who was being groomed by Republic head Herbert Yates to become a movie star--mainly because she had a personal relationship with Yates. Ralston is certainly attractive, but she's not the most expressive performer in the world. There's a suggestion that Mueller has designs on her, but this never goes anywhere. Ralston not only gets top billing, she gets billed before the title! One wonders what someone like Evelyn Ankers could have done with the role. 

The best thing about THE LADY AND THE MONSTER is Erich von Stroheim, who gives Mueller a limp and a personality that seems more from the 1800s than the mid-20th Century. The scenes of Mueller and his castle don't quite mix with the sequences of Arlen in the modern world dealing with lawyers and bankers. The movie also has a narration that feels contrived, and a climax that could have been handled much better. I still believe that the best film version of this story is the 1953 DONOVAN'S BRAIN. 

Thursday, January 14, 2021

CD Review: THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY Original Soundtrack Expanded Edition


I've mentioned on this blog and on Facebook several times how the very first movie soundtrack I ever bought was for THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY. That purchase was on audio cassette, and I've bought it many times since, including a vinyl re-release just last summer. 

Now, Quartet Records, a company specializing in soundtrack releases, has released the GBU score again--but this time in a 3-CD set, that, for the very first time, includes every single music note from the actual film. 

The entire music for the film is on the first two discs of this set, arranged in roughly the chronology of the movie. Disc Two also has 20 alternate tracks--and for Ennio Morricone fans, this is the equivalent of finding the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

Disc Three is a re-creation of the original soundtrack album, which, ironically, only ran a little over a half an hour. All the music on the discs have been remastered from the original recording sessions, and the sound is consistently excellent throughout. 

A 24-page booklet is included as well, which features stills from the film, and a discussion of the score, with several quotes from Ennio Morricone and Clint Eastwood. 

The track listings on the back of the disc case are the Italian titles of the themes (for example, "The Ecstasy of Gold" is "L'estasi dell'oro"). All together, this set contains almost three hours of music. 

There have been plenty of versions of the GBU soundtrack released over the years (as well as plenty of versions of the movie), but I have to say that this may be the definitive one. (I know vinyl enthusiasts won't be happy that it's CD only, but...oh well.) I ordered my copy from Screen Archives Entertainment. 

This is one of the best tributes that the late maestro Ennio Morricone could have--his most famous score, complete and sounding better than ever. 

Sunday, January 10, 2021



VALLEY OF THE ZOMBIES is a 1946 thriller from Republic Pictures, a company best known for their Western movies. I saw it for the first time last night, and while it's not a great film by any means, it is a cut above similar product made by the likes of Monogram and PRC. 

Veteran character actor Ian Keith stars as the magnificently named Ormand Murks, a self-described "strange man". Murks, an undertaker, theorized that by constant blood transfusions, one could achieve immortality. The ghoulish guy has managed to cheat death, but he needs more blood, which he gets through theft from a local doctor's office. Murks winds up killing the doctor, but the man's associate, Dr. Terry Evans (Robert Livingston) and nurse Susan Drake (Adrian Booth) investigate and hunt the fiend down. 

The title of the film refers to the place where Murks says he discovered the secret of life after death. We never get to see that place, nor do we get to see any valleys, or zombies. Most of the story takes place in urban settings. Nevertheless the movie does have some atmospheric moments, and, at only 56 minutes, it moves along fairly quickly. Director Phillip Ford (nephew of John Ford!!) even manages to inject some visual vitality here and there. 

Ian Keith makes the biggest mark as the creepy Murks. Despite the tale being in a contemporary setting, Murks is decked out as if he's a villain from a Victorian melodrama. Keith also plays it as if he's hamming it up on a vaudeville stage, which is just as well--without his blood and thunder the movie would have suffered. Murks also has a strong vampiric aspect to him--at one point he puts the heroine under his control. That's rather fitting, as Keith was one of the actors up for the role of the Count in Universal's 1931 DRACULA. It's surprising Keith didn't play more roles like Murks, as his acting style is quite suited to poverty row horror. 

In a movie such as this, the "normal" romantic leading couple are usually nothing but a drag. Robert Livingston and Adrian Booth, however, manage to come off as natural and likable, and they bring off the supposed humorous dialogue exchanges very well (even though there's still too many of them). Adrian Booth also appeared in a number of famous movie serials under the name of Lorna Gray. Booth has a lot more charisma that the usual low-budget scream queen. 

I don't believe that VALLEY OF THE ZOMBIES has ever had a major home video release, but it deserves one, along with an audio commentary. I found the movie far more watchable than the many "so bad it's good" cheap 1940s horror movies it has been compared to. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

THE 39 STEPS (1959)


The 1959 version of THE 39 STEPS was the first remake of Alfred Hitchcock's famous 1935 spy tale. It is also proof that unnecessary remakes are not just a 21st Century phenomenon. 

This version, a British production directed by Ralph Thomas, is based on the screenplay for the 1935 version, not the John Buchan novel. It changes a few things (none for the better), but a number of scenes and lines of dialogue are exactly the same--except they are not acted or directed as well. 

This THE 39 STEPS is far too leisurely and lighthearted. Kenneth More plays Richard Hannay, an ordinary fellow who inadvertently gets involved in a deadly espionage plot. His attempts to prove his innocence on a murder charge lead him to Scotland, where he winds up attached to woman who doesn't trust or believe him (Taina Elg). 

Kenneth More's Hannay doesn't act like a fellow who is on the run and wanted on a murder charge--he seems to act like he's out on a lark. This THE 39 STEPS is in color, and most of the scenes are brightly lit or in the daytime. There's no sense of menace or danger, and the movie sorely misses Hitchcock's dark wit. 

Finnish actress Taina Elg plays the role memorably filled by Madeleine Carroll in the 1935 version. Elg's character is supposed to be a prim English schoolteacher, but her native accent keeps slipping through. She also doesn't have the chemistry with More that Carroll did with Robert Donat. 

There's a number of quirky British character actors here, such as Duncan Lamont and Sid James, and there's some nice Scottish country locations, but this is a film that didn't need to be made. The Hitchcock version of the story is still by far the best. 

Monday, January 4, 2021

Barbara Shelley (1932-2021)


2021 is not starting off too well, with news of the death of English actress Barbara Shelley. 

Shelley, who was born Barbara Kowin, appeared in eight different movies for Hammer Films, and had major roles in seven of them--more than any actress had for the company. She was also, in my opinion, the best overall actress to ever work for Hammer. Her intelligence, maturity, and versatility enabled her to play all sorts of roles, from a decidedly non-glamorous Englishwoman trying to survive a horrid Japanese POW camp in THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND to an alien-possessed scientific researcher in QUATERMASS AND THE PIT. She co-starred with both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (a fact she was very proud of).

She also appeared in non-Hammer horror/science-fiction films such as CAT GIRL, BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE, and the original VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED. 

Shelley started out as a fashion model before seguing into acting. With her vivid red hair and tall stature, she brought a striking presence whenever she appeared on screen, but there was depth and sensitivity behind her looks. 

In the 1970s, as her film roles started to thin out, she spent a season as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and she guest-starred on a number of British TV shows. 

Unfortunately I never was able to meet Barbara Shelley. I do have a trading card which she autographed, which I purchased on ebay (see below). Most of the articles about her online today are referring to her as a "Horror Queen" and/or a cult movie actress, and while that might be technically true, I believe that is an underestimation of her talents. 

Sunday, January 3, 2021



Edward Bernds is best known for his work directing various films with the Bowery Boys and The Three Stooges, but in the late 1950s, he started to make a series of science-fiction features. They ranged from the mildly interesting (WORLD WITHOUT END), to the infamous (QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE) and the just plain boring (VALLEY OF THE DRAGONS). In 1958 Bernds directed SPACE MASTER X-7, a very low budget film for 20th Century Fox. 

Starting off with the obligatory stock footage, an off-screen narrator explains that America's latest Space Master satellite has returned to Earth. A determined scientist (Paul Frees) gets straight to work examining the spores from outer space that the satellite has brought back. The spores begin to grow, and the scientist refers to them as "blood rust" (this being a black & white movie, the audience cannot see what color they are). The spores grow rapidly, and soon turn into a pulsating, taffy-like substance. The blood rust kills the scientist, but not before he warns others at his research facility. Two investigators from that facility (Bill Williams, Robert Ellis) rush over to the scientist's lab, where they burn everything. They believe they have stopped the spores from spreading, but an audio tape saved from the lab reveals that the scientist was visited by a woman he once had an affair with (Lyn Thomas). The rest of the tale revolves around the investigators' efforts to stop the woman from spreading the deadly spores further. 

Like most 1950s science-fiction films, SPACE MASTER X-7 is very reminiscent of several similar features, including THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT and THE MAGNETIC MONSTER. The taffy-like spores (which envelop anything they come into contact with) are a unique "creature", but they're not used enough, probably due to budgetary concerns. 

Much of the movie plays like a cheap noir, with the black & white photography, the narration, the real-life locations, and a blonde on the run. The DRAGNET-type style used here must have disappointed viewers expecting an adventure in space (just look at how the movie was marketed on the poster below). Most of the story deals with the hunt for the woman, who thinks she is wanted for the scientist's murder. The climax has the woman and one of the investigators on a plane, with the spores growing in the luggage compartment. This isn't as exciting as it sounds, due to the drawn-out nature of the tale. 

A very deceptive poster for SPACE MASTER X-7

Edward Bernds' association with the Three Stooges continued with SPACE MASTER X-7. Moe Howard plays a cab driver who gave the hunted woman a ride, and he's far more interesting than the no-name leads. Moe's son-in-law, Norman Mauer, is credited as an associate producer on this film, and he and Bernds would work together on some of the full-length features the Stooges made in the 1960s. 

Famed voice actor Paul Frees plays the scientist who starts all the trouble, and this character is given a unusual slant. First of all, the man has a very strange-looking mustache, and, despite his scientific obsessions, he's got an intriguing private life. While examining the spores, his ex-girlfriend barges in, making a scene. We learn that not only is the woman married to someone else, she and the scientist apparently had a child out of wedlock! This soap opera subplot might have been a way to pad the running time, but it does give the film a unique angle. 

The credited writers on SPACE MASTER X-7 are George Worthington Yates and Daniel Mainwaring, who both provided scripts for much better science-fiction films. SPACE MASTER X-7 isn't terrible, and it only runs about 70 minutes, but it brings to mind pictures that are more famous and more exciting.