Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: ARMORED CAR ROBBERY (RKO 1950)

Looking for a tough, no-frills ‘B’ crime drama? Look no further than ARMORED CAR ROBBERY, which is just what it says it is, the planning, execution, and aftermath of said dirty deed, with a cast of rugged mugs and hard-hearted dames directed by Richard Fleischer during his salad days at RKO. The movie echoes Robert Siodmak’s CRISS CROSS in its heist scene, and I’m sure Stanley Kubrick watched and remembered it when he made his film noir  masterpiece THE KILLING .

Make no mistake, ARMORED CAR ROBBERY isn’t on a par with those two films. It is, however, an enjoyable little 67 minutes of cops vs crooks. Criminal mastermind Dave Purvis assembles a gang of low-lives to pull the caper off, killing a cop in the process. The cop’s partner, Lt. Jim Cordell, is now determined to hunt the crooks down and avenge him. One of the participants, Benny McBride, is mortally wounded during the heist, which is fine by Purvis, who’s been banging his wife, Burlesque star Yvonne LeDoux, on the side. Purvis ends up putting McBride out of his misery, but Cordell and his men, including new rookie partner Danny Ryan, are hot on their trail. One crook dies trying to escape, but Al Mapes gets away in a boat, leaving Purvis and Yvonne with all that loot. Mapes is picked up and rats, leading to Danny going undercover, getting ambushed by Purvis, and a climax at the airport that spells the end of Purvis’s criminal career.

Charles McGraw , complete with trench coat and fedora, stars as the dogged Lt. Cordell, and the gravel-voiced actor is tough as leather. William Talman plays Purvis, one of his many bad guy roles before turning to the side of the law as DA Hamilton Berger on TV’s PERRY MASON. Douglas Fowley is the unfortunate McBride, Steve Brodie the rat Mapes, and Gene Evans crook Ace Foster. Don McGuire is young Danny Ryan; best known for playing CONGO BILL in the 1948 serial, McGuire later turned to writing, responsible for the story and/or screenplays for 3 RING CIRCUS, BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, JOHNNY CONCHO (which he also directed), THE DELICATE DELINQUENT (ditto), and TOOTSIE ( for which he received an Oscar nomination).

Sexy B-Movie Queen Adele Jergens plays sexy stripper Yvonne LeDoux, and when she’s on stage you can hear the wolf whistles! Adele’s just as tough as the guys in this one, a statuesque blonde who’s sure no cream puff. The leggy former Rockette graced the screen in A THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS, THE CORPSE CAME C.O.D., LADIES OF THE CHORUS (as Marilyn Monroe’s mom!), THE MUTINEERS, and GIRLS IN PRISON, and made a perfect foil for comedy teams Abbott and Costello (A&C MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN) and The Bowery Boys (BLONDE DYNAMITE, FIGHTING TROUBLE). She met husband Glenn Langan (THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN) while filming THE TREASURE OF MONTE CHRISTO, and retired from the movies in 1956. Adele Jergens was never a big star, but her presence was more than welcome whenever she came onscreen.

ARMORED CAR ROBBERY makes no pretense about what it is, a low-budget picture designed for the bottom half of double features. But thanks to Fleischer and that hard-as-nails cast, it’s worth rediscovering for B-Movie fans… like Yours Truly! In this case, ‘B’ stands for Better!

Grandma Guignol: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE (Warner Bros 1962)

Joan Crawford  and Bette Davis had been Hollywood stars forever by the time they filmed WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?. Davis was now 54 years old, Crawford 58, and both stars were definitely on the wane when they teamed for this bizarre Robert Aldrich movie, the first (and arguably best) of what has become known as the “Grand Dame Guignol” (or “psycho-biddy”) genre.

Bette is Baby Jane Hudson, a washed-up former vaudeville child star with a fondness for booze, while Joan plays her sister Blanche, a movie star of the 30’s permanently paralyzed in a car accident allegedly caused by Jane. The two live together in a run-down old house, both virtual prisoners trapped in time and their own minds. Blanche wants to sell the old homestead and send Jane away for treatment, but Jane, jealous of her sister’s new-found popularity via her televised old films, descends further into alcoholism and madness, torturing Blanche and keeping her a literal prisoner. Delusional Jane thinks she can revive her old act, going so far as to hire a down-on-his-heels piano player to accompany her. Things quickly degenerate when Jane murders Blanche’s loyal housekeeper Elvira and sinks deeper and deeper into insanity….

Bette Davis goes gloriously over-the-top as Baby Jane, chewing every piece of scenery with gusto. She’s rude, crude, and vulgar, yet still managers to convey  pathos with her Oscar-nominated performance. Joan is a bit more subdued as the victimized Blanche, seemingly angelic and rational, but has her moments of dramatic flourishes. The scene where Jane serves Blanche’s pet canary for lunch is just the first of many shocks to follow (“You know we got rats in the cellar”, cracks Jane, cackling like a madwoman at Blanche’s horror). The two old pros offset each other perfectly, though Bette really steals the show here; her croaking rendition of the song “I’ve Written a Letter To Daddy”, dressed in her “Baby Jane” outfit, is an off-key highlight.

Victor Buono, in his first credited film role, was also Oscar-nominated as Edwin Flagg, the failed musician and mama’s boy who answers Jane’s ad for an accompanist. The part made him an instant in-demand character actor in films like FOUR FOR TEXAS HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (both directed by Aldrich), and BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES, not to mention his villainous King Tut on TV’s BATMAN! Veteran Marjorie Bennett plays his overbearing mother, Maidie Norman shines as housekeeper Elvira (who receives a hammer to the head for her troubles), and Anna Lee plays snoopy neighbor Mrs. Bates. Wesley Addy, Murray Alper, Robert Cornthwaite , Bert Freed, B.D. Merrill (Bette’s daughter), Bobs Watson, and Dave Willock lend their Familiar Faces to various smaller roles.


Director Aldrich, known up til then for more macho fare like KISS ME DEADLY and THE BIG KNIFE, took a chance with BABY JANE, and scored not only a huge hit, but created an entirely new genre in the process. Soon the market was flooded with “Older Women Doing Horror”: there was LADY IN A CAGE (Olivia de Havilland, Ann Southern), THE NIGHT WALKER (Barbara Stanwyck), DIE! DIE! MY DARLING! (Tallulah Bankhead), WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO AUNT ALICE (Geraldine Page, Ruth Gordon), SAVAGE INTRUDER (Miriam Hopkins), WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? (Debbie Reynolds, Shelley Winters), and a slew of other psycho-biddies. But WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE was the first, and stands severed head and shoulders above the rest.

 

Book Review: THE LAST STAND by Mickey Spillane (Hard Case Crime 2018)

2018 is the centennial anniversary of Mickey Spillane’s birth! Spillane got his start in comic books, then caused a sensation with his 1947 novel I, THE JURY, introducing the world to that hardest of hardboiled PI’s, Mike Hammer. Hard Case Crime, an imprint every pulp fiction fan should know about, celebrates Spillane’s birth by releasing THE LAST STAND, The Mick’s last completed novel, with a bonus unpublished novella from the early 1950’s.

Spillane with friend/literary executor Max Allan Collins

Mickey’s literary executor and friend Max Allan Collins writes the introduction. Collins is no stranger to the hardboiled genre himself, having been Chester Gould’s replacement on the long-running comic strip Dick Tracy from 1977-92, author of the graphic novel ROAD TO PERDITION, and the Quarry series of books (made into a Showtime series in 2016). Since Spillane’s death in 2006, Collins has been editing and completing the writer’s (“I’m not an author, I’m a writer”, he once said in an interview) unfinished works.

The unpublished 50’s novella “A Bullet for Satisfaction” is up first, and fans of Spillane will rejoice – it’s truly Vintage Spillane, a brutal tale of corruption, gangsters, violence, and femme fatales! Ex-cop Rod Dexter (how’s that for a macho name!) wades through this sordid tale filled to the brim with murder, sadism, and plenty of sex. You can tell where Collins did some editing and rewriting here, because good as he is, nobody captures Spillane’s voice quite like Spillane; multitudes have tried, but The Mick is unique! Take this example from Page 42:

“Three days ago I was a cop. Now the cop was gone. What was left? Nothing but a thirst for booze, quenched by a bender, and vengeance, which I’d quench a whole other way. And when you’re playing a game like this, there’s only one way to play it, and that’s a hell of a lot rougher than they do.

They were going to die. Every last one of them would feel pain and I would receive satisfaction by watching their expressions as I pulled the trigger“.

Or this gem found on Page 116:

“A blast from the open door took her head off and splattered it against the far wall, where dripping blood and chunks of bone and gobs of gore and one lonely eyeball stuck there like the work of some cut-rate Picasso. Then a body getting no signals from an obliterated brain toppled on its back with a rattling thud, and the headless body lay limply on the floor”.

See what I mean? Vintage Mickey Spillane!

The writer (don’t call him author!) in his twilight years

Next is “The Last Stand”, Mickey’s final novel published for the first time anywhere. This one finds a – dare I say it? – much more mellow Spillane, now 88 years old but still writing in his signature voice. The sex and violence are toned down, but that terse style is still there, only with a touch more humor that comes with reflective old age. More of an adventure than hardboiled crime, it follows ex-serviceman Joe Gillian (named after Mickey’s friend, longtime Charlton Comics writer Joe Gill) as he’s forced to land his vintage plane in a Southwestern desert. There he encounters Sequoia Pete, a young Indian whose horse has thrown him, and the unlikely pair banter their way through a desert trek, where Joe discovers the joys of eating rattlesnake, and an ancient arrowhead loaded with radioactivity.

Returning to Pete’s village on the rez, Joe will meet his new friend’s gorgeous sister Running Fox, whose jealous would-be beau Big Arms sets out to kill his white rival. The plot involves hidden treasure, gangsters, FBI agents, and a threat to national security. With “The Last Stand”, Spillane shows us he’s still a master storyteller, older and knocking on Jehovah’s door but still managing to entertain his audience. Fans of Mickey Spillane will definitely love THE LAST STAND, and for the uninitiated the book gives you a chance to read him in both his early, hardboiled phase and his last, more seasoned work. I’m a huge fan, so don’t just take my word for it: go out and buy a copy, and prepare to be thrilled!

Pre-Code Confidential #21: Wheeler & Woosley in DIPLOMANIACS (RKO 1933)

Political satire in film ran rampant during the Pre-Code Era. Somewhere between W.C. Fields’s MILLION DOLLAR LEGS and the Marx Brothers’ DUCK SOUP  sits DIPLOMANIACS, Wheeler & Woolsey’s madcap take on war and peace, 1930’s style. It’s purely preposterous, unadulterated farce, and is guaranteed to offend someone, if not everyone.

Let’s get it out of the way right now: DIPLOMANIACS is not politically correct in any way, shape, or form. It’s loaded with racist stereotypes, casting Hugh Herbert as a not-so-wise Chinaman (“It is written that it is written that it is written that it is written”), lambastes Jews, Native Americans, and homosexuals, and portrays women as sex objects (spy Marjorie White is delivered in plastic wrap). A bomb tossed into the peace talks causes everyone to turn blackface, leading to a prolonged minstrel number! If you’re already offended, stop reading… but if you can take the heat, by all means let’s continue!

W&W play barbers on an Indian reservation (!) offered a million dollars each from the Native chief (who’s Oxford educated and speaks perfect English) to represent the tribe at the Geneva Peace Conference. Winklereid, General Manager of the High Explosive Bullet Company, is charged with stopping them by his four co-conspirators (Schmerzenpuppen, Puppenschmerzen, Schmerzenschmerzen, and Puppenpuppen). With his Oriental sidekick Chow Chow, Winklereid enlists the aid of vamp Dolores to seduce Bert and steal their dough and peace documents (“I’ve got what it takes to take what they’ve got!”). When she fails, the bad guys turn to Paris underworld boss Fifi, with her kiss of death and gang of cutthroats (and don’t ask how they got to Paris instead of Geneva!). Finally making their way to Switzerland, W&W land in the middle of a violent peace conference chaired by the ill-tempered Edgar Kennedy , until that bomb hits and plunges the world into war!

Interspersed in all this nonsense are musical numbers (including some Busby Berkeley-style choreography and the aforementioned blackface number), zany sight gags and one-liners, and Bert Wheeler’s classic vaudeville “crying” skit. The script by Joseph L. Mankiewicz  (yes, that Joe Mankiewicz) and Henry Myers gets away with all sorts of innuendoes (Winklereid: “This is no time for sex” Fifi: “That’s what you say”), and skewers just about everything in sight – no one is safe in this film! Louis Calhern, Ambassador Trentino in DUCK SOUP, plays Winklereid, cute little Marjorie White (who starred in The Three Stooges first solo short WOMAN HATERS) is Dolores, and Phyllis Barry, who also played with the Stooges in THREE LITTLE SEW AND SEWS (as well as Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante in WHAT! NO BEER?) is Fifi.

Director William A. Seiter was no stranger to comedy, having got his start with Mack Sennett. Seiter then moved to Universal for a series of silent comedies starring Reginald Denny. If he’d only directed the Laurel & Hardy classic SONS OF THE DESERT , Seiter’s name would be immortalized, but his career encompassed much more than that gem. He guided W&W through three other films (CAUGHT PLASTERED, PEACH O’RENO, GIRL CRAZY), Wheeler’s solo outing TOO MANY COOKS, a pair of Shirley Temple films (DIMPLES, STOWAWAY), PROFESSIONAL SWEETHEART, THE RICHEST GIRL IN THE WORLD, ROBERTA, ROOM SERVICE (with the Marx Bros). NICE GIRL?,  LITTLE GIANT (starring Abbott & Costello), ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, and DEAR BRAT, ending his career with television’s THE GALE STORM SHOW.

Like I said earlier, if you’re easily offended, you can skip DIPLOMANIACS. But if, like me, you view older films in the context of their times, you’ll discover an outrageously funny movie that’s about as wild as Pre-Code movies get. Plus, you get a chance to see two funny men, Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, at the top of their game. Any takers?

 

Forever Young: Ingrid Pitt in COUNTESS DRACULA (20th Century Fox/Hammer 1971)

Iconic Ingrid Pitt became a horror fan favorite for her vampire roles in the early 1970’s.  The Polish-born actress, who survived the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp as a child during WWII, played bloodsucking lesbian Carmilla in Hammer’s THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, based on the classic story by J. Sheridan LeFanu, and was a participant in the Amicus anthology THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD opposite Jon Pertwee in that film’s best segment. Finally, Ingrid sunk her teeth into the title role of COUNTESS DRACULA, a juicy part where she’s not really a vampire, but a noblewoman who gets off on bathing in blood, loosely based on the real life events of Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory.

Portrait of the real Elizabeth Bathory

Bathory (1560-1614) was the most infamous female serial killer in history, officially found guilty of 80 murders, yet a diary allegedly found puts the count as high as 650! Bathory was a sadistic woman who delighted in torturing young women, through beatings, burning, freezing, and cannibalism. She was found guilty of her atrocities and imprisoned until her death. Local gossips claimed she delighted in bathing in her victim’s blood, but there is no proof. The film uses that part of the legend as it’s starting point, and Bathory’s story  becomes just another Hammer Gothic horror tale.

Elderly Countess Elizabeth Nadasdy (Bathory’s real married name), shortly after her husband’s death, accidentally discovers bathing in the blood of virgins restores her youth and beauty. With the aid of her long-time lover Captain Dobi and nurse Julie, she procures young women to kill and keep her young, going so far as to have daughter Ilona kidnapped so she can impersonate her. The Countess has designs on young Lt. Imre Toth, and must maintain her bloody ritual in order to have him fall in lover with her. Castle historian Fabio becomes suspicious, and discovers the truth, but is hanged by Dobi before he can alert Toth. Ilona escapes, and Elizabeth is willing to kill her to obtain that precious virginal blood and stay young… .

The movie was a bit disappointing to me. The horror quotient is low, with more bare boobs than bloody murders (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). Pitt is good as always (though her heavily accented voice was dubbed) in a part where she’s more a Jekyll & Hyde character than vampiric countess. Her old age makeup hides her beauty, which is revealed whenever she takes her blood baths (with a giant loofa!). Other cast members include Nigel Green as Captain Dobi, Lesley-Anne Down as Ilona, Sandor Eles (EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN) as Lt. Toth, and Peter Jeffrey as the local inspector.


Director Peter Sasdy came from the ranks of British TV, and among his horror credits are TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, HANDS OF THE RIPPER , DOOMWATCH, and NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT. His COUNTESS DRACULA isn’t one of his better efforts, it moves too slow and doesn’t have enough horror to keep an enthusiast like me interested. The only thing that truly held my interest was Ingrid Pitt’s performance, and if you’re a Pitt person, you’ll want to watch this one. Otherwise, go find a copy of THE VAMPIRE LOVERS.

Rockin’ in the Film World #17: Frank Zappa’s 200 MOTELS (United Artists 1971)

Frank Zappa is definitely an acquired taste, one I acquired as a young kid listening to albums like “Absolutely Free”, “Weasels Ripped My Flesh”,  and “Apostrophe”, which goes a long way in helping to explain my warped world view. Zappa’s avant garde rock’n’roll, a mélange of jazz, classical, doo-wop, psychedelica, and anything else he could think of, combined with his nonsensical, sexual, and scatological lyrics, skewered convention, the plastic world of suburban America, and hippie culture as well (Zappa was an equal opportunity offender). 200 MOTELS was his first attempt at making a movie, co-directing and co-writing with British documentarian Tony Palmer, and to call it bizarre would be a gross understatement.

Visually, the film is as close to Zappa’s avant garde compositions as you can get. 200 MOTELS was shot on videotape and transferred to 35mm film, using techniques like double and triple exposure, color filters, flash-cut editing, and animation, and is more hallucinatory than Roger Corman’s THE TRIP (though Zappa himself was staunchly anti-drug use). It’s about life on the road, a common theme in rock films, in a decidedly non-linear fashion, with random segments, skits, and performances by Zappa’s band The Mothers of Invention and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, playing FZ’s score live on film.

The Mothers play themselves: Anysley Dunbar, George Duke, Ian Underwood, and ex-Turtles Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, collectively known as Flo & Eddie (My Brush With Greatness Story: I once partied backstage with Flo & Eddie at a nightclub in Boston after one of their performances – until one of my drunk, belligerent friends kept calling the overweight Volman a “fat fuck”, getting us thrown out of the room. Later, I encountered Kaylan wandering the streets with a pretty young groupie, who laughed and said, “It’s a jungle out there, man”). Ringo Starr is on hand as Larry the Dwarf, impersonating Zappa, and The Who’s Keith Moon is “The Hot Nun”. Folk singer/actor Theodore Bikel appears as a TV host and as Rance Muhammitz, who may or may not be The Devil. Real life groupies Janet Ferguson and Lucy Offerall play groupies, and former GTO and Supergroupie Pamela Des Barres is a rock writer. Original Mother Jimmy Carl Black sings “Lonesome Cowboy Burt”, one of the more traditional scenes in this anything but traditional film:

Cal Schenkel, the graphic artist who did many of Zappa’s album covers, is credited as production designer, giving the film it’s outlandish look. 200 MOTELS won’t be for everybody; if you like Zappa’s music, you’ll like this film. Those with a taste for surrealism will want to watch this experiment in abstract expression, others will find it tedious and self-indulgent. As for me, I love Frank Zappa’s out-there stylings, and I recommend it to all you similar mutants in the tribe of Zappa.

More “Rockin’ in the Film World”:

ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK THE BLUES ACCORDIN’ TO LIGHTNIN’ HOPKINS BEACH PARTY WILD IN THE STREETS JAILHOUSE ROCK IT’S A BIKINI WORLD A HARD DAY’S NIGHT BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS JIMI HENDRIX: ELECTRIC CHURCH  – THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT – HAVING A WILD WEEKEND – HEAD – KID GALAHAD – SKI PARTY – THE BEATLES: EIGHT DAYS A WEEK – HOLD ON!

One Hit Wonders #18: “Lies” by The Knickerbockers (Challenge Records 1965)

“Hey, did you hear the new Beatles song?”, screamed virtually every teenybopper in 1965, only it wasn’t The Beatles , but New Jersey’s own The Knickerbockers singing the Top Twenty smash “Lies”:

The Knickerbockers consisted of brothers Beau (vocals, guitars) and John Charles (vocals, bass), Jimmy Walker (vocals, drums), and ex-Royal Teen Bobby Randell (vocals, sax), who scored a hit in 1958 with “Short Shorts” (also featuring future Four Season Bob Gaudio and future Blues Project/Blood, Sweat, & Tears/solo artist Al Kooper):

The tight-knit harmonies and John Lennon-sounding lead vocals had many people fooled into thinking The Beatles had recorded “Lies” under an alias, but the world soon found out it was just a bunch of Jersey kids doing an incredible facsimile. The Knickerbockers became featured regulars on Dick Clark’s five-days-a-week ABC-TV teen dance show WHERE THE ACTION IS (1965-67), along with Paul Revere & The Raiders, Keith Allison, and Linda Scott, but their small record label failed to produce another hit. By the late Sixties, The Beatles had moved on to a more mature sound, and The Knickerbockers faded into obscurity, save for that one brief, shining moment when everybody listening to their AM radios thought four kids from New Jersey were THE Fab Four.

Enjoy other “One Hit Wonders”:

The Night Chicago Died (Paper Lace)  – One Tin Soldier – Theme from BILLY JACK (Coven) – Long, Lonesome Highway (Michael Parks) – Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye (Steam) – DOA (Bloodrock) – Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl? (The Barbarians) – Why Can’t We Live Together (Timmy Thomas) – They’re Coming to Take Me Away (Napoleon XIV) – In the Year 2525 (Zager & Evans) – Summertime Blues (Blue Cheer) – Little Girl (Syndicate of Sound) – I Had Too Much To Dream (The Electric Prunes) – The Ballad of The Green Berets (SSgt. Barry Sadler) – Smell of Incense (Southwest FOB) – In The Summertime (Mungo Jerry) – The Safety Dance (Men Without Hats)

 

The Last Gangster: James Cagney in WHITE HEAT (Warner Brothers 1949)


When James Cagney burst onto the screen in THE PUBLIC ENEMY, a star was born. Cagney’s machine gun delivery of dialog, commanding screen presence, and take-no-shit attitude made him wildly popular among the Depression Era masses, if not with studio boss Jack Warner, with whom Cagney frequently battled over salary and scripts that weren’t up to par. Films like LADY KILLER , THE MAYOR OF HELL , and ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES made Cagney the quintessential movie gangster, but after 1939’s THE ROARING TWENTIES he hung up his spats and concentrated on changing his image. Ten years later, Cagney returned to the gangster film in WHITE HEAT, turning in one of his most memorable performances as the psychotic Cody Jarrett.

Cagney is older and meaner than ever as Jarrett, a remorseless mad-dog killer with a severe mother complex and more than a touch of insanity. Jarrett has frequent debilitating headaches brought on by some unnamed trauma that only Ma can soothe. The actor is an untamed hurricane in this role, swaggering one minute, having a complete meltdown when he gets news of Ma’s death the next. He’s at his best when he’s totally unhinged, cold-bloodedly ventilating the car  trunk containing a would-be traitor with bullets, knocking spouse Verna off her chair, and the spectacular fiery finale where his madness engulfs him as much as the flames, delivering that immortal “Top of the world” line with gusto. Cagney’s Cody Jarrett is dangerous and unpredictable, a man to be feared, and that thread of fear permeates the film.

The women in Cody’s life say a lot about the kind of man he is. Margaret Wycherly is chilling as Ma, a far cry from her loving mother in SERGEANT YORK. Based loosely on Ma Barker, she’s been a criminal all her life, and has groomed her boy to be as ruthless as herself, if not more so. Virginia Mayo as Cody’s wife Verna is just as much a sociopath as he is, a duplicitous woman without morals who doesn’t hesitate to take up with Cody’s lieutenant Big Ed when her man goes to jail. Verna will lie and backstab to get her own way, but she’s deathly afraid of Cody’s wrath, letting Big Ed pay for Ma’s demise even though she pulled trigger that killed the older woman… shot in the back, no less! Cody and Verna are a match made in hell, and Virginia Mayo, who was one of Warner’s biggest stars at the time, received above the title billing just below Cagney. Both should’ve been nominated for Oscars.

Edmond O’Brien  plays T-Man Hank Fallon, who goes undercover as convict Vic Pardo to try and gain Cody’s trust. It’s a tricky part, but the always reliable O’Brien pulls it off. Steve Cochran is his usual menacing self as Big Ed… just not as menacing as Cagney! Another old reliable, Fred Clark , is on hand as ‘The Trader’, brains behind Cody’s crimes. And the Familiar Face brigade is out in full force – say, isn’t that young Robert Foulk? Omigosh, there’s Claudia “ROBOT MONSTER” Barrett! That guy looks like the butler in SON OF  FRANKENSTEIN! I could go on, but you get the idea, so happy hunting!


Raoul Walsh’s muscular, masculine direction makes WHITE HEAT even tougher. Walsh had success in the gangster genre before, helming Cagney’s THE ROARING TWENTIES and Bogart’s HIGH SIERRA, but he was one of those equally adept in any genre: silent classics like THE THIEF OF BAGDAD and WHAT PRICE GLORY, period pieces (THE BOWERY, THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE), westerns (THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, COLORADO TERRITORY), war dramas (DESPERATE JOURNEY , BATTLE CRY). This is the third of four films Walsh would make with Cagney, and a fine coda to the gangster cycle. WHITE HEAT is a classic in every sense of the word, a movie that absolutely lives up to its reputation.

 

 

 

Cleaning Out the DVR #20: ALL-STAR PRE-CODE LADIES EDITION!



I know all of you, like me, will be watching tonight’s 89th annual Major League Baseball All-Star G
ame, and… wait, what’s that? You say you WON’T be watching the All-Star Game? You have no interest in baseball? Heretics!! But I understand, I really do, and for you non-baseball enthusiasts I’ve assembled a quartet of Pre-Code films to view as an alternative, starring some of the era’s most fabulous females. While I watch the game, you can hunt down and enjoy the following four films celebrating the ladies of Pre-Code:

DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON (Paramount 1931; D: Lloyd Corrigan) – Exotic Anna May Wong stars as Princess Ling Moy, an “Oriental dancer” and daughter of the infamous Dr. Fu Manchu (Warner Oland)! When Fu dies, Ling Moy takes up the mantle of vengeance against the Petrie family, tasked with killing surviving son Ronald. Sessue Hayakawa (BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI) plays Chinese detective Ah Kee, assigned to Scotland Yard to track down the last of Fu’s organization, who falls in love with Ling Moy. This was the last of a trilogy of films in which Oland portrays the fiendish Fu (1929’s THE MYSTERIOUS DR. FU MANCH, 1930’s TH RETURN OF FU MANCHU), and though he perishes early on, honorable daughter Wong is just as devious as dear old dad! Director Corrigan and cinematographer Victor Milner do some interesting work with shadows and light, overhead shots, and camera angles; though Corrigan is best remembered today as a character actor, he directed 12 features (and one short) between 1930 and 1937, and is quite good behind the camera. A film that’s structured like a serial, with secret passageways, sadistic tortures, and definite horror undertones, fans of Anna May Wong won’t want to miss it. Fun Fact: Bramwell Fletcher, who plays Ronald, was the actor who “died laughing” in 1932’s THE MUMMY .


MILLIE (RKO 1931; D: John Francis Dillon) – For a brief, shining moment in the early 1930’s, sad-eyed beauty Helen Twelvetrees was one of the Pre-Code Era’s most popular stars, gaining fame in a series of “women’s weepies”. MILLIE was my first chance to see this actress I’d heard so much about, and she excels as Millie Blake, who we first meet as an innocent college girl who marries rich Jack Maitland (Robert Ames), has a child, then discovers he’s a cheating cad. Getting a divorce (and giving up custody in the process), Millie’s next beau also turns out to be a two-timer, causing her to declare her independence from men and become a wild party girl. Years pass, and her now 16 year old daughter (Anita Louise) is almost compromised by one of Millie’s ex-lovers (John Halliday ), whom Mama Bear Millie shoots, leading to a scandalous trial. Joan Blondell and Lilyan Tashman are on hand as Millie’s golddigging pals (see picture above), and director John Francis Dillon knew his soapy stuff, having also guided Pre-Code ladies Ann Harding (GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST), Evelyn Brent (THE PAGAN LADY), and Clara Bow (CALL HER SAVAGE). MILLIE’s a bit dated (okay, more than a bit) and slow going in places, but Miss Twelvetrees made it all worthwhile. Fun Fact: Edward LeSaint plays the judge, and made a career out of magistrate roles; Three Stooges fans will recognize him from their 1934 short DISORDER IN THE COURT.

THE STRANGE LOVE OF MOLLY LOUVAIN (Warner Brothers 1932; D: Michael Curtiz ) – “I’m a pretty bad egg”, says Molly, but Ann Dvorak (SCARFACE, THREE ON A MATCH, HEAT LIGHTNING) is a pretty good actress, starring as poor working girl Molly, who gets pregnant and jilted, gives up her child, and hits the road with small-time crook Leslie Fenton. She leaves the bum to work in a dance hall, encountering naïve young Richard Cromwell. Fenton shows up, steals a car, kills a cop, gets shot himself, and Molly and the starry-eyed kid take it on the lam. Dubbed “the beautiful brunette bandit” by the press, Molly dyes her hair blonde, and the pair lay low… until fast-talking reporter Lee Tracy makes his appearance! There’s great chemistry between Dvorak and Tracy in this racy, double entendree-laden little movie, with a dynamite twist ending I did not see coming. It’s also packed with Familiar Faces: Ben Alexander, Louise Beavers, Richard Cramer, Guy Kibbee , Hank Mann, Frank McHugh , Charles Middleton, and Snub Pollard all pop up in small roles. This lightning-paced entry is an unjustly neglected Pre-Code gem that deserves a larger audience! Fun Fact: A newspaper headline misspells Molly’s last name as “Louvaine”.

SMARTY (Warner Brothers 1934; D: Robert Florey ) – Queen of Pre-Code Joan Blondell is back, and therapists would have a field day with her character of Vicki, a manipulative minx who equates being hit with being loved. Before you jump out of your skin, this is a romantic comedy – now you can jump! S& M overtones abound, and sexual innuendoes fly freely, as Joan’s incessant teasing of hubby Warren William (including a reference to “diced carrots”, obviously a penis size dig) leads him to slapping her face at a bridge party, and Joan winding up married to her divorce lawyer, Edward Everett Horton , who she also tortures into smacking her – but it’s a ploy to get back together with Warren! The censors must’ve been apoplectic viewing SMARTY, one of the last films in the Pre-Code cycle, as Joan also appears in various stages of undress, a voyeur’s delight. Despite the kinky subject matter, the movie is quite funny, with solid support from Claire Dodd, Frank McHugh, and Leonard Carey. Let me be clear: hitting women is NOT funny, but you’re doing yourself a disservice in letting that stop you from watching this outrageous screwball comedy. Fun Fact: Look fast for Dennis O’Keefe in one of his early, uncredited parts as a nightclub patron.

Drive-In Saturday Night 2: BIKINI BEACH (AIP 1964) & PAJAMA PARTY (AIP 1964)

Welcome back to Drive-In Saturday Night! Summer’s here, and the time is right for a double dose of American-International teen flicks, so pull in, pull up a speaker to hang on your car window, and enjoy our first feature, 1964’s BIKINI BEACH, starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello:

BIKINI BEACH is the third of AIP’s ‘Beach Party’ movies, and this one’s a typical hodgepodge of music, comedy, and the usual teenage shenanigans. The gang’s all here, heading to the beach on spring break for surfing and swinging. This time around, there’s a newcomer on the sand, British rock star The Potato Bug, with Frankie playing a dual role. Potato Bug is an obvious spoof of the big Beatlemania fever sweeping the country, with all the beach chicks (or “birds”, as he calls ’em) screaming whenever PB starts singing one of his songs, complete with Lennon/McCartney-esque “Wooos” and “Yeah, yeah, yeahs”. Avalon has a good time in a wig and Granny glasses (and a Terry-Thomas like accent) poking fun at the latest teen fad, and in typical low-budget AIP fashion, scenes with Frankie and Mr. Bug together have Beach regular Ronnie Dayton doubling for Potato Bug.

The villain of the piece is Keenan Wynn as Harvey Huntington Honeywagon III, who wants to get rid of the surfers so he can expand his old folks home. To prove his theory that the teens are nothing but Neanderthals “with an abnormal preoccupation with sex”, he has his simian sidekick Clyde (Janos Prohaska, The Bear from Andy Williams’s 60’s variety show) ape them by surfing, driving hot rods, and dancing. Martha Hyer is schoolteacher Vivien Clements, who stands up against Harvey for the kids, and guess who sides with him? That’s right, Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck ) and his Rats, who hates the surfers even more than Harvey!

Frankie and Annette argue (because of course they do), and she takes up with Potato Bug to make him jealous. Since Bug is a drag racing buff, Frankie decides to take up the sport and challenge him to a grudge race. Don Rickles Don Rickles returns as Big Drag (the former Jack Fanny), proprietor of Big Drag’s Pit Stop, the surfer’s hangout, and he’s funny as ever. There’s plenty of tunes and musical guests, including Little Stevie Wonder (singing “Dance and Shout”), The Pyramids, and The Exciters Band (who worked with the shimmying sensation Candy Johnson). There’s also plenty of padding, with lots of stock footage of surfing and racing, and though it’s an incredibly silly romp, it still manages to entertain if you like these sort of things (and I do!). Oh, and that mysterious art collector who keeps popping in and out of the film is none other than everyone’s favorite monster…

Boris Karloff  in a cameo! Now let’s go to the concession stand and load up on burgers and hot dogs during Intermission:

Our second feature is PAJAMA PARTY, also released in 1964:

Considered by aficionados as the fourth in the series, besides the fact it shares Annette, Jody McCrea, Eric Von Zipper and his Rats, and other regulars (Luree Holmes, Candy Johnson, Donna Loren, Michael Nader, Ronnie Rondell, Salli Sachse), it bears no relationship to the usual ‘Beach Party’ movies. In fact, PAJAMA PARTY is even goofier than normal – if you can imagine – a surreal, almost plotless piece of escapism with self-knowing winks to the audience! It may not be ‘Beach Party’ canon, but the film knows it’s goofy and revels in it.

Martians (yes, Martians!) send their biggest goof-up, an outer space teen named Go-Go (Tommy Kirk ) to infiltrate Earth and pave the way for their upcoming invasion. Don Rickles plays a Martian on the spaceship, and it’s not a spoiler to reveal Frankie Avalon is the alien chief – you’ll recognize his voice instantly. Go-Go lands in the backyard of dotty Aunt Wendy (Elsa Lanchester ), who renames him George and introduces him to her teenage borders, including Connie (Annette) and her dumb jock boyfriend Big Lunk (Jody). Von Zipper and his Rats are around, out to get “them volleyball kids”, and a crook called J. Sinister Hulk (Jesse White) is plotting to steal Aunt Wendy’s millions, left to her by her late husband – in cash! All this takes place amid one slapstick situation after another, until whatever plot ends are neatly tied up.

Among J. Sinister’s henchmen is Buster Keaton , making his first appearance in the series. The Great Stoneface has some funny gags and bits, and could still take a pratfall with the best of ’em! Also making her ‘Beach’ debut is Bobbi Shaw, the “ya, ya” girl, and actor and nightclub comic Ben Lessy rounds out the villainous quartet. Dorothy Lamour guest stars as hostess of a fashion show, and even gets a musical number, “Where Did I Go Wrong”. Sexy Susan Hart gyrates her way through the film without any dialog, which isn’t a bad thing; the wife of AIP co-founder James Nicholson was better at window dressing than acting.

The songs are no great shakes except for Loren’s rocking “Among the Young” and Annette’s uptempo “Pajama Party”, but there’s some real energetic 60’s dancing going on (see if you can spot Teri Garr and Toni Basil movin’ and groovin’ in the crowd). The Nooney Rickets 4 provide a few instrumentals for the kids to boogie to, and the soft drink Dr. Pepper pops up everywhere (Loren was the Dr. Pepper Girl for years in 1960’s TV ads). Both BIKINI BEACH and PAJAMA PARTY are products of a bygone era, and both are still a lot of fun. A perfect double feature to watch on a hot summer night, with some popcorn and a cold Dr. Pepper!

KOWABUNGA!