The Human Orchid: Gorgeous George in ALIAS THE CHAMP (Republic 1949)

WWE’s annual “Wrestlemania” extravaganza is scheduled for Sunday night in New Orleans, so I thought I’d dig up something wrestling related for tonight’s post…  

George Raymond Wagner (1915-1963), better known by the nom de guerre Gorgeous George, helped sell more television sets in the late 40’s/early 50’s than anyone this side of ‘Uncle’ Milton Berle . Professional wrestling was on the airwaves six nights a week, on every network, and Americans were clamoring to get a glimpse of the flamboyant antics of the  bleached-blonde, sequin-robed “sissy” who grappled like a wild tiger inside the squared circle. But TV sets were over many an Average Joe’s budget back in those days, so Republic Pictures took the opportunity to strike while the iron was hot, signing “The Toast of the Coast” to star in his own movie, 1949’s ALIAS THE CHAMP.

Gorgeous George in his heyday

The movie itself is nothing to write home about: an East Coast gangster tries to muscle in on the West Coast rasslin’ scene, causing George’s manager to enlist the aid of homicide detective Ron Peterson. Peterson is named the new “czar of wrestling” as Athletic Commissioner, so the shifty racketeer Merlo sics slinky chanteuse Colette on him. George’s rival Slammin’ Sammy Menacker (playing himself) is also sweet on the singer with “ze ‘orribile” French accent, and has a beef with Peterson (“No canary dumps me for a flatfoot!”), as well as George, leading to an epic ring confrontation between the two “grunt-and-groaners”. After one fall apiece, Menacker dies in the ring, and George is arrested for murder! It’s up to Peterson to clear the Gorgeous One and free him to fight another day, plus keep the “Sport of Kings” out of the hands of the unscrupulous syndicate…

Manager Audrey Long holds ‘The Human Orchid’ back from detective Robert Rockwell

The script is below the level of Ed Wood , the direction non-existent, and the budget rock bottom. But wrestling fans won’t care about all that; this is a chance to see the one-and-only “Human Orchid” in action. George was in fact a pretty damn good wrestler, and held his own with the best in the business. The film gives us a complete match with George vs. Bomber Kulkovich (actor/wrestler Henry “Bomber” Kulky), and two-thirds of one against Menacker before the latter’s untimely demise (in the movie, that is! Menacker would go on to become a successful TV wrestling commentator in the Midwest). George’s showmanship can be found in every narcissistic wrestling character to follow, from ‘Nature Boy’ Ric Flair to ‘Ravishing’ Rick Rude, and his trash-talking was an inspiration to a young boxer named Cassius Clay (aka Muhammad Ali), who met the grappler after a 1961 Las Vegas match against  Freddie Blassie.

George battles with Slammin’ Sammy Menacker in “Alias The Champ”

Many other wrestling stars of the era make appearances besides George, Menacker, and Kulky. Legendary ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Sr. and referee Mike Ruby are in the wrestling scenes, as is George’s valet Jackson, doing his own little schtick of carefully folding George’s robe, and spraying the ref’s hands with disinfectant. A scene where a brawl breaks out at the gym between the Gorgeous One and Menacker includes Tor Johnson (billed as “The Super Swedish Angel”), Count Billy Varga, Bobby Managoff, and Sockeye McDonald, battling to the strains of The William Tell Overture!

The Gorgeous One gets groomed as Menacker mans the perfume bottle

Fans of the sport will surely recognize many of the holds and moves still used today: cross-body blocks, arm bars, dropkicks, back elbows, and of course, the dreaded Ref Bump! ALIAS THE CHAMP is a time capsule for wrestling buffs, a look back to when a more grappling-based game was in style, unlike the high-flying acrobatics of today. Unfortunately, it’s not a very good film, so don’t expect CASABLANCA! Clocking in at just over an hour, it’s easy enough on the brain to entertain, and gives you a chance to see the one-and-only Gorgeous George in action. That alone makes it worthwhile for fans of rasslin’ history!

Gorgeous George (1915-1963)
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Repent, Ye Sinners!: STRANGE CARGO (MGM 1940)

Any film condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency can’t be all bad!  STRANGE CARGO depicts a bunch of hardened, unrepentant criminals escaping a brutal French Guiana prison, with a prostitute in tow to boot, and is laced with plenty of lascivious sex and brutal violence. But that wasn’t all the self-appointed guardians of morality objected to… there was the character of Cambreau who, though the film doesn’t come right out and say it, supposedly represents none other than Jesus Christ himself!

One more time: Clark & Joan

Clark Gable and Joan Crawford , in their eighth and final film together, lead this pack of sinners through a sweltering jungle of lust, murder, and ultimately redemption. He’s a con named Verne, “a thief by profession”, whose several attempts at escape have proved unsuccessful. She’s Julie, a two-bit hooker plying her trade on the island. The pair, as always, crackle like heat lightning with some hard-bitten, racy dialog (Gable: “Supposing I wasn’t a convict? Supposing I was sailing through on my yacht, or a guy selling brushes?” Joan: “Yeah, suppose I was Snow White”). Verne manages to sneak out and into Julie’s boudoir (upstairs from the local saloon, of course!), but the swinish M’sieur Pig, who lusts after Julie, rats him out, forcing Julie off the island by order of the local authorities. Pig is played by Peter Lorre at his creepiest, such a scumbag even Julie won’t sleep with him (“You’re the one man in the world I could never get low enough to touch!”).

Verne’s enemy Moll (the equally scumbaggish Albert Dekker ) has planned a great escape, along with some other unsavory characters ( Paul Lukas , Eduardo Ciannelli , J. Edward Bromberg, John Aldredge). The saintly Cambreau pays his and Verne’s way to join them, but that double-crossing rat Moll conks Verne in the head while he’s asleep (with a shoe!), leaving Verne behind – but not for long, because Cambreau has left behind a map of the escape route inside a Bible! Verne, after rescuing Julie from the clutches of a horny mining camp owner (Bernard Nedell), catches up with what’s left of the cons, and they make their way to a waiting boat. But freedom always comes with a price….

Saint Ian Hunter

Cambreau is played by Ian Hunter , and it’s never fully explained just who he really is, but there are all sorts of clues along the way. He’s always in the right place at the right time, and offers aid and comfort to the sick and dying. The film is loaded with theological and spiritual debates, as when Cambreau comforts the dying Tellez (Ciannelli). Later, when Hessler (Lukas) bids the survivors adieu to search for another rich woman to kill, the two have a sparring match about whether or not they’ll meet again. It’s pretty obvious to me this is God and the Devil talking! Finally, in the scene where Verne loses his cool and knocks Cambreau off the ship, the angelic Cambreau hangs onto a piece of driftwood in the raging sea, arms splayed as if he were on the cross. No wonder the Catholic Legion of Decency got their cassocks all in a bunch!

CONDEMNED: The Legion of Decency protests

Then again, these guys were out to censor just about everything they didn’t think impressionable young minds (or old minds, for that matter) should be exposed to. Formed in 1933, the Legion was even stricter than the Production Code then being enforced by the dour Joseph Breen. A ‘CONDEMNED’ rating from the Catholic Legion of Decency meant certain doom, and they put their black stamp on anything they deemed offensive. Besides the anti-drug films of the era (ASSASSIN OF YOUTH, THE PACE THAT KILLS, REEFER MADNESS ), some other films judged taboo were THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII (divorce), THE OUTLAW (can’t have people staring at Jane Russell’s boobs!), THE MOON IS BLUE (for daring to use the word “virgin”), and BABY DOLL (just fat-out “morally repellent”). Even something as innocuous as 1945’s MOM AND DAD, a Roadshow production promoting sex hygiene, was denounced as being too strong for delicate audiences. The Legion wielded enormous power during their heyday, until the 1960’s rolled around with a new breed of filmmakers determined to make more adult pictures…. for better or worse.

Anyway, back to STRANGE CARGO. The film was directed by Frank Borzage, who won the first directing Oscar for SEVENTH HEAVEN, and whose credits include STREET ANGEL, BAD GIRL (his second Oscar), A FAREWELL TO ARMS, THREE COMRADES, and THE MORTAL STORM. His films are filled with romanticism and spirituality, and it’s no surprise to find STRANGE CARGO in his canon. His work is considered old-fashioned by many today, but it’s definitely worth looking into. This particular film would’ve been called a classic if made during the Pre-Code era, and can be enjoyed on several levels. Just don’t let the Legion of Decency know you’re watching!

Oh, and Happy Easter!

Joan and Christina Crawford in their matching Easter bonnets – you’re welcome!

A Flask of Fields: W.C. Fields in NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (Universal 1941)

I’ve professed my love for W.C. Fields before on this blog , and NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK is undoubtedly my favorite Fields flick. This inspired piece of lunacy is The Great Man’s commentary on getting films made in Hollywood his way. In fact, Fields wanted to title the movie “The Great Man”, but Universal execs nixed the idea, instead using a line from POPPY, his stage and screen hit. The change caused Fields much consternation, quipping that the movie’s overlong title would be boiled down on movie marquees to “Fields – Sucker”!!

Universal starlet Gloria Jean with “Uncle Bill”

The film’s plot (and I use that term as loosely as possible!) has Fields playing himself, delivering his latest script to Esoteric Pictures head Franklin Pangborn . The story he’s concocted may have the long-suffering Pangborn rolling his eyes, but it’ll have you the viewer rolling on the floor – with laughter! He and his niece Gloria Jean are travelling to a remote Russian village in a plane with an open air compartment in the rear when W.C. knocks his bottle out of the plane, so of course he dives after it, landing on the mountaintop home of beautiful Ouliotta Hemogloben, who’s never seen a man before.

Fields and his good buddy Leon Errol

After introducing Ouliotta to the kissing game of “squiggulum”, he then encounters her Amazonian mother Mrs. Hemogloben, played by Groucho’s favorite foil Margaret Dumont  , and her saber-toothed Great Dane (Fields calls her “a buzzard if there ever was one”). Escaping the 2,000 foot mountain via hand basket, he goes to a cantina, where he engages in drinking shots of goat’s milk with Leon Errol . Finding out the old dame is worth a ton of money, Fields and Gloria return to the mountain top so he can marry her, only Leon gets there first (thanks to Mrs. Hemogloben’s pet gorilla). The two love rivals vie for Mrs. H’s affections, until Fields gives Leon the boot (literally!), but Gloria talks him out of wedded bliss so just the two of them can hang out together…

At this point Pangborn tears up the script in utter disgust, and a dejected Fields goes to drown his sorrows at an ice cream parlor, looking directly at the camera and informing the audience, “This scene’s supposed to be in a saloon, but the censors cut it out… it’ll play just as well”, resulting in a wild ride with Fields driving a woman to a maternity hospital (she’s not even pregnant!) that’s straight outta Mack Sennett in his Keystone heyday!

WC tangling with waitress Jody Gilbert

It’s all just an excuse for Fields to engage in his peculiar brand of buffoonery: being harassed by Universal’s resident juvenile comedy brats Butch & Buddy, sparring at a diner with buxom waitress Jody Gilbert (dubbing her “blimpie pie”), croaking out the tune “Chickens Have Pretty Legs in Kansas”, and indulging in some of his best one-liners (think in your best W.C voice while reading):

When Gloria asks why ‘Uncle Bill’s’ never been married: “I was in love with a beautiful blonde once, dear. She drove me to drink. That’s the only thing I’m indebted to her for.”

“Drown in a vat of whiskey. Death, where is thy sting?”

To a stewardess asking a hungover Fields if he’s airsick: “No, somebody put too many olives in my martinis last night.”

The Great Man, some booze, and a gorilla… what more could you ask for!!

Gloria Jean, Universal’s teenaged thrush, looks like she’s having a grand old time as ‘Uncle Bill’s’ niece, and gets to sing four songs in her sweet soprano voice. Pangborn gets plenty of comic moments of his own as the sourpuss Esoteric Pictures honcho, and the cast features Familiar Faces Irving Bacon, Mona Barrie, Anne Nagel, Minerva Urecal, Dave Willock, and the skeletal Bill Wolfe. Fields’ long-time mistress Carlotta Monte, who wrote the excellent book “W.C. Fields & Me”, has a bit as Pangborn’s secretary, and you can clearly see how much she enjoys Bill’s humor. Many changes were made by Universal to the original story by Otis Cribblecoblis (yeah, that’s Fields), and the screenplay is credited to John T. Neville and Prescott Chaplin. But neither man ever wrote anything quite as funny as this (though Neville did pen the Bela Lugosi classic THE DEVIL BAT , filled with unintentional humor!), and NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK is pure, undiluted W.C. Fields, The Great Man at his surrealistic greatest!

(This post is part of Cinemaven’s Essays from the Couch FREE FOR ALL BLOGATHON , happening right now, so follow the link and have a good time!!) 

Moanin’ Low: On Claire Trevor and KEY LARGO (Warner Brothers 1948)

John Huston’s film noir KEY LARGO is a personal favorite, and a bona fide classic in its own right that works on many different levels. Much of its success can be credited to the brilliant, Oscar-winning performance of Claire Trevor as Gaye Dawn, the alcoholic ex-nightclub singer and moll of gangster Johnny Rocco (played with equal brilliance by Edward G. Robinson ). The woman dubbed by many “Queen of Noir” gives the part a heartbreaking quality that makes her stand out among the likes of scene stealers Robinson, Humphrey Bogart , Lauren Bacall , and Lionel Barrymore .

Claire Trevor (1910-2000) arrived in Hollywood in 1933, and almost immediately became a star. Her early credits include playing Shirley Temple’s mom in BABY TAKE A BOW (1934), the title role in the Pre-Code drama ELINOR NORTON (also ’34), Spencer Tracy’s wife in the bizarre DANTE’S INFERNO (1935), and the reporter out to expose a human trafficking ring in HUMAN CARGO (1936). Claire’s turn in the small part of Francie, gangster Baby Face Martin’s ex-girlfriend turned syphilitic prostitute in 1937’s DEAD END, earned her the first of three Oscar nominations.

(l to r) Claire, Elisha Cook Jr, & Lawrence Tierney in 1947’s “Born to Kill”

In John Ford’s STAGECOACH , (1939), Claire takes top billing as another prostitute, Dallas, who falls for John Wayne’s Ringo Kid. This was The Duke’s breakout role, and the two became lifelong friends, acting together again in ALLEGHENY UPRISING (’39), DARK COMMAND (1940), and THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY (1954), which garnered Trevor her third and final Oscar nomination as world-weary actress May Holst. Film buffs love her best for her many roles in the shadowy world of film noir, like the duplicitous Mrs. Grayle in 1944’s MURDER, MY SWEET . Bad girls were her specialty, none badder than her turn as Helen Trent opposite Lawrence Tierney’s psycho Sam Wilde in 1947’s BORN TO KILL . She was the murderous Ruth Dillon in STREET OF CHANCE (1942), the greedy golddigging wife of Marvin Miller in JOHNNY ANGEL (1945), and escaped con Dennis O’Keefe’s girlfriend/accomplice in 1948’s RAW DEAL .

Gaye Dawn is a much more sympathetic figure than Claire’s usual bad girls. We first meet her sitting at the bar inside the nearly deserted Hotel Largo, already intoxicated and babbling about horse racing to Bogie’s ex-war hero Frank McCloud.  The hotel has been taken over by hoods in the employ of Johnny Rocco (Robinson), a preening, swaggering deported gangster who has snuck back into the country to pull off a counterfeit money scheme. Rocco uses and abuses his once glamorous girlfriend, now gone to seed and trapped in an alcoholic hell of her own sad devise.

The sadistic Rocco humiliates Gaye when, as she begs for a drink, he belittles her and forces her to sing for her booze. The ex-torch singer seems bewildered at first, then pathetically starts to croon the jazz standard “Moanin’ Low” in a decidedly off-key manner, obviously suffering from the pains of her addiction. Rocco then refuses to give her a drink, stating “You were rotten”, and the faded flower bursts into tears. McCloud, feeling sorry for the devastated Gaye, gets up and pours her a drink, only to receive a few quick slaps from Rocco. It is heart wrenching to watch Claire as Gaye be degraded so hatefully by the sociopathic Rocco, and this scene no doubt nailed the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her.

Later, when Rocco forces McCloud to transport him and his mob back to Cuba via boat, he refuses to take the pitiful Gaye with him. She gets a measure of vengeance when, pretending to throw herself at Rocco in a last-ditch attempt to return to his good graces, she lifts his gun and surreptitiously gives it to McCloud. Her bravery sets the stage for the final denouement at sea, where McCloud singlehandedly takes on Rocco and his men. The woman scorned has become a woman redeemed, and Claire Trevor becomes just as much the hero of the piece as Bogart himself.

KEY LARGO was nominated only for Trevor’s marvelous performance, though cases could surely be made for Robinson’s Johnny Rocco, Huston’s taut direction and screenplay (with Richard Brooks ), Karl Freund’s moody cinematography, and Max Steiner’s fantastic score. The main reason behind this snubbing was that another Huston film of 1948, THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, cancelled it out, gaining four nominations and winning Huston the Best Director and Screenplay that year, not to mention Best Supporting Actor for his father Walter Huston . KEY LARGO can certainly stand on its own merit as an all-time great movie, and Claire Trevor’s incandescent playing of the broken Gaye Dawn ranks as one of Oscar’s  most memorable screen performances.

(This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon hosted by Aurora at Once Upon a Screen Kellee at Outspoken & Freckled , and Paula at Paula’s Cinema Club . Join them for more exciting and informative Oscar posts!)

 

 

Spy in the House of Love: Alfred Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS (RKO 1946)

You won’t find a more glamorous pair of spies than Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Alfred Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS… except maybe in other films that feature Cary Grant as a spy! The Master of Suspense once again goes full speed ahead in bringing this exciting espionage caper to the screen loaded with the usual “Hitchcock Touches”, and introducing a few new ones along the way.

Alicia Huberman’s father has just been convicted of treason, and party girl Alicia soon finds herself seduced by suave T.R. Devlin. Awakening the next morning with a massive hangover, Alicia discovers Devlin’s a government agent (ours, of course!) charged with recruiting her to infiltrate a nest of ex-Nazis in Brazil. The target: Alexander Sebastian, a former flame of hers. The wealthy industrialist Sebastian is snack-dab in the middle of a fiendish Nazi plot, and Alicia’s job is to find out what’s going on. Meanwhile, the two fall madly in love.

Alicia gets invited to a dinner party loaded with Sebastian’s co-conspirators, including his suspicious mother. There’s something sinister about those wine bottles, but there’s a fly in the ointment: Sebastian asks her to marry him to prove she’s not in love with Devlin! Devlin, ever the company man, gives her the brush-off, and Alicia continues her mission as Mrs. Alexander Sebastian. Alicia steals the key to the wine cellar and, at a lavish party, she and Devlin investigate, finding bottles full of “some kind of metal ore”. Sebastian discovers the truth about Alicia’s allegiance, and he and his mother decide the only way out is to slowly poison her…

Ingrid’s Alicia Huberman is no Ilsa Lund, that’s for sure! In fact, the implication is she’s a high-priced call girl, but the censors preferred the more demur term “party girl”. Cary Grant is as sophisticated as ever, and he and Bergman make a crackling screen team (the pair would later team again in 1958’s INDISCREET). Speaking of those censors, it seems they had a rule forbidding onscreen kissing longer than three seconds (Good Lord!). Hitchcock, ever the innovator, got around this by having Grant and Bergman embrace in a passionate lip-lock for two-and-a-half seconds, then murmur a few sweet nothings, then kiss again. This went on for two-and-a-half minutes, and though it may sound strange, the scene is actually pretty damn hot! Leave it to Hitch to beat the devil at his own game!

The outstanding supporting cast is headed by Claude Rains as Alexander Sebastian. As usual, Rains commands the screen whenever he’s on it, really tough to do when you’re opposite Grant and Bergman! Veteran Austrian actress Leopoldine Konstantine makes her first (and only) American film appearance as Madame Sebastian, as knee-deep in the conspiracy as her son. Familiar Faces include Bea Benaderet, Wally Brown , Louis Calhern , Gavin Gordon, Donald Kerr , Moroni Olsen, and Ivan Treisault. Bess Flowers can be spotted in the huge party scene, along with Hitchcock in his regular cameo.

That party scene begins with an overhead shot atop the staircase (a favorite Hitchcock motif) that tracks all the way down to Alicia’s hand, which holds the key to the wine cellar and the plot. This and all the other fantastic camerawork come courtesy of DP Ted Tetzlaff, whose cinematography credits include classics MY MAN GODFREY, EASY LIVING, and THE MORE THE MERRIER. Tetzlaff was also a director in his own right, helming the 1949 film noir THE WINDOW . RKO’s music man Roy Webb delivers one of his best scores, and the screenplay by Ben Hecht is downright perfect. With all that talent in front of and behind the camera, it’s no small wonder NOTORIOUS was one of 1946’s biggest hits, ranking #7 at the box office and scoring Oscar nominations for Rains and Hecht. The movie is as glamorous and entertaining today as it was then, with Hitchcock, Grant, Bergman, and Rains all at their best, and makes a good place to start for those few out there (are there any?) who have yet to discover the work of Alfred Hitchcock.

Adventure of a Lifetime: THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (United Artists 1940)

Alexander Korda’s Arabian Nights fantasy THE THIEF OF BAGDAD has stood the test of time as one of filmdom’s most beloved classics. A remake of Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s 1924 silent classic, Korda and company added some elements of their own, including Indian teen star Sabu as the title character, and some innovative Special Effects. In some scenes THE THIEF OF BAGDAD plays like a child’s fable, in others a horror movie, all blended together to create a grand piece of entertainment, despite having five different directors!

Those familiar with Disney’s animated 1992 ALADDIN will recognize much of the plot here. Blind former Prince Ahmad and his faithful dog are begging for alms when summoned by trickery to the court of evil Grand Vizier Jaffar to awaken a beautiful princess from her slumber. Ahmad then relates the backstory of what has transpired: thrown into prison by his treacherous Vizier, he meets the child-thief Abu, who has stolen the key to the cell. The two escape before being beheaded to the city of Basra, where Ahmad lays eyes on the Sultan’s beautiful daughter, whose face it is forbidden to behold. Ahmad must see her again, and he does, with the help of young Abu. The exiled prince and the beautiful princess fall madly in love, because of course they do!

Jaffar, usurper of the throne of Bagdad, also travels to Bagdad, though his purpose is more nefarious in nature. He’s greeted by the doddering old Sultan, a collector of mechanical toys, and Jaffar has come bearing a gift: a flying mechanical horse! The Sultan, after taking a joyride, must possess this magnificent marvel, and Jaffar asks in return the hand of his daughter. The Princess, wanting no part of Jaffar, flees to Samarkand, and Ahmad and Abu are caught at the palace, where Jaffar uses his evil magic to blind Ahmad and turn Abu into a dog!

Back to the present: Ahmad’s presence wakes the princess, but she’s spirited away from him again aboard Jaffar’s ship. Abu-dog follows, only to be thrown overboard for his troubles. The princess, at Jaffar’s mercy, lets him embrace her, breaking the spell and restoring Ahmad and Abu to normal. They give chase, but the Grand Vizier conjures up a raging hurricane, stranding the pair on a deserted island, where peril awaits at every turn, including from a giant vindictive Djinn who has been trapped in a bottle for two thousand years…

The adventure never abates, as Abu must steal the All-Seeing Eye embedded in a statue inside a great temple in order to find his friend Ahmad. This spooky sequence is the most horror-influenced in the film, with Sabu climbing the web of a giant, venomous spider to get to the Eye, being careful not to fall into the abyss where a deadly octopus lays in wait. Another scary scene occurs when Jaffar conjures a murderous six-armed “Silver Maid” to lure the Sultan into a death embrace. There’s also flashing swordplay, romance, comedy, and even a few songs thrown in for good measure… a little something for everybody in this spectacular film, shot in gorgeous Technicolor by Oscar-winning Cinematographer Georges Perinal.

Sabu gives a charming, energetic performance as the thief Abu. The young star came into prominence in 1937’s ELEPHANT BOY at the age of 13, and is fondly remembered as Mowgli in the 1942 THE JUNGLE BOOK, as well as a string of Universal/Maria Montez/Jon Hall costumers. The great Conrad Veidt is the personification of evil as Jaffar, in what may very well be his best role of the sound era. John Justin (Ahmad) is handsome and heroic; he had a long screen career mainly in Britain, later popping up in some of Ken Russell’s 70’s films. June Duprez is lovely indeed as the Princess; among her movie credits are THE FOUR FEATHERS, NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART, and AND THEN THERE WERE NONE. Miles Malleson (The Sultan) also wrote the film’s screenplay; horror fans will recognize him from DEAD OF NIGHT , PEEPING TOM , and the Hammer entries HORROR OF DRACULA , HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, BRIDES OF DRACULA, and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.

The there’s Rex Ingram, the American actor playing the Djinn. Ingram’s genie is no joking Robin Williams, but a towering titan of malevolence who only does Sabu’s bidding when the thief tricks him back inside the bottle. Ingram made his film debut in 1918’s TARZAN OF THE APES as an uncredited native. His booming voice landed him the plumb role of De Lawd in the 1936 all-black cast THE GREEN PASTURES, but like most black actors of the era, Ingram never broke the color barrier to major stardom. His talent could not be denied however, and he worked steadily in films: THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN (as Jim opposite Mickey Rooney’s Huck), THE TALK OF THE TOWN (as Ronald Colman’s valet), the all-black musical fantasy CABIN IN THE SKY, the war drama SAHARA, A THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS (as a giant reminiscent of his Djinn), GOD’S LITTLE ACRE, ANNA LUCASTA (as Eartha Kitt’s father), and his last, Otto Preminger’s HURRY SUNDOWN. Ingram also stands out in a 1969 episode of GUNSMOKE as an aging ex-slave.

THE THIEF OF BAGDAD was started by German director Ludwig Berger. Producer Korda, unhappy with the results, replaced him with Michael Powell, assisted by Tim Whelan. When financing and the war in Europe ground production to a halt, Korda moved filming to Hollywood, where William Cameron Menzies and Zoltan Korda took turns in the director’s chair. Menzies worked on the ’24 version, and his fingerprints are all over this one, though art direction and production design are credited to another Korda brother, Vincent. The Oscar was also awarded to the movie for its dazzling Special Effects. Lawrence Butler pioneered the bluescreen travelling matte process in this film, a process still in use today. Though primitive compared to CGI, it holds up well, and should be viewed from a historic standpoint. Miklos Rozsa’s outstanding score earned the composer his first Oscar nomination, though he lost to PINOCCHIO. THE THIEF OF BAGDAD is truly a classic fantasy film, and has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Then again, so does PADDINGTON 2, so don’t take their word for it… see it yourself, and prepare to be enchanted!

 

 

Silk Purse: MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (Columbia 1945)

Columbia Pictures cranked out 52 films in the year 1945, mostly ‘B’ movies with titles like LET’S GO STEADY, I LOVE A MYSTERY, EVE KNEW HER APPLES, ROCKIN’ IN THE ROCKIES, TEN CENTS A DANCE, and THE ADVENTURES OF RUSTY, along with their continuing series featuring Blondie, Boston Blackie, The Crime Doctor, The Durango Kid, and The Whistler. They were programmers, budget jobs, designed to fill a double bill  and a theater’s seats, bread-and-butter movies with no pretenses to reach any artistic heights.

MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS was one of those programmers, a quickie cashing in on the success of the previous year’s hit GASLIGHT. Whereas MGM’S psychological thriller boasted stars Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer directed by George Cukor, Columbia headlined their contract players Nina Foch and George Macready , good, competent actors but hardly box office draws. And in place of Cukor, Joseph H. Lewis sat in the director’s chair, fresh from directing oaters at Universal and East Side Kids pics at Monogram. Lewis had made some critics take notice with his 1941 psychological horror INVISBLE GHOST starring Bela Lugosi, that is what few critics bothered to see the low-budget Monogram effort.

Lewis took the somewhat derivative script by Muriel Roy Bolton and created a noir mood aided by his cinematographer Burnett Guffey, who later worked on noirs like KNOCK ON ANY DOOR and IN A LONELY PLACE , and won Oscars for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY and BONNIE & CLYDE. The opening scene of Julia Ross, returning to her rooming house in the rain, is vintage film noir. Budget restrictions helped give the film a claustrophobic atmosphere, as Julia is set up, drugged out, and awakened in unfamiliar new surroundings. The scene of her coming down the staircase, her plan to escape thwarted by “husband” Ralph Hughes, is framed to heighten that sense of oppressiveness, and the denouement , taking place on the rocky sea-shore, is a tense little masterpiece of noir filmmaking. Only the tacked-on happy ending ruins what could have been a gripping scene.

Nina Foch as Julia Ross is great in a role that would’ve been terrible in the hands of a lesser Columbia starlet, say Jeff Donnell or Lynn Merrick. Foch’s acting ability was such that you believe this improbable scenario could happen, and your sympathy lies with her and her plight all the way. It’s too bad Columbia czar Harry Cohn didn’t think she had enough “sex appeal” to be a star, and kept her in a slew of ‘B’ movies until her contract ended. Granted, she’s no Rita Hayworth (no one is!), but Foch was quite an attractive woman, and her acting was head and shoulders above most of the Hollywood starlets toiling at the time. Nina Foch would move on to supporting roles in prestige pictures, and was a respected acting coach right up until her death in 2008.

George Macready makes a convincing, civilized psychopath as Ralph Hughes, who along with his mother (Dame May Whitty) tries to ‘gaslight’ Julia into believing she’s really Ralph’s mentally unstable wife Marian Hughes. Macready, the consummate screen villain, is all restrained rage, his eyes bugging when angered, his fondness for knives a giveaway into his dark soul. MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS isn’t a perfect film, but it’s perfectly constructed by Lewis and his cast. While it didn’t help poor Nina Foch’s bid for Hollywood success, Macready would go on to portray Ballin Mundson in GILDA the next year, and a long film career. Director Lewis made more films noir, including SO DARK THE NIGHT and the essential noir classics GUN CRAZY and THE BIG COMBO. It’s here with JULIA ROSS that he made his reputation as an auteur to be reckoned with, a brisk ‘B’ programmer that’s poor in budget but rich in atmosphere.