A Quickie That Clicks: GENIUS AT WORK (RKO 1946)

Back in 2015, I reviewed a turkey called ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY , which paired Bela Lugosi with the “comedy” team of Wally Brown and Alan Carney, RKO’s cut-rate answer to Abbott & Costello. Well, it seems the studio threw together this unlucky trio again, along with co-star Anne Jeffreys and adding horror icon Lionel Atwill in another attempt at a scare comedy titled GENIUS AT WORK. Glutton for punishment that I am, I recorded it, then watched, expecting another bomb… and instead found a fairly funny little ‘B’ movie that, while not on a par with ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN , is a whole lot better than the aforementioned ZOMBIES fiasco!

Brown and Carney are back in their screen personas as doofuses Jerry Miles and Mike Strager, which they played in all eight of their films together. This time around, they’re radio sleuths hosting a show called ‘Crime of the Week’, and the lovely Miss Jeffreys (who died last September at age 94) is head writer/producer Ellen. The team is aided by eminent criminologist Latimer Marsh (Atwill), who lives a double life as a diabolical, mysterious killer known as The Cobra, abetted by his equally diabolical manservant/accomplice Stone (Lugosi).   Police detectives Campbell (Marc Cramer) and Gilley (Ralph Dunn) aren’t too happy with Jerry and Mike taunting the force’s ineptitude in capturing The Cobra (Cramer also serves as Anne’s love interest). Marsh begins to think Ellen’s too smart for her own good, and getting too close to the truth, and sets out to rid himself of the nosy radio trio…

You can throw logic out the window in the script by Monte Brice and Robert E. Kent, but you’ll find some amusing situations and good wisecracks courtesy of Brown and Carney. This was their last film as a team, and it seems they finally hit their groove, with Brown doing his comic double-talk routine and Carney his trademark dumb act. Anne Jeffreys livens up any ‘B’ she appears in; this was her fourth film with B&C, and her enthusiasm in the mixed-up proceedings helps carry the movie. Marc Cramer’s dull leading man role is a drawback, but fortunately he’s not onscreen too often.

As for Atwill and Lugosi, the veteran spooks elevate GENIUS AT WORK by their mere presence. Atwill is his usual sinister self as Marsh/The Cobra, with a demented gleam in his eye and a ‘hobby room’ that’s a collection of torture devices (which serve to provide some sight gags for Brown and Carney). Bela is equally sinister as the henchman Stone, and even gets a few laughs at his own expense, like when Carney drops a heavy blunderbuss on his foot! Towards the end, the horror stars disguise themselves as an elderly couple, with Atwill dressed in old lady drag (shaving off his pencil-thin moustache to boot!). Unfortunately, this was his last completed film; the star of early horror classics DR. X and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM succumbed to cancer that year before finishing work on the serial LOST CITY OF THE JUNGLE.

GENIUS AT WORK isn’t exactly high art, but it doesn’t deserve the bad rap it gets among critics. It’s probably the best of the Wally Brown/Alan Carney series (which admittedly isn’t saying much), Anne Jeffreys is always a welcome presence, and Lionel Atwill and Bela Lugosi (in the last of seven films they made together) help kick things up a few notches with their malevolent machinations. You can’t ask for much more out of a ‘B’ movie!

Let’s Talk About Sex: BOYS’ NIGHT OUT (MGM 1962)


“Sex farces” were extremely popular during the late 50’s/early 60’s. They were filled with martinis, smarmy innuendoes, and smutty jokes, though no sex ever really happens. The comedies of director Frank Tashlin and the Doris Day/Rock Hudson teamings helped popularize this rom-com subgenre. A good example is BOYS’ NIGHT OUT, a humorous take on suburban mores starring James Garner and Kim Novak.

The premise is pretty simple: four friends commute every day from suburban Connecticut to New York City. They are divorced Garner and his married buddies Howard Duff , Howard Morris , and the ubiquitous Tony Randall, who made a career appearing in these type of films. When the “boys” catch Garner’s boss out with his mistress, they start to daydream what it would be like to get their own love shack going, away from their wives and equipped with a beautiful blonde to do their bidding. Garner balks, but soon the boys talk him into finding an apartment in the city. He does, and wouldn’t you know it, a blonde enters the picture. She’s Kim Novak, but what the boys don’t know is she’s actually a sociology grad student doing a thesis on “The Adolescent Fantasies of the Adult Suburban Male”.

This sets the stage for hilarity, as the boys each pick a night to spend in the city with the beautiful Novak. No sex occurs, as Randall just wants to talk (he’s constantly interrupted at home by wife Janet Blair), Duff is content to fix things around the pad (spouse Anne Jeffreys won’t allow it, the neighbors will think they’re not affluent enough), and Morris, whose wife Patti Page is permanently dieting, just wants to eat! Of course, none of them will admit it to the others, instead grinning and making sly remarks. That leaves Garner, who tries to save Novak from her fate as a courtesan. The wives get suspicious and hire private detective Fred Clark to investigate, leading to more hilarious complications and a knockabout ending that finds Garner and Novak together at last.

BOYS’ NIGHT OUT is loaded with Familiar Faces, like William Bendix as a wise bartender, Jessie Royce Landis as Garner’s mother, Oscar Homolka as Novak’s sociology professor, and Zsa Zsa Gabor as Garner’s boss’s (Larry Keating) mistress. Dead End Kid Billy Halop plays an elevator operator, Ruth McDevitt a nosy neighbor, and Jim Backus the guy who rents out the apartment. Its director was Michael Gordon, who also did PILLOW TALK and MOVE OVER, DARLING (as well as the Oscar-winning CYRANO DE BERGERAC). Kim Novak herself produced the film for her Kimco Productions, her first and last in that capacity. BOYS’ NIGHT OUT boosted James Garner’s feature film stock, and he was on his way to movie stardom. Films like BOYS’ NIGHT OUT and others of the genre seem pretty tame compared to contemporary farces, but there’s still a charm about them, of a more innocent time when just talking about sex onscreen was as titillating as graphic scenes of flesh on flesh.

Number One With A Bullet: Lawrence Tierney in DILLINGER (Monogram 1945)

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Poverty Row Monogram Studios found themselves with a huge hit on their hands when they released DILLINGER, making a star out of an obscure actor named Lawrence Tierney in the process. This King Brothers production brought the gangster movie back in big way, with Tierney’s ferocious performance turning him into a film noir icon. DILLINGER burst the Kings out of the B-movie bracket, and gave the little studio its first major Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.

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The saga of bank robber John Dillinger should be familiar to most of you through its myriad film portrayals, so let’s skip the story and go straight to Tierney. Though the film bills him as “Introducing Lawrence Tierney”, the RKO contract player had been in films a couple years playing bit parts in movies like GHOST SHIP and BACK TO BATAAN when his home studio loaned him out to the Kings. The New York-born actor took the part and ran away with it, making Dillinger an animalistic, ruthless psychopath who lets no one and nothing stand in his way. Tierney’s bone-chillingly scary throughout, whether slicing up a waiter who once slighted him with a broken beer mug, or picking up an axe when he spies one of his mob trying to take it on the lam. Most of the violence takes place offscreen, but Tierney’s brutish presence leaves the viewer no doubt he’s going to go through with it. After he’s captured once, Tierney utters the immortal line, “No tank town jail can hold me, I’ll be out before the month”, and you believe him. Cold, cruel, and calculating, Lawrence Tierney’s John Dillinger sits high in the pantheon of great movie villains.

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Tierney’s surrounded by a great supporting cast, rare for a Monogram picture. Anne Jeffreys also came over from RKO to play Helen, Dillinger’s moll and the infamous ‘Lady in Red’ (in fact, the whole movie has that RKO noir feel to it). Miss Jeffreys, usually associated with lighter fare, here is as hard-boiled a dame as there is, and was a good pairing with Tierney. I’m happy to report the future star of TV’s TOPPER is still alve and well at age 93, one of the last of the old-time greats still around with us (oh, how I’d love to interview her!). Dillinger’s gang of crooks consists of rock-solid veterans, chief among them Edmond Lowe as Specs, Dillinger’s cell mate and crime mentor who gets a bullet in the gut when his betrayal is discovered. Eduardo Ciannelli takes the role of Marco, acne-scarred Marc Lawrence is Doc, and everybody’s favorite slimeball Elisha Cook Jr.  rounds out the crew as Kirk. Other Familiar Faces are Victor Kilian, Ralph Lewis, Lou Lubin , George McKay, Dewey Robinson, Ludwig Stossel, Ernest Whitman, and Constance Worth.

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This being a Monogram movie, budget cuts are expected. The robbery scene, where the gang uses smoke bombs to heist an armored car, was lifted from Fritz Lang’s 1937 YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE (again, that RKO connection). Footage from Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse cartoon GALLOPIN’ ROMANCE also appears when Dillinger and Helen make their ill-fated visit to the Biograph Theater, as does audio from MGM’s MANHATTAN MELODRAMA, the actual film Dillinger went to see before his demise. Director Max Nosseck was one of the many German refugees plying their trade in Hollywood, and he keeps things economical, aided immensely by Cinematographer Jackson Rose. Nosseck would again direct Tierney in a pair of tough films, THE HOODLUM and KILL OR BE KILLED.

Philip Yordan’s uncompromising screenplay was Oscar nominated, but lost out to an obscure Swiss film I’ve never even heard of titled MARIE-LOUISE. Yordan felt he should have won, and I don’t blame him. His compact, concrete-hard script is raw and edgy, a blueprint for gangster and noir films to come. I suppose Monogram chief Steve Broidy was just happy to be mentioned in the conversation with the larger studios, and Yordan would finally get his due in 1954 for the Western BROKEN LANCE. He had uncredited help on DILLINGER from his friend, director William Castle, for whom he’d written the excellent “B” WHEN STRANGERS MARRY. Philip Yordan’s resume includes ANNA LUCASTA, DETECTIVE STORY, JOHNNY GUITAR, THE HARDER THEY FALL (Bogart’s last film), DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, KING OF KINGS, BATTLE OF THE BULGE, and CAPTAIN APACHE among many, many others.

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There seems to be a debate among film buffs (like with PHANTOM LADY ) about whether DILLINGER classifies as film noir or is strictly in the gangster category. I fall squarely in the noir camp, as it has all the elements of a classic noir: the protagonist heading toward a downward spiral, the femme fatale who betrays him, shadowy cinematography, hard-bitten dialog, and sudden outbursts of unexpected violence. No matter which side you’re on, I can assure you DILLINGER is a classic example of how to make a low-budget film work that you’ll enjoy watching over and over again.

Unfunny Business: Bela Lugosi in ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY (1945)

wally-brown-mainBela Lugosi has always been one of my favorite actors. The master of the macabre sent shivers down my spine in such classics as DRACULA, WHITE ZOMBIE, and THE RAVEN.  But by the 1940s, morphine addicted and desperate for work, Lugosi took acting jobs wherever he could find them. He always gave his best in whatever he did, even in low budget nonsense like THE DEVIL BAT (a personal favorite of mine). In fact, if it wasn’t for Lugosi’s presence, most of these films wouldn’t be worth watching today. ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY is one of them.

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