Halloween Havoc!: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (Universal 1943)

Universal’s 1943 remake of the 1925 Lon Chaney Sr. classic THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is definitely an ‘A’ movie in every way. A lavish Technicolor production with an ‘A’ list cast (Claude Rains, Nelson Eddy, Susanna Foster) and opulent sets (including the Opera House interiors built for the ’25 silent), it’s the only Universal Horror to win an Oscar – actually two, for Art Direction and Cinematography. Yet I didn’t really like it the first time I saw it. It’s only through repeated viewings I’ve softened my stance and learned to appreciate the film.

Claude Rains’s performance in particular has made me a convert. As Erique Claudin, he’s a sympathetic figure, and one can’t help but feel sorry for him. When he’s let go from the orchestra by the maestro, after twenty long years as a violinist, his arthritis causing his playing to become subpar, I felt pity for a man who gave so much for his art. Though he commits the murder of the publisher he believes has stolen his concerto, Erique didn’t deserve to have acid flung in his face by an angry secretary. His howls are that of a wounded animal as he escapes into the sewers below the streets of Paris. Rains, with his black cloak and hat, his grotesque face covered by a stage mask, cuts a fine figure as The Phantom. His only motivation is to further the career of budding soprano Christine, whom he’s loved from afar, and he’s determined to eliminate everything that stands in the way of that goal. His mind has become as scarred as his face, and like the best of monsters, he’s a figure to be pitied, not hated.

Nelson Eddy (Anatole) and Susanna Foster (Christine) are in fine voice; even though opera’s not really my thing, I can certainly appreciate their talents. I could do without the love triangle with Christine, Anatole, and Inspector Raoul Dubert (Edgar Barrier), but it’s necessary to the plot as constructed by writers Eric Taylor and Samuel Hoffenstein, who took several liberties with Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel in order to fit in Universal’s newest star Eddy, who’d recently left MGM after seven years under contract.

A better-than-average supporting cast features J. Edward Bromberg , Leo Carrillo , a young Hume Cronyn , Jane Farrar, Fritz Feld, Steven Geray, Miles Mander, Frank Puglia, and Special Guest Star Franz Liszt! Actually, it’s not the famous composer (who’d been dead since 1886), but actor Fritz Leiber (father of science fiction writer Fritz Leiber Jr. ), who plays an important part in the proceedings. The score by Edward Ward consists of original operatic music especially composed for the film (though better ears than mine will notice some Tchaikovsky and Bach thrown in), and was also Oscar nominated (but lost to THIS IS THE ARMY, a patriotic flag-waver based on the music of Irving Berlin).

Director Arthur Lubin took time off from helming Abbott & Costello vehicles to make PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and does a fine job. The famous chandelier scene is thrillingly staged, and the unmasking of The Phantom deep inside the catacombs (a highlight of the ’25 version) is sufficiently gruesome, although Jack Pierce’s makeup can’t hold a candle to Chaney’s iconic original. I admire the film today, with reservations. It’s more a Nelson Eddy/Susanna Foster vehicle than Universal Horror, and I would’ve liked to have seen more emphasis on Claude Rains’s Phantom. As it stands, it’s an uneven but interesting and watchable entry in the history of the horror film.  

Halloween Havoc!: BLACK FRIDAY (Universal 1940)

The Twin Titans of Terror, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, reteamed for their fifth film together in 1940’s BLACK FRIDAY. Horror fans must’ve been salivating at the chance to see the duo reunited after the success of the previous year’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, but left the theaters let down upon discovering Boris and Bela share no scenes together, and the bulk of the action is carried by character actor Stanley Ridges in a dual role.

The movie’s a variation on the old Jekyll & Hyde theme, with a twist: instead of a secret formula, the change occurs via brain transplantation! The preposterous premise finds Karloff on death row as Dr. Ernst Sovac, walking that last mile to his fate in the electric chair. Sovac hands his notes and records to a sympathetic newspaper reporter, and our film begins in earnest. Flashbacks relate the tale of kindly old English literature Professor George Kingsley, struck down by a car driven by gangster Red Cannon, who is trying to escape a hit by his former gang. Both men are badly hurt in the crash, with Kingsley being mortally wounded and Red paralyzed. To save his friend Kingsley’s life, Sovac transplants part of Red’s brain in Kingsley’s head (which of course kills the gangster).

While Kingsley convalesces, Sovac learns Red has a half million dollars in ill-gotten loot stashed away in New York City. The doctor brings his friend to The Big Apple under the pretense of “a change will do you good”, hoping to jog the Red Cannon part of his brain into revealing the money’s whereabouts, so he can fund more brain transplanting research. This works all too well, as the familiar surroundings cause the Red Cannon part of Kingsley’s brain to slowly take over, especially after seeing his former moll, nightclub canary Sunny Rogers. Aware that he’s unrecognizable in his new body, Red goes on a killing spree against the four mobsters that tried to rub him out…

The script by Curt Siodmak and Eric Taylor seems tailored for Lugosi to play the mad Dr. Sovac and Karloff as Kingsley/Red, right down to the character names and some of the dialog. But for whatever reason (reports vary), Karloff insisted on taking the Sovac part. It’s not like he’d never played a gangster before (see THE CRIMINAL CODE or SCARFACE for examples), but Karloff got his way. Bela wound up being wasted in the part of crook Eric Marnay (and though he’s quite good, it’s a minor role), and Ridges (who was probably slated to play Marnay) got the juicy role of Kingsley/Red. Ridges is effective, but it would have been a much better film if the original casting had stood.

Director Arthur Lubin adds a nice touch using the old “spinning newspaper effect” with Sovac’s notebook to transition scenes, with Karloff adding narration. DP Elwood “Woody” Bredell does a good job painting with shadows and light, warming up for future jobs on PHANTOM LADY , CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, and THE KILLERS . The supporting cast features Familiar Faces Murry Alper, Raymond Bailey , Virginia Brissac, James Craig (the sympathetic reporter), Paul Fix, Anne Gwynne, and Anne Nagel, but on the whole this is the weakest of the Karloff/Lugosi pairings (except for maybe RKO’s YOU’LL FIND OUT, with Peter Lorre and Kay Kyser and His Kollege of Musical Knowledge). *sigh* If only they’d stuck to the original casting…

Rockin’ in the Film World #16: Herman’s Hermits in HOLD ON! (MGM 1966)

In yesterday’s  ‘One Hit Wonders’ post on the Blues Magoos, I told you Dear Readers my first concert was headlined by Herman’s Hermits, five non-threatening teens from Manchester, UK – Karl Greene, Barry Whitwam, Derek ‘Lek’ Leckenby, Keith Hopwood, and lead singer Peter Blair Denis Bernard Noone, known as Herman for his slight resemblance to cartoon character Sherman (of “Mr. Peabody and…’ fame). Their infectious, peppy pop rock and Herman’s toothy grin made the teenyboppers scream with delight, with hits like “I’m Into Something Good”, “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter”, and “I’m Henry the VIII, I Am”. Even parents liked The Hermits, and they seemed destined to follow in the cinematic footsteps of The Beatles. MGM, who released their records stateside, concocted a ball of fluff for Herman and the lads called HOLD ON!, and any resemblance between that title and The Fab Four’s HELP! is strictly not coincidental!

It’s your basic Sam Katzman production, who’d been cranking out teen oriented rock flicks since 1956’s ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK . Like most (okay, all) Katzman movies, the budget is decidedly on the low side, aided and abetted by some clever camerawork and plenty o’stock footage, not to mention veteran director Arthur Lubin, who’d been around since the 1930’s, directed the first five Abbott & Costello films, the Francis the Talking Mule series, and created the TV sitcom MR. ED. He wasn’t outstanding, but very competent, especially when it came to comedy.

The plot? It’s thin as a cup of weak tea, with Herman’s Hermits going on a big U.S. tour, and NASA astronauts (or rather, their kids) wanting to name their new space capsule after the band, causing an apoplectic State Department official to send a man to follow the boys a “get a full report”! A couple of subplots (yes, there are subplots!) involve a publicity hungry starlet determined to be linked with Herman, and a rich young girl who falls for the singer. There’s some merry mix-ups and slapstick gags along the way, as a charity ball the Hermits play becomes a catastrophe, but by the end everything works out for the best, as these things usually do.

This flimsy story, written by Robert E. Kent (WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS ) under the pseudonym James B. Gordon, serves as an excuse to hold together a plethora of songs by Herman’s Hermits. Besides the title tune, we get hits like “A Must to Avoid” and “Where Were You When I Needed You”, as well as lesser songs “All the Things I Do For You, Baby”, “Got A Feelin'”, and “Wild Love”. There are a couple of fantasy sequences set to “The George and Dragon” and “Leaning on the Lampost”, but again, this is a Sam Katzman production… don’t expect anything fancy!

The supporting cast consists mainly of TV actors. Bernard Fox (BEWITCHED’s Dr. Bombay, HOGAN’S HEROES’ Col. Crittendon) plays the band’s manager, whose job is to keep girls away from Herman (and vice versa!). Shelley Fabares (THE DONNA REED SHOW, COACH) plays Herman’s love interest, and gets the chance to warble “Make Me Happy” (Shelley had a #1 hit of her own in 1962 with “Johnny Angel”). Herbert Anderson (DENNIS THE MENACE’s dad) is the put-upon State Department guy spying on the Hermits, getting constantly doused with water for his troubles. Sue Ane Langdon, a frequent TV gust star who costarred with Elvis in FRANKIE & JOHNNY, is the publicity-mad actress.

I loved this when I saw it in the theater, but then again I was only 8! Times change, and now that I know a little more about films, I can tell you it’s not all that great. If you’re not a fan of the band, you won’t understand what all the hype was about. The songs are good, but you won’t find any thespic talent among Herman and his Hermits. It’s a time capsule movie of a more innocent era, when the group was riding high on the pop charts. As I said, times change, and the harder, more experimental rock sounds of the late 60’s soon left Herman’s Hermits by the wayside. I still like ’em though, and even own a double-CD of their music (and break it out of a couple times a year).  In fact, I’ve heard Peter Noone himself will be playing the Cape Cod Melody Tent later this summer with another 60’s pop rock group, Tommy James & The Shondells. Yeah, you just KNOW I’ll  be there!

Caught in the Draft: Abbott & Costello in BUCK PRIVATES (Universal 1941)

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The comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello don’t get much love these days. They belong to another era, but there was a time that Abbott & Costello were the most popular comedy duo in the nation, consistently landing in the top ten box office rankings. They honed their snappy patter and slapstick routines in burlesque, got national attention on Kate Smith’s radio show, and made their film debut in ONE NIGHT IN THE TROPICS. Universal Studios sat up and took notice, signing the boys to a contract and starring them in BUCK PRIVATES, creating a simple formula that would serve the team well for the better part of the decade: put Bud and Lou into a situation that allows them to perform their tried-and-true routines, add a romantic subplot, surround them with solid support, toss in some popular music acts, and let ’em run wild.

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Slicker (Bud) and Herbie (Lou) are street peddlers who run afoul of the law, represented by tough cop Collins. They’re chased and duck into an Army recruitment center, where they unwittingly join the service. Much to their chagrin, they wind up with Collins as their company sergeant! The subplot involves rich slacker Randolph Parker and his valet Bob Martin. Randolph wants to get out of the Army, while Bob’s eager to serve. They vie for the affections of camp hostess Judy, who Bob knew as a civilian. The Andrews Sisters are also on hand as hostesses, and get to sing four tunes, including the Oscar nominated “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B”:

The film serves as a vehicle for Abbott & Costello to engage in some of their best routines, including ‘The Dice Game’, ‘You’re Forty, She’s Ten’, and the classic ‘Drill Routine’. There’s lots of puns and rapid-fire wordplay, and of course plenty of slapstick. A highlight is Costello getting sucked into a boxing match with a big goon, which he somehow ends up winning! Between the music, the comedy, and the (then) timely subject matter of the draft, BUCK PRIVATES wound up making a ton of money, pulling Universal out of the financial doldrums, and catapulting Abbott & Costello to major movie stardom.

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Nat Pendleton makes a great comic foil for the duo, forever at odds with the inept Costello. Pendleton was an ex-wrestler who served as an antagonist for the Marx Brothers (HORSE FEATHERS, AT THE CIRCUS) and the Ritz Brothers (LIFE BEGINS AT COLLEGE), and appeared again with Bud and Lou in this film’s sequel, 1947’s BUCK PRIVATES COME HOME. The romantic triangle is ably handled by Lee Bowman, Jane Frazee, and Alan Curtis. Shemp Howard adds to the fun as the camp cook in a scene where Costello and his fellow draftees sing the goofy “When Private Brown Becomes a Captain”.

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Arthur Lubin  handles the direction, while the screenplay is by Arthur T. Horan, with assistance from A&C’s top gag writer John Grant. Miss Frazee gets to sing “I Wish You Were Here”, and the Andrews Sisters also perform “You’re a Lucky Fellow, Mr. Smith”, “Apple Blossom Time”, and “Bounce Me Brother With a Solid Four”, with a troupe called The World’s Greatest Boogie Woogie Dancers. BUCK PRIVATES may seem dated to many of you, but Abbott & Costello are still two very funny guys, and deserve to have a revival, especially their earlier, energetic movies like this one. If you’re around my age, you probably grew up on A&C like I did, but if you’ve never tried them before, BUCK PRIVATES is a good place to start.

 

I Wish I Were A Fish: Don Knotts in THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET (Warner Brothers 1964)

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Don Knotts’ popularity as Deputy Barney Fife on TV’s THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW led to his first starring feature role in THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET. Knotts plays milquetoast Henry Limpet, a hen-pecked hubby and military 4-F who longs to be a fish and magically gets his wish. This Disneyesque fantasy-comedy benefits greatly from Knotts’ vocal talents and the animation of “Looney Tunes” vet Robert McKimson. In fact, the whole film would’ve been better off as a complete cartoon, because the live-action segments directed by Arthur Lubin distract from the aquatic antics of Limpet as an animated fish.

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Lubin was a former Universal contract director noted for five Abbott & Costello films (including their first, BUCK PRIVATES), the Francis the Talking Mule series, and TV’s MR. ED. You’d expect lots of slapstick with a resume like that, but no such luck. Instead, Knotts is put through some domestic paces with shrewish wife Carole Cook and obnoxious best bud Jack Weston. No wonder he was happier as a fish!

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THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET comes to life when the animation takes over. Robert McKimson was a stalwart of the Warner Bros. cartoon factory, creating among others Foghorn Leghorn, The Tasmanian Devil, Speedy Gonzalez, and Hippity Hopper (the boxing kangaroo). The fish Limpet meets a new friend, Crusty the hermit crab (voiced by the ubiquitous Paul Frees) and a lady fish named Ladyfish (Elizabeth MacRae, no stranger to Mayberry herself. She was Gomer’s girlfriend LouAnn Poovie on GOMER PYLE USMC). Limpet develops a sonic roar dubbed “thrum”, and uses it to help the U.S. Navy combat Nazi subs. Soon Limpet is given a Lieutenant’s commission, much to the chagrin of Captain Harlock (Andrew Duggan) and Admiral Spewter (Larry Keating).

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The live action/animation scenes are well done, and there are some forgettable songs thrown in by Sammy Fain and Harold Adamson. On the whole it’s an enjoyable if inconsequential film for kiddies and family viewing. Don Knotts went on to do a series of 60’s family comedies, like THE GHOST & MR. CHICKEN, THE RELUCTANT ASTRONAUT, and THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST. He eventually went to Disney for films such as THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG and HERBIE GOES TO MONTE CARLO. Returning to TV as wanna-be playboy Ralph Furley in the 70’s “jiggle” sitcom THREE’S COMPANY,  Knotts is best known to modern audiences as the cable repairman in PLEASANTVILLE. But his movie career never did take off the way he wanted it. Don Knotts will always be Barney Fife to his fans from now til eternity, and that’s not such a bad way to be remembered. THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET will bring a few smiles to you though , and is worth a look for the animation artistry of Robert McKimson.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Halloween Havoc!: Abbott & Costello in HOLD THAT GHOST (Universal 1941)

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Before they met Frankenstein, The Mummy, or Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello made their first foray into scary territory in 1941’s HOLD THAT GHOST. This was the boys’ third released film that year, and one of the team’s all-around best. Bud and Lou are two relief waiters at a swanky nightclub (is there any other kind in theses 40s flicks?). Ted Lewis (“Is everybody happy?”) and his orchestra provide the entertainment, along with singing sensations The Andrews Sisters. Of course the boys get fired because of Lou’s bumbling, and return to their regular jobs as gas pump jockeys. Along comes gangster Moose Matson, and clumsy Lou accidentally fires a gun he finds in Matson’s back seat. This gets the cops attention, and they chase down Matson with Bud and Lou in tow. Matson is killed by the police and, according to his will, the boys (being “the last people with me when I die”)  inherit his roadhouse, the Forrester’s Club.

Left to right: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Evelyn Ankers, Joan Davis and Richard Carlson in HOLD THAT GHOST (1941), directed by Arthur Lubin.
Left to right: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Evelyn Ankers, Joan Davis and Richard Carlson in HOLD THAT GHOST (1941), directed by Arthur Lubin.

Crooked lawyer Bannister and his associate Charlie Smith are trying to get ahold of Matson’s hidden loot. They set Bud and Lou up with a ride from a disreputable bus service. But the greedy driver books some other fares,including professional radio “screamer” Camille Brewster, pretty young Norma Lind, and nerdy scientist Dr. Jackson. The driver strands them all at the Forrester’s Club, a spooky, cobweb-infested, rundown hotel. That’s when the fun begins, as they encounter dead bodies, hidden rooms, clutching hands, and the usual things one finds in “old, dark house” movies. The boys end up finding the hidden money and chase off the villians. Dr. Jackson discovers the waters at the roadhouse have “miraculous therapeutic powers”, and the duo turn the old place into their own swanky nightclub, complete with Ted Lewis and company. The Andrews Sisters swing out to their hit “Aurora” and ‘everybody’s happy’ at the end.

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Abbott and Costello were at their peak in this entry, and their incredible wordplay still astounds me. I especially enjoyed the “figure of speech” routine, aided by funny girl Joan Davis (Camille). Davis, a veteran of radio and vaudeville, more then holds her own with Lou in the slapstick department, almost stealing the film. Their comic dance sequence is hysterical, as is the old “moving candle” routine (later reprised in ABBOT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, on top of Dracula’s coffin). Joan Davis went on to star in the early 50s television sitcom I MARRIED JOAN, and passed away in 1961.

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A Universal cast is worth repeating, and this film’s no exception. The studio’s resident “Scream Queen” Evelyn Ankers plays Norma, and shows a comedic side not usually seen in her fright films. Richard Carlson (Dr. Jackson) was just beginning his picture career, which would take him to sci-fi fame in CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and It Came From Outer Space. Mischa Auer, Shemp Howard, Marc Lawrence, Milton Parsons, and Thurston Hall all add to the fun. The animated title sequence may (or may not) be by “Woody Woodpecker” creator Walter Lantz (I can’t find any info on this….does anyone out there know?). HOLD THAT GHOST holds its own in the spooky deserted house creepstakes and it’s a funny showcase for stars Abbott & Costello and comedienne Joan Davis. Watch it with the kids this Halloween!!

And now here’s a link to The Andrews Sisters singing their hit song “Aurora”!!

my.mail.ru/video/mail/ianaborman/15909/15980.html

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