Halloween Havoc!: Bela Lugosi Meets The East Side Kids… Twice!

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Ten years after making horror history as DRACULA,   Bela Lugosi signed a contract with Monogram Studios producer Sam Katzman   to star in a series of low-budget shockers. The films have been affectionately dubbed by fans “The Monogram Nine” and for the most part are really terrible, redeemed only by the presence of our favorite Hungarian. Two of the films were with the East Side Kids, SPOOKS RUN WILD and GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE, making them sort of Poverty Row All-Star Productions for wartime audiences.

I won’t go too deeply into all the Dead End Kids/East Side Kids/Bowery Boys variations here. Suffice it to say original Dead Enders Leo Gorcey   (Muggs), Huntz Hall (Glimpy), and Bobby Jordan (Danny) landed at Monogram after their Warner Brothers contracts expired, much to Jack Warner’s relief. The young actors were a rowdy bunch, and Jack was probably glad to be rid of them! Anyway, the trio were popular with the masses, and Katzman snapped them up to star in a quickie comedy series about a gang of slum kids getting involved in the usual movie-type shenanigans (boxing, high society, etc etc).

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The first teaming of Lugosi and the East Side Kids was 1941’s SPOOKS RUN WILD, an “old dark house” flick that plays on Bela’s Vampire King persona. The movie suffers from extremely poor lighting and camerawork, not to mention a lousy script by Carl Foreman, who went on to much better things (CYRANO DE BERGERAC, HIGH NOON, BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI) later in his career. Bela’s an obvious red herring but is seen to good advantage. The plot has the Kids reluctantly going to summer camp for the underprivileged while a “bloodthirsty monster” is on the loose. They wind up at your standard “old, dark house” with the usual spiders, skeletons, and secret passageways before they discover Bela’s a mere stage magician and the real maniac is finally caught.

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Besides the original Dead Enders, SPOOKS RUN WILD features Sunshine Sammy Morrison as Scruno, the only black member of the Dead End/East Side/Bowery conglomerate. Morrison was a former silent child star and original Our Gang member, and he’s pretty funny in a Mantan Moreland sort of way. Dave O’Brien (REEFER MADNESS THE DEVIL BAT ) is on hand as a camp counselor, and 2′ 11″ actor Angelo Rossitto skulks about as Bela’s assistant, as he did in two other Lugosi vehicles (THE CORPSE VANISHES, SCARED TO DEATH ). Little Angelo had a lengthy film career that stretched from the silent to the 1980’s (MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME), and included supporting roles in Tod Browning’s FREAKS, the exploitation classic CHILD BRIDE, a pair of Al Adamson shockers (BRAIN OF BLOOD, DRACULA VS FRANKENSTEIN), and a recurring role on Robert Blake’s 70’s detective series BARETTA.

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Bela and the boys reteamed two years later for GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE, with our man Lugosi as a legitimate villain this time, leader of a Nazi propaganda ring. This is the better of the two, as the series began to hit its stride. Once again, the boys get involved in some haunted house gags that were as moldy as the house itself, with moving pictures, mysterious laughter, and the like. Gorcey’s still the leader of the pack, mangling the English language as only he could (“I’m gonna send you to an optimist and have yer eyes examined”), and there’s more slapstick added, with Gorcey and Hall beginning to gel as a screen comedy team. Jordan and Sunshine Sammy return, and perennial messenger boy/elevator operator Billy Benedict makes one of his first appearances with the gang, as does Stanley Clements (GOING MY WAY), who would later take over the Gorcey part in the series last few Bowery Boys entries.

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Extra added interest to movie buffs is the young lady playing Glimpy’s sister. She’s none other than Ava Gardner, at the time a struggling bit player best known for being married to Mickey Rooney. This was Ava’s first billed role, and though she isn’t really given much to do, she’s certainly lovely to look at. Ava would go on struggling a few more years, until 1946’s THE KILLERS made her a star.

The two films have their moments, with a few chuckles to be found, but they’ll never make anyone’s Ten Best Lists. It’s fun watching Gorcey and Hall come together, and their ad-libbing is funnier than the most of the dialog they’re given. Bela Lugosi completests (like yours truly) will want to catch these, as will any East Side Kids/Bowery Boys fans out there (and I must admit I have a nostalgic soft spot for these movies) . For the rest, I’d recommend GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE for the presence of Miss Gardner, and skip the wretchedly made SPOOKS RUN WILD.

 

 

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 9: Film Noir Festival Redux

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Welcome back to the decadently dark world of film noir, where crime, corruption, lust, and murder await. Let’s step out of the light and deep into the shadows with these five fateful tales:

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PITFALL (United Artists 1948, D: Andre DeToth) Dick Powell is an insurance man who feels he’s stuck in a rut, living in safe suburbia with his wife and kid (Jane Wyatt, Jimmy Hunt). Then he meets hot model Lizabeth Scott on a case and falls into a web of lies, deceit, and ultimately murder. Raymond Burr  costars as a creepy PI who has designs on Scott himself. A good cast in a good (not great) drama with a disappointing ending. Fun Fact: The part of Scott’s embezzler boyfriend is played by one Byron Barr, who is not the Byron Barr that later changed his name to Gig Young.  

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THE BRIBE (MGM 1949, D:Robert Z. Leonard) Despite an A-list cast, this tale of a G-man (boring Robert Taylor ) assigned to break up a war surplus smuggling racket is as tedious as Taylor’s monotone voice overs. Agent Rigby is sent to the island town of Carlotta, off the coast of Central America, to crack the ring responsible for illegally selling airplane engines. He falls in love with married nightclub singer Ava Gardner (who can blame him?), whose booze soaked hubby (John Hodiak) is a major suspect. The oppressive heat in Carlotta seems to make the film’s players sluggish, like the movie itself. Obvious bad guys Charles Laughton and Vincent Price engage in a ham-slicing contest, with a slight edge going to Laughton here. Fun Fact: I couldn’t watch this without being reminded of the superb noir send-up DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID, which borrows some of this movie’s names (Rigby, Carlotta) and many of it’s scenes. Watch that instead of  THE BRIBE, it’s a lot more fun!

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THE WINDOW (RKO 1949, D: Ted Tetzlaff) This taut little thriller became a major hit for RKO, and child star Bobby Driscoll won a special Oscar for his performance as a 9 year old who likes to tell tall tales witnessing a murder. No one believes him, not his parents (Arthur Kennedy , Barbara Hale) or the cops, and he’s punished by Mom and Dad. Dad works nights and Mom’s called away to visit her sick sister, so little Tommy gets locked in his room overnight, and the killers who live upstairs (Paul Stewart, Ruth Roman) come to get him. The chase through an abandoned building is gripping, and former DP Tetzlaff (MY MAN GODFREY, NOTORIOUS) ratchets up the suspense. Filmed on location in NYC (a novelty in those days) and based on a Cornell Woolrich short story, THE WINDOW is unique, entertaining, and well worth watching. NOT SO FUN FACT: Disney star Bobby Driscoll (SONG OF THE SOUTH, TREASURE ISLAND, voice of PETER PAN), unable to shake the child star label, became a hopeless drug addict, drifting through a life of arrests and addiction. In the mid-60’s, he was briefly associated with Andy Warhol’s Factory group of underground filmmakers. Sometime early in 1968, he died alone in an abandoned New York tenement house. The body wasn’t identified, and Driscoll was buried in a pauper’s grave. His mother, seeking Bobby in 1969, asked the police for help, and through fingerprints he was finally ID’d. Bobby Driscoll was 31 years old.

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THE HITCH-HIKER (RK0 1953, D: Ida Lupino) Fear is the theme of this dark, disturbing psychological tale based on the true story of serial killer Billy Cook. Director Lupino cowrote the script with producer hubby Collier Young, about two pals on a fishing trip (Frank Lovejoy, Edmond O’Brien) who pick up a hitchhiking killer (William Tallman), and are taken hostage and forced to do his bidding. Extremely tense drama enhanced by Nicholas Musuraca’s camerawork, and a chilling performance from Tallman as Emmett Myers, as cold-blooded a killer as there is in noir. His deformed, unblinking dead eye will give you nightmares! O’Brien is also outstanding here, as usual. Fun Fact: Tallman is of course best known to audiences as perennially losing DA Hamilton Burger on TV’s long-running PERRY MASON, where he was outwitted every week by noir icon Raymond Burr.

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THE PHENIX CITY STORY (Allied Artists 1955, D: Phil Karlson) Another true story, this one of corruption in a small Alabama town ruled by gambling, prostitution, dope peddling, and murder. The unique prologue features real-life newsman Clete Roberts interviewing some of the locals, including the widow of slain Attorney General candidate Albert Patterson. Then the story unfolds, as Patterson (John McIntyre) refuses to get involved in the efforts to clean up the town. When son John (Richard Kiley) returns home, he does, and finally the older man relents, after the violence escalates to include the murder of a child, and a family friend. That violence is shockingly brutal for the era, and realistically handled onscreen by director Phil Karlson, who’d later helm another Southern crime tale, WALKING TALL. Screenwriters Crane Wilbur (HOUSE OF WAX) and Daniel Mainwaring (OUT OF THE PAST, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) pull no punches, and supporting actors Edward Andrews, Kathryn Grant (the future Mrs. Bing Crosby), James Edwards , Jean Carson (one of the “Fun Girls” from THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) and John Larch are all top-notch. Don’t miss this one! Fun Fact: This is one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite movies, and there are plenty of examples of it’s influence on his films to keep an eye out for here!

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Happy Birthday Burt Lancaster!: THE KILLERS (Universal 1946)

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Yeah I know, I said right here on this blog yesterday that I was going to take a week off after my marathon “Halloween Havoc” series. But since it’s Burt Lancaster’s birthday (b. 11/2/13, d. 10/20/94) I thought I’d watch his film debut, THE KILLERS. Based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway and directed by Robert Siodmak, THE KILLERS is one of the best in the film noir canon, full of double-and-triple-crosses, great acting, and the beautiful Ava Gardner as the sexy but dangerous femme fatale.

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The story unfolds mostly in flashback, as insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) looks into the murder of Peter Lund, aka ‘The Swede’ (Lancaster). We learn along with Reardon that Lund was really Ole Anderson, an ex-fighter and ex-con from Philly who drifts into a life of crime. Swede falls madly for the devious Kitty Collins (Gardner), whose boyfriend Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) is serving time. When he gets out, Kitty dumps Swede for Colfax. Big Jim’s planned a foolproof payroll robbery worth a quarter million bucks, and enlists Swede and two others for the heist. I won’t get into the details if you haven’t seen this one yet, but suffice it to say things go decidedly downhill for Swede from here.

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The opening sequence featuring William Conrad and Charles McGraw as the hitmen who blast Swede is memorable for its dark, menacing tone, as the thugs take over a diner to wait for Swede, then slowly creep up the stairs of his apartment to blow him away. Elwood “Woody” Bredell’s cinematography shows us a world of shadow and danger, and Miklos Rozsa adds an excellent score. (By the way, the young actor playing Nick who goes to warn Swede? That’s Phil Brown, later to become Uncle Owen in 1977’s STAR WARS!)

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Lancaster plays The Swede as a naïve dupe who’s in over his head and no match for the devious Kitty Collins. Gardner is smoking hot as Kitty, a duplicitous dame if there ever was one. The cast is peppered with fine character performances  from the likes of Sam Levene, Jeff Corey, Donald MacBride, Jack Lambert (particularly nasty as Dum-Dum), and Vince Barnett. Screenwriter Anthony Veiller has uncredited assistance from John Huston and Richard Brooks. Producer Mark Hellinger went on to work again with Lancaster in the classic prison drama Brute Force the next year, along with Levene and Corey. Tough as a two-dollar steak, THE KILLERS was remade by Don Siegel in 1964 with Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, and Ronald Reagan in the Albert Dekker role (it was his last film). While the remake is good, the original is better (I’ve seen them both). So happy birthday, Burt Lancaster…and now back to my regularly scheduled break!