Halloween Havoc!: THE MUMMY’S GHOST (Universal 1944)

THE MUMMY’S GHOST, Kharis the killer mummy’s third time around, finds the plot wearing a bit thin in this rehash, as once again the High Priests of Arkham… wait, what? Arkham? What happened to Karnak? Did the High Priests suddenly change religions? Just another example of continuity shot to hell in this series, though we do get an upgrade in the High Priest department with John Carradine boiling the tanna leaves instead of Turhan Bey .

At least George Zucco as Andoheb is still around to brief Yousef Bey (Carradine) on the plot up til now, dispatching him to Mapleton to fetch back Princess Ananka and Kharis to the temple, though the usual tanna leave spiel is upped from three to nine. There are no more Bannings in Mapleton, but still plenty of victims for Kharis to kill. Frank Reicher is back too, as Professor Norman, giving a lecture on the saga of Kharis to his university students, including 31-year-old Robert Lowery as Tom (probably trying to avoid the draft… there WAS a war going on, remember). Tom’s girlfriend is Egyptian babe Amina (Ramsay Ames), who gets the creeps whenever Egypt is mentioned in an obvious case of foreshadowing.

Norman is experimenting with tanna leaves, which of course brings Kharis back on the scene (looks like he’s packed on a few pounds, too). Kharis kills the old Prof and drinks his tanna tea, and the following morning Amina is found passed out on the front lawn in her nightgown, sporting a streak of white in her hair. Mapleton’s in a tizzy again, with rumors of The Mummy’s return running rampant, and who shows up… yep, Yousef Bey’s in town. Bey hooks up with Kharis and they try to steal Ananka’s body from New York’s  Scripps Museum, but after killing the guard, find Ananka has turned to dust. “Her soul has entered another form”, says Yousef, and I’ll give you three guesses just WHOSE form it is!

Big city Inspector Walgreen (Barton MacLane ) is called in, and after being briefed states, “Sounds like a lot of applesauce to me” in his gruff, Barton MacLane kind of way. Moving on to Mapleton, Walgreen has a plan to capture Kharis (though it’s not a very good one), however, the shambling mummy kidnaps Amina and brings her to Yousef, who suffers from the fatal flaw in all High Priests of Karnak (er, Arkham. Whatever!)… he can’t keep his fez in his pants! Strapping her to a table, Yousef vows to make Amina and himself immortal via Tanna fluid injection, only to be killed by Kharis, who fights off Tom and carries Amina off into a swamp, where they sink into the mire.

Ramsay Ames was a beauty, and a popular G.I. pin-up girl during WWII, but not a great actress. Not even a good one. Lowery is pretty stiff, too, though he managed to have a long career, mostly in Westerns, serials (he was the screen’s second Batman), and on TV as the big-top owner on CIRCUS BOY (co-starring 12-year-old  future Monkee Mickey Dolenz ). Carradine hams it up, MacLane just plays a variation of his gruff cop characterization… in fact, acting honors in this one go to Peanuts, Tom’s faithful little pooch! Director Reginald LeBorg tries to create a chilling atmosphere, but is hampered by the lower-than-usual budget. THE MUMMY’S GHOST is the weakest entry in the story of Kharis and Ananka, but there’s one more to go before we wrap those mummy bandages up for good…

 

 

Structural Failure: THE BIG STREET (RKO 1942)

When I hear the word “Runyonesque”, I think about racetrack touts, colorful Broadway denizens, dames with hearts of gold, and the like. If you want to make a Runyonesque movie, what better way than to have author Damon Runyon himself produce it, as RKO did for 1942’s THE BIG STREET. All the elements are there, the jargon, the characters, but the film suffers from abrupt shifts in tone from comedy to drama, and a totally unpleasant role for Lucille Ball . The result is an uneven movie with a real downer of an ending.

Based on Runyon’s short story “Little Pinks”, it follows the unrequited love of bus boy Augustus “Little Pinks” Pinkerton for torch singing gold digger Gloria Lyons, dubbed “Her Highness” by Pinks. Henry Fonda plays Pinks as  lovestruck, spineless sad sack, dubbing Lucy Her Highness, even though she’s thoroughly rotten to him. When she’s smacked by her gangster boyfriend Case Ables ( Barton MacLane ) down the stairs and loses the ability to walk, she still treats Pinks like shit. The two leads aren’t very happy characters, and the movie suffers because of it.

It’s Pinks who helps her the most, paying her hospital bills and willing to practically wheel her all the way to Miami (the scene they cause at the Holland Tunnel is a comic standout), yet Her Highness is just using the lowly bus boy, her only goal being to snag millionaire playboy Decatur Reed (William T. Orr, later a successful television producer for Warner Bros). I think it’s Lucy’s character that turned me off; even at the end (which I won’t spoil for those who want to watch), I didn’t have much sympathy for her. She’s a self absorbed, total bitch, especially in her treatment of those who care about her, and almost completely ruined the film for me.

The movie’s saving grace is the eccentric supporting cast that brings those trademark “Runyonesque” characters to vivid life. Ray Collins   and Sam Levene hit the bull’s-eye as a pair of erudite gamblers named Professor B and Horsethief. Eugene Pallette and Agnes Moorehead shine in the parts of Violette Shumberg and Nicely-Nicely Johnson, a “fat-and-skinny” odd couple (the Nicely-Nicely character would later pop up in GUYS & DOLLS, played this time by Stubby Kaye). Millard Mitchell   has an early role as retired hood Gentleman George. Among the other Familiar Faces around the big street you’ll find Louise Beavers, Hans Conreid, George Cleveland, Charlie Hall, Donald Kerr, Marian Martin, John Miljan, and Dewey Robinson. Ozzie Nelson and his Orchestra play in MacLane’s Miami nightclub, and look closely for Bess Flowers and a young Marie Windsor as faces in the crowd.

Director Irving Reis (THE BACHELOR AND THE BOBBY-SOXER, ALL MY SONS) had the unenviable task of balancing the bittersweet comedy-drama of Leonard Spielgass’s script, and isn’t quite up to it. Reis was fairly new in the director’s chair at the time, and those schizophrenic shifts from offbeat comical Runyonesque hoods to mean Lucy throwing shade at Fonda are quite jarring. Perhaps if director Reis had toned down Ball’s character a few notches and let Fonda lighten up a bit, I’d feel different. As it stands, I chalk it up as an interesting failure, but fans of Fonda, Ball, and Damon Runyon yarns will probably want to judge for themselves.

 

Halloween Havoc!: Boris Karloff in THE WALKING DEAD (Warner Brothers 1936)

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1936’s THE WALKING DEAD has absolutely nothing to do with the wildly popular AMC TV series. This WALKING DEAD stars Boris Karloff , making the first of a five-picture deal he signed with Warners, an interesting hybrid of the gangster and horror genres about an unjustly executed man who’s revived by science exacting vengeance on those who set him up. The result was a fast paced (clocked at 66 minutes) entry in the first horror cycle, and one of the last horror films made until their 1939 revival (more about that later).

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Boris stars as John Ellman, newly released from a stretch in prison. A gangland cartel, looking to get rid of a law-and-order judge, set Ellman up as a patsy, hiring him to stake out the judge’s home, murdering the guy, and dumping the body in Ellman’s car. He goes on trial, defended by crooked lawyer Nolan, and sentenced to death by electric chair. Two witnesses, Jimmy and Nancy, saw the thugs put the body in Ellman’s car, but are too scared to say anything.

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Jimmy and Nancy finally confide in their boss Dr. Beaumont, who’s been experimenting in reanimating the dead. Ellman’s body is sent to Beaumont and, with Strickefaden-like electrical equipment a-cracklin’, the dead man returns to life. The medical community is agog with this wonder of science, though Ellman has developed a wide streak of white hair and a zombie-like shuffle. Beaumont wants to know what it was like in the brief time Ellman was dead, but he can’t remember much. However, Ellman has begun receiving messages from “some supernatural power” about the men responsible for his death.

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Ellman becomes an Avenging Angel of Death, confronting those who conspired against him. First to go is the hitman “Trigger”, quickly followed by Blackstone and Merritt (during an eerie thunderstorm). Ellman wanders to a cemetery, followed by Nancy, who’s followed by gangsters Nolan and Loder. “I belong here”, says Ellman, before the hoodlums shoot him down. Beaumont and Jimmy arrive, and Beaumont presses Ellman for the “secrets from the beyond”. “Leave the dead to their maker”, intones Ellman, “for the Lord God is a jealous God”, just as Nolan and Loder are involved in a fatal car crash and electrocuted themselves. Ellman expires, taking the secrets of what happens after death with him for good.

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Boris is excellent as always, playing for pathos as the zombie-like Ellman. His mannerisms remind viewers of his FRANKENSTEIN monster, though Ellman still has a spark of intelligence. Perc Westmore’s makeup is more subdued than Jack Pierce’s job, with only a shock of white hair and an unflinching left eye to convey the horror of the living dead. Karloff acts mainly with his body, his shambling gait and crippled arm doing the work. It’s a restrained performance, and another fine addition to Boris’ Gallery of Horror works.

MARGUERITE CHURCHILL, WARREN HULL & EDMUND GWENN Character(s): Nancy, Jimmy, Dr. Evan Beaumont Film 'THE WALKING DEAD' (1936) Directed By MICHAEL CURTIZ 01 March 1936 CTW88169 Allstar/Cinetext/WARNER BROS **WARNING** This photograph can only be reproduced by publications in conjunction with the promotion of the above film. For Editorial Use Only.

The rest of the cast comes straight from Warner’s B-team. Edmond Gwenn is the scientist seeking the answers to life after death, years before his Kris Kringle in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET. Marguerite Churchill’s (Nancy) brief film career included the Universal horror DRACULA’S DAUGHTER. Ricardo Cortez (Nolan) was a silent matinée idol who got typecast as a heavy in the sound era; he’s also the only actor to play both Sam Spade (1931’s THE MALTESE FALCON) and Perry Mason (CURSE OF THE BLACK CAT). Barton McLane (Loder) was usually a henchman; he costarred with Glenda Farrell in the Torchy Blane series and later became General Peterson on TV’s I DREAM OF JEANNIE. Warren Hull (Jimmy) is known to serial fans as The Green Hornet, The Spider, and Mandrake the Magician. Other Familiar Faces are Eddie Acuff, Joseph King, Henry O’Neill , Addison Richards, and Joe Sawyer.

Michael Curtiz was an old hand at horror, having directed Warner’s two early shockers starring Lionel Atwill . It must have been a slow week for Curtiz, as he was used to bigger budget vehicles by this point. Hal Mohr’s cinematography is appropriately spooky, especially in the cemetery scenes. Karloff had four more pictures to go on his contract, but the British horror ban and censorship issues put the kibosh on fright films beginning in 1937. After a few more 1936 releases (DRACULA’S DAUGHTER, THE INVISIBLE RAY, THE DEVIL DOLL, REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES), films with horror themes left the silver screen until 1939, when Boris returned to the role that made him famous, along with Bela Lugosi and Basil Rathbone, in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, beginning Hollywood’s second horror cycle. Can you imagine a world with no horror films? That’s the most frightening thought of all!