Cleaning Out the DVR Pt. 22: Winter Under the Stars

I haven’t done one of these posts in a while, and since my DVR is heading towards max capacity, I’m way overdue! Everyone out there in classic film fan land knows about TCM’s annual “Summer Under the Stars”, right? Well, consider this my Winter version, containing a half-dozen capsule reviews of some Hollywood star-filled films of the past!

PLAYMATES (RKO 1941; D: David Butler ) – That great thespian John Barrymore’s press agent (Patsy Kelly) schemes with swing band leader Kay Kyser’s press agent (Peter Lind Hayes) to team the two in a Shakespearean  festival! Most critics bemoan the fact that this was Barrymore’s final film, satirizing himself and hamming it up mercilessly, but The Great Profile, though bloated from years of alcohol abuse and hard living, seems to be enjoying himself in this fairly funny but minor screwball comedy with music. Lupe Velez livens things up as Barrymore’s spitfire girlfriend, “lady bullfighter” Carmen Del Toro, and the distinguished May Robson slices up the ham herself as Kay’s Grandmaw. Kay’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge bandmates are all present (Ginny Simms, Harry Babbitt, Sully Mason, Ish Kabbible), and the songs are decent, like the flag-waving “Thank Your Lucky Stars and Stripes” and the ambitious “Romeo Smith and Juliet Jones” production number finale. Yes, it’s sad to watch the looking-worse-for-wear-and-tear Barrymore obviously reading off cue cards, but on the whole, it’s not as bad as some would have you believe. Fun Fact: This was Barrymore’s only opportunity to perform ‘Hamlet’s Soliloquy’ on film – and The Great Profile nails it!

THE MCGUERINS FROM BROOKLYN (Hal Roach/United Artists 1942; D: Kurt Neumann ) – In the early 1940’s, comedy pioneer Hal Roach tried out a new format called “Streamliners”, movies that were longer than short subjects but shorter than a feature, usually running less than an hour to fill the bill for longer main attractions. He cast William Bendix and Joe Sawyer as a pair of dumb but likeable lugs who own a successful cab business in BROOKLYN ORCHID, and THE MCGUERINS FROM BROOKLYN was the second in the series. If the other two are funny as this, count me in! Bendix, warming up for his later LIFE OF RILEY TV sitcom, gets in hot water with his wife Grace Bradley when she catches him in a compromising position with sexy new stenographer Marjorie Woodworth, and complications ensue, complete with bawdy good humor and slapstick situations. Max Baer Sr. plays a fitness guru hired by Grace to make Bendix jealous, and character actors Arline Judge (Sawyer’s girl), Marion Martin, Rex Evans, and a young Alan Hale Jr. all get to participate in the chaos. It’s nothing special, but if you like this kind of lowbrow humor (and I do!), you’ll enjoy this fast-paced piece of silliness. Fun Fact: Grace Bradley, playing Bendix’s ex-burlesque queen wife Sadie, was the real-life wife of cowboy star William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd.

A DANGEROUS PROFESSION (RKO 1949; D: Ted Tetzlaff) – The plot’s as generic as the title of this slow-moving crime drama starring George Raft as  Pat O’Brien’s bail bond business partner, whose ex-girlfriend Ella Raines’ husband is arrested for stock swindling and winds up dead. The star trio were all on the wane at this juncture in their careers, and former DP Tetzlaff’s pedestrian handling of the low rent material doesn’t help matters; he did much better with another little crime film later that year, THE WINDOW . Jim Backus plays Raft’s pal, a hard-nosed cop (if you can picture that!). Fun Fact: Raft and O’Brien were reunited ten years later in Billy Wilder’s screwball comedy SOME LIKE IT HOT.

THE LAST HUNT (MGM 1956; D: Richard Brooks) – Writer/director Brooks has given us some marvelous movies (BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, THE PROFESSIONALS , IN COLD BLOOD), but this psychological Western is a minor entry in his fine canon. Buffalo hunter Robert Taylor partners with retired Stewart Granger for one last hunt, and personality conflicts result. Taylor’s character is a nasty man who gets aroused by killing, while Granger suffers from PTSD after years of slaughter. Things take a wrong turn when Taylor kills a white buffalo, considered sacred by Native Americans. There are many adult themes explored (racial prejudice, gun violence, the aftereffects of war), but for me personally, the film was too slowly paced to put it in the classic category. Lloyd Nolan steals the show as the grizzled veteran skinner Woodfoot, and the movie also features Debra Paget as an Indian maiden captured by Taylor, and young Russ Tamblyn as a half-breed who Granger takes under his wing. An interesting film, with beautiful location filming from DP Russel Harlan, but Brooks has done better. Fun Fact: Those shots of buffalo being killed are real, taken during the U.S. Government’s annual “thinning of the herds”, so if you’re squeamish about watching innocent animals being slaughtered for no damn good reason, you’ll probably want to avoid this movie.

QUEEN OF BLOOD (AIP 1966; D: Curtis Harrington ) – The Corman Boys (Roger and Gene) took a copious amount of footage from the Russian sci-fi films A DREAM COME TRUE and BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN, then charged writer/director Harrington with building a new movie around them! The result is a wacky, cheesy, but not completely bad film with astronauts John Saxon , Judi Meredith, and a pre-EASY RIDER Dennis Hopper sent to Mars by International Institute of Space Technology director Basil Rathbone in the futuristic year 1990 to find a downed alien spacecraft. There, they discover the ship’s sole survivor, a green-skinned, blonde-haired beauty with a beehive hairdo (Florence Marly) who’s an insect-based lifeform that feeds on human blood like a sexy mosquito! Sure, it’s silly, and the cheap sets don’t come close to matching the spectacular Soviet footage, but I’ve always found this to be a fun little drive-in flick. Harrington’s good friend, FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND Editor Forrest J Ackerman , appears at the end as one of Rathbone’s assistants, carrying a crate of the alien’s glowing red eggs! Fun Fact: There are also some recognizable names behind the scenes: future director Stephanie Rothman (IT’S A BIKINI WORLD, THE STUDENT NURSES, THE VELVET VAMPIRE) is listed as associate producer, AMERICAN GRAFFITI  and STAR WARS producer Gary Kurtz is credited as production manager, and actor Karl Schanzer (SPIDER BABY, BLOOD BATH, DEMENTIA 13) worked in the art department!


THE THING WITH TWO HEADS (AIP 1972; D: Lee Frost) – A loopy low-budget Exploitation masterpiece that’s self-aware enough to know it’s bad and revel in it! Terminally ill scientific genius (and out-and-out racist) Ray Milland has only one way to survive – by having his head grafted onto the body of black death row convict Rosey Grier! Then the fun begins as the Rosey/Ray Thing escapes, the Rosey side setting out to prove his innocence while the Ray side struggles for control. This wonderfully demented movie has it all: an extended car chase that serves no purpose other than to smash up a bunch of cop cars, the Rosey/Ray Thing on a motorcycle, a two-headed ape (played by Rick Baker), a funky Blaxploitation-style score, and a cameo by Exploitation vet William Smith!  Ray and the rest of the cast play it totally straight, making this a one-of-a-kind treat you don’t wanna miss! Fun Fact: Director Frost was also responsible for Exploitation classics like CHROME AND HOT LEATHER, THE BLACK GESTAPO, and DIXIE DYNAMITE.


Man of the People: John Ford’s THE LAST HURRAH (Columbia 1958)

This post has been preempted as many times as tonight’s State of the Union Address! 


John Ford’s penchant for nostalgic looks back at “the good old days” resulted in some of his finest works. The sentimental Irishman created some beautiful tone poems in his 1930’s films with Will Rogers, and movies like HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY and THE QUIET MAN convey Ford’s sense of loss and wistful longing for simpler times. The director’s THE LAST HURRAH continues this theme in a character study about an Irish-American politician’s final run for mayor, running headfirst into a new era of politics dominated by television coverage and media hype instead of old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground handshaking and baby-kissing. It’s not only a good film, but a movie buff’s Nirvana, featuring some great older stars and character actors out for their own Last Hurrah with the Old Master.

Based on Edwin O’Connor’s 1956 novel, the film opens with the superimposed words ‘A New England City’, but you’re not fooling us New Englanders, Mr. Ford… we know that ‘city’ represents Boston and it’s Irish-dominated political scene! We’re taken inside a stately manse, where we see Mayor Frank Skeffington emerge from his bedroom, dressed and ready to go. He pauses before a portrait of his late wife before going to meet with his political operatives to plan the next campaign.

Skeffington’s a wily rascal, a product of the slums who hasn’t forgotten his roots or from where his power comes, as he visits a local widow at her late husband’s wake and hands her an envelope of cash, telling her it was his own late spouse’s last wish, then strong-arms the undertaker into giving the Widow Minnihan a discount. Skeffington is not above using his office for blackmail, and rumors of graft surround him, especially among the city’s blue blood elite. That such a charming scoundrel is played by the great Spencer Tracy only adds to his likability. Tracy was one of the most extraordinary screen actors ever, Golden Age or current, a performer who relied on instinct rather than method. Watch any Tracy film; he plays his roles so natural, you can’t see the seems.

The film follows Skeffington as he runs his old-school campaign, in contrast to his telegenic Kennedyesque opponent Kevin McClusky, who’s backed by the Yankee Brahmin. It’s basically a series of vignettes as Skeffington’s nephew, local sportswriter Adam Caulfield, is invited to join in for an inside look at politics. Ford regular Jeffrey Hunter (THE SEARCHERS, SERGEANT RUTLEDGE) plays Adam, representing the new generation, and serving as a sounding board for Tracy’s Skeffington as he bemoans the loss of the old ways to media saturation and manipulation (though Skeffington’s no slouch in the manipulation department himself!). Tip O’Neill once said “All politics is local”, and that sums up Frank Skeffington in a nutshell.

LAST HURRAH, Edward Brophy, Spencer Tracy, Jeffrey Hunter, Ricardo Cortez, Pat O’Brien, 1958

THE LAST HURRAH is populated by a cast of veterans on both sides of the campaign trail. It seems like the entire “Hollywood Irish Mafia” is on hand for this one, with the exception of James Cagney (who refused to work with Ford again after their MISTER ROBERTS behind-the-scenes fiasco). Skeffington’s ward heelers include Pat O’Brien as his chief operative Joe Gorman, Ricardo Cortez representing the Jewish voters, James Gleason as pugnacious ‘Cuke’ Gillan, and Carelton Young as the blue-blooded Winslow, who’s crossed over to Skeffington’s side. But of all the mayor’s men, I absolutely LOVE LOVE LOVE Ed Brophy as Ditto, the dense but loyal ward boss who acts as court jester to Skeffington. Ditto lives for serving Hizzoner, down to wearing a duplicate of the mayor’s trademark Homburg hat (which he calls his “Grey Hamburger”). The undying affection Ditto has for Skeffington is palpable, and is reciprocated by the mayor. It’s Brophy who’s in the final shot, taking that long walk up the flight of stairs, head down, to pay respects to his boss, and Brophy gives a marvelous all-around performance.

The blue bloods are represented by Basil Rathbone as banker Norman Cass and John Carradine as publisher Amos Force, and with those eminent screen villains you just know they’re the bad guys, along with Basil Ruysdael as the Protestant bishop. Donald Crisp is the Catholic Cardinal, who grew up in the same slum as Skeffington but is on the opposite side of the political spectrum. Wallace Ford plays perennial candidate Charles J. Hennessy, who always runs and loses (there’s one in every town!), and Frank McHugh his ever-optimistic campaign manager. Among those who shine in smaller roles there’s Anna Lee as the Widow Minnihan, Jane Darwell in a comic cameo as an old lady who goes to all the local wakes (and there’s one of them in every town, too!), Willis Bouchey as Adam’s anti-Skeffington father-in-law, Ken Curtis as Monsignor Killian, Charles B. Fitzsimmons (Maureen O’Hara’s brother) as the vacuous McCluskey, O.Z. Whitehead as Cass’s equally vacuous son, and many more, some uncredited. Familiar Face spotters will have a good time with this one!

THE LAST HURRAH isn’t a Ford classic on a par with STAGECOACH , THE GRAPES OF WRATH, or others. It’s one of those smaller Ford efforts, despite the high-powered cast, a rumination on simpler times. The Skeffington machine gets outgunned by modern technology, allowing a pretty-boy puppet to replace the older, more experienced pol. This is progress? Whatever side of the political divide you fall on, you have to agree we need more charming rascals like Frank Skeffington, who actually care about their constituency, and less of those acrimonious, talking-point-repeating elitists who think they know what’s best for us unwashed masses and only serve to divide. But before I turn this into a political diatribe and piss half you Dear Readers off… just go watch the movie!

Halloween Havoc!: TOWER OF LONDON (Universal 1939)

Rowland V. Lee followed up his successful SON OF FRANKENSTEIN with TOWER OF LONDON, reuniting with stars Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff in a take on the story of Richard III that mixes historical drama with horror. This “Game of Thrones” is filled with political machinations, royal court intrigue, and murder most foul as the crook backed Richard kills his way to the top of England’s heap, aided by his chief executioner Mord.

You won’t find any Shakespeare here or historical accuracy, but Lee and his screenwriter brother Richard N. Lee craft a tale of bad intentions to capitalize on the renewed interest in the horror genre. Rathbone exudes evil from every pore as Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, who along with his brother King Edward VI, has seized power by imprisoning the feeble-minded Henry IV. But there are six heirs standing in Richard’s way to succession, and he keeps figurines of his enemies in a little dollhouse, tossing them into the flames as they fall one by one. Basil plays Richard as a coldly calculating killer, using his power and influence to reap the bounty of his murderous objective. One of the screen’s greatest villains, Rathbone’s chillingly sinister portrayal makes him a human monster who’ll stop at nothing, including ordering the murders of his young nephews, to quench his thirst for power.

Karloff is equally as frightening as Mord, the bald, club footed executioner who worships Richard as a God, and delights in torture and killing. We first lay eyes on him in his torture chamber sharpening his axe, a raven perched on his shoulder, cruelly denying a chained prisoner water. Mord lives only to serve and kill, and Karloff plays him unsympathetically, unlike some of his horror characterizations. He crushes a young chimney sweep under his clubbed foot, thrusts a dagger into the back of the pathetic Henry IV, and carries out the murders of the child princes without remorse. Karloff, under Jack Pierce’s makeup, added another brutish portrait to his growing Rogue’s Gallery with Mord.

My favorite scene involves another horror star, young Vincent Price in his third film, playing the effeminate Duke of Clarence. Price, who made his film debut in Lee’s 1938 comedy SERVICE DE LUXE, gets a tutorial in terror sharing a scene with Boris and Basil when, after Clarence is charged with treason and sent to the tower, he engages in a drinking duel with Richard. Seeming to win, the drunken Duke is overtaken by Richard who, along with Mord, drowns him in a vat of wine (“He asked for malmsey”, Richard coolly states). Price, Karloff, and Rathbone would be reunited a quarter century later (along with Peter Lorre) for a horror of another kind, THE COMEDY OF TERRORS .

The large cast includes Ian Hunter as the equally despicable Edward VI, Barbara O’Neil as his wife Elyzabeth, John Sutton and Nan Grey as the young lovers John Wyatt and Lady Alice, and Leo G. Carroll as Lord Hastings. Familiar Faces involved are Lionel Belmore, Stanley Blystone, Ernest Cossart, Rose Hobart , Miles Mander, Michael Mark, John Roister (Rathbone’s son), and Walter Tetley. Horror buffs carp that TOWER OF LONDON falls more on the historical drama side than horror, but the performances of Rathbone and Karloff (and Price, to a certain extent) make it a worthy entry in the Universal Horror canon. They may not be Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster , but Richard III and Mord certainly belong alongside them.

Halloween Havoc: SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (Universal 1939)


Horror films took a hiatus from Hollywood from 1937 to 1939. The British Horror Ban forbid monster movies from being screened without an X rating, curtailing the export of terror-inducing tales. The Production Code was in full effect, with Joseph Breen and his censorship minions clamping down on what they considered wasn’t suitable for the public. Lastly, Carl Laemmle Sr. (and his son) were ousted from Universal Studios, the company he founded, with J. Cheever Cowdin taking over as Chairman. Cowdin was a money man with a tight hold on the bottom line for the cash-strapped Universal.

Then in 1938, a Los Angeles theater desperate for business featured a triple-bill consisting of FRANKENSTEIN , DRACULA , and KING KONG , playing to sold-out crowds, and a nationwide rerelease saw similar box-office success. The Universal Monsters were back in business, and a third sequel to their profitable series based on Mary Shelley’s novel was readied for production – SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, reuniting horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi , and teaming them with another villainous star, Basil Rathbone .

We begin with some exposition, as village leaders debate the return of heir Wolf von Frankenstein and his family, followed by more exposition from Wolf aboard a train. Now that we’re all caught up on the legend of Frankenstein, the film begins in earnest, with those villagers not exactly giving Wolf and family a warm welcome! Arriving at the ancestral home (which features a large portrait of Colin Clive in the library), Wolf is called on by Inspector Krough, who warns of danger from the villagers due to a series of unsolved murders rumored to be the work of the “ghost” of his father’s creation. Krough gives Wolf his father’s papers, then relates the tale of how he acquired his wooden arm… seems The Monster ripped his limb out “by the roots” as a child!

Wife Elsa isn’t a fan of the creepy old Gothic manse (and it is creepy indeed, an Expressionistic nightmare filled with shadows), and is worried for son Peter (who doesn’t seem to worry about anything). Wolf, ever the determined scientist, explores his father’s old laboratory, and is almost killed by a falling  boulder. He discovers the grotesque, broken-necked Ygor, a former body snatcher for pater Frankenstein, who was hanged for his crimes but miraculously lived. Ygor takes Wolf to his sick “friend” – The Monster, lying in a catatonic state! “Make him well, Frankenstein”, croaks Ygor, and Wolf, being his father’s son, sets out to revive The Monster and vindicate dear old dad…

Producer/director Rowland V. Lee was tasked with reviving the franchise, and his film has echoes of James Whale’s style combined with a more modernistic approach. Lee, who began his career in silents, had success in the Pre-Code Era and helmed some popular swashbucklers (1934’s THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, 1935’s THE THREE MUSKETEERS), wasn’t happy with the script by radio’s Willis Cooper (LIGHTS OUT), and did an extensive rewrite, throwing out some ideas, adding new ones, and beefing up the character of Ygor. Together with cinematographer George Robinson (who’d go on to do a number of Universal shockers in the 40’s) and Art Director Jack Otterson, Lee creates a world populated by shadows, a rich dark texture giving SON OF FRANKENSTEIN the look and feel of those early 30’s classics while updating things for modern (1939) audiences unfamiliar with the earlier movies. And he succeeds, thanks to his collaborators both behind and in front of the camera.

Basil Rathbone as Wolf von Frankenstein is a bundle of nerves with a mad gleam in his eye, a far cry from his cool, calm, and collected Sherlock Holmes persona. He even gets to perform a bit of swashbuckling himself at the film’s conclusion. Rathbone was one of Hollywood’s vilest villains, though here he’s as much misunderstood anti-hero as dastardly mad scientist. Lionel Atwill’s Inspector Krough was one of his best parts before a scandal reduced him to ‘B’ movie status (and yes, you can’t help but think of Kenneth Mars in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN when you see him – thanks again, Mel Brooks!). Boris Karloff, in his third outing as The Monster, isn’t given much to do but growl and just be a killing machine. Where he obtained that fur vest he wears is never explained – a Christmas gift from Ygor, perhaps? Josephine Hutchinson plays the thankless role of wife Elsa. A lot of horror critics harp on little Donnie Dunagan’s acting as young Peter, but HEY… HE WAS JUST A FIVE YEAR OLD KID AT THE TIME! LEAVE HIM ALONE (besides, Donnie more than made up for it when he supplied the voice of BAMBI)!

Then there’s the great Bela Lugosi as the broken-necked Ygor, arguably his last great film part. Lugosi hadn’t been seen onscreen in over a year, and Lee was determined to keep the actor working by giving him a bigger part in the film. Ygor pops up everywhere in the movie, so the Hungarian star would continue to get paid by skinflint Universal. Lugosi responded with his best performance since THE RAVEN , not just playing Jack Pierce’s monstrous makeup but creating a full-bodied character. His gravelly voice is unrecognizable from his Count Dracula days, and the scene where he spits at one of the village leaders (“bone gets stuck in my throat”) is a highlight. Ygor is the only one who can control The Monster, and after his demise all bets are off! Ygor should’ve led to better roles for Bela Lugosi, but his poor choices and addiction to morphine instead sunk him, like Atwill, to Poverty Row programmers at PRC and Monogram.

SON OF FRANKENSTEIN was a hit, and Universal was back in the monster business. But it would be the last big budget effort for the Universal Monster brigade. The studio decided to concentrated on quick, cheap flicks during World War II, as we shall see…

Halloween Havoc!: THE COMEDY OF TERRORS (AIP 1964)

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Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone had all appeared together on film in various combinations seven different times, but never all at once until THE COMEDY OF TERRORS. This black comedy masterpiece spoofs AIP’s own Poe flicks and Shakespeare, with the quartet of chiller icons having a grand old time playing Richard Matheson’s delicious screenplay to the hilt. Horror and noir vet Jacques Tourneur gets to direct the old pros, and the supporting cast features classic comic Joe E. Brown and Rhubarb The Cat (more on him later!).

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Price  is Waldo Trumble, the besotted, greedy proprietor of Trumble & Hinchley Funeral Parlor. He’s cruel to wife Amaryllis (Joyce Jameson), a failed opera singer (“I wish her vocal chords would snap”) who he married only to gain control of the company from her doddering old, half-deaf father Amos. “Demon rum will get you yet!”, she tells Waldo, to which he replies, “I look forward to that occasion with anticipation, madam”. Waldo keeps trying to give Amos a dose of poison, which the elderly man thinks is medicine, and Amaryllis keeps stopping him, causing the befuddled Amos to wail, “I don’t believe you care whether your poor old father lives or dies!”.

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Business has been off lately, and landlord Mr. Black (the Shakespeare-spouting Rathbone ) demands his year’s worth of back rent or he’ll throw them all out within 24 hours (Waldo calls him a “penny-pinching old pig”). Soon Waldo and his assistant, the fugitive Felix Gillie (Lorre , who’s wanted for “sundry illicit peccadillos”), go and drum up some business on their own, murdering a well-to-do local. They get the stiff’s funeral, but the widow stiffs them, running off to Boston without paying, leading Waldo to a morbid conclusion: he’ll “kill two birds with one pillow” by murdering Mr. Black, thus billing for an expensive funeral and ridding himself of his overdue rent obligations.

This leads to total chaos when Black, who suffers from catatonia, refuses to stay dead! “What place is this?”, he bellows as he rises from his coffin, causing Waldo and Felix to kill him again. Black’s finally laid to rest in his family crypt, but rises again, scaring the beejesus out of the cemetary caretaker (Big-mouth Brown in his final screen appearance). While Waldo and company celebrate their success, Black grabs an axe and heads for the funeral parlor in a rainstorm, ready to unleash mayhem on the lot of them!

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Price is at his hammy best as Waldo, with one snide remark after the other. When he finds out the first victim’s widow has run off, the murderous undertaker moans, ” Is there no morality left in the world?”. On Amaryllis’s singing, he growls, “Will you stop that ungodly caterwauling!”. He and Lorre (who calls Waldo ‘Mr. Tremble’) are like a macabre version of Abbott & Costello with their homicidal wordplay and bumbling pratfalls (performed by stunt doubles). Rathbone gets to shine too, spouting Shakespeare alone in his bedroom while fencing with shadows, and continuously popping back from the dead with lines like “What jiggery pokery is this?”.

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But its King Boris who truly steals the show as the feebleminded Amos Hinchley. Karloff shows a flair for comedy rarely seen in his films with just a look and a quick quip. Boris stands out amidst all the absurdity, and his soliloquy at the dinner table, babbling about embalming methods, is a scream:

“Old Ben Jonson, buried standing up… Edward III, buried with his horses… Alexander the Great, embalmed in honey, so they say, heehee… Egyptians used to hollow ’em out and fill ’em full of rosin… Egyptains used to bend ’em in two and stick ’em in a vase of salt water… give ’em false eyes, yank their brains out with a hook!”.

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Joyce Jameson holds her own with the seasoned vets as the off-key Amaryllis. She’d acted with Price and Lorre in a segment of the horror anthology TALES OF TERROR, and appeared in films from THE APARTMENT to DEATH RACE 2000, but is best remembered as one of the “Fun Girls” from Mt. Pilot on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW . Then there’s Rhubarb the Cat, who slinks his way throughout the film as Cleopatra. The Orange tabby, who’s real name was Orangey, was a star in his own right, winning two Patsy Awards (the animal equivalent of the Oscar)  for RHUBARB (costarring with Ray Milland) and as Audrey Hepburn’s pet “Cat” in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S. The feline was one of trainer Frank Inn’s animal stars, and his science-fiction credits included THIS ISLAND EARTH and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN.

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Richard Matheson’s  screenplay sends up his Poe films with wit and black humor. Jacques Tourneur takes a break from serious filmmaking like CAT PEOPLE and OUT OF THE PAST , and lets the veteran horror actors take free reign. All the old AIP behind the scenes gang contribute to the madness (DP Floyd Crosby, music score Les Baxter, editor Anthony Carras, art director Daniel Haller), and have a good time doing it. But it’s the four Masters of Terror that make this worthwhile, especially Karloff’s comical performance as Amos. Sandwich this one between ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN for a triple bill of horror and humor on All Hallows Eve, and have yourself a hysterically horrific Halloween!

 

 

Why I Love THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (Warner Brothers 1938)

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Readers of this blog know CASABLANCA is my all-time favorite movie, but THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD is definitely in the Top Ten, maybe even Top Five (I’d have to think about it… sounds like a future post!). The story’s been told on-screen dozens of times, from the silent 1922 Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler to Disney’s 1973 animated version to the recent Russell Crowe/Ridley Scott offering. But it’s this 1938  classic that remains definitive, thanks to a marvelous cast, breathtaking Technicolor, and the greatest cinematic swordfight in history.

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You all know the legend of Robin Hood by now, so no need for a recap. Instead, I’ll go right into what makes this film so great, starting with Errol Flynn as the brave Sir Robin of Locksley. Flynn was at the peak of his career here, after starring in such action-packed hits as CAPTAIN BLOOD   , THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, and THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER. The dashing Australian’s charisma jumps through the screen in scene after scene, and his athletic performance is a joy to behold. Maid Marion puts it best when she says, “He’s brave and he’s reckless, yet he’s gentle and kind”.

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Marion of course is Olivia de Havilland , in the third of her eight films with Flynn. Olivia was 22 at the time, and this film cemented her status as a movie star. Lady Marion Fitzwalter isn’t just some stereotypical damsel in distress. A haughty noblewoman at first, looking down her nose at the outlaw Robin, she soon has a change of heart when she sees firsthand the plight of the oppressed Saxons. Marion aids in freeing Robin from the gallows, and is imprisoned for her troubles. Her love scenes with Errol are electricifying; you can see the warmth they have for each other in their eyes.

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Basil Rathbone  is at his evil best as Sir Guy of Gisbourne. He’s just so despicable, I can just imagine the booing and hissing of 1938 audiences. Imperious, full of himself, conniving, and deceitful, Rathbone is the baddest of screen bad guys here. Both Rathbone and Flynn were accomplished fencers, and their climactic duel to the death may very well be the most exciting three minutes in Hollywood history. Basil’s matched in the villain department by Claude Rains’ Prince John, the effeminate usurper to his brother Richard’s throne. Both men were among the greatest actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and together they’re a terrific pair of foils for the jaunty Flynn.

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Let’s not forget Robin’s Merry Men, consisting of a fine cast of character actors. Patric Knowles makes a charming Will Scarlet, ever loyal to Robin. Alan Hale Sr., an offscreen pal of Flynn, is just right as Little John, and their first meeting battling with staffs over who’s going to cross that log is just one of many memorable moments. Gruff voiced Eugene Pallette gives a rowdy edge to Friar Tuck, who also meets Robin under not the best of circumstances. Even Herbert Mundin (Much the Miller) and Una O’Connor (Marion’s handmaiden Bess), both of whom I usually find annoying, are welcome additions to the cast.

Familiar Face spotters will want to catch Ian Hunter as good King Richard, and Melville Cooper as the rotten Sheriff of Nottingham. Look closely for Lionel Belmore, Harry Cording, Frank Hagney, Holmes Herbert, Carole Landis, Lester Matthews, and Leonard Mudie. Oh, and there’s another star appearing in this: Roy Rogers’ horse Trigger, as Marion’s steed!

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Michael Curtiz took over the directorial reigns from William Keighley, though both receive screen credit. Curtiz was Warner’s go-to guy, and doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. The fact is, this is the man who directed CASABLANCA, ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, CAPTAIN BLOOD, MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM , THE SEA HAWK, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, MILDRED PIERCE, LIFE WITH FATHER, and WHITE CHRISTMAS, among many others. I’ve said it before: anyone with that kind of resume deserves to belong in the conversation of all-time great directors. Period.

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The stirring score by film music pioneer Erich Wolfgang Korngold won an Oscar, as it should have. It’s one of Hollywood’s most exciting pieces of music, and can be enjoyed without the movie. Indeed, it’s been played by numerous symphonies for decades now. The art direction (Carl Jules Weyl) and editing (Ralph Dawson) also won Oscars, and the costumes by Milo Anderson and cinematography by Tony Gaudio should have. Norman Reilly Raine and Seton I. Miller crafted the perfect action script, well-balanced with humor and romance. Producer Hal Wallis does his usual meticulous job getting every detail right, and the Technicolor is bright and vivid. If you want to turn young kids on to classic films, this is the one to show them.

THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD is for kids of all ages, from five to ninety-five. It’s must viewing for lover’s of classic film, and as close to perfection as a movie can get. This enduring film has passed the test of time, and will be remembered and viewed as long as there are movie lovers left alive. Don’t miss it!

Twilight of the Gods: HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE (Woolner Brothers 1967)

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Let’s face it, HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE is a lousy excuse for a movie. The acting is atrocious, the script derivative and juvenile, and the direction nearly non-existent. It’s a scare comedy that’s neither scary nor funny, and if you’re not a fan of 60’s style Country & Western music you’ll absolutely hate it. The only reason this Woolner Brothers drive-in dreck is remembered today is the presence of horror icons Basil Rathbone , John Carradine, and Lon Chaney Jr as the villains. But even this trio of terror can’t save the movie.

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The plot (such as it is) concerns country entertainers Woody Weatherby (Ferlin Husky, a classic country singer who can’t act), Boots Malone (blonde bombshell Joi Lansing), and Jeepers (country comic Don Bowman) forced to spend the night in the eerie Beauregard Mansion. There put through the usual fright paces with ghosts (obvious sheets on strings), a “weird-woof” (as Jeepers calls it), and a gorilla (George Barrows, Ro-Man of the immortal ROBOT MONSTER). Of course, it’s all a plot by some nefarious spies led by Madame Wong (Linda Ho, CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER) and the horror vets. A secret agent from the Master Organization To Halt Enemy Resistance aka MOTHER (Richard Webb, TV’s CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT) rescues the singers, and a “real” ghost (a Confederate general, no less) helps in bringing down the bad guys.

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Then we get about half an hour of Ferlin Husky introducing acts at the Nashville Jamboree. If you’re not into twangy 60’s honky tonk country you might as well turn the film off, but if you are, you’ll get to see the late Merle Haggard perform “Closing Time”, lovely Molly Bee singing “Heartbreak USA”, Husky doing “One Bridge I Haven’t Crossed”, Bowman talk/sing a novelty tune about a drunk who can’t find his house, and the sexy Miss Lansing do the upbeat “Part Time Lover”.  I think I enjoyed this part of the movie more than the actual “story”.

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As for the classic heroes of horror, Chaney comes off best as Maximilian. Despite his ragged appearance and bloated body from years of alcohol abuse, Lon gives the most energetic performance here, clowning around with the gorilla, cruelly locking Joi Lansing in an Iron Maiden, and seemingly enjoying himself. Carradine, once a fine actor in films like STAGECOACH and THE GRAPES OF WRATH, had been coasting for years now in Grade-Z trash like this. He hadn’t made a prestigious picture since 1962’s THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, and wouldn’t again until 1976’s THE SHOOTIST with old pal John Wayne.

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The fall from grace was even harder for Basil Rathbone. Once hailed as a Great Screen Villain in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, DAVID COPPERFIELD, and A TALE OF TWO CITIES, Rathbone hit it big portraying master sleuth Sherlock Holmes in a series of films that remain popular even today. He is widely considered THE filmic Sherlock Holmes, and I certainly won’t debate that! But Rathbone tired of being typecast and fled Hollywood to return to the New York stage, causing resentment among certain studio types. When he returned to movies he was cast in smaller supporting roles, and by the 60’s was reduced to low-budget crap like THE MAGIC SWORD and VOYAGE TO THE PREHISTORIC PLANET. HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE was Rathbone’s last American film (he did one more in Mexico, AUTOPSY OF A GHOST), a sad ending for one of movies greatest actors. Basil Rathbone died later that year at age 75. (This was also the last feature for director Jean Yarbrough, the man who brought you THE DEVIL BAT !)

So there are a few reasons to watch this turkey: (1) if you’re a classic horror buff and want to see these icons one more time (2) if you’re a Country & Western fan and are willing to sit through the bulk of this nonsense to get to the music (3) if you’re into the pneumatic Monroe/Mansfield/Van Doren wannabe Joi Lansing . If you’re not in any one of those three categories, steer clear.

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In Like Flynn: CAPTAIN BLOOD (Warner Brothers 1935)

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Australian Errol Flynn made a splashy Hollywood debut in 1935’s CAPTAIN BLOOD, a big, sprawling epic about pirates of the Caribbean. But this captain’s no Jack Sparrow, he’s a virile man of action who leads his crew from slavery to salvation and wins the hand of beautiful Olivia de Haviland in the process. Director Michael Curtiz was given an almost million dollar budget for this one, and he pulled out all the stops, with large-scale battle scenes and the proverbial cast of thousands.

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It’s the year 1685, and England is going through a rebellion to depose tyrannical King James II. Doctor Peter Blood is summoned by his friend Jeremy Pitt to help some men wounded in battle. They’re interrupted by the King’s men, who arrest and charge them with high treason. The rebels are held for three months under brutal conditions before being sentenced to hang. But King James has a more dastardly idea, and sends Blood and the rebels to the West Indies to be sold into slavery. The men are shipped to Jamaica, where they’re bought by the cruel Colonel Bishop at twenty pounds per man to work in his sugar mill. The impudent Blood almost gets condemned to labor in the mines, but Bishop’s niece Arabella takes a liking to him and buys Blood for herself, for a measly ten pounds. Blood is resentful of the smitten young lass, who also helps him get a position as doctor to the island’s incompetent, gout ridden Governor, while the rest of the rebels suffer torture and whippings courtesy of her sadistic uncle.

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Blood and his men plan an escape, which is suspected by Bishop, who flogs Jeremy. When the good doctor tries to comfort his friend, Bishop intercedes. He’s about to receive the same treatment when cannon fire rings out. The city of Port Royal is under attack by Spanish pirates, and the rebels escape during the battle. They commandeer a Spanish ship, and decide to become pirates themselves, a “brotherhood of buccaneers” beholden to no country. Now-Captain Blood leads his crew of privateers in an onslaught of looting and kidnapping, while the hateful Bishop is appointed new governor, vowing revenge.

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In the pirate stronghold of Tortuga, Blood forms a partnership with devious Frenchman Levasseur. Meanwhile, Arabella returns from a trip to England with envoy Lord Willoughby. Levasseur and his men capture the ship and hold them hostage, with the pirate planning to keep Arabella for himself. Blood and his men arrive and, in a reversal of fortune, he buys Arabella as his slave. Levasseur protests, and the two captains engage in a swordfight won by Blood. When Arabella rebuffs Blood for his pirate ways, he orders the crew to return her to Jamaica, despite the fact that the English fleet is at Port Royal. The ship arrives at the harbor only to discover French warships, and it’s then that Willoughby explains England and France are at war. He offers Blood’s crew a pardon and commission in the Royal Navy, which they scoff at until hearing the scoundrel King James has been deposed, and England’s now ruled by good King William III. Blood and his men raise a captured French flag and sail into Port Royal, engaging the warships in a blazing sea battle. Victorious, Captain Blood wins the heart of fair Arabella, and Willoughby appoints him new governor of Jamaica, much to Bishop’s chagrin!

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Warner Brothers took a huge gamble in casting newcomer Flynn to star in this lavish production, but it paid off and made Flynn a name to be reckoned with in Hollywood. He remained so for the next twenty years, despite his “wicked, wicked ways” as a notorious womanizer, drinker, and secret heroin addict. His costar was fairly new to the screen at the time, too. Nineteen year old Olivia de Haviland had made three films prior to the role of Arabella Bishop, and the teaming of Flynn and de Haviland made sparks fly. The duo did eight films together, including the outstanding THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD in 1938. Errol and Olivia were made for each other onscreen, though the demure de Haviland didn’t approve of Errol’s real-life philandering. She was “the girl who got way”, but they did remain friends through his life.

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CAPTAIN BLOOD features a cast of Hollywood’s best, including that master villain Lionel Atwill as the evil Colonel Bishop. Basil Rathbone portrays Levasseur, and the movie features that great duel between Blood and the Frenchman. This was the first screen swordfight pitting Flynn against Rathbone (both were accomplished fencers), and would be elaborated on in ROBIN HOOD. Ross Alexander (Jeremy) was being groomed for better things at Warners, with featured parts in large films and starring roles in B’s like BRIDES ARE LIKE THAT and HOT MONEY. But the unfortunate Alexander was a closeted homosexual whose first wife (in what was known as “a marriage of convenience” back then) killed herself. Struggling with depression, debt, and a potential gay sex scandal, Alexander committed suicide in 1937, tragically ending what was once a promising career. There are plenty of others from the Familiar Face Brigade onboard, such as Guy Kibbee, Henry Stephenson, Donald Meek, J Carrol Naish, Leonard Mudie, E.E. Clive, and Matthew “Stymie” Beard.

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The rousing score is by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, one of Hollywood’s pioneers in film music. The Romantic composer won an Oscar for THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, and wrote the film music for ANTHONY ADVERSE, THE SEA HAWK, and KING’S ROW before turning to symphonies and operas in the late forties. Casey Robinson’s screenplay is full of wit and action, and was a write-in candidate for the Oscar that year. Some of Robinson’s other works were DARK VICTORY, NOW VOYAGER, THE SNOWS OF KILAMANJARO, and 1962’s THE SON OF CAPTAIN BLOOD, starring Errol’s own son Sean Flynn. CAPTAIN BLOOD is based on the novel by the prolific Rafael Sabatini, whose historical adventures were popular in the early 20th century. Sabatini’s works were brought to the screen numerous times, with SCARAMOUCHE, THE SEA HAWK, and THE BLACK SWAN among the more well-known titles. There’s action, adventure, and romance galore in this movie, and a charming debut by Errol Flynn. The language, the swordplay, and the sexy screen team of Flynn and de Haviland all combine to make CAPTAIN BLOOD one of the most entertaining swashbucklers to grace the Silver Screen. The only thing that could improve this film is if it were shot in color. Don’t let that stop you from watching, because CAPTAIN BLOOD is just as glorious in black & white, a great Hollywood movie that can be enjoyed over and over again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CLEANING OUT THE DVR Pt. 5: Fabulous 40s Sleuths

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It’s time again for me to make room on the DVR! This edition features five Fabulous 40’s films of mystery and suspense, with super sleuths like Dick Tracy and Sherlock Holmes in the mix for good measure. Here’s five capsule reviews of some crime flicks from the 1940s:

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WHISTLING IN THE DARK (MGM 1941, D: S. Sylvan Simon): The first of three movies starring comedian Red Skelton as Wally Benton, aka radio detective ‘The Fox’. Skelton is kidnapped by a phony spiritual cult led by Conrad Veidt to devise “the perfect murder”. Ann Rutherford and Virginia Grey play rivals for Red’s affections, while Eve Arden is her usual wisecracking self as Red’s manager. Some of the jokes and gags are pretty dated, but Red’s genial personality makes the whole thing tolerable. Fun Fact: Rags Ragland (Sylvester) was once the Burlesque comedy partner of Phil Silvers.

Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes) Lionel Atwill (Professor James Moriarty)
Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes) Lionel Atwill (Professor James Moriarty)

SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON (Universal 1942, D: Roy William Neill): Basil Rathbone IS Sherlock Holmes in this fourth entry in the series. All the gang from 221B Baker Street are along for the ride (Nigel Bruce, Dennis Hoey, Mary Gordon) as Holmes tries to foil a plot to steal a new bomb sight (for the war effort, don’t you know) by his arch-enemy Professor Moriarty. A secret code holds all the answers. That Grand Old Villain Lionel Atwill plays “The Napoleon of Crime”, and it’s terrific to watch screen vets Rathbone and Atwill engage in a battle of wits. In fact, it’s my favorite Universal Holmes movie because of the pairing of the two. Fun Fact #1: Rathbone and Atwill also costarred in 1939’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. Fun Fact #2: Kaaren Verne (Charlotte) was the second wife of another screen villain, Peter Lorre!

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TWO O’CLOCK COURAGE (RKO 1945, D: Anthony Mann): Ann Rutherford’s back as a female cab driver who helps an amnesia victim (Tom Conway) piece things together in this early effort from director Anthony Mann. Unlike Mann’s later films, the tone’s light and breezy here. There’s lots of plot twists to keep you guessing, and Conway and Rutherford have good onscreen chemistry. Cracked Rear Viewers will recognize supporting players Lester Matthews (The Raven), Jean Brooks (The Seventh Victim), and Jane Greer (Out of the Past). Hollywood’s favorite drunk Jack Norton does his schtick in a bar scene (where else?). Fun Fact: Actor Dick Lane (reporter Haley) later became a TV sports commentator in the 50’s, announcing pro wrestling and Roller Derby matches!

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DICK TRACY MEETS GRUESOME (RKO 1947, D: John Rawlins): Chester Gould’s stalwart comic-strip cop (personified by Ralph Byrd) goes up against gangster Gruesome, who uses a paralyzing gas to commit bank robberies. Boris Karloff is Gruesome (of course he is!), and adds his special brand of menace to the proceedings. (At one point, Dick’s aide Pat exclaims, “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear we were doing business with Boris Karloff!”) Gould’s trademark quirky character names like L.E. Thal and Dr. A. Tomic are all in good fun, and the Familiar Face Brigade includes Anne Gwynne, Milton Parsons, Skelton Knaggs, and Robert Clarke, among others. Fast moving and fun, especially for Karloff fans. Fun Fact: Boris played many gangsters early in his career, including a role in the 1932 Howard Hawks classic SCARFACE.

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THE THREAT (RKO 1949, D: Felix Feist): Convict Red Kluger (Charles McGraw) busts out of Folsom Prison and kidnaps the cop who sent him away (Michael O’Shea), the DA (Frank Conroy), and his former partner’s moll (Virginia Grey again). The police go on a manhunt to capture Kluger and save the others in this taut, suspenseful ‘B’ crime noir.  Quite brutal and violent for it time, with McGraw outstanding as the vicious killer on the loose. A very underrated and overlooked film that deserves some attention. Highly recommended! Fun Fact: Inspector Murphy is played by Robert Shayne, better known as Inspector Henderson on TV’s SUPERMAN.

Enjoy others in the series: