Beautiful Dreamer: MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (RKO 1949)

The folks who brought you KING KONG – producer Merian C. Cooper, director Ernest Shoedsack, writer Ruth Rose, animator Willis O’Brien – returned sixteen years later to the giant ape theme with MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, a classic fantasy that can stand on its own. Though the film usually gets lumped into the horror genre, it’s more a fable than a fright fest, a beautifully made flight of fancy for children of all ages, and one of my personal favorites.

In deepest darkest Africa, little Jill Young buys a cute baby gorilla from the natives. Twelve years later, impresario Max O’Hara, along with rodeo wrangler Gregg and his crew, travel to The Dark Continent in search of exotic animal acts for a new show he’s producing, when they come face to face with the now 12 foot tall, 2,000 pound gargantua, affectionately called Joe by a grown Jill. She’s the only person that can control the beast, so hustler O’Hara signs them both up to headline his newest venture, Hollywood nightclub The Golden Safari.

The act features Jill playing “Beautiful Dreamer” on piano while Mighty Joe hoists her far above his head. Then, in one of my favorite segments, ten of the world’s strongest men (professional wrestlers Sammy Stein, Killer Karl Davis, Rasputin, Henry “Bomber” Kulky, Slammin’ Sammy Menacker , Max the Iron Man, Wee Willie Davis, Man Mountain Dean, The Swedish Angel, and ex-heavyweight boxing champ Primo Carnera) attempt a futile tug o’war against Joe! The act’s a smash hit, yet neither Jill nor Joe are happy with their decision to leave home for the bright lights of Tinseltown.

A trio of trouble-causing drunks sneak backstage and get Joe wasted on booze, and the enormous ape escapes and wreaks havoc on the club. Joe is captured and ordered to be killed by those pesky authorities, but the ever-hustling O’Hara comes up with a scheme to free the beast and return him and Jill to Africa. The cops are in hot pursuit when the gang spots a burning orphanage (which was tinted red in the version I recently viewed), and Mighty Joe rescues a bunch of children from certain doom. Joe and Jill are allowed to return home, accompanied by Jill’s now boyfriend Gregg, and guess what – that’s right, they live happily ever after!

Sixteen year old Terry Moore had been playing mostly bits before shooting to stardom in MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. Miss Moore. who’s still with us at age 90, went on to a lengthy screen career in films like COME BACK LITTLE SHEBA (for which she received a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination), DADDY LONG LEGS, SHACK OUT ON 101, PEYTON PLACE, and numerous TV appearances (and also did a memorable 1984 nude PLAYBOY pictorial at age 55!). Ex-rodeo champ, stuntman, and John Ford favorite Ben Johnson put his roping and riding skills to good use here as Gregg (and Ford himself was an uncredited co-producer). KING KONG’s Robert Armstrong plays the hyperbolic producer O’Hara, older but still as fast-talking as ever. And perennial Warner Brothers movie sidekick Frank McHugh steals a few scenes as O’Hara’s sidekick Windy.

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG is a Familiar Face spotter’s dream (especially that panning shot down the nightclub bar!). Old Hollywood Buffs will have a ball locating (among many others) such stalwarts as Iris Adrian , Kay Christopher, Chester Clute, Joyce Compton, Ellen Corby , James Flavin, Bess Flowers, Byron Foulger , John Gallaudet, Ed Gargan, Dorothy Granger, Paul Guilfoyle, Carol Hughes, Tom Kennedy, Donald Kerr, Charles Lane, Richard Lane , Kermit Maynard, Anne Nagel , Nestor Paiva, Jack Pennick, Irene Ryan , William Schallert , Regis Toomey – a veritable classic movie lover’s paradise! Happy Hunting!

Willis O’Brien  supervised the special effects, but most of the animation was done by his protege, Ray Harryhausen. Young Ray had done some film work, notably on George Pal’s Puppetoons shorts, but MIGHTY JOE YOUNG was his first of many fantasy features to follow – classics such as BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA, 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH , 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, ONE MILLION YEARS BC , GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, and CLASH OF THE TITANS. His debut here earned an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, which was given to O’Brien as special effects supervisor. O’Brien, in turn, handed the Oscar over to Harryhausen, and deservedly so. Honestly, you don’t see that kind of humility in Hollywood very often!

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG was remade by Disney in 1998. Having never seen it, I can’t really comment on it, but I don’t see how it could possibly compare to the original. This is (in my humble opinion) one of the all-time great fantasy films, and despite it’s age still holds up well today. It’s the kind of movie that, if you  showed it to the younger generation, would surely spark their interest in films of the past, and I can’t give it a greater compliment than that!

 

Southern Fried Slasher: THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (AIP 1976)

In 1946, the town of Texarkana, on the Texas-Arkansas border, was rocked by a series of brutal attacks on its citizens from February to May that left five people dead and three seriously wounded. The psycho, who wore what seemed to be a white pillowcase with eyeholes cut in it, caused quite a panic among the townsfolk, and the local and national press had a field day sensationalizing the gruesome events. The case was dubbed “The Texas Moonlight Murders”, and the mysterious maniac “The Phantom Killer”. Famed Texas Ranger M.T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullus was brought in to lead the investigation and rounded up a few suspects, but no one was ever formally charged with the grisly crimes. To this day, the case has never officially been solved.

Forty years later, Texarkana native Charles B. Pierce produced, directed, and costarred in THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, a film based on those infamous past events. Pierce had grown up a movie-mad kid, and had a variety of show biz related jobs, including TV weatherman, running his own ad agency, and set decorator for films like WACO and PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW . In 1972, he borrowed $100,000, grabbed a 35mm camera, hired a bunch of locals, and made his own film, THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK, a horror tale about the fictitious Foulke Monster who lived in the swamps of Arkansas. Released by South Carolina-based Howco International, the low-budget regional thriller raked in almost five million bucks at the box office, mainly in drive-ins and on the Southern circuit. Pierce’s next solo effort, the action comedy BOOTLEGGERS (starring a pre-CHARLIE’S ANGELS Jaclyn Smith), also did well, but a pair of Westerns (WINTERHAWK, THE WINDS OF AUTUMN) didn’t, so the Arkansas auteur returned to horror with this creepy little gem.

Producer/director/actor Charles B. Pierce

THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN isn’t perfect – there’s a lot of padding involving an inept cop named Benson intended for comic relief. In fact, Pierce himself plays the dumb cracker, and director Pierce should’ve told actor Pierce to cut the crap and get out of the story’s way! That story, written by Earl E. Smith (who also has a role, as a shrink brought in to consult on the case), is one of those “the incredible story you are about to see is true… only the names have been changed” types, as intoned in Vern Stierman’s narration. Our Phantom Killer debuted two years before Michael Myers, four years before Jason, and eight before Freddie, making him one of the first (if not the first) of the silent slashers (well, silent except for the chatty, pun loving Freddie).

The opening scene is pretty damn frightening, with our hooded killer emerging from the woods and attacking a young couple parked out on Lover’s Lane. On a rain-soaked night three weeks later, Deputy Norman Ramsey hears shots fired out on a lonely back road, and discovers two dead bodies. The town is now up in arms, literally, as area gun shops quickly sell out. Texas Ranger Capt. J.D. Morales (like I said, “the names have been changed”) vows, “I plan on catching him… or killing him”. But in another three weeks, the killer strikes again, this time a pair of teens out late after the prom, and he ties the girl to a tree and murders her in an skillfully directed and edited scene involving a trombone! The final attack finds The Phantom shooting a man down as he sits in his easy chair, then stalking the man’s wife (effectively played by GILLIGAN’S ISLAND star Dawn Wells) with a pickaxe, as she barely escapes with her life.

“Skipper! Gilligan! HELP!!!”

Besides the former castaway Mary Ann, the cast features Oscar winner Ben Johnson as the Texas Ranger Morales. I don’t know if it’s just Johnson’s laconic style or he’s walking through the part, but he doesn’t seem very interested to me. Better is Andrew Prine as Deputy Ramsey, who acts like he’s actually invested in his role. Stuntman Bud Davis plays The Phantom Killer, and he’s quite menacing with his size and heavy breathing underneath that pillowcase mask. The rest of the cast is populated by locals and non-actors; the victims give it their all in the wide-eyed screaming department under Pierce’s direction.

Proto-slasher: The Phantom Killer

Charles B. Pierce directed a few more films (including a BOGGY CREEK sequel that later got the MST3K treatment), but none of them matched the success of THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN. The movie began the onslaught of psycho-killer films to come, and slasher fans can be grateful for that. It’s certainly not the greatest film ever made, but Pierce, like other regional auteurs working outside the studio system,  did the best he could with what he had. Like Herschell Gordon Lewis and George Romero before him, Pierce helped usher in an entire new horror genre, one that’s still going strong today.

Happy Birthday John Wayne: SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (RKO 1949)

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My all-time favorite actor was born Marion Mitchell Morrison on May 26, 1907 in Winterset, Iowa. But John Wayne the movie star was born in 1930 when, after years of bit parts, he landed the lead role in Raoul Walsh’s THE BIG TRAIL. The movie flopped at the box office, but it got Wayne noticed. After scuffling along in low-budget, juvenile B-Westerns for most of the 30’s, Wayne was cast as The Ringo Kid in John Ford’s blockbuster STAGECOACH , and his career took off like a wild stallion.

“The Duke” (a nickname he picked up as a kid) was an A-Lister now, the biggest star at Republic Pictures. Wayne and Ford continued their film collaborations throughout the 40’s. At the end of the decade RKO released the second of the Wayne/Ford “Cavalry Trilogy”, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON. The film was a smash hit, a rousing adventure bolstered by Wayne’s portrayal of a man twenty years older than himself, Captain Nathan Brittles.

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Nathan Brittles is a  by-the-book horse soldier who rose through the ranks to make captain. He lives by his choices, his code summed up in his favorite saying: “Never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness”. His practical, no-nonsense manner make Nathan a well-respected cavalry officer, but mask his softer side. Nathan Brittles is a true sentimentalist, making nightly visits to speak with his deceased wife at her gravesite. He’s loyal to his men, especially his Irish Top Sergeant Quincannon, who has a penchant for the bottle. And his gruff demeanor with Lieutenants Cohill and Pinnette are designed to bring out the best in them. Nathan Brittles is a completely different performance from Wayne’s other two 1949 roles (John Breen in THE FIGHTING KENTUCKIAN and Sgt. Stryker in SANDS OF IWO JIMA), and The Duke proves once again he’s not only a “star”, but a fine actor.

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Nathan’s just six days away from retirement, eager to ride west to the untamed California territory.  His superior officer Major Allshard gives him one last assignment: a final patrol to talk peace with the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, who’ve left the reservation to band together with renegades seeking to wage war with the whites after The Battle of Little Big Horn. But there’s a catch, as the Major wants Nathan to take his wife and young niece Olivia along, sending them away from the potential threat of war. Nathan protests (in writing, according to protocol), but reluctantly leads the troop through hostile territory, assisted by his lieutenants Cohill and Pinette, both of whom are vying for Olivia’s affections. They’re to drop the ladies at the stagecoach station on the way. However, advance scout Sgt. Tyree discovers a horrific tableau, and Nathan and his men ride out to discover the station burned, the man and woman who run it dead, their children left orphans. Now Nathan must take these children along and return to Fort Starke, his mission a failure.

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Nathan, disheartened by his perceived failure, inspects the troops one last time, the men presenting him with a silver watch for his retirement, inscribed “To Captain Brittles from C Troop, Lest We Forget”, choking the stoic leader up. He tricks Quincannon into donning civilian togs and gives him money to spend at the bar. Quincannon is arrested for this and put in the guardhouse, after a comic barroom brawl. Nathan has done this for Quincannon’s own safety, as he knows the Irishman has two weeks to go before his own retirement, and his fondness for whiskey would probably end up with Quincannon getting booted from the service without Nathan to keep him in check. (Plus, the brawl itself is hilarious, staged by some of Hollywood’s top stuntmen, including Frank McGrath and Gil Perkins. And what’s a John Ford film without a good barroom brawl!)

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Nathan has four hours remaining before his time with the Cavalry is up, so he rides with Tyree straight into enemy camp. He has a powwow with Chief Pony-That-Walks, hoping to avoid the potential bloodshed. The two old warhorses believe that “old men should stop wars”. Pony-That-Walks agrees, but believes it’s “too late, young men don’t listen…many will die”. Having failed, Nathan and his men devise a nighttime raid that scatters the Indian’s horses, thus leaving them on foot. The Indians, having lost face, must now walk back to their reservations, and the war has been averted. Nathan Brittles, “ex-Captain of Cavalry USA”, now heads west to California, “towards the setting sun, the end of the trail for all old men”. Suddenly, Tyree rides up on him with news from the war department… Nathan has been made Chief of Scouts, and given the rank of Lt. Colonel by his contacts in Washington (including President Ulysses S. Grant!). Nathan and Tyree return to Fort Starke, where a dance is being held in his honor. But first, he excuses himself, returning once again to his wife’s grave to give her the good news.

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John Ford  surrounds Wayne with a solid supporting cast. John Agar and Harry Carey Jr. play the rival Lieutenants, with Joanne Dru (Wayne’s RED RIVER costar) as the object of their affections. Victor McLaglen (Quincannon) is the comic relief, and almost steals the picture. George O’Brien (Major Allshard) was a silent star thanks to Ford’s 1924 THE IRON HORSE and F.W.Murnau’s classic SUNRISE, and later made a series of B-Westerns. Ben Johnson (Tyree) was a champion rodeo rider and stuntman, a favorite of both Ford and his spiritual heir Sam Peckinpah. Johnson won a supporting actor Oscar for 1971’s THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. Other Ford favorites here are Mildred Natwick, Arthur Shields (brother of Barry Fitzgerald), Ford’s own brother Francis, Chief John Big Tree, Noble Johnson, Tom Tyler, and Paul Fix. Actor/director Irving Pichel narrates the tale.

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John Wayne’s main costar is once again Monument Valley, Ford’s favorite shooting spot. Its rugged terrain forms the perfect background for Nathan’s rugged individualism, and Winton Hoch Technicolor cinematography won the Oscar for his breathtaking filming of the beautiful scenery. Hoch had honed his skills as cameraman on the James A. Fitzpatrick TRAVELTALKS shorts, and was awarded the Oscar on four separate occasions.

SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON is the best of the Ford/Wayne “Cavalry” films, a colorful, grand entertainment that provides another acting showcase for John Wayne. So here’s to The Duke on his 109th birthday anniversary, continuing to bring the American West to vibrant life in films like this one. And remember, “Never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness”!

Let’s Get Buzzed With THE SWARM (Warner Brothers, 1978)

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The 1970s were the decade of the all-star disaster movie, and nobody made ’em like Irwin Allen. The Master of Disaster opened the floodgates for this genre with 1972’s THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, following quickly with the red-hot 1974 mega-hit THE TOWERING INFERNO. Soon Hollywood was unleashing one disaster film after another: EARTHQUAKE, AVALANCHE, SKYJACKED, and so on. But Allen was a sci-fi guy at heart, having made his mark with TV shows like LOST IN SPACE, VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, THE TIME TUNNEL, and LAND OF THE GIANTS. Combining the two seemed natural for Allen, so together with screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, they concocted THE SWARM.

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A missile base has been mysteriously attacked, killing the communications crew. General Slater (Richard Widmark) rides in on a chopper, leading the troops. Brad Crane (Michael Caine), a Ph D entomologist (studier of bugs), is on base for reasons unknown, so the General holds him prisoner. A “moving black mass” on the radar screen reveals a giant cloud of “millions of bees”, that attacks some military helicopters, which crash and burn (lots of crashing and burning in this one!) Meanwhile, the sleepy little town of Marysville is holding their annual flower festival, where we’re introduced to a love triangle between two elderly gentlemen (Ben Johnson and Fred MacMurray) and a spinster schoolteacher (Olivia de Haviland,,,,hey, what’s SHE doing here!!)

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The President places Crane in control of the bee problem, to the chagrin of General Slater. Crane assembles a crew of experts including immunologist Dr. Krimm (Henry Fonda) and Dr. Kildare, I mean Dr. Hubbard (Richard Chamberlain). There’s a military doctor, Captain Anderson (Katherine Ross), on board, too, and of course she and Crane get all googly-eyed and lovey-dovey during the movie’s course. Slater assigns his assistant (Bradford Dillman) to keep an eye on the scientist. The rest of THE SWARM is a bunch of set-pieces for the action. Killer bees attack picnickers! Killer bees attack Marysville! Killer bees attack a train! Killer bees attack a nuclear facility!! The military attack the killer bees, burning down half of Houston in the process! Killer bees retailiate and attack the military! Finally (thank God!), Crane comes up with the answer to stop the bees from attacking by luring them to sea via sonic waves (shades of INVISIBLE INVADERS!!), where the military blows the swarm to kingdom come with missiles!!

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Allen directed THE SWARM himself, and he pretty much lets the actors do what they want, which is to overact and collect their paychecks. Those slo-mo shots of bee attacks are ludicrous, not frightening at all. Stirling Silliphant’s script is paint-by-numbers hokum, a far cry from his Oscar-winning IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, not to mention his classic TV series ROUTE 66. Besides those I cited earlier, we get what amounts to cameo roles from Patty Duke, Slim Pickens, Lee Grant, Jose Ferrer, Cameron Mitchell, and Donald ‘Red’ Barry. Sadly, this was Fred MacMurray’s last film appearance.

THE SWARM came at the tail end of the disaster cycle. Allen made a couple more (BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, WHEN TIME RAN OUT) before returning to television. The all-star disaster epic was spoofed by 1980’s AIRPLANE!, and is revived every now and then (ARMAGGEDON, of instance). I guess if your interested in playing Spot the Star, you might enjoy this film. Otherwise, I suggest you find another way to get your buzz on than watching THE SWARM.

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