Special Memorial Day Edition: Randolph Scott in GUNG HO! (Universal 1943)

Duke Wayne wasn’t the only movie cowboy who fought WWII in Hollywood. Randolph Scott battled fascism in quite a few war dramas, and one of his best is 1943’s GUNG HO! (currently streaming on The Film Detective ). The rock-solid Mr. Scott plays tough-as-nails Col. Thorwald, an expert in guerilla warfare thanks to his experience with the Chinese army, who whips a diverse crew of Marines into fighting shape to launch the first American ground offensive against the Japanese on Makin Island.

Scott and his second-in-command, the versatile character actor J. Carrol Naish (playing a Marine of Greek descent this time around), gather up a motley crew of misfits and reprobates ala THE DIRTY DOZEN:  there’s battling stepbrothers Noah Beery Jr. and David Bruce (who’re also rivals for the affections of pretty Grace McDonald in a subplot), hillbilly farmboy Rod Cameron, murderous minister Alan Curtis , “no good kid” Harold Landon (from Brooklyn, of course!), hustler Sam Levene , and most notably a young Robert Mitchum as a scrappy ex-boxer with the moniker ‘Pig Iron’. A shirtless Bob made the bobbysoxers swoon, and he was soon cast in a series of ‘B’ Westerns at RKO, then scored big two years later in another war flick, THE STORY OF G.I. JOE , leading to superstardom and screen immortality.

There’s plenty of blazing combat action, and the violence is quite brutal for the era, but we were at war, and War is Hell. Director Ray Enright handles it all well, with plenty of help from some of Universal’s best: DP Milton Krasner, editor Milton Carruth, composer Frank Skinner, and special effects wizard John P. Fulton . Lucien Hubbard and Joseph Hoffman’s script was based on the first-hand account by Lt. W.S. LeFrancois, first published in The Saturday Evening Post. Besides those previously mentioned, other Familiar Faces to film fans include Irving Bacon (in a funny bit as a soda jerk), Peter Coe , Dudley Dickerson, Louis-Jean Heydt, Robert Kent, Richard Lane, Walter Sande, and Milburn Stone. Those of *ahem* a certain age will recognize the voice of newscaster Chet Huntley narrating the proceedings.

Carlson’s Raiders: The Real Heroes of Makin Island

Modern day viewers may cringe at some of the blatant racist epitaphs hurled towards the Japanese (“I wanna kill Japs”, “I just don’t like Japs”), but once again I need to remind you of historical context. Pearl Harbor was still fresh in America’s collective mind, and retaliation was demanded. The real raid on Makin Island was the first strike, led by Lt. Col. Evans Carlson and his second-in-command James Roosevelt (FDR’s son). The 2nd Raider Battalion was transported by submarine to the Japanese stronghold, and the bloody two day battle resulted in the destruction of Japan’s garrison, with 46 verified enemy kills. The Americans weren’t spared either: 28 dead (including nine who were captured and later executed), 17 wounded, and 3 MIA. Today we honor those who sacrificed their lives on Makin Island and in other battles for the cause of freedom. Before you eat those hot dogs or bask on the beach, remember them in your thoughts and prayers.

Christmas-tery: Deanna Durbin in LADY ON A TRAIN (Universal 1945)

Deanna Durbin was the best Christmas present Universal Studios ever received. The 15-year-old singing sensation made her feature debut in 1936’s THREE SMART GIRLS, released five days before Christmas. The smash hit helped save cash-strapped Universal from bankruptcy, and Miss Durbin signed a long-term contract, appearing in a string of musical successes: ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL, THAT CERTAIN AGE, SPRING PARADE, NICE GIRL?, IT STARTED WITH EVE. One of her best is the Christmas themed comedy/murder mystery LADY ON A TRAIN, one of only two films directed by  Charles David, who married the star in 1950, the couple then retiring to his native France.

Our story begins with young Nikki Collins travelling by train from San Francisco to New York City to visit her Aunt Martha, reading a murder mystery to pass the time. Nikki witnesses a real-life murder committed through a window, and after ditching her wealthy father’s assistant Haskell (“of the New York office”), goes to the police, who laugh her off, thinking the crime novel’s gone to her brain. So Nikki seeks help from the mystery writer himself, Wayne Morgan, who wants nothing to do with this ditzy dame (and neither does his society gal, Joyce Williams). Nikki learns at a newsreel screening the man was shipping magnate Josiah Waring, whose body was moved from the scene of the crime to his Long Island estate to make his death look like he fell off a stepladder while decorating his Christmas tree.

The plucky girl heads to Long Island, and is mistaken for Waring’s “fiancé”, nightclub singer Margot Martin, by the deceased’s irresponsible nephew, Arnold Waring. She’s arrived just in time for the reading of the will, in which Arnold and his more sedate brother Jonathan receive a grand total of a dollar each, while the bulk of the estate goes to Margot. Nikki keeps up the charade, and finds a pair of bloody slippers stashed in Waring’s room. The trail leads to the Circus Club, where Nikki meets the real Margot, and she and Wayne get arrested for the murder of the club’s manager. Nikki’s bailed out, not by Haskell, but Arnold, and the entertaining comedy-mystery winds up with a suspenseful conclusion that’ll keep you guessing whodunnit right until the end.

Deanna’s a delight in a film that juggles elements of screwball comedy, musical segments, film noir, and straight mystery, never once dropping any of the balls. Deanna was one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood at the time (second only to Bette Davis), and the studio lavished attention on their star, with numerous costume and hairstyle changes throughout the film. Of course, her beautiful soprano voice is on display, and she sings “Give Me a Little Kiss”, Cole Porter’s “Night and Day”, and the Christmas perennial “Silent Night”, sweetly serenading her dad in San Francisco over the phone on Christmas Eve:

The supporting cast is a real Christmas present for Familiar Face spotters: there’s Ralph Bellamy as Jonathan Waring, Dan Duryea as his wastrel brother Arnold, the underrated and underutilized David Bruce (THE MAD GHOUL) as Wayne, the late Patricia Morison as Joyce, Edward Everett Horton as the flustered Haskell, Allen Jenkins and George Coulouris as a pair of henchmen, Samuel S. Hinds as the family lawyer, plus Jane Adams , Bobby Barber, Barbara Bates, Ben Carter (Mantan Moreland’s longtime vaudeville partner), Chester Clute, Joseph Crehan, Jaqueline deWit (as nasty Aunt Charlotte Waring), Tom Dugan, William Frawley Thurston Hall (the unfortunate victim), a pre-stardom Lash LaRue, George Lloyd, Sam McDaniel (the friendly train porter), Matt McHugh, Maria Palmer (the real Margot), Addison Richards, and Bert Roach, among many others.

LADY ON A TRAIN’s screenplay was written by Edward Beloin and Robert O’Brien, based on a story by Leslie Charteris, who knew a thing or two about mysteries – he was the creator of Simon Templar, aka The Saint! DP Woody Bredell adds some shadowy shots reminiscent of his work on Universal’s horror and noir flicks that enhance the film’s overall atmosphere, and Bernard B. Brown (who once  contributed sound effects for Warner’s early Merrie Melodies cartoons) garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Sound. Every Christmas season, I try to find holiday-themed films a little off the beaten track, and LADY ON A TRAIN is a real gem. Add it to your Christmas watch list!

Merry Christmas from Deanna Durbin!

Halloween Havoc!: THE SMILING GHOST (Warner Brothers 1941)

A mysterious killer stalks his prey in an old, dark house! Sound familiar? Sure, the formula has been around since Lon Chaney Sr. first crept his way through 1925’s THE MONSTER, and was perfected in the 1927 horror comedy THE CAT AND THE CANARY. THE SMILING GHOST, a 1941 variation on the venerable theme, doesn’t add anything new to the genre, but it’s a pleasant enough diversion with a solid cast courtesy of the Warner Brothers Stock Company of contract players and a swift 71-minute running time.

Lucky Downing, a somewhat dimwitted chemical engineer heavily in debt to his creditors, answers a newspaper ad for a male willing to do “anything legal’ for a thousand bucks. Rich Mrs. Bentley explains the job is to get engaged to her granddaughter, Elinor Bentley Fairchild, for a month. Smelling easy money, and a way out of the hole, Lucky and his best friend/valet Clarence take a train to the countryside to meet Elinor.

What Mrs. Bentley hasn’t explained to Lucky is that Elinor is the infamous “Kiss of Death Girl”, whose three previous fiances have all met with disaster. The first drowned and the third was bitten by a cobra “on the 18th floor of a Boston hotel”. The second, Paul Myron, is in an iron lung due to a car accident, and is working with plucky girl reporter (is there any other kind in these films?) Lil Barstow to prove victim #1 is the undead “Smiling Ghost”. Elinor’s family is your basic motley crew of eccentrics, including Great-Uncle Ames, a collector of shrunken heads who develops an interest in Clarence!

There’s sliding panels, secret passageways, and a masked killer roaming around, all the ingredients necessary for “old, dark house” fun. The script by Kenneth Garrett and Stuart Palmer is geared more towards humor than horror, though there’s a few atmospheric scenes staged by director Lewis Seiler , including one in a fog-shrouded graveyard. There’s also an innovative scene with Paul Myron in his iron lung talking to Lucky and Lil , his face reflected in the mirror,  well shot by DP Arthur L. Todd, whose career stretched from 1917 until his death in 1942.

Wayne Morris (KID GALAHAD, BROTHER RAT) does his good-natured lug act as Lucky, and he’s delightful. Ingenue Alexis Smith (THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT , THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS) has one of her earliest credited roles as Elinor. Brenda Marshall (THE SEA HAWK, THE CONSTANT NYMPH) gets the plucky reporter part, David Bruce (THE MAD GHOUL , LADY ON A TRAIN) is Paul, Lee Patrick (THE MALTESE FALCON, GEORGE WASHINGTON SLEPT HERE) is a cousin, Charles Halton (TO BE OR NOT TO BE, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE) is the creepy Grand-Uncle, and brawny Alan Hale Sr. (ROBIN HOOD’s Little John) gets to show off his comic talents as Norton the butler.

Wonderful Willie Best plays Clarence, whose relationship with Lucky is more as a pal than a servant. Mr. Best was a black comedian who no less than Bob Hope once called “the greatest actor I know”. Willie’s from the Mantan Moreland school of acting, meaning he was usually typecast as a superstitious, “feets don’t fail me now” stereotype, and this film’s no different. However, Best’s comic timing was impeccable, and he and Morris make a great duo. Unfortunately billed as “Sleep’n’Eat” early in his career, the actor brightened many a 30’s & 40’s film with his talent. Equally unfortunate, a 1951 drug bust made him unemployable. Gale Storm , who knew Willie from her Monogram days, gave him steady work as Charlie the elevator operator in her sitcom MY LITTLE MARGIE, and had nothing but good things to say about his professionalism. Ostracized by the black community during the civil rights movement, forgotten by Hollywood, and reduced to making his living selling weed and women, Willie Best, one of Hollywood’s first recognizable black stars, died of cancer in 1962 at the young age of 45.

THE SMILING GHOST is silly fun, and won’t scare anyone under the age of ten, just an  “old, dark house” mystery done by some seasoned pros that knew their business when it came to making quick ‘B’ movies. Sometimes I like these ”second features” better than the more prestigious films produced at the time. This one’s definitely worth a look.

 

Halloween Havoc!: THE MAD GHOUL (Universal 1943)

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I’m pressed for time, so no 1000 word essay tonight. Instead, let’s look at one of Universal’s lesser horror films, THE MAD GHOUL. The movie’s a “stand alone”, not connected to any of the studio’s monster series (Frankenstein, etc). I chose it because it stars one of horror’s unsung stars, George Zucco. The bug-eyed British character actor with the smooth delivery plied his trade in A list films (THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME) and Grade-Z clunkers (SCARED TO DEATH). He was the evil high priest Andoheb in three of Universal’s Mummy movies, Professor Moriarty in THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, and played a pivotal role in the monster fest HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Like his contemporary (and frequent costar) Bela Lugosi, Zucco wasn’t picky about where he worked, getting top billing in a string of PRC chillers. In THE MAD GHOUL, Zucco gives his best performance in a gruesome little tale about bringing “death to life”, graverobbery, and murder.

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The plot concerns college instructor Dr. Morris (Zucco) recreating a “poison gas” used by the Mayans to put people in a zombie-like state. The only way to revive them however, is by combining certain herbs with fluids from a fresh heart. His assistant Ted (David Bruce) is exposed to the gas and becomes a fiend. Ted has a girlfriend Isabelle (Evelyn Ankers of course), a singer also loved by Morris. When she confides to Morris she doesn’t love Ted anymore, the doctor thinks she wants him and exposes Ted to the zombie gas to get him out of the way. But it’s not the vain doctor she loves, it’s her pianist Eric (Turhan Bey). But Ted’s zombieism can’t be reversed without fresh hearts,  so Morris and Ted go on a graverobbing and murder spree, as they follow Isabelle on her concert tour.

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The cast also features King Kong’s Robert Armstrong as a hot-shot reporter, Milburn Stone of TV’s GUNSMOKE as a cop, and  tough guy Charles McGraw as his partner. It’s Universal’s most out-there 40s films, with it’s ghastly subject matter well ahead of its time. The director is James Hogan, better known for his Bulldog Drummond and Ellery Queen mysteries. This was Hogan’s first foray into horror, and sadly his last; he died soon after making this one. THE MAD GHOUL doesn’t get much attention from classic horror fans, but it’s well worth seeking out for a creepy B shocker unlike anything else made in its era. So show some love to George Zucco and THE MAD GHOUL, won’t you? And stay away from the zombie gas!