Halloween Havoc!: Boris Karloff in THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG (Columbia 1939)

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Bela Lugosi ( see yesterday’s post ) wasn’t the only horror icon who starred in a series of low-budget shockers. Boris Karloff signed a five picture deal with Columbia Pictures that was later dubbed the “Mad Doctor” series and, while several notches above Lugosi’s “Monogram Nine”, they were cookie-cutter flicks intended for the lower half of double feature bills. The first of these was THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG, which sets the tone for the films to follow.

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Karloff plays Dr. Henry Savaard, inventor of a new surgical technique that requires the patient to die, then reviving him with a mechanical heart after performing the operation. This later became standard operating procedure during open-heart surgery, but back in 1939 was considered science fiction! Anyway, Savaard’s young assistant Bob agrees to go through the experimental procedure, but his girlfriend freaks out and calls the cops, claiming Savaard is about to murder him. The cops, along with a reporter named Scoop no less, barge into the doctor’s lab and interrupt things. The delay causes Bob’s death and Savaard is arrested for murder.

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We next get one of my favorite film devices, the spinning-newspaper-headlines montage! Savaard goes on trial, is found guilty, and sentenced to hang. Karloff gets to deliver a long, dramatic speech, which he does with his usual elegant style: “You who have condemned me, I know you’re kind. Your forebearers poisoned Socrates, burned Joan of Arc, hanged, tortured all those whose only offense was to bring light into darkness. For you to condemn me and my work is a crime so shameful that the judgement of history will be against you for years to come.” There’s more, but you get the gist, and King Boris delivers it with passion.

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Next, more spinning headlines! Savaard’s about to be executed, and donates his body to science, but what the officials don’t know is his corpse will be handed over to his loyal assistant Lang, who revives Savaard from the dead. Then… no, not spinning headlines, this time it’s calendar pages marking the passing of time. Six months go by, and six of the Savaard jurors have hung themselves… or have they? Scoop smells a scoop, and his editor encourages him to get the story: “Make it weird! Make it dramatic! And make it snappy!”. Scoop gets wind that the judge has invited the remaining jurors, along with the DA, the lead cop, and the freaked-out girlfriend, to meet that evening at Savaard’s old house. Of course, it’s a trap, and now all Savaard’s enemies are in one place so he can pick them off one by one….

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THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG isn’t a bad movie, though modern audiences will find the plot all too familiar. Boris is the glue that holds the thing together, and gives us a great performance. Others in the cast range from good to not-so-good. Lorna Gray’s in the latter category, in the thankless role of Savaard’s daughter Janet, who spends most of the picture in tears. Robert Wilcox as Scoop is just okay, no better or worse than any horror film hero. The Columbia Pictures stock company fills out the rest of the roster, including character favorites like Don Beddoe , Ann Doran, Roger Pryor, Byron Foulger, Charles Trowbridge, Dick Curtis , John Tyrell, and a young James Craig.

Nick Grinde’s direction keeps things moving, and Karl Brown’s screenplay has several soliloquies for Karloff to deliver. Brown’s career stretched back to D.W. Griffith and BIRTH OF A NATION, and he was cinematographer on the silent classic THE COVERED WAGON. He did some directing, but is mostly remembered for his screenplays on these Columbia Karloffs and what’s arguably Bela’s worst Monogram, THE APE MAN. The remaining “Mad Doctor” films mostly follow suit: THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES, BEFORE I HAND, and THE DEVIL COMMANDS (the fifth in Karloff’s contract was THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU, a spoof co-starring Peter Lorre ). They’re all okay, not on a par with Karloff’s Universal or RKO classics, just B-movies that’ll keep you entertained on a cold Halloween night.

Halloween Havoc!: KING KONG (RKO 1933)

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No matter how many times it’s remade, no matter what new technology’s available, the original 1933 KING KONG will never be topped. The story’s familiar to horror lovers: Showman Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) charters the ship Venture to take him to the unchartered Skull Island. He scours New York to find a “love interest” for his next picture. Finding down on her luck gal Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) trying to steal an apple, he offers her a chance for “money and adventure and fame….the thrill of a lifetime”. Denham’s brainstorm is to travel to the island to capture pictures of Kong, a beast that Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher) thinks is just “some native superstition”. First Mate Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) is reluctant to have a woman on board, but soon warms up to her. They arrive at the island to observe the natives performing a strange ritual. A young native girl is being adorned with flowers. When they spy the white Ann, the chieftan (Noble Johnson) offers to buy her. The crew refuses, but the natives sneak onboard in the dead of night and capture Ann.

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When Charlie the cook (Victor Wong) finds a native bracelet on deck, Denham and the crew go ashore. Ann’s been tied to an altar behind the massive locked gate. The natives climb up the wall to wait for the arrival of…KONG! A giant ape appears and grabs Ann into the jungle. Denham, Driscoll, and some crew members go in hot pursuit, encountering monsterous dinosaurs along the way. Kong ends up killing all save for Driscoll and Denham. The mighty beast is downed by “gas bombs”, and carted away to New York.

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Denham stages a Broadway showing of “King Kong, The Eighth Wonder of the World”. The theater’s jam packed with curiosity seekers. The press is on hand, eager to see the beast. Kong is presented onstage in chains, in what reminds one of a crucifixion pose. When the photographers take picture, their flashbulbs disturb the ape and he breaks free. Pandemonium erupts as King Kong is loose in New York City. Snatching Ann through a window, Kong climbs to the top of the Empire State Building. Airplanes are sent to strafe Kong, machine guns a-blazing, and the great ape topples to his doom. Carl Denham gets the last words, sorrowfully stating, “It was beauty killed the beast”.

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Co-directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack keep the story moving along at a fine clip, aided immensely by Max Steiner’s score. Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion special effects hold up very well, and the matching shots of Kong with the actors are well integrated. Kudos should also go to Murray Spivak and the sound department, which adds to the excitement. Eagle-eyed film fans will be able to spot James Flavin, Roscoe Ates, Dick Curtis, Charlie Hall, Syd Saylor, and Sam Levine in small roles. Cooper and Schoedsack even have cameos as the pilot and gunner who take down Kong. KING KONG has stood the test of time, and is a bonafide classic that never fails to thrill viewers of all ages. A perfect way to spend a Halloween evening.