Small But Powerful: HITLER’S MADMAN (MGM 1943)

Culver City’s MGM “dream factory” and Gower Gulch’s PRC were miles apart both literally and figuratively.  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer boasted “more stars than there are in heaven”, while tiny Producer’s Releasing Corporation films starred faded names like Neil Hamilton, Harry Langdon, Bela Lugosi , and Anna May Wong. MGM films featured lavish, opulent sets; PRC’s cardboard walls looked like they would fall over if an actor sneezed. Poverty Row PRC movies were dark and grainy; MGM created glossy, gorgeous Technicolor productions. MGM specialized in big budget extravaganzas, whereas PRC rarely spent more than $1.98. Miles apart – so why did major studio MGM purchase and release a movie originally made for minor PRC, HITLER’S MADMAN?

For one thing, it’s a damn good film, and an important one as well. Based on the true-life atrocity of the destruction of Lidice, Czechoslovakia on June 10, 1942 after the assassination of Nazi Reichsprotektor Reinhardt Heydrich, known as “The Hangman of Prague”, HITLER’S MADMAN was produced with loving care by German exile Seymour Nebenzal, the influential producer of Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE (1933). Nebenzal was working as an independent producer for PRC at the time, and for one of their films it certainly has a big-budget look and feel; for MGM however, it looks made for the bottom half of a double feature.

Another German ex-pat made his directing debut with HITLER’S MADMAN: Douglas Sirk, later widely praised for his Technicolor 50’s melodramas like MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, WRITTEN ON THE WIND, and IMITATION OF LIFE. Sirk’s style here is more film noir than 50’s kitsch, thanks in great part to DP Jack Greenhalgh… or is it? Another German refugee, Eugen Schufftan , is credited as “Technical Adviser”. Schufftan was one of Germany’s greatest cinematographers, working with all the legends of cinema in his native land. He was DP on Lang’s METROPOLIS and Gance’s NAPOLEON, and shot films for European giants like Pabst, Ophuls, Siodmak, and Zinnemann. But his U.S. status at the time was such that he couldn’t join the cinematographer’s union, so no DP credit allowed. The same thing happened on Edgar G. Ulmer’s BLUEBEARD (1944); Jockey Feindel got the screen credit, while Schufftan is listed as “Production Design”. Schufftan would later be unionized, and received an Oscar for 1962’s THE HUSTLER.

The screenplay by Peretz Hirschbein, Melvin Levy, and Doris Malloy (with an uncredited assist from Ulmer) is based somewhat on Edna St. Vincent Millay’s famous poem “The Murder of Lidice”. This fictionalized account tells of Karel Vavra, one of six parachuted into Czechoslovakia by the RAF to stir up support for the underground movement, bringing a message of hope and resistance to the downtrodden people. Karel is reunited with his lover Jarmilla Hanka , whose father Jan is wary of resistance, preaching patience and pacifism. When rabble-rouser Bartonek is arrested under the charge of “sabotage” on Heydrich’s orders, Jan goes with the man’s wife to plead with the Nazi Mayor Bauer. Their pleas fall on deaf ears; Bartonek returns home in a pine box.

Heydrich’s car, travelling on official business, is slowed down at Lidice because of a religious festival being held in the town. Angered by this foolishness, the Nazi gets out and begins to scold the villagers. Father Cemlanik turns the other cheek, only to receive a slap from Heydrich. His faith is tested as Heydrich tries to provoke him, and when the Reichsprotektor uses a sacred cloth to wipe the dust off his boots, Cemlanik can stand no more. Charging at Heydrich, the priest is shot dead in the street. Jan does an about-face and pledges to kill Heydrich, with aid from Karel and Jarmilla. They ambush his auto on his return, mortally wounding “The Hangman”. SS Leader Himmler places the call to Hitler himself as Heydrich dies. Der Fuhrer gives him a grim order: Lidice is to be “razed to the ground, her name to be eradicated from every signpost… all male inhabitants over 16 years of age will be shot, all women interred in concentration camps, all children taken from their mothers and placed in correctional institutions”.

Let’s take a moment to praise John Carradine’s performance as Reinhardt Heydrich. Unlike his hammy “mad doctor” roles, Carradine gives a restrained portrayal of pure evil. Carradine has ice water running through his veins, visiting a university teaching intellectualism (“Intellect is poison”, he tells them matter-of-factly), then rounding up the female students to “entertain” the brave German soldiers at the Russian Front, making him little more than a lowly pimp. He shows no remorse when one of the girls, rather than be enslaved, jumps out a window to her death. Even on his deathbed, Heydrich is evil until the end: “I should have killed all of them, not 30 a day, 300… 3,000”. John Carradine is absolutely chilling as Reinholdt Heydrich, scarier here than in any of his horror roles, and the performance is on a par with his work in John Ford’s STAGECOACH and THE GRAPES OF WRATH.

The rest of the cast amounts to what would’ve been an all-star movie by PRC standards. Universal leading man Alan Curtis (, BUCK PRIVATES,   PHANTOM LADY ) plays Karel, while former Paramount starlet Patricia Morison (who’s still alive as of this writing at age 102!) is Jarmilla. Her father Jan is Ralph Morgan, a PRC regular whose brother Frank (THE WIZARD OF OZ), worked for MGM. A round of applause goes out to comic actor Edgar Kennedy  in a rare dramatic role as Nepomuk, a hermit who lives in the woods. We’re never sure whose side Nepomuk’s on until the ambush on Heydrich when he aids the rebels. He also leads the men of Lidice in singing the Czech National Anthem as they’re lined up to be killed in a stirring scene, certainly Kennedy’s finest screen hour.

Ludwig Stossel is the Nazi Mayor Bauer, efficient and loyal to the party. He’s proud of his two sons – and gets word they’ve both been killed at the Russian Front. His wife Magda (Johanna Hofer) goes to pray at the village church shortly after Father Cemlanik is murdered, and meets Jan there. The scene reminded me of THE FIGHTING SULLIVANS , told from the German point of view. Cemlanik himself is played by Al Shean, formerly of the vaudeville duo Gallagher & Shean (and uncle of the The Marx Brothers! ). Others in the fine supporting cast are Howard Freeman (Himmler), Ava Gardner   (uncredited as one of the university students), Frank Hagney, Victor Killian, Vicky Lane, Michael Mark, Tully Marshall, Elizabeth Russell (heartbreaking as Mrs. Bartonek), Peter van Eyck, Blanche Yurka (Mrs. Hanka), and I’d swear I recognized Leon Askin (Gen. Burkhalter of HOGAN’S HEROES) as a Nazi, but he’s not listed on IMDb. Do any sharp-eyed readers know if it’s him?

This shocking, well-made film would’ve probably fallen into obscurity like many PRC movies if not for MGM. As it stands, Fritz Lang’s HANGMEN MUST DIE, released in March of ’43, is the better known film version of the story of Lidice. HITLER’S MADMAN was released five months later, and though it’s definitely low-budget, it’s a polished little gem, thanks in large part to the efforts of Nebenzal, Sirk, Schufftan, and John Carradine. The story of Lidice is not to be forgotten, a tragedy of human suffering and human evil, and I urge you Dear Readers to watch it as soon as possible.

A MEMORIAL TO THE MURDERED CHILDREN OF LIDICE STILL STANDS TODAY. NEVER FORGET.  

Lunatic Fringe: Wheeler & Woolsey in HOLD ‘EM JAIL (RKO 1932)

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The comedy team of Wheeler & Woolsey is pretty esoteric to all but the most hardcore classic film fans. Baby-faced innocent Bert Wheeler and cigar-chomping wisecracker Robert Woolsey made 21 films together beginning with 1929’s RIO RITA (in which they’d starred on Broadway), up until Woolsey’s untimely death in 1937. I had heard about them, read about them, but never had the chance to catch one of their films until recently. HOLD ‘EM JAIL makes for a good introduction to W&W’s particular brand of lunacy, as the boys skewer both the prison and college football genres, aided by a top-notch comic supporting cast that includes a 16-year-old Betty Grable.

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Football crazy Warden Elmer Jones (slow-burn master Edgar Kennedy ) is the laughing-stock of the Prison Football League. His team hasn’t had a winning season in years, and he sends a message to the president of “the alumni association” to send some new recruits “for the old alma mater”. He goes to the president’s office, and enter Wheeler and Woolsey, two novelty salesmen who proceed to drive him crazy. When he leaves, the real “alumni” show up, and after the boys brag about their gridiron prowess, they’re set up to stick up the joint with real guns instead of their water pistols.

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Of course, the framed fools are sent to Bidemore, where Spider trades barbs with the warden’s spinster sister Violet (the marvelous Edna May Oliver ) and Curley tries to romance daughter Barbara (Miss Grable). They continue to infuriate the poor warden with their antics, especially when Violet has them made trustees. When Bidemore’s star quarterback gets paroled, Woolsey touts Wheeler as a superstar. Let’s just say Tom Brady, he ain’t!! This all culminates in the most improbable victory since Super Bowl LI , with Bidemore winning the game and getting cleared of the frame-up to boot.

The deliriously funny script is by S.J. Perelman, Walter Deleon, and Eddie Welch. Perelman was a writer for The New Yorker magazine, and one of the early 20th century’s best known humorists. He wrote two of the Marx Brothers movies (MONKEY BUSINESS and HORSE FEATHERS), the stage and screen versions of ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, and won an Oscar for his screenplay AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS. His fingerprints are all over the film’s dialog, as in this exchange between Woolsey and Oliver- Edna: “I spent four years in Paris. Of course, I’m not a virtuoso”. Woolsey: “Not after four years in Paris”. Edna (pausing a beat): “I trust we’re talking about the same thing!”. Earlier in the film, W&W get booted out of a swanky nightclub on their keisters, followed by this-  Wheeler: “You know, I met that bouncer’s foot before”. Woolsey: “Yeah, I met it behind”.

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Deleon was no slouch when it came to comedy either, having written films for W.C. Fields , Bob Hope, Jack Benny Abbott & Costello , and Martin & Lewis. Welch seems to be a kind of “comedy doctor”, with three other W&W films to his credit, and an uncredited contribution to Laurel & Hardy’s SONS OF THE DESERT . All this madness was directed under the deft hand of Norman Taurog, who began in films in 1912, won an Oscar for 1931’s SKIPPY, and directed all the great comics of the classic era. Wheeler & Woolsey’s slapstick sight gags and pun-tastic wordplay are on a par with other teams of the time, and are worth rediscovering. Start right here with HOLD ‘EM JAIL.

 

Poli-Tricksters: The Marx Brothers in DUCK SOUP (1933)

DuckSoup1When I heard TCM was airing DUCK SOUP tonight, I set the DVR. I got home as soon as I could (after an excellent Tom Rush concert) and began watching before it was finished recording. This is one of my favorite movies of all time, right up there in my personal comedy pantheon with such gems as AIRPLANE! and BLAZING SADDLES. It’s one of the most anarchic comedies ever made, and certainly one of the funniest.  If you think today’s politicians are a bunch of looney tunes, wait til you get a load of these guys.

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