Happy Patriots Day: Abbott & Costello in THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES (Universal 1946)

Good morning! While most of you in America are fretting over Tax Day, here in Massachusetts we’re celebrating Patriots Day, commemorating the 1775 Battles of Lexington and Concord that kicked off the American Revolution. It’s a state holiday, and the Boston Marathon is held every year on this date, with the Red Sox playing their traditional 11:00am game. It’s been a tradition on this blog (well, since last year, anyway ) to feature Revolutionary War-themed films, and today we’ll take a look at THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES, an Abbott & Costello comedy that’s one of the duo’s best.

THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES differs from the usual A&C formula, with Bud and Lou playing separate characters rather than working as a team. The film begins in 1780, as Costello’s Horatio Prim, tinker by trade and true patriot, rides to visit his lady-love Nora. In his possession is a letter of recommendation from George Washington himself, but Abbott’s Cuthbert Greenway, jealous of Nora’s affection for Horatio, locks him in a trunk. Meanwhile, the lady of the house, Melody Allen, discovers her man Thomas Danbury is a traitor to the cause. Helping Horatio escape, the two are mistaken for British sympathizers, shot, and tossed down a well as the rebels ransack Danbury Manor and burn it to the ground. The rebel leader curses Horatio and Melody to spend eternity on the grounds unless it’s proven they weren’t traitors after all.

Fast forward 166 years and, as the ghosts of Horatio and Melody are still trapped on Earth, Danbury Manor is restored to its former glory by Sheldon Gage, planning to turn it into a tourist attraction. He brings along his fiancé June, her Aunt Millie, and his pal Dr. Ralph Greenway, a descendant of Cuthbert. There’s also servant Emily, said to possess psychic powers, as well as the power to creep people out (June  to Emily: “Didn’t I see you in REBECCA?”).

Our disembodied duo decide to haunt the joint in hopes of finding Washington’s letter and free their earthbound souls, and that’s when the fun really begins in this excellent fantasy-comedy directed by Charles Barton, who went on to make nine more movies with the team. Bud Abbott gets a chance to stop playing straight man and takes the brunt of the comic mayhem, as the ghostly Horatio mistakes him for Cuthbert (Bud plays both parts). But it’s Lou Costello who truly shines as Horatio, combining his farcical facial expressions and high-pitched vocal squeals with moments of pathos. Audiences weren’t used to seeing Bud and Lou as separate entities (though they also went this route in their previous film LITTLE GIANT), and they returned to  their tried-and-true routines with their next, BUCK PRIVATES COME HOME.

Marjorie Reynolds , fondly remembered for the Christmas classic HOLIDAY INN, makes a good foil for Lou as the ghostly Melody. Academy Award winner Gale Sondergaard didn’t play much comedy in her career, but she’s perfect as the weirdo Emily (and no, she wasn’t in REBECCA ; that was Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers). Binnie Barnes gets off some snappy one-liners as Aunt Millie (Bud during the séance scene: “We’ve all got to make our minds completely blank” Binnie: “Well, that should be easy for you!”). John Shelton and Lynn Baggett are bland as Sheldon and June, but veteran Donald MacBride livens things up as a cop towards the conclusion.

There’s plenty of spooky shenanigans to be had, as Horatio and Melody encounter modern (well, 1946 modern) technology, the séance sequence manages to be both funny and eerie, and the special effects hold up well for the most part. To cap it all off, there’s a hilarious final sight gag that’ll leave you laughing. Even non-A&C fans will enjoy THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES, a scare comedy that’s as patriotic as George Washington! With that, let’s all celebrate Patriots Day:

(Hey, I told you it’s a Massachusetts thing!)

Happy Birthday Bette Davis: THE LETTER (Warner Brothers 1940)

Film noir buffs usually point to 1940’s STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR as the first of the genre. Others cite 1941’s THE MALTESE FALCON as the film that launched the movement. But a case could certainly be made for William Wyler’s THE LETTER, released three months after STRANGER, but containing all the elements of what would be come to called film noir by future movie buffs. THE LETTER also features a bravura performance by Miss Bette Davis , who was born on this date in 1905, as one hell of a femme fatale.

The movie starts off with a bang (literally) as Bette’s character Leslie Crosbie emerges from her Malaysian plantation home pumping six slugs into Geoff Hammond under a moonlit night sky. The native workers are sent to fetch Leslie’s husband, rubber plantation supervisor Robert, from the fields. He brings along their attorney Howard Joyce, and it’s a good thing he does, as Leslie is booked on a murder charge and transported to Singapore to await trial.

Leslie’s story is that Hammond “tried to make love to me and I shot him” (in other words, a rape attempt), and her story never deviates, not even once, raising suspicion in the veteran barrister’s mind. That suspicion heightens when Joyce’s assistant Ong tells him he has knowledge of a letter proving Leslie’s statement is “not in every respect accurate”, written by Leslie herself. The incriminating letter in question is in the possession of Hammond’s Eurasian widow.

Leslie asks Joyce to take the money from Robert’s hard-earned savings and purchase said letter. He retrieves the letter in Singapore’s dark Chinese Quarter, and Leslie pleads with Joyce to suppress the evidence in order to vindicate her. Against his better judgement, he does so, and a not guilty verdict is found, but when the truth is finally revealed about Leslie’s relationship with Hammond, it proves devastating to all concerned…

The noir themes are all there – murder, crime, adultery, prejudice, and an overall sense of impending doom. Director Wyler was born in Alsace (now eastern France) in 1902, and certainly must have viewed the German Expressionistic films of the period as a youth. He came to America in 1921 at the behest of his mother’s cousin, Universal honcho Carl Laemmle, and worked his way up from “swing gang” member to director.

Though adept at virtually every film genre there is, many of his works have that dark touch of noir to them – DEAD END, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, DETECTIVE STORY, THE DESPERATE HOURS, and his later, underrated psychological horror THE COLLECTOR. The repeated shadowy stripe motif represents the prison these characters have all made for themselves, but the  standout scene for me was when Joyce visits the dark, mysterious Chinese section of town to purchase the letter, and that entrance by the Dragon Lady-looking Mrs. Hammond (Gale Sondergaard), a tense, gripping masterpiece of a moment (and is Willie Fung as the antique shop owner smoking an opium pipe there?).

Wyler was Bette’s favorite director, appearing in three films for him, and receiving Oscar nominations for them all (winning her second for 1938’s JEZEBEL). She dominates every scene she’s in, from her blazing entrance to the fatal final moment, and gives an Oscar worthy performance, though she lost to Ginger Rogers for KITTY FOYLE (there was some tough competition that year – besides Ginger, Bette was also up against Katherine Hepburn for THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, Joan Fontaine for REBECCA , and Martha Scott for OUR TOWN). Bette’s superb supporting cast includes Herbert Marshall as the cuckolded husband, James Stephenson in his Oscar nominated  performance as lawyer Joyce, (Victor) Sen Yung as the go-between Ong, and of course the aforementioned Sondergaard as the wronged Mrs. Hammond.


Though Davis was elated to be reteamed with Wyler, she must have been rapturous to learn the source material was a play by Somerset Maugham, whose story OF HUMAN BONDAGE put her on the Hollywood map back in 1934. Once on that map, Bette never left, and her remarkable film career spanned an incredible 58 years, with more classics than clunkers (although there were a few). And by the way, the line “Petah, Petah, give me the lettah, Petah”, done to death by Bette Davis impersonators forever, never appears in THE LETTER. There’s not even in “Petah” to be found in the movie! What you will find is a grim tale of forbidden love gone wrong, made by one of Hollywood’s masters and starring one of the brightest superstars in Hollywood history.

Happy birthday Bette Davis (1905-1989)

 

 

 

Halloween Havoc!: THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE (Universal 1944)

Jon Hall is back as The Invisible Man, but not the same one he played in INVISIBLE AGENT . Like all the Invisible Man movies, THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE features a new protagonist, as Hall plays Robert Griffin, an escaped mental hospital patient who comes to London seeking his share of a diamond mine after being left for dead in the African jungle by partners Sir Jasper and Irene Herrick. Griffin has returned to get what’s coming to him, and he does… Irene dopes him, and the couple throw the rascal out. Disoriented, Griffin stumbles into a nearby river, where he’s saved from drowning by shady Cockney Herbert Higgins.

Higgins and his disreputable attorney pal try to shake down Jasper, but are confronted by the local chief constable. Griffin’s left to fend for himself, when he stumbles upon the home of Dr. Drury, a scientist experimenting with invisibility on animals. After some scientific mumbo-jumbo, Griffin agrees to act as a human guinea pig for Drury, who successfully turns him transparent. But Griffin leaves him flat and sets out to get his revenge on the Herricks…

Jon Hall was mainly cast in heroic roles, notably in John Ford’s THE HURRICANE and a series of Arabian Nights fantasies with Maria Montez and Sabu. Here he gets a villainous turn, and he’s quite good as the madman Griffin. Too bad Hall didn’t get more horror parts, though later in his career he directed and starred in the 1965 cult film THE BEACH GIRLS AND THE MONSTER. Never really noted for his acting abilities, Hall carries himself well in this programmer.

A restrained John Carradine plays Dr. Drury without his usual horror movie scenery-chewing. Gale Sondergaard makes a sinister Irene, but her role is small. Lester Matthews (THE RAVEN ) tries for sympathy as Sir Jasper, but didn’t  receive any from me. In fact, most of the cast members are unsympathetic due to their backgrounds as written in Bertram Milhauser’s screenplay. As for the romantic leads, Evelyn Ankers gets limited screen time as Julie Herrick, and Alan Curtis as her boyfriend, reporter Mark Foster, is just plain boring.

That leaves veteran comic actor Leon Errol to steal whatever scene he’s in as Herbert. Errol had been spending most of his time making shorts for RKO and supporting Lupe Velez in her “Mexcian Spitfire” films, and he’s given a good showcase here playing Hall’s more-than-slightly crooked confidant. There’s a very funny scene set in a pub involving Errol, an invisible Hall, and a game of darts that allows Leon the opportunity to show off his comedy chops, which he does with his usual expertise.

John P. Fulton’s  special effects in THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE don’t seem up to his usual high standards, which could be a result of the film’s lower-than-usual budget. Ford Beebe keeps things moving swiftly in the director’s chair, and there are some decent horror parts, but on the whole THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE is the weakest entry in the series. H.G. Wells’s classic creation, like all the Universal Monsters, would meet Abbott & Costello in 1948’s A&C MEET FRANKENSTEIN , and return with the duo in 1951’s A&C MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN. Then poof, he was gone… not seen again until revived for a 1958 British TV series (where he still wasn’t, uh, seen!).

Halloween Havoc!: Miriam Hopkins in SAVAGE INTRUDER (Avco Embassy 1970)

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SAVAGE INTRUDER (aka HOLLYWOOD HORROR HOUSE) is the psychotronic slasher version of SUNSET BOULEVARD, with a dash of PSYCHO thrown in for good measure. Glamorous 30s star Miriam Hopkins plays Katherine Packard, an alcoholic has-been, but this is no WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE. It’s demented, sleazy, unsavory, and a good time!

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We start with some stock footage of Hollywood’s Golden Era, then the credits roll over shots of the decrepit Hollywood sign). (If you think you recognize the film premiere of THE DANCING CAVALIER, you’re right! It’s lifted from the film-within-a-film in SINGIN IN THE RAIN). The next scene shows us a young man following a middle-aged woman from a bar. He breaks into her home, conks her on the noggin, and starts sawing off her hand with an electric carving knife! When she wakes up screaming, he pulls out his hatchet and chops her to bits. He’s a serial killer who’s been terrorizing Tinsletown, and he’s played by John David Garfield, son of the late actor. While young Mr. Garfield has his dad’s looks and voice, he’s no chip off the acting block. In fact, he later went behind the cameras to work as an editor. But on with the show….

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A tour bus takes us to the estate of retired actress Katherine Packard (and yes, that’s ex-Stooge Joe Besser as your tour guide). The psycho-killer debarks and introduces himself as “Laurel N. Hardy”, looking for a job as nurse for Miss Packard. The old dame got drunk and fell down the stairs, breaking her leg in the process. Leslie (former SPIDER WOMAN and Oscar winner Gale Sondergaard), the mistress of the house, interviews Hardy, who’s real name is Vic Valance. Vic ingratiates himself with Katherine, and the elderly ex-star falls in love with him (croaking the tune “Taking a Chance on Love” in a scene I hope is supposed to be funny…cause it is!) Vic’s also involved with younger housemaid Greta (Virginia Wing), scandalizing Leslie and cook Mildred (Florence Lake, who costarred opposite Edgar Kennedy in a series of comedy shorts, and was older sister to Dagwood Bumstead himself, Arthur Lake).

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Vic shoots some dope, and has a flashback about his youth. It seems he was an abused child, whose mother was an alcoholic prostitute. He sees her with three or four skeezy dudes slobbering all over her, and takes a hatchet to them. In fact, Vic takes a hatchet to everybody by the end of the movie, leaving him alone in the house with a mannequin made up like Miriam Hopkins. This was Miss Hopkins last role, and she’s a hoot! Chewing the scenery with the best of them, Miriam overacts and plays to the back row, but somehow it works. The scene where Vic takes her to a Hollywood hippie party is high-camp, especially when a midget drug dealer offers her some acid (“The only trips I take are to Europe”, she deadpans). Producer/writer/director Donald Wolfe must’ve been tripping himself when he concocted this vulgar stew. It’s got some suspenseful moments and plenty of gore, and  is a perfect time capsule of late 60s/early 70s Hollywood debauchery.

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Worth seeing for the cast alone, SAVAGE INTRUDER is a unique low-budget shocker that will please any Grindhouse fan. It’s far from the best in the “Aging Star Does Horror” genre, but you won’t be disappointed by this raunchy romp, filmed inside the Norma Talmadge Estate. Put it on your late-night Halloween list, while the kiddos are sleeping, and dive into the delightful decadence of SAVAGE INTRUDER.