Halloween Havoc!: THE INVISIBLE MAN (Universal 1933)

James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN set the bar high for horror, and his follow-up THE OLD DARK HOUSE is one of the blackest comedies ever made. But with THE INVISIBLE MAN, Whale raises that bar by combining gruesome terror with his macabre sense of humor. THE INVISIBLE MAN doesn’t get the respect of other icons in the First Horror Cycle (Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, Imhotep), but Claude Rains’s outstanding performance as the mad scientist Jack Griffin, driven to insanity by the chemicals he’s pumped into his veins, is as sick and deranged as any you’ll find in the genre… and the fact Rains does much of his acting using only his voice is an amazing feat, and a testament to the man’s acting genius.

Whale’s opening shot sets the eerie tone, as a solitary figure, his face swaddled in bandages, trudges through a snowstorm and enters the Lion’s Head Inn seeking solitude. The patrons seem freaked out by the man’s visage, but the mercenary Mrs. Hall (Una O’Connor , far less annoying than in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN) sets him up with a room. We soon learn the man is Jack Griffin, a scientist whose dabbling with an exotic drug called monocaine has rendered him invisible. He’s searching for an antidote, unaware the drug has a side effect that causes madness. But Griffin’s far too late, as the insanity has begun to consume him, and he causes chaos at the Inn, terrorizing the locals.

Griffin coerces his former colleague Kemp (William Harrigan) into doing his bidding, and here Rains, covered in bandaging, uses his vocal talents to convey the madness within: “We’ll begin with a reign of terror, a few murders here and there, murders of great men, murders of little men – well, just to show we’ll make no distinction. I might even wreck a train or two… just these fingers on a signalman’s throat, that’s all.”  A manhunt has begun to capture The Invisible Man, and the frightened citizenry, listening to radio reports of his misdeeds, lock their doors and bolt their windows in fear. Kemp calls in Griffin’s fiancé Flora (Gloria Stuart ) and her scientist father (IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE’s Henry Travers), and also betrays Griffin to the police, causing the madman to vow to murder him the next night at ten o’clock. Griffin makes good on his promise, despite the police protection surrounding Kemp, and commits mass murder and havoc on a grand scale, before a fortuitous snowstorm, like the one which began the film, leads to his ultimate demise.

Rains is brilliant as the mad Jack Griffin, even wrapped in bandages or not on screen at all save his voice. One of my favorite parts occurs when we see Mary Gordon (Sherlock Holmes’s future landlady) screaming down the road in terror as a pair of pants chases her down singing, “Here we go gathering nuts in May, nuts in May, nuts in May”, another example of Whale’s bizarre black humor. Rains is aided by the special effects wizardry of John P. Fulton, who uses early “black screen” technology to make us believe an invisible man exists. The effects hold up surprisingly well 85 years later… well, maybe not so surprising, as Fulton was one of Hollywood’s pioneer effects men, sought after by everyone from Alfred Hitchcock (REAR WINDOW , VERTIGO) to Cecil B. DeMille (THE TEN COMMANDMENTS ), and won three Oscars over the years for his work.

Though THE INVISIBLE MAN is one of the best films in the First Horror Cycle, the character itself doesn’t get the respect it should because each subsequent film has a different Invisible Man. The 1940 sequel THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS has Vincent Price made invisible by the brother of Jack Grifffin, and later films in the series all feature other characters as  Invisible Men. The sequels are all well made, with Fulton Oscar nominated for three of them, but can’t hold a candle to James Whale’s original, with a star-making performance by the great Claude Rains.

 

Halloween Havoc!: SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM (Universal 1933)

The horror cycle of the early 1930’s cast its dark shadow on other film genres. SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM is one of those “old dark house/locked room” mysteries showing that influence; it’s a creepy, atmospheric little movie about mysterious murders, with horror vet Lionel Atwill front and center among the suspects. There aren’t any “monsters” here, but some good chills courtesy of director Kurt Neumann, who later directed the 1950’s sci-fi horrors KRONUS, SHE DEVIL, and THE FLY .

It’s a dark and stormy night (naturally!) at Castle von Hellsdorf, and Irene, daughter of Master of the House Robert, is celebrating her birthday with three suitors: Captain Walter Brink, Frank Faber, and Tommy Brandt, while outside, a mysterious stranger lurks. The conversation turns to ‘The Blue Room’, kept under lock and key after three strange (some say supernatural) murders occurred many years ago, always at One AM. Tommy, eager to “prove his courage” to Irene, proposes all three would-be beaus spend a night in ‘The Blue Room’, with himself going first. The next morning, Tommy has completely vanished from the room, despite it being locked! Frank follows up, and is found shot inside the locked room. The police are called in ,and the cagey Commissioner Forster holds an inquiry, where family secrets are exposed, the identity of that “mysterious stranger” revealed, and the killer is unmasked as…. ?

If you haven’t figured it out before the movie ends… well, you’re not a very good Armchair Detective! There are plenty of suspects to keep people guessing though, chief among them Lionel Atwill, who played ‘red herrings’ in films like this almost as much as he did mad scientists. Atwill’s presence lends SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM some horror cred, as does the shadowy camerawork of Charles Stumar, who later shot WEREWOLF OF LONDON and THE RAVEN for Universal. Also lending horror cred is leading lady Gloria Stuart , in her second of three Universal Horrors. Future Oscar winner Paul Lukas (Walter) would appear twenty years later as Professor Aronnax in 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA , Onslow Stevens (Frank) would return to horror in the 40’s with HOUSE OF DRACULA, and Robert Barrat (Paul) later played a Martian in 1951’s FLIGHT TO MARS. Character actor Edward Arnold , best remembered for playing corrupt businessmen and gangsters in prestige films, is on the right side of the law here as the Commissioner.

When Universal released its package of pre-1948 horror films to television in 1957 as SHOCK THEATER, SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM was included, and if it’s good enough for Universal to qualify, it’s good enough for me! While it’s not out-and-out horror, the film’s got enough spooky moments and frights to keep horror buffs satisfied. Plus, it’s got Lionel Atwill… that’s more than enough reason to watch right there!

Campus Kooks: The Ritz Brothers in LIFE BEGINS IN COLLEGE (20th Century Fox 1937)


I haven’t posted anything on The Ritz Brothers since January of 2016 , so when TCM aired a trio of their films this weekend, I chose to review what I consider their best solo effort, 1937’s LIFE BEGINS IN COLLEGE. This was their first name-above-the-title movie, and features Harry, Jimmy, and Al at their zaniest, with the added bonus of comedienne Joan Davis as a kooky coed with her sights on Native American football hero Nat Pendleton.

Collegiate musical comedies were a popular sub-genre in the 30’s: COLLEGE HUMOR, PIGSKIN PARADE, COLLEGE SWING, COLLEGE HOLIDAY, et al, so it seemed the perfect milieu for the Ritzes to showcase their peculiar brand of nuttiness. The story is typical campus corniness, as George “Little Black Cloud” Black arrives at Lombardy College (crashing his motorcycle for an entrance) wanting to join the football team, and immediately developing a rivalry with football team captain Bob. There’s Coach O’Hara, in danger of losing his job after three losing seasons, and his daughter Janet, a love triangle with Janet, Bob, and Southern belle Cuddles, and of course the Big Game against Midwestern, where it’s revealed George is ineligible to play because of his pro past.

However, the plot is strictly secondary to the Ritz lunacy. They’re a trio of tailors who’ve been working their way through college for seven years, without much success (they’re lousy tailors!). They befriend George, who suffered a hazing by Bob and his jock friends early on, and find out the kid’s loaded (Oklahoma oil wells), which he doesn’t want the other students to know about. The brothers act as a “front” and give the dean a huge endowment ( driving him crazy in the process!), with the provision that Coach keeps his job and they get to play on the team (they’ve been sitting on the bench those seven years!). This is all an excuse for the boys to show off their precision timing in some nonsensical song-and-dance routines (a hilarious ‘Latin’ number with Harry in drag, an ‘Indian’ number with them as not-so-brave braves, the fan favorite ‘Spirit of ’76’), and the physical and verbal clowning that made other comedians green with envy! Of course, they get into the Big Game in the final two minutes, and almost blow it before making one of the most ridiculous winning touchdowns in the history of these college football moves!

Gloria Stuart  makes a pleasing Janet, and even gets to sing “Why Talk About Love?” (though I think she’s dubbed), but Dick Baldwin as Bob is dull as a butter knife. Nat Pendleton talkum like Tonto as George, but his comic timing is solid and he’s believable as an athlete (he won a Silver Medal in wrestling at the 1920 Olympics). Joan Davis was a fine clown in her own right, and performs a solo number highlighting her limber slapstick moves. Tony Martin’s on hand as a band leader, though he doesn’t get to do much except introduce the tune “Sweet Varsity Sue”. Veteran Fred Stone is the Coach, and among the Familiar Faces you’ll find two very young actors: a pre-noir Elisha Cook Jr. as the team manager, and a pre-horror Lon Chaney Jr. as one of the football players!

But LIFE BEGINS IN COLLEGE is all about The Ritz Brothers, and as you watch, you’ll find out where comics like Sid Caesar, Danny Kaye, and Jerry Lewis learned their schticks. No less than Mel Brooks called Harry Ritz “the funniest man ever” – high praise coming from a comic genius like Mel! If you’ve never experienced the comedy of The Ritz Brothers, this film’s a good place to start. OR…. you can start here, with this rare clip of Harry, Jimmy, and Al’s appearance on the 1961 TV series JACKPOT BOWLING, hosted by another of their admirers, Milton Berle:

Happy Birthday Boris Karloff: THE OLD DARK HOUSE (Universal 1932)

William Henry Pratt was born on November 23, 1887, but horror movie icon Boris Karloff was “born” when he teamed with director James Whale for 1931’s FRANKENSTEIN. The scary saga of a man and his monster became a big hit, and Universal Studios boss Carl Laemmle Jr. struck while the horror trend was hot, quickly teaming the pair in an adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s 1927 novel THE OLD DARK HOUSE. This film was considered lost for many years until filmmaker and Whale friend Curtis Harrington discovered a print in the Universal vaults. Recently, a 4K restoration has been released courtesy of the Cohen Film Collection, and a showing aired on TCM this past Halloween. I of course, having never seen the film, hit the DVR button for a later viewing.

THE OLD DARK HOUSE has not only been restored to its former glory, but is a delightful black comedy showcasing Whale’s macabre sense of humor. Karloff gets top billing for the first time in his career as the brutish mute butler Morgan, though he’s not the “star” in the true sense of the word. Instead, he’s part of an ensemble of actors who’re engaged in a mission to send a shiver down the audience’s collective spine. Whale, screenwriters Benn Levy and R.C. Sheriff, cinematographer Arthur Edeson, art director Charles B. Hall, and Universal’s make-up genius Jack Pierce all collaborate to create a memorable mise en scene inside the creepy old Femm house of horrors.

The story: it was a dark and stormy night (as Snoopy would say), and bickering couple Philip and Margaret Waverton, with their wayfaring travelling companion Roger Penderel, get stranded deep in the Wales countryside. They seek shelter at a gloomy mansion, where they’re greeted at the door by the mute, horribly scarred butler Morgan. Entering the foreboding domicile, the three are introduced to brother and sister Horace and Rebecca Femm, he a gaunt looking weirdo with a fondness for gin, she a half-deaf religious fanatic. To say the siblings are lacking in the social graces is an understatement!

During the bizarre supper ritual, two more wanderers knock at the Femm door, boisterous Sir William Porterhouse and his “friend” Gladys DuCane (formerly Perkins). The storm outside rages on, and then a storm front moves indoors as Morgan gets “at the bottle again”, attempting to rape Margaret, and releasing brother Saul Femm from his locked room, a milquetoast looking pipsqueak who turns out to be the biggest maniac of the bunch…

Boris is menacing as Morgan, aided by Jack Pierce’s make-up job, but isn’t given much to do in the acting department. His is a mostly physical role, threatening Margaret Waverton in his drunken stupor, needing three men to subdue him. It’s Morgan who lets loose the psychotic Saul, putting things in motion that lead to the film’s conclusion. Morgan may not be the focal point of THE OLD DARK HOUSE, but it’s an important film in the Karloff canon. It’s his first top-billed role, and the movie’s posters herald him as only KARLOFF, the last name alone now recognized by audiences of the day as the last word in terror! Boris would have many more opportunities to show his acting skills in the horror genre (and others), thanks in large part to his popularity in FRANKENSTEIN and this, his second Universal Horror.

“A Universal Cast is Worth Repeating”, and this one’s a doozy! Let’s start with Melvyn Douglas , just beginning his film career in the part of Penderel. His character’s from ‘The Lost Generation’, a disillusioned WWI vet whose aimless life contains no meaning, until fate steps in. Raymond Massey (Philip) was already an established star, with his iconic role as Abraham Lincoln waiting in the wings. Gloria Stuart (Margaret) was a WAMPAS Baby Star and Universal contract player just getting started; modern audiences fell in love with her as the elderly Rose in TITANIC. Charles Laughton (Porterhouse) makes his American film debut here, bringing both humor and pathos to his role. Lilian Bond (Gladys) never quite made the impact her costars did, but she’s more than good as the ex-chorus girl, and had a long career.

The family Femm are certainly a grotesque lot, with marvelous Ernest Thesiger as the emotionally dead Horace and Eva Moore his completely creepy sister Rebecca. Thesiger, known to horror fans as the sinister Dr. Pretorius in Whale’s BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, is perfect as the cadaverous Horace, so uncomfortable around people he can’t connect with anyone, except his palpable hatred for sister Rebecca. Moore is a revelation as the  religious nut, obviously sexually repressed, especially when talking about her late sister (“She was a wicked one… with her red lips and her big eyes and her white neck”). In a scene that’s pure Pre-Code, Margaret gets out of her rain-soaked clothes, stripping down to her slip. Rebecca feels the smooth fabric, stating, “That’s fine stuff, but it’ll rot”. Then, placing her hand on Margaret’s breast, says “That’s finer stuff still, but it’ll rot too, in time”, causing Margaret to withdraw in repulsion, the vanity mirror behind them distorting both women’s faces. It’s a frightening scene, beautifully staged by Whale and acted by the two ladies.

Brember Wills is Saul Femm, who is feared by his siblings, but looks harmless at first. But as the cameras roll, we see his demeanor change before our eyes, and this little man becomes a psychopath of the first order, obsessed with flame and fire, and determined to burn the family homestead to the ground. Wills was primarily a stage actor, with only six film credits, but this movie elevates him to the pantheon of Universal Monsters! As for 102 year old patriarch Sir Roderick Femm, confined to bed and looking like he’s already past his expiration date, actor John Dudgeon is credited. Only there’s no such person… Sir Roderick is played by 61-year-old actress Elspeth Dudgeon, a Whale in-joke. Loaded up with Jack Pierce’s old age makeup, Elspeth does a gender-bending splendid job. If I hadn’t known beforehand that it was a woman behind all that makeup, I never would’ve guessed it!

James Whale seems to have had a good time experimenting with oddly tilted camera angles and moody lighting on this, a warm up perhaps for his THE INVISIBLE MAN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. He certainly leaves his stamp on the film, with its expressionistic look and warped sense of humor. THE OLD DARK HOUSE, unlike some films I’ve long heard about, did not disappoint me upon my first viewing, and I’d highly recommend anyone with a Blu-Ray to purchase a copy pronto. Boris Karloff may not be the star of the show, but his Morgan is suitably gruesome enough to satisfy die-hard horror fans, as is the movie as a whole. Happy birthday King Karloff; long may you reign in the nightmares of monster lovers everywhere!

Puttin’ On The Ritz: THE THREE MUSKETEERS (20th Century Fox 1939)

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The cult of the Three Stooges is as strong as ever. The Marx Brothers are studied in universities as artists. Laurel & Hardy’s “Sons of the Desert” fan club grows daily. Yet the modern world ignores the Ritz Brothers, and that’s a downright shame. Harry, Jimmy, and Al Ritz were multi-talented comic anarchists who  influenced a generation of funnymen from Mel Brooks to Jerry Lewis. Signed to a 20th Century-Fox contract in 1936, they lent support to big budget musicals like ONE IN A MILLION and ON THE AVENUE before being cast in a series of starring comedy vehicles highlighting their rapid-fire banter, madcap musical routines, and slapstick humor. They’re at their best in THE THREE MUSKETEERS, a musical comedy take on the Alexandre Dumas classic with Don Ameche as the dashing D’Artagnon.

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The Ritzes are three dumb clucks who we meet plucking chickens at the Coq D’Or Tavern in Paris. Brash young D’Artagnon, a new recruit in the King’s Musketeers, has summoned veterans Athos, Porthos, and Aramis to duel with him and prove his mettle. The Musketeers arrive early, and wind up losing a drinking contest to the Ritzes. The brothers put the Musketeers to bed and don their uniforms to impress some damsels when D’Artagnon comes in. Mistaking the Ritzes for the real thing, the four end up battling Cardinal Richeleau’s guardsmen, then get entangled in a political plot involving royal court intrigue, romance, and plenty of swordplay interspersed with wacky Ritz bits and songs like “Voila”, “Milady”, “Song of the Musketeers”, and of course “Chicken Soup (the Plucking Song)”.

The Ritz Brothers handle all the comedy, and their slapstick shenanigans and precision dances are letter-perfect. Harry Ritz could mug with the best of them, and Jimmy and Al are equally silly. Their cymbal routine while trying to cover for D’Artagnon is a masterpiece of comic timing:

Ameche is fun as D’Artagnon, cutting a handsome figure and wooing lovely Pauline Moore (Lady Constance). Villainy is taken care of by none other than Lionel Atwill (DeRouchefort), aided and abetted by Miles Mander (Cardinal Richeleau) and Binnie Barnes (Lady DeWinter). Joseph Schildkraut, Oscar winner for 1937’s THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA, stands in as King Louis XIII, with Gloria Stuart a fetching Queen Anne. The Familiar Face Brigade in this one includes John Carradine, Douglas Dumbrille, Lester Matthews, and Gino Corrado. Alan Dwan had been directing movies since 1911, and kept steady at it for the next fifty years, amassing an impressive list of credits. He’s in fine form guiding the Ritz Brothers through their frenetic paces, as he also did in that year’s THE GORILLA. Some of his more popular films were the Shirley Temple REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM, SANDS OF IWO JIMA (with John Wayne), and the feminist Western CATTLE QUEEN OF MONTANA.

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The Ritz Brothers films went downhill after this, with Fox’s B-unit producer Sol Wurtzel taking charge of their careers, causing Harry to quip, “Things have gone from bad to Wurtzel”. They left the studio and moved on to Universal, where the quality of their films did not improve. Leaving Hollywood behind in the mid-40’s, the boys became headliners in Las Vegas and nightclubs across the country. Their impeccable timing, incorporating music and dancing into their slapstick repertoire, kept the Ritzes active until Al’s death in 1965. Harry and Jimmy made a last appearance together in Al Adamson’s sex farce BLAZING STEWARDESSES. Harry, who was considered a genius by his peers, did a cameo in the Mel Brooks comedy SILENT MOVIE. He died in 1986, a year after brother Jimmy. The Ritz Brothers are gone, but their creativity shouldn’t be left to rot away in dusty film cans. The zany trio deserves to be rediscovered by lovers of slapstick humor, and THE THREE MUSKETEERS is a good place to start.