Halloween Havoc!: Boris Karloff in THE WALKING DEAD (Warner Brothers 1936)

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1936’s THE WALKING DEAD has absolutely nothing to do with the wildly popular AMC TV series. This WALKING DEAD stars Boris Karloff , making the first of a five-picture deal he signed with Warners, an interesting hybrid of the gangster and horror genres about an unjustly executed man who’s revived by science exacting vengeance on those who set him up. The result was a fast paced (clocked at 66 minutes) entry in the first horror cycle, and one of the last horror films made until their 1939 revival (more about that later).

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Boris stars as John Ellman, newly released from a stretch in prison. A gangland cartel, looking to get rid of a law-and-order judge, set Ellman up as a patsy, hiring him to stake out the judge’s home, murdering the guy, and dumping the body in Ellman’s car. He goes on trial, defended by crooked lawyer Nolan, and sentenced to death by electric chair. Two witnesses, Jimmy and Nancy, saw the thugs put the body in Ellman’s car, but are too scared to say anything.

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Jimmy and Nancy finally confide in their boss Dr. Beaumont, who’s been experimenting in reanimating the dead. Ellman’s body is sent to Beaumont and, with Strickefaden-like electrical equipment a-cracklin’, the dead man returns to life. The medical community is agog with this wonder of science, though Ellman has developed a wide streak of white hair and a zombie-like shuffle. Beaumont wants to know what it was like in the brief time Ellman was dead, but he can’t remember much. However, Ellman has begun receiving messages from “some supernatural power” about the men responsible for his death.

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Ellman becomes an Avenging Angel of Death, confronting those who conspired against him. First to go is the hitman “Trigger”, quickly followed by Blackstone and Merritt (during an eerie thunderstorm). Ellman wanders to a cemetery, followed by Nancy, who’s followed by gangsters Nolan and Loder. “I belong here”, says Ellman, before the hoodlums shoot him down. Beaumont and Jimmy arrive, and Beaumont presses Ellman for the “secrets from the beyond”. “Leave the dead to their maker”, intones Ellman, “for the Lord God is a jealous God”, just as Nolan and Loder are involved in a fatal car crash and electrocuted themselves. Ellman expires, taking the secrets of what happens after death with him for good.

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Boris is excellent as always, playing for pathos as the zombie-like Ellman. His mannerisms remind viewers of his FRANKENSTEIN monster, though Ellman still has a spark of intelligence. Perc Westmore’s makeup is more subdued than Jack Pierce’s job, with only a shock of white hair and an unflinching left eye to convey the horror of the living dead. Karloff acts mainly with his body, his shambling gait and crippled arm doing the work. It’s a restrained performance, and another fine addition to Boris’ Gallery of Horror works.

MARGUERITE CHURCHILL, WARREN HULL & EDMUND GWENN Character(s): Nancy, Jimmy, Dr. Evan Beaumont Film 'THE WALKING DEAD' (1936) Directed By MICHAEL CURTIZ 01 March 1936 CTW88169 Allstar/Cinetext/WARNER BROS **WARNING** This photograph can only be reproduced by publications in conjunction with the promotion of the above film. For Editorial Use Only.

The rest of the cast comes straight from Warner’s B-team. Edmond Gwenn is the scientist seeking the answers to life after death, years before his Kris Kringle in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET. Marguerite Churchill’s (Nancy) brief film career included the Universal horror DRACULA’S DAUGHTER. Ricardo Cortez (Nolan) was a silent matinée idol who got typecast as a heavy in the sound era; he’s also the only actor to play both Sam Spade (1931’s THE MALTESE FALCON) and Perry Mason (CURSE OF THE BLACK CAT). Barton McLane (Loder) was usually a henchman; he costarred with Glenda Farrell in the Torchy Blane series and later became General Peterson on TV’s I DREAM OF JEANNIE. Warren Hull (Jimmy) is known to serial fans as The Green Hornet, The Spider, and Mandrake the Magician. Other Familiar Faces are Eddie Acuff, Joseph King, Henry O’Neill , Addison Richards, and Joe Sawyer.

Michael Curtiz was an old hand at horror, having directed Warner’s two early shockers starring Lionel Atwill . It must have been a slow week for Curtiz, as he was used to bigger budget vehicles by this point. Hal Mohr’s cinematography is appropriately spooky, especially in the cemetery scenes. Karloff had four more pictures to go on his contract, but the British horror ban and censorship issues put the kibosh on fright films beginning in 1937. After a few more 1936 releases (DRACULA’S DAUGHTER, THE INVISIBLE RAY, THE DEVIL DOLL, REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES), films with horror themes left the silver screen until 1939, when Boris returned to the role that made him famous, along with Bela Lugosi and Basil Rathbone, in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, beginning Hollywood’s second horror cycle. Can you imagine a world with no horror films? That’s the most frightening thought of all!

 

 

Pre-Code Confidential #1: James Cagney in LADY KILLER (Warner Brothers, 1933)

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Pre-Code Hollywood movies like LADY KILLER are always fun to watch. They’re filled with risqué business, sly innuendos, and are much more adult in content than post-1934 films. This little gem features James Cagney in one of his patented tough guy roles as Dan Quigley. Dan’s a brash, cocky movie usher who gets fired for insulting his patrons. While indulging in rolling some dice at a hotel lobby, he sees Myra (Mae Clarke)  drop her purse as she’s leaving. Ladies man Dan follows her to her apartment with it, hoping for some afternoon delight.

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Myra’s grateful, and offers him a drink (Her: “Chaser?” Him: “Always have been!”). Myra’s “brother-in-law” Duke (Douglass Dumbrille) emerges from the next room, and invites Dan to play a little poker. Losing all his dough, Dan leaves the apartment. He comes across a gentleman holding another purse in the hallway looking for Myra. Realizing he’s been set up, he storms back in and demands his money back. Yet another sucker comes in with a purse, and Dan muscles his way in on the con. Soon he’s leading the gang, and they make enough to open their own speakeasy, the Seven-Eleven Club. The gang branches out into burglary, targeting a rich widow. Dan fakes a car accident, weaseling his way into her home to get a layout of the joint. Things go awry when a maid is “brutally slugged” and dies. One of the gang squeals and gets iced by his pals just as the cops raid the Seven-Eleven. The gang takes it on the lam, with Dan and Myra ending up in LA. The coppers pick him up at the train station for questioning, and hold him on bail. He calls Myra at their pre-arranged hotel room to post bond, but the devious dame has hooked up with Duke scramed to Mexico, leaving Dan high and dry. Dan’s released when “New York can’t get the goods” on him, with a warning to find employment in 48 hours or get out of town. At a pool hall, Dan’s discovered by a Hollywood producer looking for new faces, and begins working as an extra in a prison picture.

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LADY KILLER now shifts gears to give us a backstage look at Hollywood. Cagney does bits as a con and an Indian chief (!) as the tone turns from gangster pic to comedy. He meets up with leading lady Lois Underwood (Margret Lindsey) and becomes a star in his own right. Seems the studio’s looking for the “rough and ready” type, and Dan writes bogus fan letters extolling his popularity! Now a star (complete with pencil-thin moustache), Dan and Lois start dating. She facetiously tells him she wants “a crate of monkeys, Tyrolean yodelers, and an elephant” for her birthday party, and wise guy Dan obliges in a hysterical scene.

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Dan’s still the same street kid he’s always been, as we see where he makes a critic literally eat his words (an actor’s dream!). Dan brings Lois to his apartment, only to find Myra waiting in his bed! Lois storms out. In a scene that could only happen in a Pre-Code movie, he drags Myra out by her hair and kicks her ass out the door! It’s not the first time Cagney brutalized Clarke on screen. Film fans all remember the classic grapefruit scene in PUBLIC ENEMY.

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Next day, we find the old gang back in town (including Myra), wanting Dan’s Hollywood contacts to set up more robberies. Dan gives then ten grand to keep away from him and leave Hollywood, but Duke and his boys take a guided tour of star’s homes to do their own dirty work. Lois’s house gets robbed and a cop is killed during the escape. Dan busts in on their hideout, gun in hand, and demands the loot to return to Lois. The cops then arrive and arrest him, allowing the gang to flee. They bail him out, and Myra is waiting for him in a car. She confesses to Dan he’s being set up by his old pals who plan to bump him off on the highway. But Dan’s no dummy. He’s alerted the coppers, and they’re in pursuit. A wild car chase with tommy-guns blazing sets up the final shootout. Dan is exonerated, and he and Lois fly to Yuma for their wedding.

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LADY KILLER is fast paced fun, loaded with snappy dialogue. One of the gang asks Dan where he’d like them to go, and he replies with a smile, “Need I say?” Offering one of them some fruit, Dan slyly says, “You like fruit. That I know.” In one scene, he sneakily kisses Myra on the breast (through her dress). The film’s director Roy Del Ruth got his start as a Mack Sennett gag writer. The veteran also worked with Cagney in BLONDE CRAZY, TAXI, and BLESSED EVENT. Other films include THE BABE RUTH STORY, the noir RED LIGHT, and horror entries PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE and THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE. Del Ruth was by no means a top-flight director, but he did some interesting films and his career deserves a second look.

LADY KILLER abounds with familiar faces, Besides Dumbrille (who’s good as Duke), the gang members are Raymond Hatton, Leslie Fenton, and Russell Hopton. Others in various roles are Henry O’Neill, Luis Alberni, Herman Bing, George Chandler, Edwin Maxwell, Dewey Robinson, Sam McDaniel, and Dennis O’Keefe. While not a classic, LADY KILLER is a great example of Pre-Code filmmaking, with an energetic performance by Cagney. Pre-Code fans, gangster buffs, and movie manques looking for a peek at the soundstages of 30s Hollywood will all enjoy this well made time capsule.

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