Polish Ham: Jack Benny in TO BE OR NOT TO BE (United Artists 1942)

Comedian Jack Benny got a lot of mileage (and a lot of laughs) making fun of his movie career, especially THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT . While that film isn’t half as bad as Jack claimed it was, even better was Ernst Lubitsch’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE, a topical (at the time) tale of a band of Polish actors taking on the invading Nazis during WWII. Jack’s got his best film foil here, the marvelous Carole Lombard, and the movie’s got that wonderful “Lubitsch Touch”, a blend of sophistication and sparkling wit evidenced in classic films ranging from THE MERRY WIDOW and DESIGN FOR LIVING to NINOTCHKA and HEAVEN CAN WAIT.

Benny plays Joseph Tura, the self-proclaimed “greatest actor in the world”, and Lombard is his bantering wife Maria. Together, they lead a troupe of actors in Warsaw in a production of “Hamlet”, but every time Tura begins his “To be, or not to be…” soliloquy, an audience member walks out – unbeknownst to the vain Tura, the line’s a code for Maria’s young lover Lt. Sobinski (Robert Stack) to meet her in the dressing room! Germany invades Poland, and Sobinski’s off to join the RAF, but the acting troupe is forced to disban.

When the eminent Professor Siletsky is discovered to be a secret Nazi agent, the British send Sobinski back to Warsaw before the traitor can reveal the names of the Polish underground to the Gestapo. He reunites with Maria, now working for the underground herself, and Tura catches the young lieutenant sleeping in his bed! Maria returns, and an elaborate plan involving the acting troupe evolves with Tura impersonating Siletsky in order to retrieve that list of names. Gestapo head Col. Ehrardt is initially fooled by Tura, but then the dead body of the real Siletsky is found, just as Der Führer himself is about to pay a visit to Warsaw….

Benny’s vain, egotistical ham actor Joseph Tura is the perfect fit for his comic persona, developed through years of vaudeville and honed to a tee on his popular radio show. His trademark physical mannerisms and facial expressions are priceless, and Lubitsch brings out the best in him. He’s matched by screwball queen Carole Lombard, who shines in every scene she appears in as Tura’s not-so faithful wife. Sadly, this was the 33-year-old star’s last picture; on January 16, 1942, Lombard and 21 others (including her mother) were killed in a plane crash returning from a War Bond rally in her home state of Indiana. She was married to Clark Gable at the time. Among her many films, my favorites are TWENTIETH CENTURY, MY MAN GODFREY, NOTHING SACRED, and this one, released posthumously, and a fine capping to a brilliant career.

The supporting cast is equally brilliant, with young up-and-comer Robert Stack a fine lovestruck Sobinski. Sig Ruman ,  the Marx Brothers’ nemesis in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, gives another great comic characterization as the pompous Col. Ehrhardt (“So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt, eh?”). Henry Victor is Ehrhardt’s top aide (and convenient scapegoat) Captain Schultz. Felix Bressart as Greenberg, one of the Polish actors, gets a chance to truly shine when he gives Shylock’s speech from “The Merchant of Venice (“If you prick us, do we not bleed…”). Old friend Lionel Atwill is on board as an actor who’s even hammier than Tura! Among the rest of the cast, you’ll find Familiar Faces like Helmut Dantine, Tom Dugan, Maude Eburne, James Finlayson , Charles Halton, Miles Mander, Frank Reicher , and Stanley Ridges in roles large and small.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE is one of the few films where the remake (1983) is just as good. That’s probably because of producer/star Mel Brooks , a huge Jack Benny fan, who even pays tribute to the great comedian in the film (be on the lookout for the street sign Kubelsky Street, Benny’s given name). But if I had to pick one over the other to watch on a rainy night, it would definitely be Lubitsch’s 1942 classic, mainly because, like Brooks, I’m a huge Jack Benny fan myself! I’m pretty sure Mel would make the same choice.

 

 

Halloween Havoc!: Tod Browning’s FREAKS (MGM 1932)

Ex-carnival and sideshow performer Tod Browning had combined his love for the macabre and carny life in films before in two silent films with the great Lon Chaney Sr (THE UNHOLY THREE, THE UNKNOWN), but with FREAKS Browning took things to a whole new level. The cast is populated with genuine “abnormalities of nature”, legless and armless wonders, bearded ladies and skeletal men, a crawling human torso and microcephalic pinheads, parading across the screen to shock and frighten the audience. Yet it’s not the “freaks” that are the monsters in this movie, but two specimens of human physical perfection, their healthy bodies hosting malice and murder.

The film opens with a sideshow barker drawing a crowd to a horror hidden in a box, victim of what happens when you dishonor the code of the freaks – “offend one and you offend them all”. A flashback introduces us to the members of this dark carnival, beginning with midget performer Hans, who has an insane crush on big person Cleopatra, a trapeze artist dubbed “the peacock of the air”. Cleo plays along, toying with Hans’s affections and making his fiancé Frieda extremely jealous. Beautiful young Venus, meanwhile, is about to leave her abusive lover, the strongman Hercules, and is taken in by nice-guy clown Phroso.

Hans showers Cleo with gifts, and she soon discovers the dwarf has inherited a fortune. The scheming siren conspires with the strongman to marry Hans and do away with him. “Midgets are not strong”, she tells her musclebound lover. “He could get sick… it could be done”. Browning takes us to the famed ‘Wedding Feast” scene, in which the freaks are partying hardy. A chant begins among them in Cleo’s honor: “Gobba gabba, gobba gabba, we accept her, one of us”, and a goblet of wine is passed around. Cleopatra is appalled by them, and when the goblet is served to her, she unleashes her fury. “Freaks! Freaks! Freaks! Get out of here!” The dejected “living, breathing monstrosities” leave the room as Cleo and Hercules humiliate Hans, perching him atop Cleo’s shoulders and parading around the tent.

Cleopatra is slowly poisoning her new husband, but the freaks are watching from a distance. Always watching, hidden in the dark, underneath the wagons. Watching and waiting. Hans is wise to Cleo’s plot against him, and initiates a plot of his own with the help of his brethren. The circus wagons roll out during a storm, and Hans and his army of freaks confront Cleo. Hercules, trying to silence Venus, fights with Phroso. The freaks go on the attack, creeping and crawling in the darkened storm, and Hercules dies in the muddy road, as the “peacock” runs screaming into the night in the pouring rain, hunted down like an animal. The flashback ends, and the audience is shown the result in that box: Cleopatra has truly become “one of us”!

Browning’s film shocked both audiences and MGM execs, who cut a half hour from the film, then swiftly withdrew it’s release. The negative reactions to FREAKS effectively ruined Browning’s career; he’d make only four more films before retiring in 1939. FREAKS was banned in Britain, and sat unseen until the early 1960’s, when it was rediscovered by midnight movie audiences and rightly heralded as one of the best in the horror genre. Browning never knew his dark vision had been vindicated, having died in 1962.

Of the “big people” in the cast, Leila Hyams and Wallace Ford are sympathetic to the plight of the freaks as Venus and Phroso. Miss Hyams was (and is!) a Pre-Code favorite in films like THE BIG HOUSE, RED HEADED WOMAN, and THE BIG BROADCAST, also appearing in Browning’s first talkie THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR (with Bela Lugosi) and the horror classic ISLAND OF LOST SOULS. I’ve discussed Ford’s career many times; he was one of the most dependable character actors in film. Beautiful Olga Baclanova (Cleopatra) was a silent star whose transition to talking pictures was hampered by her Russian accent; in FREAKS that accent and her exotic good looks serve her well as the villainess. Henry Victor (Hercules) suffered the same fate as Baclanova, though his career was lengthened by WWII, where his German accent came in handy in Nazi roles. His horror credits include THE MUMMY and KING OF THE ZOMBIES . Other “normal” Familiar Faces include Roscoe Ates, Ed Brophy, Rose Dionne, and Matt McHugh.

But it’s the freaks themselves who are the real stars, beginning with Harry Earles as the diminutive Hans, and his sister Daisy playing fiancé Frieda; both were circus performers with extensive movie credits. The rest were recruited straight from sideshows, circuses, and carnivals, each amazing in their own right. Most well known is probably Schlitzie, the microcephalic who served as the model for Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead. She’s joined by two others, Zip and Pip. Prince Randian, the Human Torso, was born without arms or legs, and demonstrates an amazing ability to overcome his handicap. Johnny Eck, the “half-boy” who walks on his hands, is equally amazing. The famed Hilton Sisters, conjoined twins Violet and Daisy, once performed in vaudeville with no less than Bob Hope , and starred in the exploitation film CHAINED FOR LIFE. There’s Josephine Joseph (hermaphrodite), Koo Koo (the bird girl), Olga Roderick (bearded lady), Peter Robinson (human skeleton), Frances O’Connor (armless girl), and Delmo Fritz (sword swallower). Dwarf star Angelo Rossitto , who had a long and successful film career, also appears.

Tod Browning and the cast of “Freaks”

FREAKS will disturb some people even today, mostly those who feel the performers were being exploited by Browning. Yet these men and women took what misfortunes nature had given them and used it to their advantage to earn a living as best they could. We should be grateful Tod Browning gave them a chance to shine on the screen, especially in a movie showing them in a sympathetic light. In the world of the FREAKS, it’s Cleopatra and Hercules that are the true monsters, and their retribution, while horrifying, is justified. Browning’s dark carnival remains a masterpiece of early horror, and perfect for a dark, stormy Halloween night.

A Quickie on a Quickie: KING OF THE ZOMBIES (Monogram 1941)

koz1

KING OF THE ZOMBIES is a 1941 Monogram horror quickie that does not star Bela Lugosi. Apparently, the great Hungarian actor was too busy at the time. I don’t see how, it’s not like he was making A-list epics that year.  Looking at his 1941 output, Lugosi starred in the studio’s THE INVISIBLE GHOST, SPOOKS RUN WILD with the East Side Kids, and had small roles in Universal’s THE BLACK CAT and THE WOLF MAN . That’s what, about 4-5 weeks worth of work? Anyway, the part of zombie master Dr. Sangre was taken by Henry Victor, best known as strongman Hercules in Tod Browning’s FREAKS.

koz2

What KING OF THE ZOMBIES does have is black comic actor Mantan Moreland . In fact, I’m pretty sure if it wasn’t for Mantan, this film would’ve been long forgotten. I know many people today find his pop-eyed, mangled English, “feets do yo stuff” scairdy-cat schtick offensive and stereotypical. But it’s that very schtick that carries the film and rescues it from the abyss of obscurity. Besides, he’s treated more as an equal among his white cohorts, regardless of being called the nominal hero’s “valet”.

koz3

The movie itself will scare nobody, though it does have a few atmospheric scenes courtesy of director Jean Yarbrough . It’s basically an “old, dark house” story with zombies, but the zombies aren’t very creepy, and the voodoo ritual scene is pretty blah. Madam Sul-Te-Wan tries to give it some oomph as voodoo priestess Tahama, but Henry Victor is no Bela Lugosi as Dr. Sangre, who turns out to be a mere Nazi spy. Marguerite Whitten has some good banter with Mantan as Sangre’s housekeeper Samantha; the two would work well together in several films. The “good guys” include John Archer, Joan Woodbury , and Dick Purcell (the screen’s first Captain America!), all of whom are much blander and less interesting than Mantan.

koz4

So if your interested in seeing a spooky zombie movie, you’re in the wrong place. But if you’re looking for comedy, watch KING OF THE ZOMBIES and let the underrated Mantan Moreland entertain you with his brand of buffoonery. He was a very funny dude who starred in his own series of independent “all-black cast” movies, and saved many a low-budget studio effort with his comic support (especially those late 40’s Monogram/Charlie Chan efforts). He worked steady in films for years, transcending his stereotyped roles, and deserves to be remembered for his comedic talents.