Halloween Havoc!: TOWER OF LONDON (Universal 1939)

Rowland V. Lee followed up his successful SON OF FRANKENSTEIN with TOWER OF LONDON, reuniting with stars Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff in a take on the story of Richard III that mixes historical drama with horror. This “Game of Thrones” is filled with political machinations, royal court intrigue, and murder most foul as the crook backed Richard kills his way to the top of England’s heap, aided by his chief executioner Mord.

You won’t find any Shakespeare here or historical accuracy, but Lee and his screenwriter brother Richard N. Lee craft a tale of bad intentions to capitalize on the renewed interest in the horror genre. Rathbone exudes evil from every pore as Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, who along with his brother King Edward VI, has seized power by imprisoning the feeble-minded Henry IV. But there are six heirs standing in Richard’s way to succession, and he keeps figurines of his enemies in a little dollhouse, tossing them into the flames as they fall one by one. Basil plays Richard as a coldly calculating killer, using his power and influence to reap the bounty of his murderous objective. One of the screen’s greatest villains, Rathbone’s chillingly sinister portrayal makes him a human monster who’ll stop at nothing, including ordering the murders of his young nephews, to quench his thirst for power.

Karloff is equally as frightening as Mord, the bald, club footed executioner who worships Richard as a God, and delights in torture and killing. We first lay eyes on him in his torture chamber sharpening his axe, a raven perched on his shoulder, cruelly denying a chained prisoner water. Mord lives only to serve and kill, and Karloff plays him unsympathetically, unlike some of his horror characterizations. He crushes a young chimney sweep under his clubbed foot, thrusts a dagger into the back of the pathetic Henry IV, and carries out the murders of the child princes without remorse. Karloff, under Jack Pierce’s makeup, added another brutish portrait to his growing Rogue’s Gallery with Mord.

My favorite scene involves another horror star, young Vincent Price in his third film, playing the effeminate Duke of Clarence. Price, who made his film debut in Lee’s 1938 comedy SERVICE DE LUXE, gets a tutorial in terror sharing a scene with Boris and Basil when, after Clarence is charged with treason and sent to the tower, he engages in a drinking duel with Richard. Seeming to win, the drunken Duke is overtaken by Richard who, along with Mord, drowns him in a vat of wine (“He asked for malmsey”, Richard coolly states). Price, Karloff, and Rathbone would be reunited a quarter century later (along with Peter Lorre) for a horror of another kind, THE COMEDY OF TERRORS .

The large cast includes Ian Hunter as the equally despicable Edward VI, Barbara O’Neil as his wife Elyzabeth, John Sutton and Nan Grey as the young lovers John Wyatt and Lady Alice, and Leo G. Carroll as Lord Hastings. Familiar Faces involved are Lionel Belmore, Stanley Blystone, Ernest Cossart, Rose Hobart , Miles Mander, Michael Mark, John Roister (Rathbone’s son), and Walter Tetley. Horror buffs carp that TOWER OF LONDON falls more on the historical drama side than horror, but the performances of Rathbone and Karloff (and Price, to a certain extent) make it a worthy entry in the Universal Horror canon. They may not be Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster , but Richard III and Mord certainly belong alongside them.

Repent, Ye Sinners!: STRANGE CARGO (MGM 1940)

Any film condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency can’t be all bad!  STRANGE CARGO depicts a bunch of hardened, unrepentant criminals escaping a brutal French Guiana prison, with a prostitute in tow to boot, and is laced with plenty of lascivious sex and brutal violence. But that wasn’t all the self-appointed guardians of morality objected to… there was the character of Cambreau who, though the film doesn’t come right out and say it, supposedly represents none other than Jesus Christ himself!

One more time: Clark & Joan

Clark Gable and Joan Crawford , in their eighth and final film together, lead this pack of sinners through a sweltering jungle of lust, murder, and ultimately redemption. He’s a con named Verne, “a thief by profession”, whose several attempts at escape have proved unsuccessful. She’s Julie, a two-bit hooker plying her trade on the island. The pair, as always, crackle like heat lightning with some hard-bitten, racy dialog (Gable: “Supposing I wasn’t a convict? Supposing I was sailing through on my yacht, or a guy selling brushes?” Joan: “Yeah, suppose I was Snow White”). Verne manages to sneak out and into Julie’s boudoir (upstairs from the local saloon, of course!), but the swinish M’sieur Pig, who lusts after Julie, rats him out, forcing Julie off the island by order of the local authorities. Pig is played by Peter Lorre at his creepiest, such a scumbag even Julie won’t sleep with him (“You’re the one man in the world I could never get low enough to touch!”).

Verne’s enemy Moll (the equally scumbaggish Albert Dekker ) has planned a great escape, along with some other unsavory characters ( Paul Lukas , Eduardo Ciannelli , J. Edward Bromberg, John Aldredge). The saintly Cambreau pays his and Verne’s way to join them, but that double-crossing rat Moll conks Verne in the head while he’s asleep (with a shoe!), leaving Verne behind – but not for long, because Cambreau has left behind a map of the escape route inside a Bible! Verne, after rescuing Julie from the clutches of a horny mining camp owner (Bernard Nedell), catches up with what’s left of the cons, and they make their way to a waiting boat. But freedom always comes with a price….

Saint Ian Hunter

Cambreau is played by Ian Hunter , and it’s never fully explained just who he really is, but there are all sorts of clues along the way. He’s always in the right place at the right time, and offers aid and comfort to the sick and dying. The film is loaded with theological and spiritual debates, as when Cambreau comforts the dying Tellez (Ciannelli). Later, when Hessler (Lukas) bids the survivors adieu to search for another rich woman to kill, the two have a sparring match about whether or not they’ll meet again. It’s pretty obvious to me this is God and the Devil talking! Finally, in the scene where Verne loses his cool and knocks Cambreau off the ship, the angelic Cambreau hangs onto a piece of driftwood in the raging sea, arms splayed as if he were on the cross. No wonder the Catholic Legion of Decency got their cassocks all in a bunch!

CONDEMNED: The Legion of Decency protests

Then again, these guys were out to censor just about everything they didn’t think impressionable young minds (or old minds, for that matter) should be exposed to. Formed in 1933, the Legion was even stricter than the Production Code then being enforced by the dour Joseph Breen. A ‘CONDEMNED’ rating from the Catholic Legion of Decency meant certain doom, and they put their black stamp on anything they deemed offensive. Besides the anti-drug films of the era (ASSASSIN OF YOUTH, THE PACE THAT KILLS, REEFER MADNESS ), some other films judged taboo were THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII (divorce), THE OUTLAW (can’t have people staring at Jane Russell’s boobs!), THE MOON IS BLUE (for daring to use the word “virgin”), and BABY DOLL (just fat-out “morally repellent”). Even something as innocuous as 1945’s MOM AND DAD, a Roadshow production promoting sex hygiene, was denounced as being too strong for delicate audiences. The Legion wielded enormous power during their heyday, until the 1960’s rolled around with a new breed of filmmakers determined to make more adult pictures…. for better or worse.

Anyway, back to STRANGE CARGO. The film was directed by Frank Borzage, who won the first directing Oscar for SEVENTH HEAVEN, and whose credits include STREET ANGEL, BAD GIRL (his second Oscar), A FAREWELL TO ARMS, THREE COMRADES, and THE MORTAL STORM. His films are filled with romanticism and spirituality, and it’s no surprise to find STRANGE CARGO in his canon. His work is considered old-fashioned by many today, but it’s definitely worth looking into. This particular film would’ve been called a classic if made during the Pre-Code era, and can be enjoyed on several levels. Just don’t let the Legion of Decency know you’re watching!

Oh, and Happy Easter!

Joan and Christina Crawford in their matching Easter bonnets – you’re welcome!

Sail Away: John Wayne in John Ford’s THE LONG VOYAGE HOME (United Artists 1940)

This is my third year participating in the TCM Summer Under the Stars blogathon hosted by Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film , and second entry spotlighting Big John Wayne . The Duke and director John Ford made eleven films together, from 1939’s STAGECOACH to 1963’s DONOVAN’S REEF.  Wayne’s role in the first as The Ringo Kid established him as a star presence to be reckoned with, and the iconic actor always gave credit to his mentor Ford for his screen success. I recently viewed their second collaboration, 1940’s THE LONG VOYAGE HOME, a complete departure for Wayne as a Swedish sailor on a tramp steamer, based on four short plays by Eugene O’Neill, and was amazed at both the actor’s performance and the technical brilliance of Ford and his cinematographer Gregg Toland  , the man behind the camera for Welles’ CITIZEN KANE.

THE LONG VOYAGE HOME is a seafaring saga detailing the lives of merchant marines aboard the ship Glencairn  on the cusp of World War II. The film is episodic in nature, as screenwriter Dudley Nichols wove the four one-act plays into a cohesive narrative. Duke is ‘Ole’ Olsen (no relation to the great vaudevillian), a sweet-natured young buck longing to return to his homeland and his elderly mother. Ole is a gentle giant of a man, whom the hardened sailors look out for, treating him as a kid brother. The naïve Ole has been out at sea ten years, trapped as the others are in a cycle of time on the ocean followed by spending all their dough on liquor and women when they hit port, forcing them to return to their cruel master the sea. This time around, they’re determined to make sure Ole gets back to his farm in Sweden, to break free of the lifestyle they are all caught in by fate and misfortune.

Wayne’s much-maligned Swedish accent isn’t all that bad, as some critics have harped on. Duke was nervous about doing the part justice, and had Danish actress Osa Massen (A WOMAN’S FACE, YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH) coach him with the rhythm and cadence of the language. His big scene at the bar, where he’s being set up to be shanghaied by the ship Amindra’s salty crew, shows Wayne’s accent was more than passable, and once again proves to the audience he could do more than just sit tall in the saddle and throw a mean punch at the bad guys. John Wayne, when the occasion called for it, could act.

Due to the structure of the screenplay however, Wayne doesn’t have to carry the film on his broad shoulders. Though ‘Ole’ is the glue that holds the film together, the rest of the ensemble all take their turns in the spotlight. The standout here is Thomas Mitchell , winner of the previous year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar for STAGECOACH, as the boisterous veteran seaman Driscoll, a two-fisted Irishman whose sad fate at film’s end will haunt you. Ian Hunter, an underappreciated actor, plays the role of Smitty, whom the others suspect of being a Nazi spy, but instead harbors another dark secret. Ward Bond , the rowdy Yank, is given a solemn death bed scene, and gets a chance to show off his own acting chops. Barry Fitzgerald seems to be preparing for his role as Micheleen in THE QUIET MAN as Cocky. Fitzgerald’s brother Arthur Shields is the philosophical Donkeyman, who never leaves the ship for fear of triggering his alcoholism. Mildred Natwick makes her film debut as the prostitute Freda, charged with the task of seducing Ole before he’s shanghaied. John Qualen does his own inimitable Swedish part as Axel, mentor and protector to Ole. Familiar Faces Billy Bevan, Danny Borzage, James Flavin, J.M. Kerrigan, Wifred Lawson, Cyril McLaglen (brother of Victor), Jack Pennick, and Joe Sawyer round out the rugged cast; most were members in good standing of Ford’s stock company.

The real star of THE LONG VOYAGE HOME is Gregg Toland, who Ford had compete trust in to create the film’s visual mood. Toland’s experimental deep-focus style, utilizing back projection, makes the film an illusion of reality, his heavy shadows and dramatic lighting schemes a definite precursor to what would become the film noir style. John Ford was no stranger to making art films, and together with Toland certainly achieves success. Orson Welles once said he watched STAGECOACH over 40 times before filming CITIZEN KANE; there’s no doubt in my mind he did the same with THE LONG VOYAGE HOME.

While it’s not the type of film one would normally associate with the John Wayne/John Ford canon, THE LONG VOYAGE HOME should be watched by fans of both men’s work. The somber mood is laced with black humor, the cast is superb, Toland’s influential camerawork is a marvel to behold, and it’s a chance to see a different side of John Wayne. Sandwiched between STAGECOACH and THE GRAPES OF WRATH, THE LONG VOYAGE HOME doesn’t get the attention the other two attract, but deserves a place in the pantheon of John Ford’s masterful film classics.

Saddle Sore: BILLY THE KID (MGM 1941)

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What kind of topsy-turvy world is this? Perennial bad guy Brian Donlevy is on the side of the law, loveable Gene Lockhart is the villain, and almost 30 Robert Taylor is BILLY THE KID. This 1941 Technicolor horse opera has only a passing resemblance to reality, and was actually a remake of a 1930 film starring Wallace Beery and Johnny Mack Brown, which depicted the outlaw’s legend a bit more truthfully… but not much!

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In this version, Billy joins up with ruthless cattleman Hickey, who’s out to takeover Lincoln County. They start a stampede of rival Keating’s cattle, and during the commotion Billy encounters childhood friend Jim Sherwood, now working for Keating. Billy and his pal Pedro switch sides, and Pedro takes a bullet for it. The Kid is out for revenge, but Keating’s cooler head prevails, and he sets out to seek help from the territorial governor.

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But Keating doesn’t make it, as we see the familiar trope of his empty horse returning to the ranch. Hickey tries to make it look like Keating was killed escaping the law, but the hotheaded Billy ain’t a-buying it. He, Jim, and the Keating hands ride into town, but when kill-crazy Billy goes too far, Jim has him locked up while he negotiates with Hickey. Billy escapes of course, and hunts down the men responsible for Keating’s death. Jim and Hickey corral Billy, who shoots the bad hombre in the back. Billy and Jim have a final showdown, which Billy loses on purpose by drawing with his right hand instead of his usual left.

Yeah, that’s the whole shootin’ match in a nutshell, pardner. You might recognize some of the Monument Valley locations, but you’ll notice the painfully obvious matte shots more. The color cinematography was Oscar nominated, but lost to THE BLACK SWAN. Director David Miller’s no John Ford either; he had an uneven career, his best film being 1962’s LONELY ARE THE BRAVE, an existential tale of a cowboy at odds with modern society starring Kirk Douglas.

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Robert Taylor is stoic and tight-lipped as Billy, and not in a Gary Cooper way. Taylor was a handsome hunk who made the girls swoon, but not a great actor by any measure. He had a long film career based on his looks, though I can’t think of any movies he really stands out in. Brian Donlevy was better cast as a slimy villain in Westerns like UNION PACIFIC, DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, and THE VIRGINIAN; as a hero he’s only so-so here. It’s jarring to see Gene Lockhart as the baddie after having so much sympathy for him in 1938’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL , where he played Bob Cratchit. Lockhart is one of those character actors who’s good in whatever role he did, one of my favorites being the weasely sheriff in HIS GIRL FRIDAY.

"Even a man who's pure of heart, and says his prayers by night..."
“Even a man who’s pure of heart, and says his prayers by night…”

Let’s not forget the Familiar Face Brigade, and this movie’s loaded with them. Lon Chaney Jr is one of Keating’s henchmen, just before turning into THE WOLF MAN that same year. Ian Hunter (Keating) was King Richard in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD and the long-lost dad in Shirley Temple’s THE LITTLE PRINCESS. Every cowboy movie’s gotta have an ingénue, and undistinguished MGM starlet Mary Howard fills the bill here. Thar’s plenty of sagebrush vets filling out the rest of the cast, including Olive Blakeney, Dick Curtis, Arthur Housman, Cy Kendall, Henry O’Neill, Kermit Maynard, Frank Puglia, Chill Wills, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, and Grant Withers.

BILLY THE KID strives to be a thrilling action epic, but falls far short of the mark. It has more in common with Saturday matinee B-Westerns than John Ford or Cecil B. DeMille. The casting leaves a lot to be desired, especially with stiff Taylor in the title role. Speaking of which, why did they even bother to use the real William Bonney as the protagonist in this unfactual flick? Why not GEORGE THE KID, or SIX-GUN STEVE, or even A BOY NAMED STU? If you want Billy the Kid, you’re better off catching Paul Newman in THE LEFT HANDED GUN or Sam Peckinpah’s PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID.