Halloween Havoc!: HORROR ISLAND (Universal 1941)

Universal Pictures kept cranking out the horrors, but HORROR ISLAND isn’t one of them. It’s as misleading a title as Hollywood ever produced, more of a comedy/mystery with some “old dark house” elements thrown in for good measure. This little ‘B’ was released as a double feature with MAN MADE MONSTER, and while its good for what it is, it ain’t horror!

Atmospherically directed by George Waggner and shot by Universal workhorse Woody Bredell , HORROR ISLAND  begins spookily enough with a peg-legged sailor trodding the docks attacked by the mysterious Phantom. Rescued from the briny water by hard-pressed for cash entrepreneur Bill Martin and his pal Stuff Oliver, we learn the sailor is Tobias Clump, a Spaniard who claims he has half a map of Sir Henry Morgan’s buried treasure – and The Phantom just stole the other half! Bill happens to have inherited Morgan’s Island, where twenty million dollars worth of pirate gold and jewels are hidden. They take the map piece to an expert, who claims it’s a fake, so Bill gets an idea to exploit the legend by starting a new business promoting excursions to Morgan’s Island and setting up suckers on a bogus treasure hunt.

After “meeting cute” with rich Wendy Creighton (and her jaded boyfriend with the preposterous name of Thurman Coldwater), Bill, Stuff, and Tobias set sail with their first guests: Wendy and Thurman, Bill’s cousin George (who wants to buy the island for himself), nosy cop Sgt. McGoon, meek Professor Quinley, and shady couple Rod and Arleen Grady. Bill and Stuff have tricked out the island’s castle (yes, there’s a castle) to frighten the customers, but there’s more unexplainable doings than they planned, and the customers get more than they bargained for as they get picked off one by one by The Phantom…

The cast is stocked with Universal contract players, all of whom are good at what they do. Dick Foran and Peggy Moran (stars of THE MUMMY’S HAND ) make likeable leads and carry the picture along with comic actors Leo Carrillo (Tobias), Fuzzy Knight (Stuff), Walter Catlett (McGoon), and Iris Adrian (Arleen). Everything is wrapped up neatly in just over an hour, and if you like movies with secret passageways, mysterious phantoms, and things that go “boo” in the night, you’ll enjoy HORROR ISLAND… but it ain’t horror!

Bump’N’Grind: LADY OF BURLESQUE (United Artists 1943)

Famed striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee published a steamy mystery novel called “The G-String Murders” in 1941, all about backstage intrigue at a burlesque house. The book was a best seller, and so of course Hollywood came a-calling, and William Wellman was assigned the director’s job for LADY OF BURLESQUE, a somewhat sanitized version of Gypsy’s racy tome, though Wellman and screenwriter James Gunn got away with what they could in those heavy-handed Production Code days.

The film opens with the glittering lights of The Great White Way, then takes a turn onto 42nd Street, where benevolent burlesque impresario S.B. Foss (J. Edward Bromberg) has purchased the old Opera House to present his bump’n’grind shows. Barbara Stanwyck plays new headliner Dixie Daisy, and (as they said back then) va-va-voom…

La Stanwyck is some kinda hot in her skimpy Edith Head-designed costume! Dixie sings “Take It Off the E-String, Put It On the G-String” while star comic Biff Brannigan (played by Michael O’Shea ) kibitzes from the wings. Dixie’s got a hair across her – uh, G-string about comics, resulting in some sizzling rat-tat-tat banter between the cynical Babs and on-the-make O’Shea. A police raid on the joint without warning (someone’s cut the red alert light) finds Dixie taking shelter in the basement, where she’s almost strangled by unseen hands.

Back in the dressing room, Dixie and the girls break up a fight between haughty Lolita LaVerne (Victoria Faust) and Dolly Baxter (Gloria Dickson ) over comic Russell Rogers (Frank Faylen ). In comes the show’s former star Princess Nirvena (Stephanie Bachelor, channeling Natasha Fatale!), who wants her old job back. Soon, Dixie finds Lolita murdered, strangled by her own G-string, and the cops, led by Inspector Harrigan (Charles Dingle ) investigate, with all evidence pointing to Dixie! But the coroner’s report states Lolita was poisoned first, suggesting there’s more than one killer on the loose, confirmed when the Princess pops up dead onstage inside a prop sarcophagus…

Barbara’s on top of her game as the been-there-done-that Dixie, and the former chorus girl gets to show her dancing skills and even act in a few burlesque skits. O’Shea, a former nightclub comic himself, is an actor I don’t usually take to, but here he does a great job as Barbara’s foil/love interest. The movie’s loaded with Familiar Faces, including the marvelous Iris Adrian as Dixie’s gin-swilling, gum-chomping pal GeeGee, beautiful Marion Martin as squeaky-voiced Alice Angel, Gerald Mohr as gangster Louie the Jaw, Lou Lubin as ‘candy butcher’ Moe, and Frank Conroy as old-timer Stacchi.

Those of a “certain age” will recall the actor who plays second banana Mandy, Pinky Lee. Pinky was a popular burlesque comic whose catchphrase “Oooo, you make me so mad!” never failed to draw laughs from a crowd. He was a pioneer of early TV in the 1950’s, and hosted a kiddie show airing every weekday afternoon following HOWDY DOODY. In 1955, Pinky went into convulsions caused by a staph infection… and the kids in the live TV audience thought it was part of the act! A few years after that incident, Pinky would return to television sporadically in several comeback attempts, but times had changed, and his career was effectively over. Pinky Lee (real name: Pincus Leff) died in 1993 at age 85.

William Wellman keeps things moving forward at a brisk pace, and the story will keep you guessing – the suspects are numerous! I thought I had it figured out about three-quarters of the way through, but I was wrong, a rarity for me with these sort of things! Those who enjoy backstage show biz stories, historic old-time burlesque, or just a flat-out good film will love LADY OF BURLESQUE. I know I did, and if you’re like me, you probably will, too.

Female Trouble: ONCE A THIEF (United Artists 1950)

I devote a lot of time and space on this blog writing about ‘B’ Movies, those frequently overlooked quickies from days past made on the cheap for the bottom of a double feature bill. Some are highly innovative, others less so, but they served as a kind of on-the-job-training ‘film school’ before there was such a thing. Most (but not all) of them have something to offer, whether a performance by a cast member on their way up (or down) or an early effort by a future director of note. Recently, I watched ONCE A THIEF, and while it certainly broke no new ground, I found it a tight little ‘B’ noir featuring in this case a female protagonist trapped in that familiar downward spiral.

‘B’ Movie Queen June Havoc (sister of famed ecdysiast* Gypsy Rose Lee) is the troubled gal in question, a down on her luck lady named Margie Foster. She’s tutored in the art of shoplifting by brassy dame Pearl (played by brassy Iris Adrian), but when a good crime goes bad, Margie flees San Francisco for L.A. No, she doesn’t become an ecdysiast, instead she winds up with a job at a diner and becomes roommates with co-worker Flo (Marie “The Body” McDonald), and sets about trying to go straight.

Into Margie’s life comes Mitch Moore (Cesar Romero ) a charming con artist who runs a bookie joint with his partner Gus (Lon Chaney Jr. ). Mitch’s main con is fleecing lonely dames out of all their dough, and when he sets his eyes on Margie, he gives his latest fling Nicki the brush (she in turn takes the gas pipe), and hustles Margie with his sweet-talkin’ B.S. stories. In the process, Mitch steals a valuable watch from her, only to find out later it’s as hot as the proverbial pistol.

Having no more money to support Mitch, Margie hooks up with Pearl back in Frisco to get some loot, only this time she gets busted and sent to stir. Mitch, that rat, calls off their impending wedding, and begins to put the make on Flo while Margie’s behind the walls, claiming he needs quick cash to hire Margie a “high-priced  lawyer”. Now Margie, seeing Flo get in Mitch’s car from a prison window, puts 2+2 together, thinking Flo has betrayed her, and busts out of prison to seek revenge. Meanwhile, Mitch and Gus’s bookie emporium gets raided, he’s locked up, and things really take a turn for the worse…

June Havoc really gets to shine in this gritty little crime drama, especially at the end. Romero, Chaney, and company are all seasoned veterans who know how to get a part over, even if it’s in low-budget fodder like this. Smaller roles are filled by Familiar Faces Bill Baldwin, Kathleen Freeman , Michael Mark, and Ann Tyrrell, professionals one and all. The movie was directed by W. Lee Wilder, whose film career wasn’t nearly as successful as his younger brother Billy’s . The budget restrictions are covered up well by DP William Clothier , later more closely associated with the films of John Wayne (14) and John Ford (5). ONCE A THIEF isn’t up there with DETOUR or GUN CRAZY as a trendsetting low-budget noir classic, but it’s an entertaining little number that held my interest for about 90 minutes. Can’t ask for much more than that in a ‘B’ Movie!

*in case you were wondering, ecdysiast is just a fancy name for stripper!

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