Special Memorial Day Edition: Randolph Scott in GUNG HO! (Universal 1943)

Duke Wayne wasn’t the only movie cowboy who fought WWII in Hollywood. Randolph Scott battled fascism in quite a few war dramas, and one of his best is 1943’s GUNG HO! (currently streaming on The Film Detective ). The rock-solid Mr. Scott plays tough-as-nails Col. Thorwald, an expert in guerilla warfare thanks to his experience with the Chinese army, who whips a diverse crew of Marines into fighting shape to launch the first American ground offensive against the Japanese on Makin Island.

Scott and his second-in-command, the versatile character actor J. Carrol Naish (playing a Marine of Greek descent this time around), gather up a motley crew of misfits and reprobates ala THE DIRTY DOZEN:  there’s battling stepbrothers Noah Beery Jr. and David Bruce (who’re also rivals for the affections of pretty Grace McDonald in a subplot), hillbilly farmboy Rod Cameron, murderous minister Alan Curtis , “no good kid” Harold Landon (from Brooklyn, of course!), hustler Sam Levene , and most notably a young Robert Mitchum as a scrappy ex-boxer with the moniker ‘Pig Iron’. A shirtless Bob made the bobbysoxers swoon, and he was soon cast in a series of ‘B’ Westerns at RKO, then scored big two years later in another war flick, THE STORY OF G.I. JOE , leading to superstardom and screen immortality.

There’s plenty of blazing combat action, and the violence is quite brutal for the era, but we were at war, and War is Hell. Director Ray Enright handles it all well, with plenty of help from some of Universal’s best: DP Milton Krasner, editor Milton Carruth, composer Frank Skinner, and special effects wizard John P. Fulton . Lucien Hubbard and Joseph Hoffman’s script was based on the first-hand account by Lt. W.S. LeFrancois, first published in The Saturday Evening Post. Besides those previously mentioned, other Familiar Faces to film fans include Irving Bacon (in a funny bit as a soda jerk), Peter Coe , Dudley Dickerson, Louis-Jean Heydt, Robert Kent, Richard Lane, Walter Sande, and Milburn Stone. Those of *ahem* a certain age will recognize the voice of newscaster Chet Huntley narrating the proceedings.

Carlson’s Raiders: The Real Heroes of Makin Island

Modern day viewers may cringe at some of the blatant racist epitaphs hurled towards the Japanese (“I wanna kill Japs”, “I just don’t like Japs”), but once again I need to remind you of historical context. Pearl Harbor was still fresh in America’s collective mind, and retaliation was demanded. The real raid on Makin Island was the first strike, led by Lt. Col. Evans Carlson and his second-in-command James Roosevelt (FDR’s son). The 2nd Raider Battalion was transported by submarine to the Japanese stronghold, and the bloody two day battle resulted in the destruction of Japan’s garrison, with 46 verified enemy kills. The Americans weren’t spared either: 28 dead (including nine who were captured and later executed), 17 wounded, and 3 MIA. Today we honor those who sacrificed their lives on Makin Island and in other battles for the cause of freedom. Before you eat those hot dogs or bask on the beach, remember them in your thoughts and prayers.

Halloween Havoc!: JUNGLE WOMAN (Universal 1944)

Paula Dupree, the Ape Woman of CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN , returned in a sequel titled JUNGLE WOMAN a year later. While the former film has a kind of goofy charm to it, the sequel is a wretched concoction that’s not worth the time it’ll take me to write this – but I’m gonna do it anyway, so bear with me!

JUNGLE WOMAN is the very definition of a ‘quickie’, and I don’t mean that in a good way. A good chunk of the film is made up of stock footage from the original, including the stock footage that film used from Clyde Beatty’s THE BIG CAGE. Even so, it took three screenwriters to come up with this nonsense! The movie starts out okay, with a female fiend attacking a man, who gives her an injection, shown in shadow. But it quickly bogs down as we’re at a coroner’s inquest, with Dr. Carl Fletcher being held responsible for the death of Paula Dupree. Flashbacks (and that stock footage) tell the tale of what happened the night Cheela the gorilla was shot – but not killed, as we thought! Fletcher nursed the ape back to health, and bought Walters’ old Crestview Sanitarium. Cheela disappears, and Paula shows up, as do Fletcher’s daughter Joan and her fiancé Bob.

The mute Paula finally speaks when she gets a load of Bob – which was a big mistake, since Acquanetta (as Paula) has trouble with even her limited dialog. Bob and Joan take a moonlight canoe ride, and their boat mysteriously capsizes. Joan claims “something” was trying to drown her, and simpleton handyman Willie is suspected. But when Willie is discovered dead, Fletcher realizes The Ape Woman is on the loose…

Acquanetta is pretty bad (and she doesn’t even turn into the monster until the bitter end, when she’s already dead and lying on a morgue slab!), but romantic leads Lois Collier (Joan) and Richard Davis (Bob) are even worse. J. Carrol Naish manages to draw some sympathy for his character Dr. Fletcher, not an easy task, given the ludicrous dialog. Speaking of dialog, Evelyn Ankers gets top billing here, yet speaks less than fifty words (excluding the stock footage) at the inquest – and yes, I counted! Milburn Stone is back as Fred Mason, horror fan favorite Samuel S. Hinds is the coroner, Douglass Dumbrille the DA, and ex-cowboy star/future PLAN 9 participant Tom Keene plays a fingerprint man (under the screen name Richard Powers). Eddie Hyans makes an inauspicious film debut as Willie, who’s obviously patterned after Lenny in OF MICE AND MEN, but reminds me instead of an old Warner Brothers cartoon:

 Bad as JUNGLE WOMAN is (and it’s bad), Universal soon came up with a third chapter in the Paula Dupree/Ape Woman saga. Is it any better than this turkey? Put it this way: it can’t be any worse!

Hand-y Man: Peter Lorre in THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS (Warner Brothers 1946)

Warner Brothers was in at the beginning of the first horror cycle with DR. X and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM , both starring Lionel Atwill. The studio concentrated more on their gangster flicks, Busby Berkeley musicals, swashbuckling epics, and the occasional highbrow films with George Arliss and Paul Muni, but once in a while they’d throw horror buffs a bone: Karloff in 1936’s THE WALKING DEAD, ’39’s THE RETURN OF DR. X (no relation to the original, instead casting Humphrey Bogart as a pasty-faced zombie!), and a pair of scare comedies from ’41, THE SMILING GHOST and THE BODY DISAPPEARS.

Come 1946, Warners took another stab at horror with THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS, a psychological thriller about a dead pianist’s crawling hand out for murderous revenge… well, sort of. The movie was assembled by a host of horror vets, directed by Robert Florey (MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE ), written by Curt Siodmak (the man who brought THE WOLF MAN to life), and headlined by the great Peter Lorre as a pop-eyed astrology nut. It’s even got a score by KING KONG’s Max Steiner, yet despite all this terror talent going for it, THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS isn’t quite the classic it should be. It’s eerie and atmospheric, but the seemingly tacked-on comic ending almost ruined the good will haunting for me.

The story: In a small Italian village, Francis Ingram, a paralyzed concert pianist, assembles his closest acquaintances together to attest to his sanity as they cosign his last will and testament. They include hustling American ex-pat Bruce Conrad, who adapted symphonies to fit Ingram’s one-handed playing, nurse Julie Holden, with whom the elderly musician is in love, sycophant and astrology buff Hillary Cummins, nephew Donald Arlington, and lawyer Duprex. When Hillary informs the old man that Julie is planning to leave him for Bruce, an angered Ingram tries to strangle him. Later, on one of those dark and stormy nights familiar to horror fans, Ingram tumbles down the staircase in his wheelchair to his death.

Local policeman Commissario Castanio investigates and, finding no signs of foul play, declares the death an accident. At the reading of the will, Donald’s stodgy father Raymond shows up, aghast that Julie gets the bulk of the estate. Lawyer Duprex tells the relatives there’s an old will that may supplant the updated one… for a hefty fee, of course! Meanwhile, “there’s a light on in the mausoleum”, and soon piano music is heard, with Ingram’s ring found atop the instrument, and Duprex’s dead body discovered. An investigation finds Ingram’s corpse has had its hand cut off. All signs point to a disembodied hand returned from the grave, and the local villagers believe the villa is now cursed (because that’s what local villagers do in these things!). Nephew Donald attempts to open the safe containing the older will, and another attack is accompanied by the sound of piano music…

The best scene comes when Lorre bugs out upon being visited by the hand, richly enhanced by Steiner’s score. Peter’s at his stark, raving mad best in this movie, his last for Warner Brothers, and though I won’t give away any secrets for those who haven’t seen the film, suffice it to say our boy Lorre does a fantastic job in his role. Robert Alda (Bruce) is glib but good; he’d later have “hand” problems of his own in 1961’s THE DEVIL’S HAND. Andrea King (Julie) was a Warners contract player whose only other genre credit was 1952’s RED PLANET MARS. Victor Francen (Ingram), John Alvin (Donald), Charles Dingle (Raymond), Gino Corrado, Pedro de Cordoba, and Ray Walker also appear.

J. Carrol Naish plays the Commissario, and is the one who gets the dishonor of spoiling the fun with that “comedy” end bit. Naish, a master dialectician and two-time Oscar nominee (SAHARA, A MEDAL FOR BENNY), was no stranger to horror; fans know him as the hunchbacked Daniel in Universal’s all-star HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN . Among his chiller credits are two Lon Chaney Jr/Inner Sanctum entries (CALLING DR. DEATH, STRANGE CONFESSION), DR. RENAULT’S SECRET, THE MONSTER MAKER, and JUNGLE WOMAN. Naish’s final role was in Al Adamson’s DRACULA VS FRANKENSTEIN, reuniting him with old costar Chaney for one last horror hurrah.

Besides my griping about the silly denouement, THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS is worth your time. The good points (direction, music, Lorre’s performance, the cool special effects) far outweigh the one bad. As for Warner Brothers, horror aficionados would have to wait another seven years before they returned to the genre, but it was worth it… Vincent Price in the 3D shocker HOUSE OF WAX!

 

Happy Birthday, Jean Harlow: THE BEAST OF THE CITY (MGM 1932)

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In honor of Jean Harlow’s birthday (born March 3, 1911), TCM ran a Harlow marathon today. Since I was at work, I recorded a few of them. I couldn’t wait to get home and view THE BEAST OF THE CITY for three reasons: 1) Harlow, of course, 2) it’s a Pre-Code film I’ve never seen, and 3) it was directed by Charles Brabin, who gave us the devilishly decadent THE MASK OF FU MANCHU. I’d heard a lot about this movie and its violent ending, and though not nearly as gruesome as today’s films, it’s vigilante justice packs a punch that must’ve been pretty shocking in 1932.

The movie starts off with a forward from President Hoover (that’s Herbert, kids, not J. Edgar) decrying the glorification of gangsters in films, and saying we should be glorifying the police instead. We then get into the story, as we find Captain Jim Fitzgerald (aka “Fighting Fitz”) on the scene of a quadruple murder, where the Dopey gang members are found hung, clutching nickles in their dead fists. This is the calling card of the city’s top mobster, Sam Belmonte, who controls all the rackets. Fitz has Belmonte and his top torpedo Chollo picked up, but once again they’re released on a writ of habeas  corpus. The cops can never pin anything on the well-connected Belmonte, and public outcry from citizens and the newspapers demand a shakeup in the department. Fighting Fitz is part of the shakeup, and he gets transferred to a quieter precinct.

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Fitz’s younger brother Ed, a vice cop, hasn’t quite made his mark on the force. Ed’s an easygoing type, until he meets Belmonte’s moll, the platinum blonde Daisy Stevens, in a lineup. Daisy seduces the young cop (“I know what every young girl oughta know”), plying him with booze and sex. Daisy thinks Ed’s her new meal ticket, one she can use to her advantage. She persuades Ed to do some dirty work for Belmonte, and he winds up on the gangster’s payroll.

Meanwhile, Fitz gets a visit from old pals Tom and Mac, who chide him about his new gig. Just then, a call comes in about a bank robbery, and the three take off in hot pursuit. Fitz shoots one down, taking a slug himself in the process, and they capture the second. He’s hailed as a hero, and named the new Police Chief. He immediately gets to work cracking down on crime, raiding the local speakeasies and rounding up a mass of reprobates into a huge cell. Fitz gives the underworld an earful (“Take away your guns and your hop and you’re nothing but  bunch of dirty, yellow maggots”), and puts them on notice that things are going to change.

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Ed, drinking hard and living it up with Daisy, asks for a promotion, but Fitz denies him until he proves his worth. Fitz gives Ed an assignment to guard a shipment of money being sent by a bank. Daisy, ever the schemer, tells him she’s going to leave town with a rich boyfriend unless he can come up with some dough. She uses her wiles to get Ed to set up a heist, and has Chollo hire some boys to do the job. What Ed doesn’t realize is Fitz has Tom and Mac stake out the scene, and they stumble onto the fake robbery. The men chase the truck down, bullets flying, and a little girl ends up dead, as does Mac.

The two robbers are brought into Fitz’s office, and while Tom I.D.’s them, Ed says he can’t remember due to the conk on the head he received. The crooks put the finger on Ed, causing Fitz to almost choke his brother out. A trial ensues, and Belmonte hires a grandstanding mouthpiece to defend the trio. He gets them off in a travesty of justice, and remorseful Ed begs Fitz for forgiveness. Fitz develops a plan for revenge, and rounds up Tom and about a dozen od his best men. They have Ed burst in to Belmonte’s celebration party. Belmonte welcomes him, but Ed greets the boss with a smack in the face. He tells the gang he’s going to spill his guts to the papers. Fitz and his men come in and ask Belmonte if he wants to go quietly. The gangster refuses, as Fitz had guessed, and the cops brutally gun down the entire mob. The two brothers die as well, joining hands in a last gesture of solidarity, their work complete.

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Jean Harlow had been in movies about four years, notably in Howard Hughes’ aviation drama HELL’S ANGELS, before making THE BEAST OF THE CITY. The role of Daisy opened some eyes at MGM, and led to her being cast in RED DUST with Clark Gable, and from there a string of classic hits (DINNER AT EIGHT, RECKLESS, CHINA SEAS, RIFFRAFF, LIBELED LADY) until her untimely death from uremic poisoning in 1937 at age 26. Harlow was Hollywood’s original blonde bombshell, and Daisy was a showcase part for her. Whether she’s giving a cop the raspberry, dancing seductively for Ed in her apartment, or cooing lines like “Ya drink beer to make ya cool, and it just makes ya hot”,  Jean Harlow lets everyone know she’s not just another pretty face, but a talented actress.

I’ll go over the rest of the cast briefly, as I know I’m getting a bit long-winded here for an 86 minute movie. Walter Huston stars as Fitz, the no-nonsense crimefighter, a role far removed from his other 1932 starrer, KONGO . Dependable Wallace Ford plays brother Ed. The mild-mannered Dr. Christian, Jean Hersholt, sinks his teeth into the villainous Belmonte, and J. Carrol Naish is good as his slimy second-in-command. The Familiar Face Brigade is represented by actors Ed Brophy, George Chandler, Dorothy Granger, Arthur Hoyt, Robert Emmett O’Connor, and Nat Pendleton. And Fitz’s son is none other than little Mickey Rooney, who steals just about every scene he’s in.

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THE BEAST OF THE CITY isn’t quite in the same class as SCARFACE or THE PUBLIC ENEMY (both of which also featured Harlow in smaller roles), but it’s still entertaining, if a bit creaky in spots. There’s plenty of cool Pre-Code moments to be on the lookout for, and that ending of vigilante justice makes one wonder just who the true BEAST OF THE CITY was, Belmonte or Fitz. It’s a great chance to watch Jean Harlow sizzle in an early role, one that grabbed Hollywood’s attention and brought her to stardom, and for that, film fans can all be grateful.

Halloween Havoc!: HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (Universal 1944)

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Frankenstein’s Monster! The Wolf Man! Dracula! The Mad Doctor! The Hunchback! And just about every classic horror film trope you can think of! They’re all here in Universal’s “Monster Rally” HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN! Throwing everything scary they could think of at you but a kitchen sink full of spiders, Universal decided if one monster was good, five is better. Boris Karloff as mad Dr.Neimann leads the parade of horror all-stars that includes Lon Chaney Jr (The Wolf Man), John Carradine (Dracula), Lionel Atwill (Inspector Arnz), and George Zucco  (Professor Lampini).

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The movie is laid out like a serial, with the chapters kept moving swiftly along by director Erle C. Kenton. Neimann and his hunchbacked assistant Daniel escape from prison and come across Professor Lampini’s traveling Chamber of Horrors. Lampini claims to have the skeletal remains of the original Count Dracula, and he and Neimann discuss vampire lore. When Lampini refuses to take the pair to Reigleburg, Daniel kills him and his driver. Neimann’s on two missions: one to find the secret diary of Dr. Frankenstein, and the other to exact revenge on the men who imprisoned him. Hussman is the burgomeister of Reigleburg, and when Neimann sees him, he inadvertently pulls the stake from Dracula’s remains. The Count returns to life, and strikes a bargain with Neimann. Dracula (using the alias Baron Latos) offer a ride in his coach to Hussman, grandson Karl, and Karl’s wife Rita. After killing the old burgomeister, Dracula kidnaps Rita. Karl calls Inspector Arnz and his men, and they hunt the vampire down. Dracula is destroyed when he can’t make it to his coffin before sunrise, but Neimann and Daniel escape and move on to the town of Frankenstein.

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They stop at a gypsy camp where Daniel is enamored by the beautiful dancing gypsy Ilonka. She’s beaten by her man, and Daniel nearly kills him. Neimann reluctantly lets her go with them as they search the grounds of Castle Frankenstein. Discovering a “glacial ice cavern”, they find both Frankenstein’s notebook and the frozen remains of The Monster and The Wolf Man. Thawing them out, the group head for Vasaria and Neimann’s old lab.

Neimann and Daniel abduct Strauss and Ullman, the last two men responsible for Neimann’s sentence. The doctor announces his plan to put The Wolf Man’s brain in Strauss’s body and Ullman’s in the Monster. Things get hectic as Larry Talbot keeps changing back and forth into the Wolf Man, Ilonka falls in love with Larry, Daniel gets jealous, and the Monster is revived. The final striggle finds the Monster dragging Neimann to his doom in the quicksand laden marshes.

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J. Carrol Naish steals the acting honors from the horror vets as Daniel. Naish was a superb character actor who was nominated for Oscars twice (SAHARA, A MEDAL FOR BENNY). He played ethnic parts well: Italian, Arab, even Chinese, but was an Irishman from New York himself. Naish’s last film was also with Chaney, DRACULA VS FRANKENSTEIN (1971). Elena Verdugo, Anne Gwynne, Glenn Strange, Peter Coe, Sig Ruman, and Phillip Van Zandt also appear in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Hans J. Salter’s music score is one of the best in horror pics, and George Robinson’s moody camerawork sets the spooky tone. Two more sequels were made, HOUSE OF DRACULA and ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN,then the Universal Monsters were seen no more. Giant bugs and outer space aliens took their place, until Universal released their monstrous backlog of movies to television in the late 50s, where they found a new audience of mostly kids eager to be scared by the old boogeymen. The Monster Boom was back on, and soon there was “Famous Monsters” magazine and TV horror hosts from coast to coast and Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett singing The Monster Mash. The Universal Horrors are still going strong today, thanks to DVDs and TCM and readers like you, still interested in watching them and reading about them. Thus ends a month-long series of “Halloween Havoc!” Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go watch some horror films!