Halloween Havoc!: SON OF DRACULA (Universal 1943)


Director Robert Siodmak is remembered today for his dark excursions into the world of film noir: THE SUSPECT, THE KILLERS , CRY OF THE CITY, CRISS CROSS . His first entry in the genre is generally recognized as 1944’s PHANTOM LADY , but a case could be made for SON OF DRACULA, Siodmak’s only Universal Horror that combines elements of both genres into what could best be described as supernatural noir.

A train pulls into the station in a sleepy Louisiana town. Frank Stanley (Robert Paige) and Dr. Brewster (Frank Craven ) are there to meet Count Alucard, invited for a visit by Kay Caldwell (Louise Albritton), Frank’s fiancé, who has long been interested in the occult. Alucard isn’t aboard, but his trunks are, and Brewster notices Alucard spelled backwards reads as Dracula. The trunks are delivered to Kay’s family plantation, Dark Oaks. The scene shifts, and we meet Kay speaking with old Queen Zimba (Adeline DeWalt Reynolds), a Hungarian gypsy woman who warns, “The Angel of Death hovers over a great house… I see you marrying a corpse, living in a grave…”.

A grand party is held that night at Dark Oaks, a reception for the visiting Count. Frank expresses his concerns about Kay’s growing interest in occult matters, but she cryptically tells him “what I’m doing is best for both (of us)”. Alucard remains a no-show, but we know he’s present, as he pays a late night visit to Kay’s father Col. Caldwell, who’s pronounced dead of a heart attack, though Brewster notices two puncture wounds on his throat. Count Alucard (Lon Chaney Jr. ) then announces his arrival shortly after the guests depart. Brewster later places a call to his old friend, occult expert Professor Laszlo (J. Edward Bromberg ).

At the reading of the will, Kay’s sister Claire (Evelyn Ankers ) inherits all the monies, while Kay becomes the sole owner of Dark Oaks. Nightfall arrives, and Kay meets Alucard in private, his coffin rising from the swamp, a mist bringing him to corporeal form, gliding across the murky water to her. Frank spies the two, and follows them to a Justice of the Peace, where they are wed. Barging in on them at Dark Oaks, Frank is easily overpowered by the Count. The startled Frank pulls his gun and shoots, his bullets passing right through Alucard and striking down Kay. Unnerved and in shock, Frank runs to Brewster’s home, telling the doctor, “I don’t even know if it’s real, maybe it’s a nightmare or something!”.

Brewster investigates at Dark Oaks, and makes a shocking discovery: Kay is alive! Alucard warns the doctor off, forbidding visitors, stating he’s “engaged in some scientific research and do not wish to be disturbed… anyone who enters here without my permission will be considered a trespasser”. Frank confesses murder to the local sheriff, and those involved head to Dark Oaks – where Kay’s dead body is found resting in the family crypt! Laszlo comes to town, and after being updated is convinced Dracula (or his descendant) is on the loose, a fact confirmed when the Count materializes before the two men. Frank, currently locked in jail, is paid a visit in his cell by Kay, who reveals her goal all along has been to make them both immortal, and for him to destroy the only thing that stands in their way – Alucard…

Siodmak’s tight shots and cinematographer George Robinson’s deep shadows bring a claustrophobic quality that would be the envy of any film noir. The eerie, moss-covered grounds of Dark Oaks give the film a Southern Gothic look that compares favorably to titles like DARK WATERS and NIGHT OF THE HUNTER . Eric Taylor’s script (from a story by Robert Siodmak’s brother Curt) makes Frank a true noir protagonist, trapped in a nightmarish downward spiral by femme fatale Kay. The feverish, downbeat ending is no “happily ever after” fantasy where the lovers embrace, as in most Universal Horrors, but instead Frank’s only way out.

Much has been written about Lon Chaney Jr.’s interpretation of the Count. most of it unfavorable. I disagree with those who slam the performance, and will go as far as saying that, besides his Larry Talbot/Wolf Man character, this is his finest Universal Horror role. He may not be a suave sophisticated vampire like Lugosi, but Chaney does give an imperious bearing to his Count, his voice conveying an ominous tone despite his American inflections.  Chaney’s vampire is the most physical of the Universal Draculas, giving us a full-blooded (pardon the pun) Count that paves the way for Christopher Lee’s later work for Hammer. This Dracula is evil incarnate, coming to America with a purpose, to obtain fresh new blood, and it’s among Lon’s best horror roles, deserving of reassessment.

The story is slowly and deliberately paced, the least serial-like of the 1940’s Universal Horrors, which is strange in itself considering the producer is serial king Ford Beebe. I’d go as far as saying SON OF DRACULA, with its film noir look and feel, is the one of the best Universal Horrors of the 40’s, still able to send shivers down the spines of horror aficionados, and should be essential Halloween viewing for lovers of the macabre – like you!

Advertisements

Halloween Havoc!: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (Universal 1943)

Universal’s 1943 remake of the 1925 Lon Chaney Sr. classic THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is definitely an ‘A’ movie in every way. A lavish Technicolor production with an ‘A’ list cast (Claude Rains, Nelson Eddy, Susanna Foster) and opulent sets (including the Opera House interiors built for the ’25 silent), it’s the only Universal Horror to win an Oscar – actually two, for Art Direction and Cinematography. Yet I didn’t really like it the first time I saw it. It’s only through repeated viewings I’ve softened my stance and learned to appreciate the film.

Claude Rains’s performance in particular has made me a convert. As Erique Claudin, he’s a sympathetic figure, and one can’t help but feel sorry for him. When he’s let go from the orchestra by the maestro, after twenty long years as a violinist, his arthritis causing his playing to become subpar, I felt pity for a man who gave so much for his art. Though he commits the murder of the publisher he believes has stolen his concerto, Erique didn’t deserve to have acid flung in his face by an angry secretary. His howls are that of a wounded animal as he escapes into the sewers below the streets of Paris. Rains, with his black cloak and hat, his grotesque face covered by a stage mask, cuts a fine figure as The Phantom. His only motivation is to further the career of budding soprano Christine, whom he’s loved from afar, and he’s determined to eliminate everything that stands in the way of that goal. His mind has become as scarred as his face, and like the best of monsters, he’s a figure to be pitied, not hated.

Nelson Eddy (Anatole) and Susanna Foster (Christine) are in fine voice; even though opera’s not really my thing, I can certainly appreciate their talents. I could do without the love triangle with Christine, Anatole, and Inspector Raoul Dubert (Edgar Barrier), but it’s necessary to the plot as constructed by writers Eric Taylor and Samuel Hoffenstein, who took several liberties with Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel in order to fit in Universal’s newest star Eddy, who’d recently left MGM after seven years under contract.

A better-than-average supporting cast features J. Edward Bromberg , Leo Carrillo , a young Hume Cronyn , Jane Farrar, Fritz Feld, Steven Geray, Miles Mander, Frank Puglia, and Special Guest Star Franz Liszt! Actually, it’s not the famous composer (who’d been dead since 1886), but actor Fritz Leiber (father of science fiction writer Fritz Leiber Jr. ), who plays an important part in the proceedings. The score by Edward Ward consists of original operatic music especially composed for the film (though better ears than mine will notice some Tchaikovsky and Bach thrown in), and was also Oscar nominated (but lost to THIS IS THE ARMY, a patriotic flag-waver based on the music of Irving Berlin).

Director Arthur Lubin took time off from helming Abbott & Costello vehicles to make PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and does a fine job. The famous chandelier scene is thrillingly staged, and the unmasking of The Phantom deep inside the catacombs (a highlight of the ’25 version) is sufficiently gruesome, although Jack Pierce’s makeup can’t hold a candle to Chaney’s iconic original. I admire the film today, with reservations. It’s more a Nelson Eddy/Susanna Foster vehicle than Universal Horror, and I would’ve liked to have seen more emphasis on Claude Rains’s Phantom. As it stands, it’s an uneven but interesting and watchable entry in the history of the horror film.  

Halloween Havoc!: INVISIBLE AGENT (Universal 1942)

INVISIBLE AGENT could very well have been subtitled “The Invisible Man vs The Nazis”! This is the only Universal Horror that addresses the topic of the war in Europe (despite the fact most of them take place in Europe!), and though there aren’t many scares going on, Curt Siodmak’s sci-fi flavored screenplay, John P. Fulton’s fantastic special effects, and a cast featuring Peter Lorre in his only Universal Horror appearance make this one of the most enjoyable movies of the whole bunch!

Frank Griffin, grandson of the original Invisible Man, is living in London under the assumed name Frank Raymond and running a small printing shop. A gang of Axis creeps led by Gestapo spymaster Stauffer and Japanese Baron Ikito pay him a call, demanding his grandfather’s secret of invisibility, which of course they want to use for their own nefarious purposes. Frank manages to escape their clutches, and goes to the American Embassy. The Allies want it too, but Frank refuses to share the dangerous drug – until Pearl Harbor, then he gets all patriotic and agrees, on the condition he’s the one to use it! Frank’s airlifted to Berlin, where he takes a shot of invisibility juice, parachutes behind enemy lines, and is sent to meet beautiful double agent Maria, who all the Nazis are hot for (and who can blame them?). Frank’s mission is to retrieve the secret book containing the names of all Axis spies and saboteurs in America, and he winds up in and out of danger before the bad guys get what’s comin’ to ’em and the good guys chalk up another victory for liberty and freedom!

That’s right, it’s pure WWII propaganda, as well as pure escapism, and as such works on both levels. Siodmak, who along with brother Robert fled the Nazi regime in the 1930’s, delivers a fast paced and fun script, depicting most of the Nazis as bumbling boobs, except for the totally hissable main bad guys. Director Edwin L. Marin handles the material well, keeping the pedal to the metal at serial-paced speed. Fulton’s special effects are Grade ‘A’ for the era, and he received an Oscar nomination for them. The film, curiously, is produced by two-time Oscar-winning director Frank Lloyd (THE DIVINE LADY, CAVALCADE), usually associated with more prestigious productions.

Square-jawed Jon Hall, Maria Montez’s costar in Universal’s sword-and-sandal epics, is as stalwart a hero as they come. Beautiful Ilona Massey, who was paired with Nelson Eddy in three musicals, makes for a voluptuous spy as Maria. Sir Cedric Hardwicke is downright mean and nasty as the Gestapo chief Stauffer. Lorre plays his Japanese counterpart Baron Ikito, a sinister  menace who threatens to chop off Hall’s fingers with a paper-cutter in the opening scene. J. Edward Bromberg as Nazi Heiser is a treacherous little rat who tries to cut in on Maria while Stauffer’s away (there’s a whimsically funny scene where Maria and the horny Heiser are trying to have dinner, and invisible Frank keeps messing with the Nazi’s head!). Albert Basserman of Hitchcock’s SABOTEUR has a small but strong part as an underground agent. And Familiar Face spotters will have a blast identifying people like Walter Tetley, Phil Van Zandt, and Keye Luke in brief bits.


So now it can be told – The Universal Monsters helped combat The Nazi Terrors, at least in INVISIBLE AGENT, a treat for both horror buffs and 40’s film fans. And remember: the secret password is “Empire Style”!

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.