Give The Devil His Due: Hugo Haas’s BAIT (Columbia 1954)

Every Tuesday during the month of “Noirvember”, I’ll be spotlighting some dark genre gems. Enjoy wandering down the crooked path of film noir!

Welcome to the world of Hugo Haas, King of Low-Budget 50’s Film Noir. I’d heard about producer/director/writer/actor Haas’s films for years through Leonard Maltin’s annual Movie Guide, usually accompanied by a *1/2 to ** (or less!) rating. Of course, being a connoisseur of bad cinema, I was interested, but it wasn’t until recently I viewed my first Hugo Haas epic, 1954’s BAIT, starring Hugo’s screen muse Cleo Moore, who was featured in seven of the  maestro’s movies.

BAIT starts with a unique introduction (and some nice camerawork from DP Eddie Fitzgerald), as an elegantly dressed Sir Cedric Hardwicke plays The Devil Himself delivering a monologue expounding on his evil machinations. Then we get into the story itself (written by Samuel W. Taylor, with “additional dialog” by Haas): Young Ray Brighton meets older Serbian gypsy Marko at a local diner; the two have a deal to find a lost gold mine. The proprietor warns Ray that Marko’s “a lunatic”, with rumors he killed his last partner. Stopping at the general store for supplies, they encounter the beautiful but hardened young Peggy scrubbing floors. Ray’s attracted, but Marko warns him off (“She’s no good, got a baby already and is never married”).

The pair head for the rugged mountain terrain, and Peggy shows up to deliver supplies. Ray tries flirting, but again Marko warns him off (“The devil sent her to stir up your blood and make trouble”). The men stumble onto the lost mine, and gold fever strikes both inside their heads – and souls! The Devil whispers inside Marko’s ear, giving him an idea to get rid of Ray… by marrying Peggy and bringing her to the cabin, hoping to stir their loins so Marko will have an excuse to kill them both and keep the gold for himself…

Okay, it’s not the greatest of noirs ever made, and is hampered by the ultra-low budget, but it did manage to hold my interest. Haas, Cleo, and John Agar form the eternal triangle, with Agar beginning his downward career slide because of his drinking and an acrimonious divorce from America’s Sweetheart, Shirley Temple. Haas, who fled Europe after the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, had become a character actor in America, co-starring in films like DAKOTA, NORTHWEST OUTPOST, THE FIGHTING KENTUCKIAN, and KING SOLOMON’S MINES before becoming the Orson Welles of ‘B’ noir, making tawdry little tales of men enticed by femme fatales. BAIT shows brief  flashes of good filmmaking, but again the budget holds it back from becoming anything more than a second-feature programmer.

B-Movie Bad Girl Cleo Moore was once married to Louisiana Gov. Huey Long’s son (for six whole weeks!) before coming to Hollywood. Cleo had roles in the serial CONGO BILL and some Tim Holt Westerns before getting noticed in a small role in Nicholas Ray’s ON DANGEROUS GROUND. Signed by Columbia as an answer to Fox’s Marilyn Monroe (only with a much harder edge), she became the low-budget Dietrich to Hass’s Von Sternberg , appearing in the auteur’s STRANGE FASCINATION, ONE GIRL’S CONFESSION, THY NEIGHBOR’S WIFE, THE OTHER WOMAN, HOLD BACK TOMORROW, and HIT AND RUN. Cleo never quite hit it big, but a cult has formed around her B-film performances. She left the screen to become a success in real estate and a Beverly Hills socialite before dying of a heart attack in 1973.

My take on Hugo Haas after viewing BAIT? The film was certainly competent enough to hold my interest; I’ve sat through much, much worse. I’m not going to go as far as saying this is a great movie, but it’s good for what it is, and I’d watch other Haas films on that basis alone. He may not be a Ford or Welles, but he’s no Ed Wood , either. And I like Ed. As for Cleo Moore, the scene where she licks that cigarette paper alone is enough to make me want more!!

Special Veterans Day Edition: John Wayne in SANDS OF IWO JIMA (Republic 1949)

Critics of John Wayne gave him a lot of flak for not serving his country during World War II, especially in the turbulent 1960’s, labeling him a phony patriot and celluloid warrior. The truth is Wayne DID try to get into the war, but was stymied in his attempts on two fronts: Republic Studios boss Herbert Yates, who filed for deferments so he wouldn’t lose his cash cow, and Wayne’s first wife Josie, who failed to forward letters from OSS Chief Wild Bill Donovan’s office. Be that as it may, The Duke was no phony, and did what he could on the home front for the war effort.

SANDS OF IWO JIMA was made four years after the war as a tribute to the brave souls of the United States Marine Corps who fought against the Japanese in the South Pacific. Wayne plays the tough top kick Sgt. John Stryker, charged with molding a batch of new recruits into a fighting Marine Rifle Squad. Among them are Conway (John Agar ), the resentful son of Stryker’s former C.O.; Thomas (Forrest Tucker ), an ex-sergeant with a grudge against Stryker; Regazzi (Wally Cassell ), the obligatory hustler from Brooklyn; and the battling Flynn brothers (Richard Jaeckel , Bill Murphy).

Stryker’s hard-ass attitude causes many to dislike him, but the Marine lifer cares about the men’s safety and wants them all to come back alive. When the men are granted a brief leave, Conway meets and falls in love with Allison (Adele Mara ) at a dance, and marries her. But the honeymoon’s a short one as the squad is shipped to Tarawa, where a fierce battle is being fought. The island is taken, but at a deadly cost, as Stryker’s battlefield heroics saves the lives of many (but not all) of his squad, and Thomas’s slacking off to drink coffee gets one killed and another seriously wounded.

When Stryker finds out about Thomas’s lollygagging, they have it out in a knock-down, drag-out brawl that almost gets the sarge locked up, but Thomas turns out to be a stand-up guy, and his remorse is evident. After a brief stopover in Hawaii, their next mission is Iwo Jima, a raging battle that goes on for days and results in many casualties before they finally take Mt. Suribachi. But Stryker doesn’t live to see the iconic flag raising as he’s cut down by a sniper’s bullet. The men gather around their fallen leader, and Thomas reads an unmailed  letter Stryker wrote to his estranged ten year old son (and if your eyes don’t well up with tears during this scene, there’s something wrong with you). The flag is raised, and Conway calls the men back to battle using Stryker’s favorite saying – “Saddle up!”.

Wayne’s Sgt. Stryker is a contradiction in terms. He’s tough and relentless with his men for a reason – he wants to give them the tools to survive the brutal war. He’s a Marine Corps lifer whose dedication to service cost him his wife and child, and that in turn caused him to hit the bottle hard. The scene where, while on leave in Honolulu, he picks up a bar girl (Julie Bishop ) and goes back to her place, only to discover she’s doing what she does to feed her fatherless child, is a tender moment in a tough film, and went a long way to help Wayne receive his first Oscar nomination.

Director Alan Dwan was an old pro who made his first film in 1913. While not a stylist like Wayne directors John Ford or Howard Hawks, Dwan was more than competent in any genre, and his action scenes are second to none. Among his many film credits are the 1922 ROBIN HOOD, REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM, THE THREE MUSKETEERS (’39 version) , BREWSTER’S MILLIONS, THE WILD BLUE YONDER, CATTLE QUEEN OF MONTANA, and THE RESTLESS BREED. Actual newsreel footage of the battles of Tarawa and Iwo Jima are cut into the film to match DP Reggie Lenning’s studio-lensed shots, and editor Richard Van Enger’s work earned an Academy Award nomination, as did T.A. Carmen and Howard Wilson for their use of sound. Harry Brown’s original story was also nominated; he cowrote the screenplay with Wayne’s personal writer James Edward Grant. Besides those previously mentioned, the cast includes James Brown, Peter Coe , Hal Feiberling (later Baylor), Arthur Franz , Don Haggerty, Martin Milner , William Self, George Tyner, Richard Webb, and Dick Wessel.

Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph

Also in the film are Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, and John Bradley, recreating that famous flag raising moment caught on camera for all eternity by photographer Joe Rosenthal. Real-life Marines 1st Lt. Harold Schrier, Col. David M. Shoup, Lt. Col. Henry P. Crowe, and Lt. Gen. Holland Smith make appearances as themselves. These men are the real heroes of the battle of Iwo Jima, and today we honor their memories, as well as the memories of all who fought and died in the service of our country, men like 94-year-old Hershel “Woody” Williams, the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from that grueling battle of Iwo Jima, which resulted in 26,000 American casualties and 6,800 dead…

Semper fi, Marine!

Wherever you are here in America, take the time to stop and thank a vet for their service. And keep those you love close at heart.

Halloween Havoc!: REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (Universal-International 1955)

The Gill-Man  made his second appearance in REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, a good-not-great sequel that finds The Creature out of his element and in the modern (well, 1955) world. In fact, The Creature is the most sympathetic character in the film, as he’s hunted, ripped from his home, chained up, tortured, and treated like a freak-show attraction. The humans, with the exception of heroine Lori Nelson, are your basic 50’s sci-fi hammerheads who fear what they don’t understand and try to force The Gill-Man to their will.

Old friend Captain Lucas is once again heading down the Amazon to the Black Lagoon, in his new boat The Rita II. Joe Hayes and George Johnson of Florida’s Ocean Harbor Oceanarium are out to capture The Creature and use him as a theme park attraction. Underwater dynamite charges stun The Gill-Man into a coma, and he’s trussed up and transported stateside. Professor Clete Boyer is on hand to study The Creature and use behavioral modification to try to tame him; also on hand is pretty grad student Helen Dobson, who’s doing her Master’s thesis on ichthyology, and whom Professor Clete immediately hits on!

Clete uses an underwater cattle prod to “teach” the poor Gill-Man proper etiquette, though Helen begins to feel sorry for the lonely humanoid. The Creature is feeling something too, as he’s obviously crushin’ on Helen! The Gill-Man gets tired of all this abusive treatment and finally snaps his chain, literally, killing Joe and running amok at Ocean Harbor before heading back to Mother Ocean. A search proves fruitless, but that doesn’t stop Clete and Helen from having a night on the town, which The Creature rudely interrupts by snatching Helen and sending everyone into a panicked frenzy…

Riccou Browning is back as The Creature for all the underwater sequences, while stuntman Tom Hennesey plays him on land. There’s a scene at the Oceanarium featuring “Flippy, the Educated Porpoise” – could this have inspired Browning to co-create the FLIPPER TV series? Marineland in Florida stands in for Ocean Harbor, still a popular destination today. Like it’s predecessor, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE was shot in the 3D process, but the “comin’ at ya” scenes are a bit more distracting here. The basic premise of this movie served as ‘inspiration’ for another aquatic horror… 1983’s JAWS 3D.

John Agar  (Clete) plays the “hero” in much the same way as he did in countless 1950’s/60’s sci-fi movies, the macho know-it-all who tries to hook up with the leading lady the minute he lays eyes on her! Lori Nelson (Helen) made her film debut in Anthony Mann’s BEND OF THE RIVER with The Creature’s original “crush”, Julie Adams. John Bromfield (Joe) starred in Curt Siodmak’s CURUCU BEAST OF THE AMAZON and TV’s SHERIFF OF COCHISE before retiring from acting in 1960. Nestor Paiva returns as Captain Lucas in the Amazon River scenes at the film’s beginning. And there’s another Familiar Face here…


Clint Eastwood , making his extremely short film debut as a lab assistant who’s mislaid a white rat (it’s in his pocket!). Clint’s brief bit was designed to introduce him to audiences by Universal-International, but the actor failed to impress the studio or the audience (he’s pretty green), and he was released from his contract a short time later. I think most readers would agree with me that Clint’s improved a lot since those early years!

REVENGE OF THE CREATURE is a solid entry in the saga of The Gill-Man and was a box office success, so naturally Universal-International followed up on its cash cow with a third sequel. Next up: THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US!

Halloween Havoc!: TARANTULA (Universal-International 1955)

TARANTULA is a movie that used to scare the bejeezus out of me as a kid, and helped warp my fragile little mind. Watching it again through my so-called “grown-up” eyes, I could sit here and pick at some gaps in logic and bad dialog. But I’m not gonna do that; instead I’ll look at the positives in this still entertaining and fun “Big Bug” movie (okay, maybe I’ll pick at it a little!).

A pre-credits scene shows a deformed looking man in pajamas stumbling across the desert, buzzards circling over his head. He drops in his tracks, then the title appears in big, bold letters: TARANTULA! The credits roll, and we meet Dr. Mark Hastings, who’s “just a country doctor” in the aptly named desert town of Desert Rock. Mark gets a call from Sheriff Jack Andrews to inspect the body, assumed to be scientist Dr. Eric Jacobs. Mark thinks this is impossible, for the corpse has died from acute acromegaly, a disease of the pituitary glands causing gigantism and enlarged organs which takes years to produce the state the body’s in.

“Nutrient biologist” Prof. Gerald Deemer comes to the morgue and identifies the body as indeed Jacobs, “a friend for thirty years”. Deemer claims the condition came on suddenly four days ago, and he was helpless to aid his dear, deceased friend. Deemer returns to his laboratory far from town limits, and we glimpse the fruits of his labor: a giant rat, giant rabbit, and giant guinea pig locked in cages, as well as one BIG-ASS tarantula in a glass cage. A creepy dude looking similar to Jacobs enters the lab and attacks Deemer. They tussle, and the lab equipment bursts into flames! Creepy dude injects Deemer with a serum, then drops dead. The lab is in ruins, equipment and experiments destroyed… except for that BIG-ASS spider, who’s escaped into the desert night!

Enter hot graduate student Stephanie “Steve” Clayton, biology major. She’s arrived in town at the behest of Deemer and Jacobs, and Mark offers her a ride out to his home. He just happened to be heading there to meet newspaper reporter Joe Burch, hoping to get some info on Jacobs’ mysterious bout of acromegaly. Mark and Steve are automatically smitten with each other, despite Mark’s sexist comment, “I knew it would happen! Give women the vote and whaddaya get? Lady scientists!”.

Arriving at Deemer’s, the scientist tells Mark he’s been experimenting with a powerful nutrient bolstered by a “radioactive isotope” in hopes of overcoming a future world hunger crisis brought on by overpopulation. When he leaves, we see Deemer beginning to show signs of acromegaly from the serum Creepy Guy injected in him. As Deemer continues to weaken, reports of mutilated cattle, “their bones picked clean”, occur, a viscous pool of white liquid nearby. When a truck is overturned and it’s occupants similarly victimized, Mark takes a thermos full of the stuff to be examined at the local college… but not before taking a taste of the vile-looking stuff! Yuck!!

The university doctor tells Mark it’s “related to insect venom”, but it’d have to be one BIG-ASS insect to produce that much venom. Mark puts two and two together and calls Deemer’s home, with Steve telling him she’s worried about the scientist’s condition. She lets out a scream, and Mark rushes to the rescue, finding Deemer in rough shape, but not rough enough to give out some exposition on the story’s plot. Mark gets the sheriff to call in the state police, as the tarantula crawls along, ominous music playing wherever he goes!

The highway is blocked off, and here comes Spidey! Machine gun fire can’t stop it, as two unlucky trooper find out (“Jumpin’ Jupiter!”, exclaims the sheriff). Desert Rock is evacuated, and the townsfolk order caseloads of dynamite to try and blast it to smithereens. The Air Force is called in (Mark: “If those boys have some napalm, tell ’em to bring it along!”), and the TNT blast doesn’t stop it (“Holy Cow!”), so the air squadron, led by an uncredited 25-year-old Clint Eastwood no less, uses their rockets and napalm bombs to obliterate that BIG-ASS spider in a fiery conflagration!

Sci-fi hero John Agar plays Mark, utilizing his expressive eyebrows and lopsided grin as usual. He gets the worst dialog, but as a sci-fi hero he’s okay; he’s done this before. Mara Corday, of THE BLACK SCORPION and THE GIANT CLAW , made her sci-fi debut here; later, when Eastwood became a megastar, he cast his old friend Mara in small roles in some of his films. Veteran Leo G. Carroll  lends dignity to the sympathetic part of Prof. Deemer. Familiar Faces in key roles are Raymond Bailey (THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES’ Mr. Drysdale), Ross Elliott, Nestor Paiva, and Hank Patterson (GREEN ACRES’ Fred Ziffle, “father” of Arnold). Stuntman Eddie Parker does double-duty as the deformed Jacobs and Creepy Dude in makeup by the great Bud Westmore.

Producer William Alland and director Jack Arnold collaborated on 50’s sci-fi films IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE , THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and it’s sequel REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, THIS ISLAND EARTH (Arnold was uncredited on this one), and THE SPACE CHILDREN, all among  the decade’s best. Speaking of the decade’s best, Joseph Gershenson’s score is a cut above what’s usually heard in these films, and deserves recognition. Clifford Stine’s optical effects of the superimposed spider hold up well in this age of CGI. Robert Fresco and Martin Berkeley’s script manages to tell a gripping story regardless of those logic gaps and sometimes ludicrous dialog.

TARANTULA is definitely a guilty pleasure for me, an amusing “Big Bug” romp that’s doesn’t scare me like it did when I was a child, but remains a treat to watch. Nostalgia, maybe? Sure, but whereas some of these old sci-fi flicks I wouldn’t go out of my way to revisit, I would with TARANTULA! Over and over again!

Little Tin God: SHIELD FOR MURDER (United Artists 1954)

Edmond O’Brien  is big, burly, and brutal in 1954’s SHIELD FOR MURDER, a grim film noir about a killer cop trapped in that ol’ inevitable downward spiral. It’s a good (though not great) crime drama that gave the actor a seat in the director’s chair, sharing credit with another first timer, Howard W. Koch. The film, coming at the end of the first noir cycle, strives for realism, but almost blows it in the very first scene when the shadow of a boom mike appears on an alley fence! Chalk it up to first-timer’s jitters, and a budget that probably couldn’t afford retakes.

O’Brien, noted for such noir thrillers as THE KILLERS , WHITE HEAT, and DOA, stars as crooked cop Barney Nolan, who murders a bookie in that alley I just mentioned and rips him off for 25 grand. Apartently, this isn’t the first time Nolan’s killed, with the charges being swept under the rug as “in the line of duty”. Nolan hides his ill-gotten gains under the porch of a model suburban dream home he’s thinking of buying for himself and fiancé Patty Winters.

The 25 G’s belong to gangster Packy Reed, who of course wants his dough back. Reed’s two menacing goons threaten Patty, but are stopped by Nolan’s partner Mark Brewster. Then Nolan learns there was a witness, a deaf mute old man, and goes to try and bribe the old geezer, but accidentally kills him instead. Mark is called to investigate and finds a note the geezer wrote implicating Nolan in the bookie’s death. Nolan now becomes a hunted man, with the squad leader putting all cops on the lookout, leading to Barney Nolan’s unavoidable date with destiny.

There’s some shocking violence in the scene where Nolan, getting drunk at an Italian restaurant with a local floozie, spots the goons who threatened Patty, and savagely pistol whips them both. The final scenes, where the hunted Nolan engages in a gun duel with a goon at a high school swim meet, then is ferociously gunned down himself by his police brethren, are also well staged. O’Brien directed one other feature, 1961’s MAN TRAP, while Koch went on to a long career as a director (BIG HOUSE USA, UNTAMED YOUTH , FRANKENSTEIN 1970 , BADGE 373), producer (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, FOUR FOR TEXAS , THE ODD COUPLE, AIRPLANE!), and a stint as President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

The cast is terse and tough, and includes John Agar as Nolan’s partner Mark, Emile Meyer as the no nonsense precinct captain, Claude Akins as one of the goons, and a blonde Carolyn Jones as the floozie. Sexy Marla English plays Patty; she’s best known for a pair of chillers, THE SHE CREATURE and VOODOO WOMAN. The rest of the cast list features Familiar Faces from the world of episodic TV: John Beradino (GENERAL HOSPITAL), William Boyett (ADAM-12), Robert Bray (LASSIE), Richard Deacon (THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW), Stafford Repp (BATMAN), William Schallert (THE PATTY DUKE SHOW, STAR TREK’s “The Trouble With Tribbles”) and Vito Scotti, who was on just about every TV show made from the 50’s to the 70’s!

SHIELD FOR MURDER offers noir buffs a darkly good time, although I feel it’s definitely second-tier stuff. O’Brien and the cast make it worth watching, as does the intermittent outbursts of violence. Would I watch it again? Sure, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to do so. You Dear Readers will have to decide for yourselves.

 

Happy Birthday John Wayne: SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (RKO 1949)

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My all-time favorite actor was born Marion Mitchell Morrison on May 26, 1907 in Winterset, Iowa. But John Wayne the movie star was born in 1930 when, after years of bit parts, he landed the lead role in Raoul Walsh’s THE BIG TRAIL. The movie flopped at the box office, but it got Wayne noticed. After scuffling along in low-budget, juvenile B-Westerns for most of the 30’s, Wayne was cast as The Ringo Kid in John Ford’s blockbuster STAGECOACH , and his career took off like a wild stallion.

“The Duke” (a nickname he picked up as a kid) was an A-Lister now, the biggest star at Republic Pictures. Wayne and Ford continued their film collaborations throughout the 40’s. At the end of the decade RKO released the second of the Wayne/Ford “Cavalry Trilogy”, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON. The film was a smash hit, a rousing adventure bolstered by Wayne’s portrayal of a man twenty years older than himself, Captain Nathan Brittles.

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Nathan Brittles is a  by-the-book horse soldier who rose through the ranks to make captain. He lives by his choices, his code summed up in his favorite saying: “Never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness”. His practical, no-nonsense manner make Nathan a well-respected cavalry officer, but mask his softer side. Nathan Brittles is a true sentimentalist, making nightly visits to speak with his deceased wife at her gravesite. He’s loyal to his men, especially his Irish Top Sergeant Quincannon, who has a penchant for the bottle. And his gruff demeanor with Lieutenants Cohill and Pinnette are designed to bring out the best in them. Nathan Brittles is a completely different performance from Wayne’s other two 1949 roles (John Breen in THE FIGHTING KENTUCKIAN and Sgt. Stryker in SANDS OF IWO JIMA), and The Duke proves once again he’s not only a “star”, but a fine actor.

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Nathan’s just six days away from retirement, eager to ride west to the untamed California territory.  His superior officer Major Allshard gives him one last assignment: a final patrol to talk peace with the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, who’ve left the reservation to band together with renegades seeking to wage war with the whites after The Battle of Little Big Horn. But there’s a catch, as the Major wants Nathan to take his wife and young niece Olivia along, sending them away from the potential threat of war. Nathan protests (in writing, according to protocol), but reluctantly leads the troop through hostile territory, assisted by his lieutenants Cohill and Pinette, both of whom are vying for Olivia’s affections. They’re to drop the ladies at the stagecoach station on the way. However, advance scout Sgt. Tyree discovers a horrific tableau, and Nathan and his men ride out to discover the station burned, the man and woman who run it dead, their children left orphans. Now Nathan must take these children along and return to Fort Starke, his mission a failure.

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Nathan, disheartened by his perceived failure, inspects the troops one last time, the men presenting him with a silver watch for his retirement, inscribed “To Captain Brittles from C Troop, Lest We Forget”, choking the stoic leader up. He tricks Quincannon into donning civilian togs and gives him money to spend at the bar. Quincannon is arrested for this and put in the guardhouse, after a comic barroom brawl. Nathan has done this for Quincannon’s own safety, as he knows the Irishman has two weeks to go before his own retirement, and his fondness for whiskey would probably end up with Quincannon getting booted from the service without Nathan to keep him in check. (Plus, the brawl itself is hilarious, staged by some of Hollywood’s top stuntmen, including Frank McGrath and Gil Perkins. And what’s a John Ford film without a good barroom brawl!)

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Nathan has four hours remaining before his time with the Cavalry is up, so he rides with Tyree straight into enemy camp. He has a powwow with Chief Pony-That-Walks, hoping to avoid the potential bloodshed. The two old warhorses believe that “old men should stop wars”. Pony-That-Walks agrees, but believes it’s “too late, young men don’t listen…many will die”. Having failed, Nathan and his men devise a nighttime raid that scatters the Indian’s horses, thus leaving them on foot. The Indians, having lost face, must now walk back to their reservations, and the war has been averted. Nathan Brittles, “ex-Captain of Cavalry USA”, now heads west to California, “towards the setting sun, the end of the trail for all old men”. Suddenly, Tyree rides up on him with news from the war department… Nathan has been made Chief of Scouts, and given the rank of Lt. Colonel by his contacts in Washington (including President Ulysses S. Grant!). Nathan and Tyree return to Fort Starke, where a dance is being held in his honor. But first, he excuses himself, returning once again to his wife’s grave to give her the good news.

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John Ford  surrounds Wayne with a solid supporting cast. John Agar and Harry Carey Jr. play the rival Lieutenants, with Joanne Dru (Wayne’s RED RIVER costar) as the object of their affections. Victor McLaglen (Quincannon) is the comic relief, and almost steals the picture. George O’Brien (Major Allshard) was a silent star thanks to Ford’s 1924 THE IRON HORSE and F.W.Murnau’s classic SUNRISE, and later made a series of B-Westerns. Ben Johnson (Tyree) was a champion rodeo rider and stuntman, a favorite of both Ford and his spiritual heir Sam Peckinpah. Johnson won a supporting actor Oscar for 1971’s THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. Other Ford favorites here are Mildred Natwick, Arthur Shields (brother of Barry Fitzgerald), Ford’s own brother Francis, Chief John Big Tree, Noble Johnson, Tom Tyler, and Paul Fix. Actor/director Irving Pichel narrates the tale.

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John Wayne’s main costar is once again Monument Valley, Ford’s favorite shooting spot. Its rugged terrain forms the perfect background for Nathan’s rugged individualism, and Winton Hoch Technicolor cinematography won the Oscar for his breathtaking filming of the beautiful scenery. Hoch had honed his skills as cameraman on the James A. Fitzpatrick TRAVELTALKS shorts, and was awarded the Oscar on four separate occasions.

SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON is the best of the Ford/Wayne “Cavalry” films, a colorful, grand entertainment that provides another acting showcase for John Wayne. So here’s to The Duke on his 109th birthday anniversary, continuing to bring the American West to vibrant life in films like this one. And remember, “Never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness”!

My Living Doll: ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE (AIP 1958)

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Oh boy. TCM is running a salute to AIP every Thursday this month. Now I’ll never get that DVR cleaned out! American International Pictures released some of my favorite films of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, and TCM’s showing everything from Vincent Price/Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe horrors to outlaw biker flicks to Beach Party teen shenanigans. Expect to see lots of AIP posts in the near future, starting right now with 1958’s ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE.

One of my earliest movie memories is watching this on the local “Four O’ Clock Movie Matinee” when I was about five years old. For some strange reason, it resonated with me. I haven’t seen it in years, and my recent re-viewing had me wondering just why it did. Maybe I was a strange kid! Anyway, ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE was the brainchild of Mr. B.I.G. himself, producer/director/effects wizard Bert I. Gordon. Well, maybe “wizard” isn’t the right term, as Gordon’s special effects were mainly using super-imposing techniques and rear projection screens to create his movie magic. Mr. B.I.G.’s DIY style was popular with the “Monster Kid” generation (that’s me!), and his low-budget masterpieces include THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN and its sequel WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST, EARTH VS THE SPIDER, THE MAGIC SWORD (a fantasy with Basil Rathbone as an evil wizard), VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS, FOOD OF THE GODS, and EMPIRE OF THE ANTS. (As of this writing, Bert Gordon is still with us at age 93).

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ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE is the opposite of Gordon’s giant monster movies, as it concerns shrinking people to doll-size. Sally Reynolds (June Kenny, EARTH VS THE SPIDER) answers an ad for an “office girl” at Dolls Incorporated, run by kindly, eccentric Mr. Franz (character actor John Hoyt ). Franz has a habit of talking to his dolls, especially some particularly lifelike ones he keeps in a glass case. Sally meets Bob Westley (the overacting, eyebrow arching John Agar , star of many a sci-fi schlockfest), the self-proclaimed “best salesman this side of St. Louis”. Bob and Sally don’t hit it off at first, and soon they’re engaged, with Bob promising to tell Franz the good news.

When Franz’s old friend Emil (Michael Mark… more about him later!) pays a visit, we learn the dollmaker’s wife left him, and he now suffers from an exaggerated case of separation anxiety. He can’t stand when people leave him. He tells Sally that Bob has left for St. Louis without her. But when Sally spies a lifelike Bob doll, she fears the worst, and runs to the police, claiming Franz has “made Bob into a doll”. Sgt. Paterson is skeptical of course (wouldn’t you be?), but when she rattles off the names of other recent missing persons, the cop goes with her to confront Franz, who burns the Bob-doll before their very eyes! It seems it’s “only made of plastic”, and Franz has a suitcase full of Bob-dolls he’s made. The cop leaves, and Franz now has Sally in his clutches. Using his ‘molecular disintegration ray’, he turns Sally into one of his doll-people! Now Sally and Bob, along with brassy Georgia, 50’s teens Laurie and Stan, and Mac the Marine, are miniature versions of themselves, and forced to entertain Franz as his ‘Puppet People’, kept in a state of suspended animation until he wants to play with them.

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ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE isn’t very frightening, nor does it achieve any dramatic heights. It’s silly and loopy, and its “shrinking” theme was done much better in DR. CYCLOPS and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. But it’s still fun, and Gordon gives us a nice touch when Bob and Sally go on a date to a drive-in. The film they watch is Gordon’s THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN. The scenes where the doll-people are surrounded by giant props are well done, and the rear projection special effects aren’t all that bad, considering the budget limitations. Hindsight being what it is, I probably enjoyed this movie more when I was five than I did now. Having said that, I recommend ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE for the inner five-year-old in all of us. And that’s not such a bad thing after all!

Trivia Time!

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Michael Mark, who plays Emil, is best known as little Maria’s father in the 1931 classic FRANKENSTEIN. Eagle eyed Cracked Rear Viewers can spot him in uncredited roles in THE BLACK CAT, MAD LOVE , THE MUMMY’S HAND, and even CASABLANCA ! Mr. Mark appeared  in four Universal FRANKENSTEIN films altogether, tying him with Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Dwight Frye for second place in the series. Can you name the two horror icons who appeared in the most Universal FRANKENSTEIN movies, with five? (Hint: one of them played the same role four out of his five times)

 

Moon Madness: INVISIBLE INVADERS (1959)

invade1 Edward L. Cahn (1899-1963) was one of those unsung Hollywood minions who had long careers. Beginning as an editor in the waning days of the silent era, Cahn steadily worked his way up to director, helming 26 of MGM’s later Our Gang shorts. Moving from the majors to the seedy world of low-budget filmmaking, Cahn’s feature film output found him at poverty stricken studios like PRC and for a number of years American International Pictures. He worked mainly in the science-fiction realm, but labored on everything from teen delinquency pics (DRAGSTRIP GIRL) to war dramas (SUICIDE BATTALION) to westerns (FLESH AND THE SPUR) and noir (WHEN THE CLOCK STRIKES). Cahn’s features were interesting. Not very good mind you, but interesting.

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