Cleaning Out the DVR Pt. 22: Winter Under the Stars

I haven’t done one of these posts in a while, and since my DVR is heading towards max capacity, I’m way overdue! Everyone out there in classic film fan land knows about TCM’s annual “Summer Under the Stars”, right? Well, consider this my Winter version, containing a half-dozen capsule reviews of some Hollywood star-filled films of the past!

PLAYMATES (RKO 1941; D: David Butler ) – That great thespian John Barrymore’s press agent (Patsy Kelly) schemes with swing band leader Kay Kyser’s press agent (Peter Lind Hayes) to team the two in a Shakespearean  festival! Most critics bemoan the fact that this was Barrymore’s final film, satirizing himself and hamming it up mercilessly, but The Great Profile, though bloated from years of alcohol abuse and hard living, seems to be enjoying himself in this fairly funny but minor screwball comedy with music. Lupe Velez livens things up as Barrymore’s spitfire girlfriend, “lady bullfighter” Carmen Del Toro, and the distinguished May Robson slices up the ham herself as Kay’s Grandmaw. Kay’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge bandmates are all present (Ginny Simms, Harry Babbitt, Sully Mason, Ish Kabbible), and the songs are decent, like the flag-waving “Thank Your Lucky Stars and Stripes” and the ambitious “Romeo Smith and Juliet Jones” production number finale. Yes, it’s sad to watch the looking-worse-for-wear-and-tear Barrymore obviously reading off cue cards, but on the whole, it’s not as bad as some would have you believe. Fun Fact: This was Barrymore’s only opportunity to perform ‘Hamlet’s Soliloquy’ on film – and The Great Profile nails it!

THE MCGUERINS FROM BROOKLYN (Hal Roach/United Artists 1942; D: Kurt Neumann ) – In the early 1940’s, comedy pioneer Hal Roach tried out a new format called “Streamliners”, movies that were longer than short subjects but shorter than a feature, usually running less than an hour to fill the bill for longer main attractions. He cast William Bendix and Joe Sawyer as a pair of dumb but likeable lugs who own a successful cab business in BROOKLYN ORCHID, and THE MCGUERINS FROM BROOKLYN was the second in the series. If the other two are funny as this, count me in! Bendix, warming up for his later LIFE OF RILEY TV sitcom, gets in hot water with his wife Grace Bradley when she catches him in a compromising position with sexy new stenographer Marjorie Woodworth, and complications ensue, complete with bawdy good humor and slapstick situations. Max Baer Sr. plays a fitness guru hired by Grace to make Bendix jealous, and character actors Arline Judge (Sawyer’s girl), Marion Martin, Rex Evans, and a young Alan Hale Jr. all get to participate in the chaos. It’s nothing special, but if you like this kind of lowbrow humor (and I do!), you’ll enjoy this fast-paced piece of silliness. Fun Fact: Grace Bradley, playing Bendix’s ex-burlesque queen wife Sadie, was the real-life wife of cowboy star William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd.

A DANGEROUS PROFESSION (RKO 1949; D: Ted Tetzlaff) – The plot’s as generic as the title of this slow-moving crime drama starring George Raft as  Pat O’Brien’s bail bond business partner, whose ex-girlfriend Ella Raines’ husband is arrested for stock swindling and winds up dead. The star trio were all on the wane at this juncture in their careers, and former DP Tetzlaff’s pedestrian handling of the low rent material doesn’t help matters; he did much better with another little crime film later that year, THE WINDOW . Jim Backus plays Raft’s pal, a hard-nosed cop (if you can picture that!). Fun Fact: Raft and O’Brien were reunited ten years later in Billy Wilder’s screwball comedy SOME LIKE IT HOT.

THE LAST HUNT (MGM 1956; D: Richard Brooks) – Writer/director Brooks has given us some marvelous movies (BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, THE PROFESSIONALS , IN COLD BLOOD), but this psychological Western is a minor entry in his fine canon. Buffalo hunter Robert Taylor partners with retired Stewart Granger for one last hunt, and personality conflicts result. Taylor’s character is a nasty man who gets aroused by killing, while Granger suffers from PTSD after years of slaughter. Things take a wrong turn when Taylor kills a white buffalo, considered sacred by Native Americans. There are many adult themes explored (racial prejudice, gun violence, the aftereffects of war), but for me personally, the film was too slowly paced to put it in the classic category. Lloyd Nolan steals the show as the grizzled veteran skinner Woodfoot, and the movie also features Debra Paget as an Indian maiden captured by Taylor, and young Russ Tamblyn as a half-breed who Granger takes under his wing. An interesting film, with beautiful location filming from DP Russel Harlan, but Brooks has done better. Fun Fact: Those shots of buffalo being killed are real, taken during the U.S. Government’s annual “thinning of the herds”, so if you’re squeamish about watching innocent animals being slaughtered for no damn good reason, you’ll probably want to avoid this movie.

QUEEN OF BLOOD (AIP 1966; D: Curtis Harrington ) – The Corman Boys (Roger and Gene) took a copious amount of footage from the Russian sci-fi films A DREAM COME TRUE and BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN, then charged writer/director Harrington with building a new movie around them! The result is a wacky, cheesy, but not completely bad film with astronauts John Saxon , Judi Meredith, and a pre-EASY RIDER Dennis Hopper sent to Mars by International Institute of Space Technology director Basil Rathbone in the futuristic year 1990 to find a downed alien spacecraft. There, they discover the ship’s sole survivor, a green-skinned, blonde-haired beauty with a beehive hairdo (Florence Marly) who’s an insect-based lifeform that feeds on human blood like a sexy mosquito! Sure, it’s silly, and the cheap sets don’t come close to matching the spectacular Soviet footage, but I’ve always found this to be a fun little drive-in flick. Harrington’s good friend, FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND Editor Forrest J Ackerman , appears at the end as one of Rathbone’s assistants, carrying a crate of the alien’s glowing red eggs! Fun Fact: There are also some recognizable names behind the scenes: future director Stephanie Rothman (IT’S A BIKINI WORLD, THE STUDENT NURSES, THE VELVET VAMPIRE) is listed as associate producer, AMERICAN GRAFFITI  and STAR WARS producer Gary Kurtz is credited as production manager, and actor Karl Schanzer (SPIDER BABY, BLOOD BATH, DEMENTIA 13) worked in the art department!


THE THING WITH TWO HEADS (AIP 1972; D: Lee Frost) – A loopy low-budget Exploitation masterpiece that’s self-aware enough to know it’s bad and revel in it! Terminally ill scientific genius (and out-and-out racist) Ray Milland has only one way to survive – by having his head grafted onto the body of black death row convict Rosey Grier! Then the fun begins as the Rosey/Ray Thing escapes, the Rosey side setting out to prove his innocence while the Ray side struggles for control. This wonderfully demented movie has it all: an extended car chase that serves no purpose other than to smash up a bunch of cop cars, the Rosey/Ray Thing on a motorcycle, a two-headed ape (played by Rick Baker), a funky Blaxploitation-style score, and a cameo by Exploitation vet William Smith!  Ray and the rest of the cast play it totally straight, making this a one-of-a-kind treat you don’t wanna miss! Fun Fact: Director Frost was also responsible for Exploitation classics like CHROME AND HOT LEATHER, THE BLACK GESTAPO, and DIXIE DYNAMITE.


Halloween Havoc!: SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM (Universal 1933)

The horror cycle of the early 1930’s cast its dark shadow on other film genres. SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM is one of those “old dark house/locked room” mysteries showing that influence; it’s a creepy, atmospheric little movie about mysterious murders, with horror vet Lionel Atwill front and center among the suspects. There aren’t any “monsters” here, but some good chills courtesy of director Kurt Neumann, who later directed the 1950’s sci-fi horrors KRONUS, SHE DEVIL, and THE FLY .

It’s a dark and stormy night (naturally!) at Castle von Hellsdorf, and Irene, daughter of Master of the House Robert, is celebrating her birthday with three suitors: Captain Walter Brink, Frank Faber, and Tommy Brandt, while outside, a mysterious stranger lurks. The conversation turns to ‘The Blue Room’, kept under lock and key after three strange (some say supernatural) murders occurred many years ago, always at One AM. Tommy, eager to “prove his courage” to Irene, proposes all three would-be beaus spend a night in ‘The Blue Room’, with himself going first. The next morning, Tommy has completely vanished from the room, despite it being locked! Frank follows up, and is found shot inside the locked room. The police are called in ,and the cagey Commissioner Forster holds an inquiry, where family secrets are exposed, the identity of that “mysterious stranger” revealed, and the killer is unmasked as…. ?

If you haven’t figured it out before the movie ends… well, you’re not a very good Armchair Detective! There are plenty of suspects to keep people guessing though, chief among them Lionel Atwill, who played ‘red herrings’ in films like this almost as much as he did mad scientists. Atwill’s presence lends SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM some horror cred, as does the shadowy camerawork of Charles Stumar, who later shot WEREWOLF OF LONDON and THE RAVEN for Universal. Also lending horror cred is leading lady Gloria Stuart , in her second of three Universal Horrors. Future Oscar winner Paul Lukas (Walter) would appear twenty years later as Professor Aronnax in 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA , Onslow Stevens (Frank) would return to horror in the 40’s with HOUSE OF DRACULA, and Robert Barrat (Paul) later played a Martian in 1951’s FLIGHT TO MARS. Character actor Edward Arnold , best remembered for playing corrupt businessmen and gangsters in prestige films, is on the right side of the law here as the Commissioner.

When Universal released its package of pre-1948 horror films to television in 1957 as SHOCK THEATER, SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM was included, and if it’s good enough for Universal to qualify, it’s good enough for me! While it’s not out-and-out horror, the film’s got enough spooky moments and frights to keep horror buffs satisfied. Plus, it’s got Lionel Atwill… that’s more than enough reason to watch right there!

Halloween Havoc!: THE FLY (20th Century Fox 1958)

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THE FLY is one of those films you’re probably familiar with if you’re a horror/sci-fi fan. I’ve seen it many times, but was under the impression it was a black & white movie (probably due to early viewings as a young’un, deprived of color TV). So when I rewatched it again in glorious Technicolor, I was pleasantly surprised. This tale of science gone wrong has held up well, and its iconic scene of The Fly’s unmasking still manages to jolt the viewer (even if you know it’s coming!).

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The film’s framing device finds us witnessing Helene Delombre murdering her husband Andre by squishing his head and arm under a huge hydraulic press (and it’s a pretty gruesome demise), then calling her brother-in-law Francois to tell him. Francois is stunned, to say the least, and gets ahold of his friend Inspector Charas. They drive over to the Delombre Freres (the movie’s set in Montreal) factory, where they discover the grisly scene. Francois is only able to identify what’s left of Andre by the scar on his left leg.

Helene calmly confesses to the murder, but refuses to say why she did it. Francois and Charas go down to Andre’s lab hoping to find some clues, only to discover the place has been totally trashed. Helene, meanwhile, is oddly attracted to a housefly, and becomes hysterical when a nurse swats it. Son Philippe tells Uncle Francois about a funny looking fly with a white head and leg that appeared when “daddy went away”, and the brother-in-law lies to Helene that he has it. Relieved, Helene finally tells Francois and Charas the whole shocking story…

Andre had been conducting experiments in molecular disintegration/reintegration, able to “transport matter at the speed of light”. The experiments worked fine with inanimate objects, but when he tries it on the family cat, the feline’s atoms scatter into the stratosphere. Undaunted, Andre makes some adjustments and tries it on himself. But there’s a fly in the ointment, literally: a common housefly enters the molecular chamber with him, causing a disruption that gives him the insect’s head and arm, and vice-versa!

Andre can only communicate through written notes, and pleads with Helene to find the white-headed fly, so he can try to reverse the process. Her attempts prove fruitless, causing Andre greater frustration. Now comes the scene where Helene unmasks the hooded Andre, reminiscent of the scene in 1925’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. We watch in horror as Helene recoils at the sight of her husband, and we also get a fly’s-eye view of her terror:

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Losing his grip on sanity, Andre goes berserk, smashing up his lab equipment. Realizing there’s no hope, and fearful of what he’s become, Andre asks Helene to assist him in committing suicide. They go to the warehouse the press is located in, and Helene does the job, where the film began.

Francois then admits he doesn’t have the fly, and Charas, thinking her story preposterous, books her on a murder charge. She freaks out in terror, begging them to find the fly. Charas says she’ll probably be declared insane, while Francois holds out hope in finding the fly and exonerating her. As the ambulance arrives to cart Helene away, Philippe tells his uncle the funny-looking fly is trapped in a spider’s web. The men run over to it and find the insect, with Andre’s head and arm, screaming “HELP ME! HELP ME!” as the arachnid is about to chow down on him. Charas, in shock and horror, smashes it with a rock to put it out of its misery. He realizes he’s now as much of a murderer as Helene, and the two concoct a story claiming Andre’s death to be a suicide, freeing Helene and shielding the world from the dark secret of Andre Delombre.

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The cast does a terrific job of keeping the fantastic tale believable, including Al Hedison as the doomed Andre. Hedison would soon change his name to David and gain fame as the Seaview’s Captain Crane on TV’s VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA. The movie really revolves around Patricia Owens as Helene, a 20th Century Fox contract player known mainly for this and 1957’s SAYONARA. Vincent Price gives a restrained performance as Andre, unlike his usual scenery-chewing horror roles, and is quite effective. Herbert Marshall (Inspector Charas) was a veteran character actor who played in classic films like Hitchcock’s FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, THE LETTER, and ANGEL FACE ; his genre credits include RIDERS TO THE STARS and GOG. Child star Charles Herbert (Philippe) is familiar to horror/sci-fi fans for COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK, 13 GHOSTS, and the TWILIGHT ZONE episode “I Sing Thee The Body Electric”, based on Ray Bradbury’s short story. Familiar Faces include Kathleen Freeman and Torbin Meyer, and yes, that’s Queen of the Hollywood Extras Bess Flowers sitting in the balcony with Andre and Helene at the ballet.

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Kurt Neumann was one of those directors who’d been around Hollywood for years without ever cracking the big time; THE FLY is probably his best known work. Screenwriter James Clavell was responsible for THE GREAT ESCAPE, KING RAT, and TO SIR WITH LOVE before publishing the mega-popular novel SHOGUN, made even more popular when it became a TV miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain and Toshiro Mifune. L.B. Abbott’s special effects are great, featuring some cool futuristic lab equipment. Kudos also goes to the sound department, adding to the film’s creepy atmosphere.

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THE FLY is a bona fide horror classic, and produced two sequels (RETURN OF THE FLY with Price again and CURSE OF THE FLY). It was also remade by David Cronenberg in 1986 as an AIDS allegorical tale, one of the few instances where the remake is as good as the original. Those of you who haven’t seen 1958’s THE FLY (is there anyone who hasn’t?) should add it to your Halloween viewing list. Those who have… well, you already know!!

 

 

 

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