Halloween Havoc!: THE SMILING GHOST (Warner Brothers 1941)

A mysterious killer stalks his prey in an old, dark house! Sound familiar? Sure, the formula has been around since Lon Chaney Sr. first crept his way through 1925’s THE MONSTER, and was perfected in the 1927 horror comedy THE CAT AND THE CANARY. THE SMILING GHOST, a 1941 variation on the venerable theme, doesn’t add anything new to the genre, but it’s a pleasant enough diversion with a solid cast courtesy of the Warner Brothers Stock Company of contract players and a swift 71-minute running time.

Lucky Downing, a somewhat dimwitted chemical engineer heavily in debt to his creditors, answers a newspaper ad for a male willing to do “anything legal’ for a thousand bucks. Rich Mrs. Bentley explains the job is to get engaged to her granddaughter, Elinor Bentley Fairchild, for a month. Smelling easy money, and a way out of the hole, Lucky and his best friend/valet Clarence take a train to the countryside to meet Elinor.

What Mrs. Bentley hasn’t explained to Lucky is that Elinor is the infamous “Kiss of Death Girl”, whose three previous fiances have all met with disaster. The first drowned and the third was bitten by a cobra “on the 18th floor of a Boston hotel”. The second, Paul Myron, is in an iron lung due to a car accident, and is working with plucky girl reporter (is there any other kind in these films?) Lil Barstow to prove victim #1 is the undead “Smiling Ghost”. Elinor’s family is your basic motley crew of eccentrics, including Great-Uncle Ames, a collector of shrunken heads who develops an interest in Clarence!

There’s sliding panels, secret passageways, and a masked killer roaming around, all the ingredients necessary for “old, dark house” fun. The script by Kenneth Garrett and Stuart Palmer is geared more towards humor than horror, though there’s a few atmospheric scenes staged by director Lewis Seiler , including one in a fog-shrouded graveyard. There’s also an innovative scene with Paul Myron in his iron lung talking to Lucky and Lil , his face reflected in the mirror,  well shot by DP Arthur L. Todd, whose career stretched from 1917 until his death in 1942.

Wayne Morris (KID GALAHAD, BROTHER RAT) does his good-natured lug act as Lucky, and he’s delightful. Ingenue Alexis Smith (THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT , THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS) has one of her earliest credited roles as Elinor. Brenda Marshall (THE SEA HAWK, THE CONSTANT NYMPH) gets the plucky reporter part, David Bruce (THE MAD GHOUL , LADY ON A TRAIN) is Paul, Lee Patrick (THE MALTESE FALCON, GEORGE WASHINGTON SLEPT HERE) is a cousin, Charles Halton (TO BE OR NOT TO BE, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE) is the creepy Grand-Uncle, and brawny Alan Hale Sr. (ROBIN HOOD’s Little John) gets to show off his comic talents as Norton the butler.

Wonderful Willie Best plays Clarence, whose relationship with Lucky is more as a pal than a servant. Mr. Best was a black comedian who no less than Bob Hope once called “the greatest actor I know”. Willie’s from the Mantan Moreland school of acting, meaning he was usually typecast as a superstitious, “feets don’t fail me now” stereotype, and this film’s no different. However, Best’s comic timing was impeccable, and he and Morris make a great duo. Unfortunately billed as “Sleep’n’Eat” early in his career, the actor brightened many a 30’s & 40’s film with his talent. Equally unfortunate, a 1951 drug bust made him unemployable. Gale Storm , who knew Willie from her Monogram days, gave him steady work as Charlie the elevator operator in her sitcom MY LITTLE MARGIE, and had nothing but good things to say about his professionalism. Ostracized by the black community during the civil rights movement, forgotten by Hollywood, and reduced to making his living selling weed and women, Willie Best, one of Hollywood’s first recognizable black stars, died of cancer in 1962 at the young age of 45.

THE SMILING GHOST is silly fun, and won’t scare anyone under the age of ten, just an  “old, dark house” mystery done by some seasoned pros that knew their business when it came to making quick ‘B’ movies. Sometimes I like these ”second features” better than the more prestigious films produced at the time. This one’s definitely worth a look.

 

Double Bogie: THE AMAZING DR. CLITTERHOUSE (1938) and YOU CAN’T GET AWAY WITH MURDER (1939)

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Before Humphrey Bogart became the screen icon known as “Bogie”, he paid his dues as a Warner Brothers contract player, usually cast as a second fiddle gangster who winds up getting filled full of lead by the likes of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. It wasn’t until 1941’s THE MALTESE FALCON that Bogart hit the big time, remaining a box office star until his death from cancer in 1956. Here’s a look at two early movies that typecast Bogie again as a gangster, with wildly different results.

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1938’s THE AMAZING DR. CLITTERHOUSE is supposedly a comedy, starring Edward G. Robinson  as a Park Avenue surgeon who’s researching a book about the physiology of criminals, mainly by ripping off his high society friends. He meets up with female fence Jo Keller (Claire Trevor in another of her hard dame roles) and gangster  Rocks Valentine (Bogie). Clitterhouse, dubbed “Professor” by the crooks, takes over the gang, much to Rocks’ chagrin, and studies the goons while they work. Rocks double crosses him during a fur warehouse job, locking the doctor in a refrigerated vault. After escaping, Clitterhouse decides he’s done enough research and is ready to retire. But Rocks has other plans after finding the doctor’s notes, and threatens to reveal his role in the crimes unless Clitterhouse agrees to set up his society pals.

Clitterhouse hasn’t researched the “ultimate crime” yet though… murder! He drops some pyridyl chloride tabs into Rocks’ whiskey, causing an overdose, and dumps the body in the river. Dr. Clitterhouse finally confesses to his crimes, stating everything he did was in the interest of science. He tries to prove himself sane, but the jury disagrees, finding him not guilty by reason of insanity, claiming “an insane man cannot writer a sane book”.

Edward G. Robinson (Dr. T.S. Clitterhouse) is fascinated with the working of the criminal mind. He joins a gang of crooks headed by Humphrey Bogart (Rocks Valentine) for whom Clitterhouse masterminds a series of heists. With Maxie Rosenbloom (Butch) and Claire Trevor (Jo Keller).

Robinson is far too good for this mess, but manages to rise above the mediocre material. Claire Trevor hadn’t quite hit her stride yet as Queen of Noir, and she isn’t really given much to do here. The Warner Brothers Rogue’s Gallery is on hand as the gang members (Maxie Rosenbloom, Allen Jenkins , Curt Bois, Vladimir Sokoloff, and a young Ward Bond ), while Donald Crisp, Henry O’Neill, John Litel, and Gale Page represent law and order. Listen close and you’ll hear Ronald Reagan’s  voice as a radio announcer, his former occupation before hitting Hollywood. Another recent Hollywood arrival, Anatole Litvak, directed as if he’d never seen a gangster picture before.

As for Humphrey Bogart, he is said to have absolutely despised this film. Wouldn’t you, if your character name was Rocks Valentine? He referred to it as “The Amazing Dr. Clitoris” among friends. The one good thing to come out of it for Bogie was he became friends with co-screenwriter John Huston. When Huston was tabbed to direct his first film, THE MALTESE FALCON, he chose Bogie to play the lead, Sam Spade. This was the beginning of a long collaboration for the two men, “the stuff that dreams are made of”, to quote Spade.

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Much better is YOU CAN’T GET AWAY WITH MURDER, released in 1939. Bogart gets top billing in this B-movie, but he’s still playing second fiddle. Dead End Kid Billy Halop plays the lead as Johnny, a young punk who lives in Hell’s Kitchen with his sister Madge, and detests her straight-laced boyfriend Fred. He’d rather hang out with local hood Frank Wilson (Bogart), who takes him under his wing. Soon the pair steal a car and rob a gas station. Johnny steals Fred’s gun, and Frank uses it in a pawn shop stick-up, killing the proprietor. Fred is arrested for the murder, while Johnny and Frank get pinched for the gas station job.

All three are sent to Sing Sing, with Fred on Death Row. Johnny has a crisis of conscience; does he rat out his pal Frank, or let Fred fry in the hot seat? Frank and his thug pals plan a jailbreak, and take Johnny along with the intent of capping him, eliminating the possibility of him cracking under pressure. Johnny and Frank are the only two who make it out, and during a gun battle with the screws Frank puts a slug in Johnny’s  gut. Frank then gives himself up, but the still alive Johnny tells the authorities the truth. The youth is taken to the operating table but doesn’t pull through; however he gets to make amends with Madge and Fred before he dies.

If you can get past the  Brooklynese “dese, dems , and doses”,  you’ll find a good performance from Halop. The leader of the Dead End Kids in films like DEAD END, ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, and THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL goes solo here, and shines as a slum kid angry at the world, putting up a tough guy front to mask his fear. The scenes with sister Gale Page are kind of schmaltzy, but don’t distract too much from the action. Bogart gives his stock gangster characterization as the vicious hood Frank, a follow-up of sorts to his Baby Face Martin in DEAD END. He’s good, but we’ve seen it done before.

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Henry Travers (Clarence the Angel from IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE) is on hand as Pop, an old con who befriends Johnny. Harold Huber, Joe Sawyer, and George E. Stone are hardened criminals, and much to my surprise, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson shows up as one of the prisoners. Harvey Stephens is much too bland as Fred… no wonder Johnny decides to follow Bogie! And no,  that’s not James Cagney’s son in the neighborhood pool hall scene. It’s Frankie Burke, a Cagney lookalike who played the actor as a youngster in ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES. Lewis Seiler keeps things zipping along; he had a long but undistinguished Hollywood career.

Humphrey Bogart continued to dwell in “B” purgatory until receiving good reviews in 1941’s HIGH SIERRA, which led to THE MALTESE FALCON and movie immortality. Watching his 1930’s efforts, we get a brief glimpse into what was to come. Of the two, I’d watch YOU CAN’T GET AWAY WITH MURDER again; far as THE AMAZING DR. CLITTERHOUSE goes, once was enough.

 

 

 

 

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