Hollywood History Lesson: Errol Flynn in SANTA FE TRAIL (Warner Brothers 1940)

A movie lover could get pretty spoiled living on a steady diet of Errol Flynn/Warner Brothers epics from the 30’s and 40’s. You’ve got Flynn, the personification of the classic “movie star”, performing heroic feats and romancing his leading lady (usually Olivia de Havilland ). A historical setting   serving as the backdrop to move the story along, expertly directed by Michael Curtiz or Raoul Walsh, a cast full of Hollywood’s greatest character actors, a majestic music score (mainly Max Steiner , but there were others equally as talented), action, drama, humor, conflict… what more could a film fan ask for?

SANTA FE TRAIL has all this and more, an energetic pre-Civil War tale guaranteed to hold your interest for its 110 minutes no matter which side of the Mason-Dixon Line you live on. It’s characters are drawn from history, but historic accuracy be damned… these films were all about entertainment! Flynn plays West Point Cadet Jeb Stuart, and Ronald Reagan is his best bud George Custer, who, along with Phil Sheridan, James Longstreet, and George Hood (all later to become opposing generals), get into an altercation with Cadet Rader, a staunch supporter of violent abolitionist John Brown. Rader is given a dishonorable discharge for spreading subversive ideas, and Stuart and Custer are sent upon graduation (by West Point Commandant Robert E. Lee, no less!) to “the most dangerous branch of the United States Army”, Fort Leavenworth in the bloody Kansas Territory, a hotbed of violence and unrest fomented by Brown’s misguided reign of terror.

Both Stuart and Custer become enamored of fellow grad Bob Holliday’s sister Kit… and since Flynn plays Stuart and Kit is Olivia de Havilland, guess who wins? Papa Holliday is trying to get his railroad across Kansas to the Santa Fe Trail (hence the film’s title), but is having difficulties due to all the blood-soaked raids going on. Stuart and Custer are assigned to guard a shipment of Bibles, not knowing the crates are filled with rifles heading to Brown’s encampment (yep, the old “guns hidden in crates marked Bibles” routine!). When the weapons are accidentally discovered, Brown’s disciples reveal themselves… including Stuart’s old nemesis Rader!

Stuart goes undercover to find John Brown’s latest hideout, but he’s betrayed by the U.S. Army brand on his horse. Captured by Brown and his men, doomed to hang at dawn, our man Jeb attempts escape, becoming trapped in a burning barn until Custer and the cavalry ride to the rescue! With John Brown seemingly vanquished and out of the territory, Stuart and Custer are reassigned to Washington, not knowing Brown is in the vicinity, and plotting his infamous raid on Harper’s Ferry…

Errol Flynn doesn’t exactly sound like a Southerner, but he more than makes up for it with his courtly manners and dashing heroics. He could turn on the charm at the drop of a hat, and was at the peak of his popularity while making SANTA FE TRAIL. Released right after Christmas 1940, the film was a big success at the box office, and the team of Flynn and Olivia de Havilland would hit it big again the next year in THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, with Errol portraying Custer this time around at the Battle of Little Big Horn. That one would be their last screen pairing, and while Olivia went on to receive two Oscars, Errol continued doing what he did best, charming the pants off movie lovers onscreen… and young girls offscreen! (As for poor Ronald Reagan, once again he loses out to Flynn in the romance department. Oh well, he wound up doing okay for himself a few decades later!)

Raymond Massey  plays John Brown with religious fervor and a mad gleam in his eyes. Brown’s anti-slavery cause was just, though his methods touting violent revolution were extreme to say the least. Massey’s Brown feels he’s guided by God’s hand, and the actor portrays him as an unsympathetic zealot with a Messianic complex. The film itself is ambiguous about the question of slavery,  with both sides represented by Stuart and Custer, making it more an issue of State’s Rights vs Federal Power than a moral one, in order to appeal to the audiences both North and South. It’s a tricky balancing act, but somehow screenwriter Robert Buckner (who wrote five other Flynn vehicles) makes it work.

Van Heflin  is equally villainous as Rader, Brown’s military adviser, who later has a change of heart when Brown reneges on his payment. Alan Hale Sr. and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams , Flynn’s offscreen drinking buddies, are on hand for comic relief. The cast is huge, and among them you’ll find Alan Baxter , Ward Bond , David Bruce , Hobart Cavanaugh, Victor Kilian, John Litel, William Lundigan, Charles Middleton, Henry O’Neill, Moroni Olsen, Gene Reynolds, Frank Wilcox, and many others (if you’re really sharp, you’ll recognize Grace Stafford, the future voice of Woody Woodpecker!).

Curtiz delivers another gem in the director’s chair, guiding his large cast through their paces and proving once again he was a cinematic genius. His staging of the bloody battle at Harper’s Ferry is  a master class in how to film  an action scene, in collaboration with DP Sol Polito, editor George Amy, and special effects man Byron Haskin, with Max Steiner’s music roaring in the background. SANTA FE TRAIL may not be historically accurate, but it’s a stunning example of the Hollywood studio system at its apex, with talent before and behind the camera the likes of which they just don’t make anymore.

 

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!

 

Ride Away: John Wayne in John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS (Warner Brothers 1956)

John Ford’s  THE SEARCHERS is without question an American Film Classic. I’d even go as far as saying it’s my second all-time favorite film, directly behind CASABLANCA. Every shot is a Remington Old West masterpiece, every actor perfect in their role, large or small, and not a minute of footage is wasted. The film has also stirred up quite a bit of controversy over time for John Wayne’s portrayal of the main character Ethan Edwards.

The plot is structured like Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”, but let’s get it out of the way right now: Ethan Edwards is no hero. He’s a mean, bitter, unreconstructed Confederate who’s been on the shady side of the law since war’s end. When he returns to his brother Aaron’s homestead, he makes no bones about his distaste for “half-breed” Martin Pawley (really an eighth Cherokee). His hatred of Native Americans even extends to their dead, as we see him shoot out the eyes of a Comanche corpse so his soul “must wander the spirit world between the winds”. He taunts Martin when the young man unwittingly marries the squaw Look, derisively referring to her as “Mrs. Pawley”.

Ethan is a hard man to get along with, yet for all his macho bravado (“That’ll be the day”, he intones whenever someone challenges him), he shows signs of compassion throughout the film. He’s tender with his nieces and nephews (and sister-in-law Martha; there’s a suggestion that they were once more than friends). He spares Martin the agony of looking into the burned out homestead to gaze upon the bodies of his loved ones. His love for family is delineated as he tries to shield niece Lucy’s grim fate from Martin and young Brad Jorgensen, and his response when Brad asks what happened is tortured: “What do you want me to do, draw you a picture? Spell it out? Don’t ever ask me! Long as you live, don’t ever ask me”.

Ethan’s search for surviving niece Debbie, captured by the renegade Comanche Scar, has a murderous purpose; he intends to kill the despoiled girl to save her from what he considers a fate worse than death – miscegenation. Yet when he finally tracks her down, blood in his eyes, he has a change of heart, and the softly spoken, haunting words, “Let’s go home, Debbie” never fail to mist me up. Ethan Edwards is a complex character, Kris Kristofferson’s “walking contradiction” come to life, as imperfect and flawed as the rest of us. It is indisputably John Wayne’s finest screen performance; the fact he wasn’t even nominated for the Academy Award is another in the long list of Oscar crimes.

Wayne’s dark Ethan Edwards is counterbalanced by Jeffrey Hunter’s sweet-natured Martin Pawley. A somewhat naïve young man, Martin longs for acceptance by ‘Uncle’ Ethan (Edwards disdains the term when Martin uses it), and is as dogged in his determination to find Debbie as the older man, though his intentions are more altruistic. Martin’s letters home to his sweetheart Laurie (played by Vera Miles) serve as narration to the story, and the scenes they share together as comic interludes to the film’s heavy tone. A 20th Century-Fox contract player, Hunter got his big break with THE SEARCHERS, and plays well off Wayne’s Edwards (Ford used the actor again in both THE LAST HURRAH and SERGEANT RUTLEDGE). Two of his most famous roles were in Nicholas Ray’s 1961 Biblical drama KING OF KINGS (which Hunter referred to as ” I Was a Teenage Jesus”) and the pilot episode of STAR TREK as Enterprise Commander Christopher Pike, later reworked into a two-part episode titled “The Menagerie”. Jeffrey Hunter continued his career in Europe, including a pair of Spaghetti Westerns (THE CHRISTMAS KID, FIND A PLACE TO DIE) before succumbing to a brain hemorrhage in 1969 at age 42.

By far my favorite character in THE SEARCHERS is the slightly crazy Ol’ Mose Harper, played by sagebrush vet Hank Worden. Long a Ford favorite, this was Worden’s biggest role, and he surely takes the tommyhawk and runs with it! The simplistic Mose greets every insult to his intelligence with a hearty, “Thank ya kindly!”, and holds the key to finding Debbie, wanting only in return “Just a roof over Ol’ Mose’s head, and a rockin’ chair by the fire – my own rockin’ chair”. Worden, best known to modern-day viewers as the waiter on the original TWIN PEAKS, was a member in good standing of the Ford Stock Company, and was used by Wayne in many of his later films (you can read my piece on Hank Worden’s career by clicking this link ).

Henry Brandon as Comanche war chief Scar is Ethan’s opposite number; he’s as filled with hatred for the white race as Edwards is for the Indians. Unlike the noble opponents found in many Wayne Westerns (SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON,  MCLINTOCK!), Scar is as ruthless and uncompromising in his hostility as Edwards, and his reaction to the white man’s hatred and oppression is hatred and oppression of his own, which only serves to fan the flames of discord between the races. It’s a lesson neither Scar nor Ethan ever learn, and continues today on the extremes of the political spectrum (Left and Right).

The rest of the cast is equally superb, including Natalie Wood as Debbie, Ward Bond as Reverend/Texas Ranger Samuel Clayton Johnson, Ken Curtis as Martin’s love rival Charlie (they engage in a comic brawl over Vera Miles’ affections), John Qualen as Lars Jorgensen, and Harry Carey Jr as Brad. Harry’s mother Olive Carey is cast as Mrs. Jorgensen, and in that famous final shot in the doorway Duke pays homage to her late husband Harry Carey Sr. by grasping his right arm at the elbow, a pose Carey struck in many a Western. Wayne’s son Patrick appears toward the end as callow Lt. Greenhill, and it’s fun to watch The Duke watching Pat act opposite Bond; that bemused look on his face is priceless! There are other Familiar Faces dotting the landscape as well, Danny Borzage, Dorothy Jordan, Mae Marsh, Antonio Moreno, Chief Thundercloud, and Natalie’s sister Lana Wood (playing Debbie as a child) among them.

 Speaking of landscapes, DP Winton Hoch beautifully brings Ford’s favorite shooting canvas Monument Valley to life in breathtaking VistaVision and Technicolor. Additional location footage was shot in California, Utah, and Alberta, Canada, as well as Hollywood’s soundstages, all blended brilliantly by editor Jack Murray. And no one other than the great Max Steiner could do justice to a film of this magnitude; his score ranks among his all-time best.

As for the Old Master himself, John Ford was at the peak of his creative talent, his keen eye for detail making every shot a work of art. But THE SEARCHERS would be his last great masterpiece (though a case could be made for THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE). Ford was 66 years old, his eyesight failing, and his years of alcohol abuse were beginning to take their deadly toll. His pictures after this seemed to be losing their vibrancy, that distinctive John Ford touch. Thus it is that THE SEARCHERS is the note the director should’ve ended on artistically, but unfortunately life never truly imitates art, does it? It’s a film that consistently ranks high in critic’s and filmmaker’s top tens, and one worth repeated viewings to soak in all the nuances of characterization and mise en scene. THE SEARCHERS is a film I don’t just recommend, I implore you to watch. It is truly that damn good.

 

Rally ‘Round The Flag: Errol Flynn in VIRGINIA CITY (Warner Brothers 1940)

vc1

VIRGINIA CITY is a big, sprawling Western, filled with action, humor, and star quality. It’s the kind of movie they used to show around these parts every afternoon at 4 O’clock on DIALING FOR DOLLARS (George Allen was the local host), helping to spark my interest in classic films past, a flame which still burns bright today, two hours of pure entertainment, with square-jawed Errol Flynn going against square-jawed Randolph Scott backed by a Civil War setting and yet another sweepingly epic Max Steiner score.

vc2

We’re told “only the characters are fictional… The story is true” as we watch Union Captain Kerry Bradford (Flynn) and his two buddies Moose and Marblehead (Errol’s frequent co-stars/offscreen drinking compadres Alan Hale Sr and Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams) attempt to tunnel their way out of Libby Prison, aka ‘The Devil’s Warehouse’, when they’re caught by commanding Captain Vance Irby (Scott). He tells them Confederate troops are ready to shoot to kill wherever they pop up, then leaves them to their fate, as he has a visitor, former flame Julia Hayne (Miriam Hopkins ). Miss Julia knows the South is losing the war and virtually bankrupt to boot, but has some exciting news: rich Southern sympathizers in Virginia City, Nevada, have put up five million in gold for the cause. Vance goes to see President Jefferson Davis himself with a plan to transport the loot to Texas and help save the Confederacy.

vc3

Kerry and his crew keep digging, right below the munitions dump, which they blow up and escape (a little foreshadowing here). They make it to General Meade’s camp and tell him they suspect a plot in Virginia City, so he sends them west by stage, which coincidentally also carries Julia. Riding along is bandit John Murrell (Humphrey Bogart , sporting a pencil-thin moustache and terrible Mexican accent!), who tries to hold them up but is foiled by I’m-smarter-than-you Kerry. They all make it to Virginia City (except Bogie, who’ll pop up again later), and Kerry and Vance run into each other at the Sazerac Saloon, where Julia works as a dance-hall singer, and seems to be smitten with both of them.

vc3

The players are all in place, and the stage is set for action, romance, and intrigue, as Vance tries to move the gold out of Nevada, Kerry tries to stop him, Julia is torn between two lovers, and Murrell has plans of his own. There’s danger and excitement at every turn, with Vance forming a wagon train full of gold across the desert, Kerry and company in hot pursuit. Director Michael Curtiz uses some interesting lighting and shot selection to tell the tale, and there’s some fine stuntwork by Yakima Canutt, including one that echoes the previous year’s STAGECOACH . Curtiz was a master film storyteller, not only visually but utilizing strong characterizations to get his story across to the viewer. I know I’ve said it before, but Michael Curtiz is one of the most underrated directors in the Golden Age of Hollywood films.

vc5

The ever-gallant Errol Flynn is always the good guy no matter what side he’s on, whether as a Yankee captain here, or portraying Jeb Stuart in SANTA FE TRAIL. His gallantry is equally matched by Randolph Scott, my second-favorite Western star (you regular readers know my first by now!). This is the only film the two appeared in together, and their chemistry made me wish there were more. Most reviewers pan Miriam Hopkins’ performance as Julia, but I thought she was more than adequate, with just the right amounts of proper Southern belle and sexy dance-hall floozie, though her emoting can become a bit too much. It’s Bogart’s last Western, unless you count TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE, and stardom was lurking just around the corner, so the less said about his role here, the better!

vc6

Flynn, Hale, and Williams always seem to be having a grand old time onscreen together, probably because they were all buddies offscreen, or maybe they were passing a bottle of hootch around between takes! The two sidekicks add solid comic relief to the proceedings, as does Frank McHugh as a fellow stagecoach passenger. There’s more Familiar Faces than you can shake a stick at, including Ward Bond Douglass Dumbrille , Paul Fix, Thurston Hall, Charles Halton, Russell Hicks, William Hopper, Dickie Jones (later of TV’s THE RANGE RIDER and BUFFALO BILL JR), John Litel, Charles Middleton (as Jeff Davis), Moroni Olsen, George Reeves, Russell Simpson, and Frank Wilcox.

Victor Kilian appears at the end as Abe Lincoln and gives an impassioned speech that seems appropriate in these tumultuous political times: “We’re not enemies but friends… there is no spirit of revenge in our victory, there must be no harboring of hatred in their defeat… We’re now one people, united by blood and fire, and at that from this day forward our destiny is indivisible, with malice toward none, with charity for all… let us now strive to bind up the nation’s wounds”.

Couldn’t have said it better myself, Mr. Lincoln. Now let’s all dust ourselves off, go forward together, and watch an exciting classic movie like VIRGINIA CITY!

Happy Birthday Boris Karloff: John Ford’s THE LOST PATROL (RKO 1934)

lost1

King of Classic Horror Boris Karloff was born on this date in 1887. The actor is beloved by fans for his work in genre flicks like FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY , THE BLACK CAT, THE BODY SNATCHER , and many other screen tales of terror. But Karloff had always prided himself on being a working actor, and stepped outside the genre bounds many times. He excelled in some early gangster classics (THE CRIMINAL CODE, SCARFACE), played George Arliss’ nemesis in HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD, was a Chinese warlord in WEST OF SHANGHAI, an Oriental sleuth in Monogram’s MR. WONG series, the psychiatrist in THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY, and a scientist in THE VENETIAN AFFAIR . And then there’s John Ford’s THE LOST PATROL.

lost5

The film itself tells the story of a British troop traveling through the Mesopotamian desert circa 1917. When their leader is shot dead by an unseen Arab bullet, the stoic Sergeant (Victor McLaglen , looking every inch the hero) takes over the regiment. Problem is, the commander has taken their mission’s location to the grave with him, and the men are hopelessly lost in the hot, oppressive desert. Stumbling upon an oasis, they find an abandoned outpost and plan to spend the night before soldiering on. Next morning, the men discover their sentries have been killed and their horses stolen, leaving them stranded in the desert as the hidden Arab hoard begins to pick them off, one by one.

lost4

THE LOST PATROL is Karloff’s juiciest non-horror role. As the religious fanatic Sanders, he gives us a portrait of a man slowly descending into madness. His devotion to the Bible draws sneers from the macho troopers, as he exclaims with awe, “This very spot (Mesopotamia)… is the actual Garden of Eden!”. When the roguish Brown (Reginald Denny) regales the men with his tales of sexual conquests past, Sanders sternly admonishes him: “Has your whole life been filled with filth, talk of brawling and lust, even here and now, close to your death!”. Toward the end, when the troop is down to Sarge, Sanders, and Morelli (Wallace Ford ), a British biplane spots them. Landing in the vastness of the desert, the pilot gets out and is swiftly assassinated by the unseen enemy. Sanders goes berserk, screaming at Sarge, “You killed him! He came in answer to MY prayers for ME, and you KILLED him!!”, attempting to cave Sarge’s head in with his rifle butt. Sanders is subdued and tied up for his own good, but escapes his bondage and heads across the dunes, wearing sackcloth and carrying a large staff topped with a cross, as Max Steiner’s music swirls, walking to his inevitable doom.

lost3

Boris has a field day as Sanders, playing to the balcony with gusto. The pious, prudish Sanders always has his nose in the Bible for comfort, seeking solace from his heathen comrades and his grim fate. Looking like a gaunt ghoul from one of his horror flicks, he whines, screams, and cackles like a madman. His wide-eyed, haunted visage tells us he’s already on the brink of insanity before his final act of desperation. It’s a bravura, over-the-top performance that shows once again the range of this great actor. Outside the realm of horror, Karloff shows us the horror of war and madness, and is a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

lost2

John Ford  gives us a stark, white backdrop, the Arizona desert subbing for the isolated Mesopotamia, and cinematographer Harold Wenstrom fills the screen with the great shots you’d expect from a Ford movie. The Dudley Nichols/Garrett Ford screenplay is compact and tense. Besides those actors previously mentioned, J.M. Kerrigan, Billy Bevan, and Alan Hale Sr. offer fine support. Boris Karloff shows once again he was more than just a horror star (most of the classic monsters were), he was a superb character actor, and Sanders is a showcase for his thespian talents. If you’ve only seen him in genre films, I suggest you give THE LOST PATROL a chance, and watch a master craftsman at work. Happy birthday, Boris, and thank you!

Happy Birthday Errol Flynn: DESPERATE JOURNEY (Warner Brothers 1942)

desp1

The actor known for his “wicked, wicked ways”, Errol Flynn was born June 20, 1909 in Hobart, Australia. The dashing Flynn skyrocketed to fame with a series of swashbuckling exploits: CAPTAIN BLOOD , THE SEA HAWK, and most notably THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD. He was also featured in some of the great Westerns of the era (THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, SANTA FE TRAIL). Like all stalwart screen heroes, during the 1940’s Flynn made a number of wartime propaganda films to boost morale for the masses. One of these was DESPERATE JOURNEY, a totally improbable but highly exciting action yarn from the two-fisted, one-eyed Raoul Walsh, director of such macho fare as THE ROARING TWENTIES, HIGH SIERRA, and WHITE HEAT.

desp2

An RAF bomber squad is sent on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines to take out a train depot. They accomplish the task, but are shot down by Nazi heavy artillery. Forced to crash-land, the survivors (Aussie Flight Lt. Terry, American Flight Officer Johnny, Canadian Flight Officer Jed, Brit Flight Sgts. Kirk and Lloyd)  are captured by the evil Nazis and taken before Major Baumeister. The Major tries to get airplane intel out of Johnny, but the cocky American gives him the double-talk and knocks the evil kraut out with the old one-two! The other men overtake the Nazi guards and escape, stealing some classified German documents on their way out (Johnny, reading one: “Degenerate democracy! That’s a great crack coming from Adolph!”) .

This pisses the Major off, of course, and he vows to hunt them down. But our plucky band of heroes thwart the Fascists at every turn, making monkeys out of them. After jumping some soldiers and stealing their uniforms, the crew hops a train (and it’s Goering’s private car, to boot!), and make their way into Berlin. They plot to blow up a chemical plant, and succeed, but Lloyd takes a bullet in the process. Terry meets up with a beautiful member of the German underground (what’s an Errol Flynn movie without a beautiful woman?) who tries to help them. She directs them to her parents place, and all seems well… until she walks in and discovers it’s not her parents, but Nazi sympathizers! Baumeister and his hoard surround the farmhouse, but the gang escapes yet again by stealing Baumeister’s car! (Though brave old Kirk doesn’t make it)

The furious chase continues until the Major’s car runs out of gas. Fortunately, our heroes stumble upon a captured British plane the Nazi’s plan on using to blow up a strategic waterworks. The trio manages to overpower the Nazis, but Major Baumeister and his men arrive on the scene, wounding Jed. Heroic Terry begins mowing down the Nazis with the plane’s machine gun, then takes off for the skies while heroic Johnny finishes the mowing down. All’s well that ends well, as Terry, Johnny, and Jed fly back to London, with Terry vowing, “Now for Australia and a crack at those Japs!!”

desp3

WWII moviegoers must’ve cheered wildly at the spectacle of Nazis cut down by machine gun fire, and being made fools of throughout the film. DESPERATE JOURNEY was a box-office smash, even though Flynn was on trial for statutory rape at the time of its release (he was acquitted for those of you unfamiliar with Hollywood history). The film’s special effects were nominated for an Oscar, but didn’t win (nominee Byron Haskin later went on to direct the sci-fi classic WAR OF THE WORLDS). Arthur T. Horman’s script was pure fantasy, more like something out of Marvel Comics’ “Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos” than real life, but it hit all the right patriotic notes. Speaking of notes, Max Steiner contributes another of his rousing scores.

desp4

Flynn shared  top billing in this with Ronald Reagan, who plays Johnny as a typically brash, wisecracking American. His “double-talk” scene earned kudos from both audiences and critics. This was Reagan’s last film before beginning a four-year hitch in the Armed Forces (he was stationed stateside).  When he returned to Hollywood, Reagan was relegated to B-movies, and his film career slowly fizzled out. That’s okay though, as Ronald Reagan found even greater success in his next career- politics.

desp5

Major Baumeister is the epitome of Nazi evil as played by Raymond Massey. The growling, sneering Hun is a far cry from Massey’s noble ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS. Alan Hale Sr (Kirk) adds comic relief; he was Little John to Flynn’s Robin Hood in 1938 (offscreen, Hale was one of Flynn’s good drinking buddies). Arthur Kennedy is the sober-sided Canadian Jed. Ronald Sinclair (Lloyd) played young Ebeneezer Scrooge in A CHRISTMAS CAROL ; he later became a film editor mostly associated with Roger Corman. Other Familiar Faces in the cast are Sig Ruman, Nancy Coleman, Lester Matthews, and Albert Basserman. If you look close, you’ll also spot John Banner (HOGAN’S HEROES’ Sgt. Schultz), Walter Brooke, Helmut Dantine, and Phillip Van Zant.

desp6

Then there’s Errol Flynn himself, with that rascally charm and roguish smile, leading his band of brothers through peril after peril. The virile Errol was actually classified 4-F during the war, suffering from heart ailments, chronic TB and Malaria, and assorted venereal diseases (not to mention his struggles with alcohol and morphine). But that didn’t stop Warner Brothers from casting him in more wartime dramas like DIVE BOMBER and OBJECTIVE BURMA. At least he could fight for his adopted country onscreen, kicking Nazi and Japanese ass and sending war-weary audiences home happy, at least for a while. Errol Flynn continued to make movies and carouse until his death in 1959, when his abused body finally gave out, a victim of his own “wicked, wicked ways”. He left behind a legacy of classic films for Hollywood fans to enjoy for years to come.

Halloween Havoc!: KING KONG (RKO 1933)

kong1

No matter how many times it’s remade, no matter what new technology’s available, the original 1933 KING KONG will never be topped. The story’s familiar to horror lovers: Showman Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) charters the ship Venture to take him to the unchartered Skull Island. He scours New York to find a “love interest” for his next picture. Finding down on her luck gal Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) trying to steal an apple, he offers her a chance for “money and adventure and fame….the thrill of a lifetime”. Denham’s brainstorm is to travel to the island to capture pictures of Kong, a beast that Captain Englehorn (Frank Reicher) thinks is just “some native superstition”. First Mate Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) is reluctant to have a woman on board, but soon warms up to her. They arrive at the island to observe the natives performing a strange ritual. A young native girl is being adorned with flowers. When they spy the white Ann, the chieftan (Noble Johnson) offers to buy her. The crew refuses, but the natives sneak onboard in the dead of night and capture Ann.

kong2

When Charlie the cook (Victor Wong) finds a native bracelet on deck, Denham and the crew go ashore. Ann’s been tied to an altar behind the massive locked gate. The natives climb up the wall to wait for the arrival of…KONG! A giant ape appears and grabs Ann into the jungle. Denham, Driscoll, and some crew members go in hot pursuit, encountering monsterous dinosaurs along the way. Kong ends up killing all save for Driscoll and Denham. The mighty beast is downed by “gas bombs”, and carted away to New York.

kong3

Denham stages a Broadway showing of “King Kong, The Eighth Wonder of the World”. The theater’s jam packed with curiosity seekers. The press is on hand, eager to see the beast. Kong is presented onstage in chains, in what reminds one of a crucifixion pose. When the photographers take picture, their flashbulbs disturb the ape and he breaks free. Pandemonium erupts as King Kong is loose in New York City. Snatching Ann through a window, Kong climbs to the top of the Empire State Building. Airplanes are sent to strafe Kong, machine guns a-blazing, and the great ape topples to his doom. Carl Denham gets the last words, sorrowfully stating, “It was beauty killed the beast”.

kong4

Co-directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack keep the story moving along at a fine clip, aided immensely by Max Steiner’s score. Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion special effects hold up very well, and the matching shots of Kong with the actors are well integrated. Kudos should also go to Murray Spivak and the sound department, which adds to the excitement. Eagle-eyed film fans will be able to spot James Flavin, Roscoe Ates, Dick Curtis, Charlie Hall, Syd Saylor, and Sam Levine in small roles. Cooper and Schoedsack even have cameos as the pilot and gunner who take down Kong. KING KONG has stood the test of time, and is a bonafide classic that never fails to thrill viewers of all ages. A perfect way to spend a Halloween evening.

Gangsters On Horseback: James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in THE OKLAHOMA KID (Warner Bros, 1939)

ok1

James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart traded in their tommy guns for six-shooters in THE OKLAHOMA KID.  The film moves like a serial, going swiftly from one set-piece to the next. The plot’s your standard cowboy outing, but what makes THE OKLAHOMA KID so much fun is seeing the two great gangster stars going through their paces in a Western setting.

ok2

When the Oklahoma land rush is opened, Whip McCall (Bogart) and his gang decide to rob the stagecoach carrying newly minted silver to pay the Cherokee Nation. The Oklahoma Kid (Cagney), a free-spirited rascal, beats them to the punch. The Kid enters a camp where he meets Judge Hardwick (Donald Crisp) and his pretty daughter Jane (Rosemary Lane). Jane’s beau, Ned Kincaid (Harvey Stephens), knows something about the Kid’s mysterious past. McCall then puts a “sooner” claim on a parcel of land that becomes Tulsa. The town is wide open thanks to McCall, now running the saloon and gambling joint. The concerned citizens decide to take on the racketeers, I mean outlaws, by running Ned’s dad John Kincaid (Hugh Southern) for mayor. McCall frames Kincaid for murder, then tricks Judge Hardwick into going to Kansas City, setting up his own corrupt judge to preside at the trial. Jane sends The Kid to fetch him back, but it’s too late. The hand-picked jury has found Kincaid guilty.

ok3

The Kid decides he’s going to bust Kincaid out of jail, but the old man won’t go with him, preferring law and order over anarchy. McCall incites a lynch mob to grab Kincaid and they hang him high. The truth is now revealed: The Kid is Kincaid’s son! He tracks down and kills McCall’s gang except for Doolin (Edward Pawley), who confesses McCall gave the order for the frame-up and lynching. Meanwhile, Ned has been named U.S. Marshall and goes to arrest McCall. The villain gut-shoots Ned, then engages in a wild brawl with The Kid. McCall’s about to finish The Kid off when Ned, in a last desperate act, shoots the bad guy down, thus saving his wayward brother before he dies.

Cagney’s Oklahoma Kid is a smiling, swaggering maverick who has no use for “civilization” (and he explains why in a well-written, libertarian speech to Judge Hardwick). He’s a charming rogue of an outlaw, and his portrayal of The Kid is fun to watch. Cagney even gets to sing a tune (“I Don’t Want To Play In Your Yard”) during the course of the action. Bogart plays his usual slimy bad guy as McCall, dressed all in black and ordering around his minions. The cast is full of Western veterans (Ward Bond, George Chesebro, Bob Kortman, Al Bridge), and director Lloyd Bacon keeps things moving along. Max Steiner’s music helps set the mood, and the cinematography of legendary James Wong Howe adds greatly to the overall atmosphere. THE OKLAHOMA KID is a fun movie to watch, made even more fun by the presence of Cagney and Bogart out of their gangster element.

Top Ten Reasons CASABLANCA is The Greatest Movie Ever Made!!

CasablancaPoster-Gold

Seventy three years have passed since CASABLANCA was first released. What can I possibly say about this film that hasn’t been said before, by writers far more skilled than me? Well, since CASABLANCA is my all-time favorite, I feel obliged to put my two cents in. So, here are my top ten reasons why CASABLANCA is the greatest movie ever made:

casablanca_1

  1. Humphrey Bogart as Rick.  While Bogie was already a star thanks to THE MALTESE FALCON, his performance here sent him into the stratosphere. Cynical, self-centered Rick Blaine, bitter over a lost love, sticks his neck out for nobody. His character is multi-layered, and his true nature wins out in the end. Without Bogie in the role, CASABLANCA wouldn’t be half as good.
  2. Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa.  Beautiful Bergman underplays her part in what should have been an Oscar winning turn (sorry, Greer Garson). Ilsa’s feelings are torn between Rick and husband Victor Laszlo, and the depth of those feelings come right through the screen.rains
  3. Claude Rains as Captain Renault. Corrupt, cagey Renault is one of Rains’ best roles. Playing a man who claims to have “no convictions”, Rains shows why he was one of cinema’s best character actors. His banter with Bogart throughout the film is priceless.
  4. The Dialogue.  Every line is a gem, with many of them becoming part of the lexicon (“I’m shocked, shocked…”, “Here’s looking at you, kid”, “Round up the usual suspects”). Writers Howard Koch and Julius and Phillip Epstein came up with a perfect script. (And Phillip became grandfather to a boy named Theo Epstein, who guided my beloved Boston Red Sox to World Series title in 2004, ending an eighty-six year drought!!)

    'Casablanca' Film - 1942...No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage Mandatory Credit: Photo by Everett Collection / Rex Features (1082971b) 'Casablanca' - Humphrey Bogart, Dooley Wilson and Sydney Greenstreet 'Casablanca' Film - 1942
    ‘Casablanca’ Film – 1942…No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage
    Mandatory Credit: Photo by Everett Collection / Rex Features (1082971b)
    ‘Casablanca’ – Humphrey Bogart, Dooley Wilson and Sydney Greenstreet
    ‘Casablanca’ Film – 1942
  5. Dooley Wilson as Sam.  African-American Sam is written and played as a friend and confidant to white Rick ,rather than a servant.  The two men are equals, a rarity for a 1942 film. Besides the heart wrenching “As Time Goes By”, Wilson also sings “It Had to Be You” and “Knock On Wood”, which brings me to….
  6. The Music. Max Steiner’s score hits all the right notes, setting the mood for the drama. Speaking of music, the duel between the Germans singing “Watch on the Rhine” and Laszlo leading the patrons of Rick’s in “La Marseillaise” is one of Hollywood’s finest moments. supp
  7. The Supporting Cast. Without a doubt, the greatest supporting cast ever assembled. Paul Henreid is the moral core as Victor Laszlo, Peter Lorre’s brief bit as weaselly Ugarte is pivotal to the plot,  Conrad Veidt the epitome of Nazi oppression. CASABLANCA is fun for movie fans who love to play Spot the Stars: look, there’s S.Z. Sakall, Dan Seymore, Sydney Greenstreet, Lenoid Kinskey, John Qualen, Gino Corrado, Madeline LeBeau, Frank Puglia, Marcel Dalio, Joy Page, Hemlut Dantine, Torbin Meyer….
  8. Emotional Manipulation. Any good movie knows how to play its patrons, but none better than CASABLANCA. It’s an emotional roller coaster ride, and no matter how many times I see it, I still get caught up in it. I know what’s coming, but I cry at the end anyway.
  9. Michael Curtiz. The man simply does not get enough credit for being one of the all-time great directors. You can’t make a film like CASABLANCA without a top director at the helm. Just look at his resume… soul

   10. CASABLANCA Can Never Be Duplicated!  Anyone out there have fond memories of the 1955       TV version with Charles McGraw? Or the 1983 one starring David Soul? Didn’t think so.

So there you have it! A one of a kind movie, still as powerful as when it first hit the screen. CASABLANCA is the greatest movie ever made, and remains my favorite. I could watch it over and over, like listening to a favorite song. If you’ve never seen it….what are you waiting for???

Less Than Grand Guignol: TWO ON A GUILLOTINE (Warner Bros, 1965)

two1

TWO ON A GUILLOTINE was one of those movies that used to air frequently on Boston’s Channel 56. I’d seen it numerous times, and had largely forgotten about it when TCM aired it recently. I wondered how it held up after all those decades so, good little film blogger that I am, I DVR’d it to review. While it’s certainly no classic, TWO ON A GUILLOTINE isn’t as bad as the title would imply.

two4

The movie’s about a famous stage magician, The Great Duquense aka Duke (Cesar Romero), who passes away. The papers say he “vows to return from the grave”. His estranged daughter Cassie (Connie Stevens) shows up at the funeral. She’s a dead ringer for her mom, who mysteriously vanished twenty years ago. Duke’s will is read (at the Hollywood Bowl, no less), and Cassie is set to inherit his estate if she’ll stay at his home for seven days, specifically not to leave between midnight and dawn. Val Henderson (Dean Jones), a reporter looking for a story, cons his way into Cassie’s life by pretending to be a real estate agent interested in the house. She finds him “contemptible”. Of course, they quickly fall in love. 

The creepy old house is gimmicked up with Duke’s stage props. There’s a lot of strange goings-on involving scary noises, secret locked doors, skeletons popping out of nowhere, and general eerieness. Cassie finds out he’s a reporter, dumps him, then wants him back (your classic boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-regains-girl scenario). There’s some genuinely spooky scenes here, but on the whole it’s more Less Than Grand Guignol. I’ve got to admit the twist ending is pretty neat, though.

The cast is full of familiar actors. Likeable Dean Jones has been a favorite of mine since his Disney days (THAT DARN CAT!, THE UGLY DACHSHUND, THE LOVE BUG), and his presence is always welcome. Connie Stevens wasn’t the best actress, but she wasn’t the worst, either. Cesar Romero gives the part of Duquense his customary pizzazz. Others in the picture include Parley Baer, Virginia Gregg, John Hoyt, Connie Gilchrist, and midget actor Billy Curtis in a small role (sorry, I had to do it!!)

two3

Some of the behind the cameras stuff is more interesting to me than the film itself. Producer/director William Conrad was best known for his two hit TV series, CANNON and JAKE & THE FATMAN. The veteran actor of radio (the original Marshal Dillon on GUNSMOKE), films (THE KILLERS, THE RACKET), and television has a Hitchcockian cameo in this one. Conrad did a lot of TV directing, most notably for 77 SUNSET STRIP. His booming bass voice was often heard narrating movies and shows. (Yes, that’s Conrad narrating the classic animated series ROCKY & BULLWINKLE!) Writer Henry Slesar was an award-winning short-story author who dabbled in TV (ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS), soap operas (SEARCH FOR TOMORROW, EDGE OF NIGHT), and movies (1971’s MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, with Jason Robards). Slesar even contributed the two-part BATMAN episode featuring Shelley Winters as Ma Parker. And TWO ON A GUILLOTINE was the next-to-last score for composer Max Steiner, who was a long way from GONE WITH THE WIND, KING KONG, CASABLANCA, and THE SEARCHERS.

TWO ON A GUILLOTINE was filmed in black and white. and would’ve benefitted from color. There’s a lot of obvious foreshadowing and it covers all too familiar ground, but it’s not a bad way to spend two hours, and I’m glad I got to see it one more time. Oh….that rock band appearing in the club sequence is The Condors, featuring George and Teddy. They aren’t bad, either. Wonder whatever happened to them?